Consecutive Premier League titles and the unprecedented collection of 198 points to do so, and on the brink of an unprecedented domestic treble of trophies, this has been a week when Manchester City have given themselves very few worlds left to conquer. Make no mistake, theirs is one of the best teams to have played football in England.
And yet. This has been a week where the club has been fighting a battle on two fronts of reputational damage, one more serious than the other, though the less serious matter resulted in a severe PR own-goal. When a grainy video emerged of City staff singing their version of Liverpool’s “Allez, Allez, Allez” terrace anthem on the plane home from Brighton, here was an instance of high spirits, of getting carried away in the moment of victory, a release of tension after a title race that had weighed heavy.
#ManCity have defended a video of players chanting about #Liverpool fans being 'battered'. The club says 'Any suggestion that the lyrics relate to Sean Cox or the Hillsborough tragedy is entirely without foundation.' pic.twitter.com/6K9KT4krxP
— Radio City News (@RadioCityNews) May 15, 2019
Except the lyrics were problematic. “Battered in the streets” could easily be taken to refer to Sean Cox, the Liverpool fan left with life-changing injuries by Roma fans ahead of last season’s Champions League semi-final and the phrase “victims of it all” included a trigger word that has come to be associated with the Hillsborough disaster. Three decades on, we know that Liverpool fans were the victims at Hillsborough, and though opposing fans may try to suggest that labelling the club’s supporters as victims refers to other matters like the riot at Heysel in 1985 and the Luis Suarez affair, it will always carry the connotation of Hillsborough. ‘
And these were not fans singing the song in the lowest-common denominator fashion of the terrace. These were club employees, public representatives of the institution. Still, with high spirits and all that, an apology for any offence caused, a pledge for better behaviour and a donation to Cox and/or the Hillsborough fund and the story would probably have disappeared into the ether. These things do happen, people can make mistakes after a couple of pints of Sussex ales, and surely most of them might not have understood what they were singing.
Except it didn’t happen like that. City set into action to explain away the accusations and connotations of being “entirely without foundation” and that the song “refers to the 2018 Uefa Champions League final in Kyiv”, where some street violence did take place, resulting in the arrest of two Ukrainian locals, though you needed to do some hard Googling or have an excellent memory to recall those incidents. If this was an attempt to kill the story, it singularly didn’t work. It seemed to suggest that fans being beaten up but not maimed was OK. The criticism of the club only deepened as the statement was picked through.
As that storm slowly cleared after Wednesday evening, City once again found itself at the centre of the news agenda. A UEFA investigation into allegations of financial fair play irregularities, which could result in a Champions League ban, was sent for a final judgment at the governing body, and that was met with similar City dismissiveness.
“Manchester City football club is disappointed, but regrettably not surprised,” began a club statement that made accusations of leaks to the New York Times, the publication that had previously reported a ban was being considered. “The accusation of financial irregularities remains entirely false,” it continued.
Defending the club’s honour in this fashion was more understandable than the reaction to ‘Allez-gate’, but it seems conciliation has gone out of the window. A turf war is being fought. Whatever happens now, and the UEFA investigation could rumble on for years in the courts, the club’s image is not helped by such issues, and at a time when the on-pitch achievements should be celebrated, a highly professional and often very helpful PR department is working overtime to turn the focus back on the football.
Club statement. https://t.co/IR44whJIf5
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 16, 2019
The rest of English football – and Europe – has an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with City. “Money Changes Everything”, to use the title of avowed Blue Johnny Marr’s Smiths instrumental. The club’s fans may refer to their 2008 Abu Dhabi takeover as a “lottery win” and point to their having to suffer through years in the doldrums but lottery winners are rarely popular and one of the key tenets of being a football supporter is the suffering.
City were more popular with other fans back in the days they were purveyors of Grade A gallows humour. The argument goes that while clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester United often bought success, City had success bought for them, including the signing-up of Pep Guardiola, the coach of the century so far.
Just as City fans looked up at Liverpool and particularly United in those clubs’ time of dominance, a price of success has been indifference and resentment from the rest. And meanwhile, the club’s Emirati ownership and accusations of human rights abuses, including the treatment of homosexuals, have been weaponised by rival fans, and much to the annoyance of City supporters.
Such issues cannot be taken lightly. Any fan who suggests they don’t care about human rights opens themselves to accusations of rank ignorance. And those who decide they must lionise the ownership of their club come what may often defy credibility and decency and have probably lost perspective on life.
And that does not refer exclusively to City supporters, since a peeling back of the layers of many of football’s leading clubs will produce links to the big and nasty world out there beyond the safe confines of the stadium forecourt. The game is being used as geopolitical tool, the process of “sport-washing” reputations is a fact of life now, one that Arsenal and Chelsea fans flying to Baku via Timbuktu for the Europa League final have found themselves as unwilling participants in.
Football supporting has become a moral maze, and City fans may say with some credence that their ownership’s activities are highlighted when their team is successful but winning trophies does not happen in a hermetically sealed bubble. And when staff step over the line, an apology is almost always the best course of action.