How time flies. Less than a year ago, Manchester City had domination – both sporting and financial – lined up in the crosshairs. Premier League champions two seasons running, record-breaking revenue streams and the world’s best coach in the driving seat meant that the Champions League was the only hurdle left to jump.
Now, as they face a two-year ban from the world’s most prestigious and lucrative club competition for breaking Financial Fair Play laws, the atmosphere at the club is distinctly less optimistic.
As soon as the news of the landmark UEFA ruling hit, there was a general sense of schadenfreude from the masses – those who have had to watch Manchester City win five of the last six domestic trophies available to them. But it’s a reasonably tight Ven diagram between those who glory in City’s despair and those who believe that FFP is a fundamentally oppressive rule designed to keep the proletarian clubs from shuffling out of their place in the breadline. It’s fair to say many members of the commentariat have a chip on both shoulders in this argument.
The discussion therefore quickly turned to who would leave and who would stay, with the most pressing concern – for City at least – being their league-hopping Catala n ringmaster, Pep Guardiola – he looks set to remain in Manchester after allegedly being given confidence from above that City can overturn the two-year ban.
This loyalty to his employers could be the product of a silver-tongued exec overstating City’s chances of winning their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for sport. It could just as easily be a sign of genuine devotion to the project his contract commits him to until 2021 – it is unclear and, ultimately, inconsequential. Either way, it looks like English football – which, uncoincidentally, has grown up a great deal since his arrival on these shores – has not seen the last of Pep Guardiola.
Apparently just as committed to the cause is Raheem Sterling. Naturally, English fans’ thoughts will have turned to the forward once they heard City’s bad news on Friday evening. Most would have been expecting the 25-year-old to open up the possibility of a move to Real Madrid – as has been touted over the past couple of seasons.
You couldn’t blame him for cracking open the window of opportunity. It’s no good City’s pass-maps looking like Jackson Pollock paintings if they are only able to create their masterpieces against Brighton and Burnley, not Barcelona and Bayern Munich – hell, you’d think City and Sterling would sooner settle for Bate Borisov than miss out on the near £100-million the Champions League earned them last season.
This is hearsay – but perhaps it is no coincidence that Sterling has displayed what could be construed a lack of ambition during his worst stretch of form in the past three years. It is possible that, when he inevitably rediscovers his magic, he will change his mind about spending two of the peak years of his career away from the top table.
There are other relevancies for England too. If the ban is upheld, Manchester City will have nowhere near their current level of transfer market pulling power. Their astronomical riches will still attract players, of course – they won’t end up with any old odds and sods. But the calibre of footballer who plays with diamonds on the soles of his boots – Lionel Messi who was linked recently, for example – will be well beyond them.
If this is the case, City will probably choose to hold off signing high-profile players until after their sentence has been served. Two English players who, it is safe to say, do not have the full backing of Guardiola – Phil Foden and John Stones – might well benefit from this. Rather than signing a big-name replacement for the outgoing David Silva before the start of next season, Foden might finally be given the game time he deserves. Though his situation and career trajectory are poles apart from the England Under-21 star, a similar fate could be in store for John Stones who, lest we forget, was one of the most ex pensive defenders in world football following his move to Manchester City in 2016.
As much as people might try and deny it based on metrics of trophies in the cabinet and fans in the stadiums, Manchester City are a big club; and since football started dealing in billions rather than millions it’s seemed like the big clubs are insulated from failure. But, to paraphrase Lamont Coleman, Manchester City might be big, but coffins come in their size too. How these situations pan out will rest on a tale of two Cities and which one comes to fruition – the one that wins their appeal and the one that doesn’t.