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Sam Wallace: Time suddenly comes for supporters to accept that they are part of big boys' club

Published 02/09/2008

The lot of a Manchester City supporter is one generally of pain, with the occasional touch of humiliation and a soupçon of downright despair.

Small victories must be treasured, like beating Manchester United in both derbies last season or flying a plane over Old Trafford with a trailing banner that read "United – Pride of Singapore". For the last 40 years, a day like that constituted a good day to be a City supporter. Just about as good as it gets. But not any more.

The smaller, less celebrated, much less successful ginger stepchild of the great football city of Manchester has just got his hands on the family will and it turns out he got the lot. For City fans, yesterday was what Chelsea fans remember as their Roman Abramovich moment, the point when all expectations about life changed, the moment at which the walls came tumbling down and they saw the beautiful possibilities of this new life of theirs: Champions League football, a place among the elite and never having to sign a player like Christian Negouai again.

This being City they must have expected that something would come along to spoil their day because, in their noble history, that is what normally proves to be the case. The last time City won the league title was in 1968, doing so with just two points to spare over United. Then, a few days later, United beat Benfica to become the first English team to win the European Cup and, in an instant, made the league title that City had sweated blood to win look insignificant by comparison. City may have been the best team in the country but United were the best team in Europe.

Yesterday, however, after the news that the Abu Dhabi royal family had bought City, it got even better for the supporters of this club. The way in which they insouciantly outbid United for Dimitar Berbatov by laying down an offer of £34m is the stuff that dreams are made of. Whether City bought Berbatov or not was probably irrelevant to a lot of their fans. What mattered was that they threw a spanner into United's carefully laid plans to sign the Bulgarian at a price that they dictated.

It is the sheer nuisance factor of that episode that will amuse City fans for the next week, but in the fullness of time they will have to shake off this inferiority complex and start to think of themselves as a big, powerful club in their own right. From now on victory will not constitute delivering the odd black eye to their Goliath of a neighbour or making themselves occasionally inconvenient to United's loftier ambitions. Instead they will have to be prepared to judge themselves by how they compete in the big competitions. In short, if Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim delivers on his promises they will have to change their culture to that of a trophy-winning, pan-European club, which is not as easy as it sounds.

Old habits die hard. There are many Chelsea fans who still seem bewildered at the speed of change in their club, at the identities of the Russian oligarchs, football agents, executives and PR men who swarm around a club they would not previously have given a hoot about. At Chelsea they still sing an abusive song about Leicester City, a nod to the days when it was the likes of Leicester and Stoke City, not Barcelona and Milan who were their peers. But gradually they are learning to regard themselves as part of the elite and it will be a slow process for City too.

There are compromises to be made too. City are now in the ownership of an Arab royal family who rule by hereditary dictatorship in a country where strict Sharia law is observed. If, in a street, you were to re-enact the average emotionally wrought City goal celebration – or say the joyful aftermath of Paul Dickov's equaliser in the 1999 play-off final – you might well get arrested. Possibly deported. City fans may have already made their peace with the dubious Thaksin Shinawatra but they will have to do it all over again with the Arabs.

In the film 24 Hour Party People the legendary Mancunian, the late Tony Wilson, played by another legendary Mancunian Steve Coogan, is trying to rescue his business by selling his record label Factory Records to a major multinational. In the course of their discussions he is rumbled. It turns out he never got any of his bands to sign a contract worth the paper it was written on. Asked why he explains himself thus: "I avoided selling out by the simple expedient of never acquiring anything worth selling."

There are some City fans who will have a problem with their club's sell-out. Selling out is what United or Chelsea do. Their club, with its self-deprecating, devil-may-care sense of humour will never be able to look back. It will no longer be enough to sneer at United and their deep pockets or take pleasure in small victories. City are joining the big boys and they will be judged accordingly.

Belfast Telegraph

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