Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Why ask too many questions if at last the playing field is level?

It was not so easy to believe yesterday but it is true and it happened when Manchester City didn't need the money of a philanthropist from Thailand pursued by a pack of human rights organisations or a Middle East property developer bearing the potential gift of Dimitar Berbatov.

They were one of the best teams in England, had just won the First Division title, the FA Cup, the European-Cup Winners' Cup and the League Cup, and when Joe Mercer, the manager, heard that City were under a takeover threat partly organised by his protégé Malcolm Allision, he declared, "How do you take over a club in full flight?"

What you did, comical as it may now appear, was drum up enough readies to buy out a key shareholder, something, believe it or not, in the region of £100,000, meet in the Cheshire mansion of the chief conspirator, a businessman named plain Joe Smith, and issue a secret code which identified those trusted by the takeover high command. The code was: "The Sun is Rising over Manchester City."

That was nearly 40 years ago and it's a long time to wait for a few shafts of sunlight.

Yesterday there was still another shadow over the Blues on an otherwise sunny day, relatively speaking, of course.

It came in the announcement that if the move of the Abu Dhabi United Group led by Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim is successful, if he is proved to be a fit and proper person according to the Premier League, which means, roughly, that he can't be immediately indicted for genocide and large-scale fraud, due diligence is completed without killing impediments, and new investment indeed brings in the likes of Berbatov, the honorary president will be Thaksin Shinawatra.

You just wonder where some of these guys like the former and now hounded prime minister of Thailand get their nerve and how relentlessly they will continue to turn what is left of the English football community into a bunch of supplicants beyond even the foggiest recall of what a club like City used to be.

There is nothing to be done about it, of course. We want the best players and we want our clubs to be successful and if we are Chelsea we don't really care how scrupulous Roman Abramovich was when he got his hands on so much of the mineral wealth of a nation where anything even approaching true wealth is in the hands of a hideously small minority. If we are City we certainly don't demur at the arrival of Dr Al-Fahim, so laden with promise of great days and with business antecedents no more dubious than anyone else who retains fabulous wealth when much of the rest of the world is heading for financial Skid Row.

But Thaksin Shinawatra, honorary president of Manchester City: who would want to go into battle under such a banner?

Give the Manchester City that used to be the pride of the city when United were just scuffling along in the margins of the big time something of a break, you want to say.

But then perhaps it's a bit late to strike a moral stance on City's behalf. Maybe when Thaksin brought in Sven Goran Eriksson, rustled up £40m or so for the spending spree that brought some B-list stars and a spurt of entertaining football, and received something of a hero's welcome despite all the harping by people like Amnesty that any organisation with a conscience wouldn't touch him with an extremely long sampan pole, was when City announced what they really stood for, both in the boardroom and on the terraces.

It was, it is hard not to say, winning at any cost and with any stain.

Now, though, City can point across the city and say they are at last on a level playing field: their Middle Eastern money is surely as good as the American dollars and borrowed euros of United.

So to what does it come down? The ability of Mark Hughes, who laboured so well if frustratingly at Blackburn, the club made by a patron from another age, Sir Jack Walker, to make the money work. There is not much doubt that Hughes is capable of making a significant thrust at the challenge. He is a hard, practical football man and no more than anyone else in English football, from superstar coach to the most casual supporter, he long ago lost the chance to be any kind of moral arbiter of how football should be run. Hughes, like every City fan, will welcome the money that maybe brings the likes of United and Chelsea within reach.

So who really cares if Thaksin Shinawatra is the revered figurehead of Manchester City, a club which once had Sir Matt Busby as its captain and boasted of a triumvirate named Bell, Lee and Summerbee, who cost a combined total of £130,000 and made everyone feel that the sun would always rise over Manchester City? That was a time when you didn't have to take just anyone's money. When, however bizarre it was, there was something of a code.

Belfast Telegraph


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