Sheikh, rattled and bankrolled: Can Manchester City buy success?
He’s wealthy (dazzingly so), educated (in America) and he’s got President Obama on speed dial. But can Manchester City’s owner buy success, asks Brian Viner
Until a couple of years ago, Tottenham Hotspur versus Manchester City would have seemed a relatively humdrum fixture on the opening day of the Premier League football season.
It was an encounter containing an echo of better days, such as a memorable FA Cup final in 1981; a match between two grand old clubs for whom a finish in the top eight would constitute a satisfactory season.
Not any more. Last season, Tottenham beat City home and away and ended up pipping them to fourth place, thereby bagging the last place available to English clubs in the coming season's lucrative Champions League.
The word ‘lucrative' doesn't have much resonance for City's owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He's not in it for the money. But he's certainly in it with the money, and fifth place, winning only a slot in this season's less-exalted Europa League, offered more than a hint that success in football can't be bought, at least not immediately — not even for £750 million, the sum he is said to have sunk into the club.
Men such as Sheikh Mansour and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich didn't get where they are today by settling for second place, let alone fifth.
Yet only one club can win the Premier League; only one club can win the Champions League. The single cast-iron certainty about English and European football in the next few seasons is that it will yield plenty of disappointment among rich and powerful men accustomed to getting their way.
Will one of them be Sheikh Mansour, a fellow so rich that last June, on the day he okayed the signing of Gareth Barry from Aston Villa for £12m, he also made a £1.4 billion profit by selling an 11% stake in Barclays that he had bought a mere seven months earlier, and so powerful that he reportedly has Barack Obama on speed dial?
His decision to make Manchester City his piggy bank is certainly an intriguing one, City having laboured for so long in the shadow of Manchester United. Moreover, City fans have endured more than their reasonable share of heartbreak these past couple of decades, even plunging for a season into the third tier of English football.
They tend to be a lugubrious, Eeyore-ish lot, City fans, although whether this is because gloomy types are instinctively drawn to City, or because supporting City has imbued them with gloom, I'm not altogether sure.
At any rate, scarcely had Sheikh Mansour completed his takeover in September 2008, at a stroke of the fountain pen transforming the club from perennial also-rans into serious trophy-hunters, than a City-supporting friend of mine phoned me and said, gloomily: “It's bound to end in tears ... it's City.”
It might yet end in tears, but at least the eyes shedding those tears will have seen some extraordinary sights, notably some of the world's greatest players wearing the famous sky-blue shirt. Not all the great footballers wooed by Sheikh Mansour's chequebook have succumbed, the Brazilian midfielder Kaka instead deciding to throw in his lot with Real Madrid. But plenty have, among them Kaka's compatriot Robinho and this summer's £25m acquisition from Valencia, the clever striker David Silva. That such players should join Manchester City shows the extent of the revolution that the sheikh, half-brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa, has wrought.
There was a time when City fans might have more reasonably expected their new owner to come from a well-known family in Aberdovey. But these are strange times in English football, and nowhere are they stranger than in Manchester, where United, for all their success, are now the poor neighbours.
What United do have over City, however, is Sir Alex Ferguson, the finest manager of his generation and arguably the finest in the entire history of the British game. In Sheikh Mansour's short time pulling the City purse strings he has sacked one manager, the competent Mark Hughes, and appointed another, the suave Italian Roberto Mancini, who wears his blue-and-white scarf in an extremely fetching manner but has yet to prove that he is really up to the job.
The question worth very much more than $64,000 is, therefore: will Sheikh Mansour keep playing with his new toy if it doesn't bring him quite the joy he hoped, or will he throw it out of the pram?
It is perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, because he is said to be an engaging, decent, responsible fellow, with a genuine love for sport. He has won several long-distance endurance horse races over the desert sand, and inadvisable as it might be for anyone to beat him, there seems little doubt he is a hugely accomplished horseman.
Also, in a rare interview last July, he told Manchester City's official website that he had a “lifelong passion” for football, having played a lot himself in his younger days and become deeply involved in the running of the Al Jazeera club in Abu Dhabi. “Like any football fan I think I love the game for many, many reasons, not least of which is the feeling that success can bring,” he said.
Splendidly, sweetly, he offered a parallel between his arid homeland and rainy Granadaland. “In Abu Dhabi, our heritage and culture are inherent to our values, and the way we live our lives. I think it's the same in Manchester. You certainly see that in the long-standing commitment of the fans for the club. Manchester City was a sleeping giant of English football and waking that giant is going to be rewarding.”
The man prodding the giant out of its slumber was born in 1970, the fifth of 19 sons of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates. Twelve years before he was born, oil was discovered beneath the Abu Dhabi sand, transforming an economy that had depended largely on camel-herding and pearl-diving.
But Sheikh Mansour's uncle, Sheikh Shakhbut, was circumspect about this new source of wealth, and the development of modern Abu Dhabi did not really start until 1966, when Sheikh Zayed seized power from his brother in a bloodless coup partly engineered by the British.
By the time Sheikh Zayed died six years ago, the emirate was so rich that it was said a $1 rise in the price of a barrel of oil would increase its wealth by $500m a day.
Sheikh Mansour, university-educated in the US, was one of the chief beneficiaries of this wealth, becoming the UAE's minister for presidential affairs and chairman of First Gulf Bank, building a personal fortune estimated at £20bn but with access to family money said to amount to £550bn. He even married into money; one of his two wives is a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, owner of the Godolphin horse-racing empire and ruler of neighbouring Dubai.
Sheikh Mansour had apparently been looking to buy a Premier League football club for some time before Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, decided in 2008 to sell his stake in Manchester City.
The rest is history, but more engrossing than the past is the future.