IMAGINE being a Manchester City fan now. Sitting pretty at the top of the English Premier League having coasted into the Champions League knockout stages with minimal fuss. Rico Lewis has just made his England debut, at 19, and John Stones and Kevin de Bruyne will saunter back in the new year for a bit of trophy plundering.
And then Everton show up. Looking like naughty schoolboys who know they’ve been caught pilfering a few items from the canteen, but are pleading for leniency on the grounds that a) they’ve misspent their pocket money and b) the bigger boys stole more.
The Toffees were docked 10 points for violating the EPL’s profit and sustainability rules, but they are now extras in the narrative, the ones blown away in the early scenes of a movie as the real criminal masterminds wait in the wings for the climactic showdown.
Without saying a word, Manchester City and anyone in their colours are cast in the villainous roles once more, a thankless and unwanted task at the best of times.
And these are the best of times. Or they should be. Watching City collect the Treble with football produced in an artistic industrial complex, only to end up with more asterisks than a plagiarised essay must be a bewildering experience. Because it’s not the supporters’ fault, is it?
And yet, on social media platforms, they’re taking on the personas of grouchy PR lackeys working for dodgy politicians, engaging in spectacular whataboutery and self-denial. It’s either jealousy, a plot to preserve the status quo or a failure to acknowledge that the big boys have always spent bigger than everybody else.
Even if these things are true – and some of them are – it doesn’t change the invidious position that Manchester City supporters find themselves in, being forced to defend a club that will not publicly defend itself - that's the perception at least - preferring instead to shelter behind an army of expensive lawyers and kick the can further down the road, as clubs like Everton come clean and face the consequences.
To recap, an independent panel found Everton guilty of violating the EPL’s profit and sustainability rules. One charge was worth a 10-point deduction. Manchester City are facing 115 charges, which has inevitably led to hysterical mathematical calculations and calls for relegation and billion-dollar fines.
Of course, City are innocent until proven guilty and it’s important not to compare their case with Everton’s, but only for reasons that should seriously worry City supporters. Everton effectively treated the transfer market like a drunken, panic-stricken spin on the roulette spin. They gambled on an upturn in fortunes, didn’t get one and got a little creative with their accounting. They were clumsy and got caught. But there's no suggestion that the Toffees were being deliberately deceitful.
Manchester City are being accused of just that. Among the many charges, they are accused of failing to give “a true and fair view of the club’s financial position” and failing to “include full details” of player and manager salaries and – the one that really sticks in the craw of the Everton faithful – failing to cooperate in the EPL’s investigation. That’s a tough one to brush off.
City fans must feel like a long-suffering family member dealing with a tearaway relative. They defend the little urchin against every accusation, only to find that he’s failing to cooperate with authorities and settle the matter in court to bring a bit of closure.
City's lack of transparency may cost their reputation, link with fans
Of course, Manchester City have the legal right to defend their position as they see fit and insist that there is a “comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” to support their case. But they are not Everton or even Chelsea, who have yet to be charged with anything. Indeed the Blues’ American owners immediately highlighted some irregularities to the EPL after taking control, presumably to clean up after previous owners and settle the matter quickly.
City are choosing to go a different way, but at what cost to their reputation and their relationship with supporters? It feels unfair to expect fans to blindly back a football project that’s perceived to lack transparency.
If a “comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” exists, then why not share it with investigators or fight the case in court, sooner rather than later? This may spare supporters the criticism that’ll now head their way, not only from disgruntled Everton followers, but anyone with a vague sense of fair play.
Just compare these two observations. The EPL’s independent commission stated that Everton had “behaved openly and responsibly in its dealings with the Premier League in relation to its … challenges, and that behaviour should stand to its credit”. Meanwhile Manchester City, just to reiterate, are accused of failing to give “a true and fair view of the club’s financial position”. What are City’s supporters supposed to do with that?
And the allegations aren’t going away either. With an independent regulator expected to come in, the EPL is eager to retain its regulatory powers and prove that it’s capable of cleaning its own house.
More importantly, perhaps, the EPL cannot be viewed as a financial basket case either. While City may be in a protected bubble, other clubs remain in the ludicrous position of being a member of the world’s most popular sports competition and yet the EPL rarely makes an operating profit. The sustainability rule exists for a reason. Clubs cannot continue to lavish fortunes on wages and agency fees in the vague hope of being bailed out by an oligarch. There aren't enough of those guys to go around. The league has to present itself as a viable and fair investment opportunity.
So the EPL regulators must come for Manchester City, who will use their lawyers as buffers. And every other club’s angry fan base must come for Manchester City, who will use their exasperated supporters as buffers. The lawyers will get rich. The City fans will get abused and this ugly spectacle will continue, until the matter is finally settled, one way or the other.
If a 'comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence' exists, then why not share it with investigators or fight the case in court, sooner rather than later? This may spare supporters the criticism that’ll now head their way,
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.
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