What Killing the Game tells us about a decade of change at Manchester City
Daniel Slack-Smith’s access-all-areas book, Killing the Game, documents 10 years of transformation at Manchester City, which was acquired by Abu Dhabi United Group in September 2008.
While football fans will be familiar with the club’s investment in top players and the titles the first team has won in recent years, perhaps less obvious is the work that has been carried out off the pitch.
Slack-Smith’s book provides a detailed account of the parlous state of the club’s finances pre-takeover, the radical changes that were required to take the club from Premier League also-rans to three-times champions and the creation of City Football Group, which is now a global network of six football clubs on five continents. Here’s 15 key takeaways from Killing the Game:
1 The deal was sealed but there was lots of detail to be worked out
The memorandum of understanding between Thaksin Shinawatra’s UK Sports Investments and Abu Dhabi United Group was agreed on August 31, 2008 at the Emirates Palace hotel. Slack-Smith quotes one of the legal team assigned to the deal, who reveals the original memo was just a page and half long. The final agreement, signed in late September, would run to more than 100 pages.
2 City were heading towards financial meltdown prior to the takeover
“Everything was broken”, according to former chief executive Garry Cook, who recalls in the book: “In the weeks prior to this transaction, we were on the way to a complete and utter shutdown. We were heading for a massive catastrophe … It was really quite a drastic time.”
3 The scale of the job was much greater than the new owners had expected
Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak says of the days immediately following the takeover that: “What we imagined was going to be here was very different to what we found when we came here … I imagined there would be a minimum level of quality in terms of infrastructure, processes, systems and strategy. We came here and realised that we were way off. The infrastructure was horrendous. There was no strategy. There was no planning. There were no processes. There were no systems. You were literally building from scratch.”
4 Despite this, there was optimism that the situation could be turned around
“There was a familiarity and a spirit of camaraderie that was clearly evident, and I knew we had the resources [and] the foundation ingredients were present for this to succeed,” according to Simon Pearce, board director of Manchester City. During the first season of ownership, the club developed a “fix, build, grow” strategy to set the club on a better path.
5 Mistakes were made
With results still not going City’s way in late 2009, despite significant sums spent on player recruitment, the club ran out of patience with manager Mark Hughes. Rumours of discussions with Roberto Mancini, who would soon take over, began to circulate. Brian Marwood, head of global football at CFG, describes the club’s handling of Hughes’s departure with regret. He says it was “disrespectful to Mark" and his team.
6 There was method to the spend, spend, spend years of 2009 to 2011
Cook says the club’s strategy during this period was to “accelerate” spending in a bid to qualify for the Champions League and compete for honours. Between 2009 and 2011 the club reported losses of £318.7m. Pearce described these two years as “investing aggressively in order to produce a return”. The club qualified for Europe’s top club competition for the first time in 2011.
7 When City first got to Wembley a player gave the pre-match team talk, not the manager
Veteran midfielder Patrick Vieira asked Mancini if he could address the players before City’s crucial FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in 2011. Vieira, who had already won the cup three times with Arsenal, reminded the players that United were beatable. City won and went on to claim the cup that year, the club’s first trophy for 35 years.
8 When City looked like they may let the title slip from their grip in 2012, the hierarchy worried about the fallout
City needed to win on the final day of the 2011-12 season to claim the title. Trailing by a goal as the clock ticked down, Al Mubarak recalls in the book: “I was actually playing it out in my mind, ‘Okay, what do I need to say? What do I need to do once that referee blows that whistle, to get that team to win the league next year? Because this could go into meltdown’.” In the event, City scored twice in additional time and won the league.
9 The club should have won back-to-back titles
Al Mubarak believes City should have retained the title in 2013, but Mancini’s side put up a meek defence: “The reality is that we were the best team by a mile that season, and we should have won the league comfortably … I think we screwed it up.”
10 The players underestimated how difficult it would be to retain the title in 2013
Club captain Vincent Kompany says the players were “a little bit more relaxed” in pre-season after winning the title in 2012. Football director Txiki Begiristain says “It only takes two per cent, three per cent, or five per cent less intensity in training … that is the difference between being champions, or being fifth.”
11 The club had to stay quiet about who was behind the deal to expand into Australia
Following the establishment of MLS franchise New York City FC, City Football Group sought further expansion beyond the UK and the US into Australia. Keen to tie up a deal for what would become Melbourne City, CFG officials wanted to keep their identities quiet from the club’s owners as “they knew from experience that the mere mention of ‘Manchester City’ or ‘Abu Dhabi’ tended to give wide-eyed sellers unreasonable expectations for the value of their assets.”
12 Melbourne was quite like Manchester
When the deal was done, the new owners found their new Melbourne club was worried about cash flow and performances on the pitch, but there was plenty of goodwill floating around, just like the set of circumstances they found at City in 2008.
13 Sheikh Mansour gave an ex-manager two pieces of fine art when he left the club
Former manager Manuel Pellegrini left the club in 2016 after winning three trophies in three years. He was presented with a painting by LS Lowry and another by Stephen Campbell as thank you gifts.
14 The chairman used to struggle if results went against City
“In the early years, if we lost any game, I was unbearable,” Al Mubarak says in the book. “If we lose now, I’ll be upset, but within an hour I’m fine … I can handle it in a much less emotional way.”
15 The connections between City and Abu Dhabi have existed for longer than you might think
City great Mike Summerbee, who was part of the 1968 title-winning side, mentions in the book that he first visited Abu Dhabi in 1977 to play an exhibition match, making for a decades-long association between a City favourite and the UAE's capital.
Killing the Game: the inside story behind the transformation of Manchester City and the creation of City Football Group is now available on Amazon