If Manchester City used to be the club boasting high-profile signings on provocative billboards, these days this northern English city’s “noisy neighbor” is taking a more softly, softly approach.
Ahead of Saturday’s Premier League derby against rival Manchester United, it’s all about the grand scheme for a club that was once written off for having “a small mentality.”
“It’s been a bit like an iceberg coming out of the water,” says Manchester City’s chief infrastructure officer, Jon Stemp. “People only see the tip of it.”
Given City were playing in England’s third tier in 1999, the club’s ascent to English football’s top table initially necessitated the acquisition of players — an investment of just under $1 billion since the Abu Dhabi United Group took over.
Within hours of the club changing hands, City had smashed the British transfer record for Real Madrid’s Robinho. City’s transfer policy was denigrated — the new kids on the block were branded oil rich and regarded by many as no more than a billionaire’s plaything.
But Sheikh Mansour and his team have never lost sight of the bigger picture…
You can win anything with kids
“People were measuring the investments in the short term without knowing there was a long-term plan coming,” Stemp says.
Beneath the surface, greater plans have been afoot ever since Mansour declared in 2008: “We are building a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars.”
In the heart of the Etihad Campus, deep within the area of Manchester known as “Sportscity,” the 5,000-seater, 7,000-capacity Academy Stadium is the shining jewel in one of the finest youth complexes in the world.
In fixtures against United last season, City went unbeaten in every age group, from the Under-9s all the way up to the U18s.
A 9-0 aggregate win at U14 level against the Red Devils will have been particularly galling for a club so proud of Ferguson’s Class of ’92 — featuring the likes of David Beckham — and the Busby Babes.
In an age when many of the world’s wealthiest clubs’ academies are filled with many different nationalities, 75% of the players in City’s Football Academy are drawn from the Greater Manchester area.
All in all, the club engages with “the best part of 50,000 young people in Manchester every year,” according to former City goalkeeper Alex Williams — now manager of club’s City in the Community program.
Even United luminaries Robin van Persie, Phil Neville, Andrew Cole and Darren Fletcher have opted to send their sons to the Etihad Campus instead of the Trafford Training Center in recent years.
Stemp allows himself a contented smile. “Now, eight years on, you see the rest of the investment plan emerging.”
Part of the legacy of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the Etihad Stadium was the “first brick in the wall,” according to Stemp.
Ever since, City plots its expansion in terms of “building blocks of eureka moments,” from the transformation of blighted lands with the construction of the training complex, to the development of commercial opportunities around the East Manchester site.
Within a stone’s throw of the Etihad, remnants of Manchester’s industrial past are still very much visible — disused gas holders dot the landscape while a canal runs side-by-side with the city’s new tram network.
But 80 acres of contaminated brownfield land have been transformed by self-confessed “grass nerd” Stemp and his team; 46 acres now comprise managed grass and wildflower meadows; and more than 2,000 trees have been planted.
“It was very derelict,” reflects Stemp, gesturing to the work the club has done. “We put our arms around the land and took control of it.”
The final piece in the puzzle
As well as the physical building blocks, City officials believe coach Pep Guardiola is the final piece in a complex puzzle.
“I have no doubt about his positive impact,” City’s chief operating officer Omar Berrada tells CNN. “We’ve already expanded the stadium and we think (Guardiola) will bring the potential for continued expansion.”
“Pep delivers a culture of success and style of play that will be developed across everything that we’re doing here,” Berrada says. “I’m sure that will have long-lasting effects.”
Berrada branded Guardiola “the best in the world” within days of his arrival in a reference to the success he brought to his former clubs, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
The Spanish coach’s reputation is also helping lure the world’s finest players to Manchester as the club bids to win its third Premier League title in six seasons.
Guardiola’s first foray into the market was for Borussia Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gundogan — a distinguished Germany international.
“To have this possibility is amazing for me,” Gundogan tells CNN. “We have the best manager in the world, and day-by-day I recognize I have made the right decision.”
The 25-year-old may have only been at the club for a matter of months, but he already perceives the investment transforming not just City, but the city.
“Everything is developing really fast. I love the mix between old buildings and the new buildings,” Gundogan says.
“Manchester has a real charm.”
Breaking the glass ceiling
If the acquisition of players of Gundogan’s stature is no longer breaking news for a club that has come so far, Kelechi Iheanacho’s breakthrough from the academy shows progress is being made in all departments.
Smashing through a glass ceiling that traditionally has proven so troublesome for young players aiming to make it in the world’s richest league, the 19-year-old scored 14 goals in just 11 starts last season — suggesting he has the mettle to become one of the most clinical finishers in Europe.
With key striker Sergio Aguero serving a three-match ban, Iheanacho could start against United Saturday.
“City were a club on the way up,” Iheanacho tells CNN, reflecting on his perception of the team when he joined, shortly after winning the U17 World Cup with Nigeria.
“Coming from Nigeria where I was often unable to afford to watch the Premier League, I’m very proud to be playing here. It has been a great experience coming to Manchester.”
Citizens beyond The Citizens
However, in an age of growing discord between fan and player — as both Iheanacho and Gundogan earn tens of thousands of dollars per week — how has the club’s investment in its future served the rest of Manchester?
Working at Bonnie’s Cafe near the Etihad Campus, Sheila Duffy has experienced first-hand the fruits of the area’s regeneration — as well as the potential pitfalls of gentrification.
“We had drugs, street crime, everything like that, and nobody cared because it was derelict,” she reflects. “The swimming baths were closed down, the youth club was shut. There was nothing for the kids so they’d be hanging around on street corners.”
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Duffy acknowledges the “Sheikh up in his helicopter” may not have directly engaged with the man on the ground and his full English breakfast, but she’s the first to admit her surroundings have changed dramatically — a reference to the five and half acres of the Etihad Campus site donated to the local community.
Where the skeletons of Manchester’s industrial boom once stood, a sixth-form college, leisure center, and cutting-edge medical institute now preside.
“It was a rough area of the city and now there’s certainly a sense of hope … and I’m a Manchester United supporter!”
Pep vs. Jose
If the foundations are in place, can City make good on the club’s rich promise?
While Iheanacho may be a singular talent, his presence as a youth-team graduate in the Citizens squad currently remains similarly conspicuous.
Promisingly, Guardiola gave 22 young players debuts during his time at Barcelona — many of whom, from Busquets to Thiago Alcântara, have gone on to enjoy great success.
But there is still some way to go before City emerges from United’s shadow in this regard.
Since 1940, almost 50% of all Manchester United players have come through the club’s youth system. United has had at least one academy player in the squad in every first team game since October 1937 — a run spanning 3,808 consecutive clashes.
Striker Marcus Rashford, already an England international at the age of 18, looks the latest in a long line set to benefit from that unwavering faith this year — even if manager Jose Mourinho’s commitment to youth has been questioned, and fellow “homegrown” player Paul Pogba required a $100M education abroad.
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Except the envious glances toward Old Trafford have stopped.
Converging with its more illustrious counterpart on and off the pitch, City has finished above United in four of the past five seasons, and Mourinho looks like he has quite the job on his hands getting the better of his old rival Guardiola.