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Man City’s naked attack on democracy calls Premier League’s future into question

The champions are selling themselves as freedom fighters – but this is a state wealth power grab dressed up as Robin Hood

June 5, 2024 12:45 pm(Updated 3:31 pm)

On Manchester City’s website is a list of honours and records; the maintenance of that page alone has become a part-time job for someone. “First club to win an English domestic treble”, “Most league goals by one player in a season”, “Premier League record for longest winning run of games in a calendar year” – it’s all there in print.

The most recent entry declares that, in 2023, “we won the Fifa Club World Cup, ensuring our position as ‘The Best Team in the World and all the Land’.” well, quite. At some point soon, it will be added that Manchester City are the first club in English football history to win four top-flight titles in a row. Things, and this is irrefutable whichever side of this argument you sit on, are going pretty well at the Etihad.

It is a statistical fact that City are the most dominant team of all time in this country. All the while, City say, they abided by financial rules – both current and previous. So you do rather have to walk backwards for several miles to take in the grand scale of the chutzpah at their claim that the club’s success is being held back by restrictions and anti-competitive regulations.

There are three distinct elements to Manchester City’s legal claim against the Premier League, submitted in February and revealed by The Times on Tuesday, each of which sends ripples across England’s top division. Each of them may be game-changing.

The first is the attempt to extend their own position of dominance long into the future. By asserting that associated party transaction (APT) rules are illegitimate, City are effectively campaigning for sponsorship deals to be omitted from scrutiny. That would clearly benefit state-owned clubs, who could arrange deals with related state-owned companies at vastly inflated prices.

It would leave Profitability and Sustainability Regulations dead in the water. Need more money for transfers? How about a sleeve sponsor paying you £50m a season? Without scrutiny of such deals, one arm of the state filters money into another and allows those state-owned clubs to manufacture a deliberate, rapid erosion of competition. Newcastle’s Saudi owners will be looking on with great interest.

So too will other states. The “fair market value” assessments are one of the only soft barriers against greater state ownership. Some supporters will reason that the horse has already bolted on that point, but it is easy to foresee a glut of state takeovers of Premier League clubs attracted by the opportunity to service multiple elements of their state’s economic interests and/or sportswash to distract from, for example, poor human rights records.

The second is how this impacts upon the ongoing Premier League case against Manchester City – the 115 charges, in which the club strenuously deny any wrongdoing. The core of that case refers to alleged rule-breaking and false accounting over a period before the APT rules were introduced in 2021. There is a separation between the two cases.

Still, it seems apparent that the timing of this hearing would generally undermine the Premier League from a PR standpoint ahead of that later hearing, were they to lose it. It would present Manchester City as holding power over the league. It also – and this is certainly relevant – keeps the Premier League’s legal department double busy fighting a new fire at a time when they are working on the 115 charges case.

But perhaps most instructive of all is the language used by Manchester City; you do not need to read between the lines to understand this as an audacious power grab. By attacking the Premier League’s system of democracy (where 14 member clubs must vote in favour of any rule change) as a “tyranny of the majority”, City are attempting the nuclear option of breaking up how the league itself is governed. When you sell democracy as dictatorship, all rules of engagement break down.

Then comes the emotional blackmail. In November 2023, and all while abiding by current rules according to the club, Manchester City announced revenues of £712.8m, breaking the Premier League record by more than £65m. That figure was up by almost £100m year on year. Again, things are going well. For City to announce those record revenues and then claim that they are being forced to raise ticket prices for supporters is a gross act.

As for an inability to buy the best players, they were the first English club to spend £100m on a single transfer fee. If you have to cut spending on women’s football and community programmes with an annual revenue £65m higher than any other team in your league, you’re making bad decisions somewhere along the line.

Manchester City use that language and those threats deliberately. Online, it all resonates with the foot soldiers of their PR grab who are now heralding their club as campaigning for victory for the many, destroying monopolies in their path. Sheikh Mansour, the vice president of the United Arab Emirates and the son of Abu Dhabi’s Emir, is portrayed as Robin Hood.

City are not freedom-fighting. Even if you believe that the current status quo is flawed, a Wild West of state investment provoked by an individual club cannot be the preferred solution. Removing democracy in favour of unchecked financial freedom leads only to autocracy for those owned by the wealthiest states.

This is naked self-interest, an attempt to ringfence the dominance that state ownership creates as a possibility, and allow it to run free unchecked. Unprecedented dominance in the present is never enough. This is Manchester City trying to buy their future too. The landscape of the Premier League may depend on their success or failure.

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