I usually cringe whenever a football fan makes a bold claim about his club's unique importance. Most clubs
have interesting histories and many, such as Liverpool, United, and Milan, have great ones. But after
spending the last seven years researching City's past, and reading about those of others, I can honestly
say that no club has a history as colourful, fascinating and significant as Manchester City's.
Created by young working men from a Manchester iron district, the club's forerunner - Gorton AFC - was
a minnow compared to the giants from surrounding towns and cities. With just 25 members paying dues of
around two shillings each, the club's income in its first year was a 200th of Bolton Wanderers. By the end
of the 1884-85 season they had no ground, meagre support and only £1 8s 8d in the bank. But they were
steeped in a spirit of enterprise that had been moulded by Manchester's engineering visionaries. They were
ambitious, and no doubt cocky, young Mancs - Noel Gallaghers with handlebar mustaches - and they set
about turning this two-bob club into a world force.
From a flooded patch of wasteland in Ardwick they embarked on what was probably football's first
spending spree. Supplying the funds was flamboyant brewer and political fixer, Stephen Chesters Thompson,
nicknamed the "King of Ardwick". He used the club to mastermind a series of stunning Election wins for
local MP Arthur Balfour, which paved the way for him to become Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Chesters
Thompson hadn't told his brewery's shareholders that he was ploughing their money into a football club
and, after he declared bankruptcy following a fraud trial, Ardwick AFC collapsed.
In 1894 the club was reborn as Manchester City, and soon fell under the spell of two Manchester
innovators. Edward Hulton jnr, who invented the modern sporting press, teamed up with the pioneer of
football physiotherapy, John Allison, to rebuild the club. The FA Cup was secured in 1904 and then, on
the verge dominating the football world, they were brought to their knees by the FA, who banned 11 club
directors and 18 of the best players for committing the commonplace act of raising the living standards of
the players higher than the FA deemed appropriate.
But even that couldn't prevent City's rise. In 1934 they attracted a gate of 84,569 – to this day the largest
crowd that has ever been seen at an English domestic football match. After being crowned champions of
the greatest league in the world in 1937 they went to Nazi Germany, a month after the Luftwaffe had begun
bombing Spain. The world looked on as a City side - containing arguably the world's most gifted player,
Peter Doherty - played a Nazi Germany national team at the packed Berlin Olympic Stadium. In a sea of
swastikas and ringed by SS officers City lost that historic game 3-2. But they never gave the bastards their
After the war, the club became an international symbol of reconciliation between the two countries, and
former SS paratrooper Bert Trautmann its personification. A decade after Trautmann's FA Cup Final
heroics, City created a dazzling side that performed a clean sweep of domestic trophies (they were even the
five-a-side champions). In the 1970s the Junior Blues provided a model for others to copy, the club boasted
the most season ticket holders in the League, and continued glory was within touching distance.
But they also had the most buffoonish chairman football has ever seen, a man in Cuban heels and a wig
whose vanities were played out on TV sets across the country, in Granada TV's groundbreaking
documentary, City! It charted the beginnings of four decades of decline that turned City into football's
most famous under-achievers.
But this was so Typical City. In 1926 they were relegated after reaching the FA Cup final, while in 1938
they became the only reigning champions ever to be relegated (despite being the League's top scorers that
season). Another relegation was sandwiched between the 1956 FA Cup win and the 1968 League title,
while the seven seasons between 1996 and 2002 included three relegations and three promotions.
It’s almost as though this constant upheaval, the continual journey between glory and disaster, and from
riches to poverty and back, has somehow been written into City’s DNA.
The club has been moulded by geniuses, visionaries and pioneers, with a few fools thrown in for good
measure. One City director managed the side all the way to the 1926 FA Cup final, while two decades
earlier the club's chairman had created the first "hospital for footballers". The Hungarian tactics that baffled
England in 1953 were no surprise to the City reserve team, which had already been using them that season.
Another City reserve player, Jack Reynolds, invented "total football".
City once built the largest single span roofs ever seen in a stadium and were the first Cup finalists (along with
Everton) to wear shirt numbers. They've had match-fixing scandals, inflatable bananas and the "Ballet on
Ice". They've set trends, been serenaded by a deposed Thai Prime Minister, and more recently ran a poster
ad that became the greatest piss-take the football world has seen. Oh, and as a club that paid for a player in
gold bullion in 1904, they've been accused of "ruining" football before most people on this planet were born.
In 2008 the latest chapter of the saga began when Emirati petro-billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al
Nahyan bought the club. Although too diplomatic to say it publicly, the aim is to make City the greatest club
in the world. Part of the project involves the building a giant new academy on land where the Clayton Aniline
chemical works once stood. From there, Manchester University professor Chaim Weizmann developed
new chemical processes that played a crucial role in securing Allied victory in WWI. In 1917, as president
of the British Zionist Federation, he teamed up with out-of-work City fan Arthur Balfour to create the
'Balfour Declaration', the document that paved the way for Israel's creation (Weizmann also became Israel's
City, it seems, can't dig a hole without hitting an historical goldmine.
I've been told that Emiratis are self-conscious about their modest history. When the empires of Egypt and
Iraq rose, they were mostly pearl fishermen. And they remained as such long after those empires fell. But
now the descendants of pearl divers have, I believe, acquired an unpolished diamond.
And it's being restored to its former glory.
My new book on the origins of Manchester City on sale now
A Man's Game: The Birth of Mancunian Football and the Origins of Manchester City FC is now on
sale, published in paperback by Books & Doxey Press.
why football became established in Manchester, including newly-discovered details of the first ever match
played in the city. It also solves the mystery of why City's forerunner, Gorton Association, wore a Maltese
Cross on their shirts, and names every person in the 1884-85 team photo.
It's got great reviews so far, including one from the official match programme and a two-page review in the
King of the Kippax by history professor Stephen Rigby (see lower down the page).
A Man's Game costs £9.75 plus £2.75 post and packing (UK only).
All copies purchased through the 'Buy Now' button are signed by the author.
You can contact me at akeenan(at)manchesterfootballhistory(dot)com.