Manchester City special: City of dreams

The football may have grabbed the headlines, but a quiet revolution is taking place in one of England’s most deprived areas

The newly rebranded Etihad Stadium following a record sponsorship deal with the Abu Dhabi airline

The newly rebranded Etihad Stadium following a record sponsorship deal with the Abu Dhabi airline

On a warm summer’s evening, a young Argentinian runs onto the pitch at the Etihad Stadium for the first time. Sergio Aguero’s debut for Manchester City is one to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. His entry results in by far the loudest roar of the game, and the grinning superstar is quickly into action, harrying defenders and making bursting runs. And above all the action at the packed Etihad Stadium, a lone sign – requested and paid for by local fans – stands out. “Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour”, it reads – in both English and Arabic - in huge letters plastered at the top of the stadium above the half-way line.

Five minutes’ walk from the stadium in which some of the world’s highest paid football stars are plying their trade, the scene could not be more different. By virtually any measure you care to choose, East Manchester is one of the most deprived areas in the UK. A report from the Save the Children charity earlier this year claimed that levels of child poverty in the city had reached 27 percent, amongst the highest in the country. Furthermore, the land that sits nearby the stadium itself has been so polluted by commercial and industrial use that it actually has a negative property value.

Reconciling these two seemingly polar opposites is the job of Manchester City’s executive management team. In tandem with recent successes on the pitch, the club is tailoring the second phase of its development under the ownership of the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG). While, naturally, that will aim to incorporate even greater success on the pitch, a renewed focus will be placed on community involvement, job creation and corporate social responsibility.

But back on the pitch, and the signing of Aguero, and French midfielder Samir Nasri, marks an end to ADUG’s initial investment phase in the club, much of which was focused on players. Ever since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan swooped to take over City three years ago, expectations in the blue half of Manchester have been raised to fever pitch. But it’s not only in the city itself that attitudes towards the football team have started to change. News stories about Manchester City inevitably shoot to the top of the most viewed pages on international newspaper websites. The club’s recent tour of America helped US fans of the Manchester City Facebook page shoot up by 403 percent, while 1.2m viewers watched the team play its various games on ESPN.

Far more ominously for City’s Premier League rivals, the club now ranks as the most improved football brand over the course of the last 12 months. Brand Finance’s annual rankings showed that the City brand was now the 11th most valuable brand in football – up from 19th last year – with a value that had almost doubled to $168m. City are steadily creeping up on their arch-rivals, Manchester United, who regained the top spot with a brand value of $644m.

On the morning of the first day of the season, the club’s employees gather in the bowels of the Colin Bell stand to hear a series of presentations from senior management. The mood is understandably buoyant; Manchester City have qualified for the Champions League for the first time, and the club has also signed what is being reported as the biggest sponsorship deal in football history with Etihad Airways. Furthermore, the meeting is held in the august presence of the FA Cup, one of football’s most famous trophies, and the first major piece of silverware that City have picked up in 34 years.

But the meeting is not the usual dusty affair that one would expect from an institution that has been around for well over a century, and whose founders believed that Manchester City’s launch would cure a litany of social ills in one of England’s most industrialised cities. Indeed, the flashy presentations, interspersed with blasts of dance music, seem more suited to the boardroom of an advertising giant than an elderly sports franchise.

It’s all emblematic of the change that has been brought about since ADUG took over the club; while the world outside has been fixated on petrodollars, a quiet revolution has taken place in Manchester.

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