Soccer club transformed by big investment
Benefits have spread to the city of Manchester
United vs. City derby takes place Saturday
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.”