It was only right and proper that Manchester City’s recent 4-0 defeat to Everton was accompanied by the sharpening of knives across the media. This was City’s fourth loss in eight Premier League games and in the hyperbolic climes we now reside in it represented no less than a ‘crisis’, a wholly unexpected one to boot. Back in September it appeared that Pep Guardiola’s alchemy was instant with the title already a foregone conclusion. Now a shambolic defence was making Kevin Mirallas look Messi-esque.
Wounded and confused, the club’s fan-base braced themselves for the inevitable backlash that would surely monopolise that week’s news cycle, headlines and criticism aimed predominantly at readers who have come to resent the club’s rise in recent years. They anticipated the tone: a gleeful schadenfreude at a Bond baddies’ comeuppance; an attempt at world domination gone spectacularly awry.
They expected the visuals that were handed to the press on a plate: the most heralded coach in world football shell-shocked on the touchline, unable to make sense of why his meticulously-planned vision was unravelling before his very eyes. Throw in a mock-up of Claudio Bravo sporting a clown nose and some merciless ribbing in the office and a torrid few days awaited.
What they couldn’t have foreseen – even fans who have long become accustomed to their club being sniped at, belittled and disrespected by the media – was Neil Ashton’s hate-piece in The Sun. It was not the words that especially offended – a cut-and-paste mix of bile and cliché – but rather the bold text above it: ‘569m reasons why City deserve a good kicking’.
This was not a journalistic swoosh of sharpened blade, this was a phlegmy spit in the face, an antagonistic declaration that is impossible to imagine being applied to any other club. An unscrupulous owner perhaps. An extremely unpopular national manager at a push. But a club? Never.
What precisely had City done to warrant a ‘good kicking’? Spent a great deal of money, like their peers. And lost a few games, also like their peers.
As shocking as it was, Ashton's warmongering was only the latest in an unrelenting campaign of negativity and animosity emanating from the media towards City since their takeover in 2008.
Previously they have been described on television and in the tabloids as ‘whores’, ‘morally bankrupt’, and charged with single-handedly ‘ruining football’ – yet these are only the examples so spiteful they stick in the memory. Far more pernicious is the constant drip-feed of digs from commentators' mouths to countless tabloid articles concentrating only on the wealth that has elevated City among the established elite.
It is an elevation that is impressive and unprecedented in its scale – in nine short years the club have upgraded from Emile Mpenza to Sergio Aguero, won the league twice, built an outstanding state-of-the-art academy, committed to work in the community that is bettered by none, and now find themselves self-sufficient and debt-free. It is also an elevation that could have been viewed as a fairy-tale, a celebratory narrative of long-suffering Blues getting all six numbers and experiencing dreams previously assumed forever beyond them.
Yet an algorithm of media coverage during this surreal and exhilarating period can be condensed to scoffed disbelief at a misplaced pass from Yaya Toure followed by an obligatory mention of his wage packet and a cheap joke about birthday cakes to remind everyone that he is little more than a mercenary. That or a snide reference to Raheem Sterling’s diamond-encrusted sink or his sheer gall to shop in Poundworld. The boy really can’t win can he?
Failing that there will always be former professionals happy to line up and take pot-shots at a few empty seats while on co-commentary duties in between mouthfuls of vol-au-vents served up by a club that has largely taken a pacifistic approach to tempering the hostility. ‘Be nice to them and they will eventually be nice to us’ appears to be the mandate the PR department stubbornly adheres to, a flawed strategy that allows Neil Ashton to be welcomed with open arms to the Etihad just two days after writing his inflammatory piece; a flawed strategy that Sir Alex Ferguson would baulk at knowing the utter futility of it.
Seeking refuge from the unremitting negativity that surrounds their club a City supporter might understandably venture to the local pub for some well-deserved respite. There surely they will be free to discuss football with like-minded souls, encountering a bit of ‘bantz’ naturally but laced with less poison that has one eye on maximising social media clicks.
Yet here they will encounter the same clichés, untruths, and puerile slingshots only spat instead of spoken. It should never be under-estimated to what extent City are resented for muscling their way onto a plateau previously thought to be exclusively reserved for a select few and bizarrely this hatred is not solely confined to supporters of those clubs directly affected. Whatever a person’s allegiance they will – as likely as not – be appalled and insulted by a club daring to challenge the traditional elite and do so by employing exactly the same modus operandi for success of buying the best players available.
So whether it’s delivered with a scouse twang, Essex sharpness or a Norfolk drawl the material is always the same. No history. No class. Emptyhad. Oil money. Sterling castigated for having the temerity to move from one top flight club to another. And, of course, the new favourite, Pep Fraudiola.
It was all supposed to stop with the arrival of Pep. Or at least it was expected to get better. Yet such is the depth of ill-feeling towards Manchester City that this fascinating, charismatic creator of extraordinary teams has found himself sucked into the vortex of unpopularity that engulfs the club.
Tarnished by association. Instead it is Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp who enjoys the status of media darling while Jose Mourinho’s villainous persona has been softened to that of an endearing character since taking over at Old Trafford. Of the former the contrast between the coverage he is afforded and the goading of Guardiola and general hope that he fails is quite something and we can only imagine the ferocity of criticism the City boss would have endured had he – a foreigner – deigned to disrespect our FA Cup by fielding a side entirely made up of kids.
Indeed, we don’t need to imagine it: Manuel Pellegrini is still counting the bruises from doing similar last season and that with a Champions League game only days away. In the league meanwhile Liverpool’s defence have conceded only one less than City’s this term, which would surprise many considering the welter of remorseless condemnation of Kolorov and co over the other. The same goes for each manager’s respective abilities to organise said rear-guards. Lastly, with just a single win in 2017 so far (and that against League 2 side Plymouth) in the hyperbolic climes we now reside in it represents no less than a ‘crisis’. Please don’t await such talk with baited breath. You will suffocate.
It is quite amazing what leeway a big broad grin gets you. That and being the boss of Liverpool.
Determining what came first, the media’s constant undermining of Manchester City or the general public’s strong disapproval of them really amounts to a chicken and egg conundrum. But without question one feeds off the other, inspiring the negativity and misinformation, while they in turn are pandered to by outlets seeking a sizable, appreciative audience.
This in itself is a depressing state of affairs that appears only to be coarsening with each passing season. Yet there is another aspect to City’s singular treatment that should be a concern to all.
It didn’t take long for Guardiola to realise that there is potentially something very remiss about the manner in which City games are officiated. Now, six months in, he is seeking a second meeting with the head of PGMOB Mike Riley after witnessing a series of perplexing decisions go against his team.
The high-profile incidents from recent weeks would be sufficient to raise alarm bells on their own – the straight-forward dismissals of Luiz against Chelsea and Walker against Spurs that were not even given as fouls – but much more worrying are these entirely contradictory facts: City top the possession stats by some margin yet lie third in the disciplinary table. And the odd meltdown aside, they are anything but a dirty side.
City supporters are hardly alone in believing their team is persecuted by referees but the evidence from seasons past has accumulated until it now borders on the irrefutable. The whisper of doubt has become a sane, steady voice of logic that asks a perfectly reasonable question: If the media are so against them – with journalists and pundits unable to hide their personal feelings and remain impartial – and if the majority of the public regard their club so appallingly, then what is stopping referees from unintentionally doing likewise?
Editor's note: The following correction was made to this article at 9.47pm on 24/01/17 - Neil Ashton was the author of The Sun article ‘569m reasons why City deserve a good kicking’, not Neil Custis, as originally stated.