Where along the line, you have to ask, will Manchester City take a long, hard look at themselves, put aside their sense of victimhood, and realise how deeply unattractive they have become?
Not because this is the third time they have been charged with secretly channelling extra Abu Dhabi cash into their coffers, through fake sponsorships, to dodge financial spending rules.
Not because paying manager Roberto Mancini twice — once on the books, once off the books — was a joke, given how deeply unpopular he had become inside the club when they finally got shot. But because of the flagrant contempt they show for the system, the rules and the administrators whose competitions they are so eager to play in and dominate.
The club provided a mere 79-word response to the Premier League’s announcement that they were charging them with more than 100 breaches of their rules. Yet City actually had the temerity to claim they had provided ‘extensive engagement’ and a ‘vast amount of detailed materials’ to those investigating their conduct.
That was laughable. So impossible has it been to extract the necessary documents, that the Premier League were forced to go to court last year and launch an arbitration process to get them.
Manchester City have been charged by the Premier League over breaches of financial rules
City employed barristers to challenge that process, arguing that the arbitrators would be biased against them. A judge ruled against them. City employed barristers to challenge this publisher’s right to report that judge’s conclusions and to be in court when a decision of publication was being made — even though we had undertaken not to publish anything from it. The judge ruled against them.
It was Lord Justice Males, in that case brought by Associated Newspapers, who saw through City’s obfuscation and backsliding, in a case which was then heading towards its third year. ‘It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years — during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions,’ the judge said.
When a cache of emails published by Football Leaks in 2018 led UEFA, for the second time in five years, to charge City with deliberately inflating sponsorship deals, the club said the evidence was ‘incomplete’ and invalid.
It certainly seemed quite exhaustive. The emails included City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano’s missive, suggesting that the club raise cash to avoid an FFP breach in 2013 by getting sponsors to pay bonuses for winning the FA Cup — even though City had lost to Wigan.
That was the match which saw Mancini sacked, requiring a £9.9million pay-off, which would blow another hole in attempts to pass FFP. In another leaked email, non-executive City director Simon Pearce suggested ‘an additional amount of AD (Abu Dhabi) sponsorship revenues that covers this gap’.
Pep Guardiola alongside owner Sheikh Mansour – who bought the club in September 2008
City are accused of breaching financial rules more than 100 times in nine seasons (Sheikh Mansour pictured, left, speaking with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, right)
City lawyer Simon Cliff insisted that the whole commercial deals operation be called ‘Project Longbow’ in tribute ‘to the weapon the English used to beat the French at Crecy and Agincourt’.
That’s how City felt about UEFA and their rules. And there was the obscure-sounding company called ‘Fordham’ to which the club sold their image rights income stream to earn themselves a £24.5m lump sum needed to pass the same financial sustainability rules. Despite selling off that revenue stream, it transpired the club were actually earning from it.
The Fordham story will perhaps seem arcane and dry but it was fundamental to City’s attempts to comply with the rules set out for any teams wishing to compete in the Champions League.
When I wrote it, in 2017, the full force of City’s wrath was unleashed. A demand from a specialist internet law firm that it be removed, that an apology for it be published and that I tweet out that apology.
It would have been an unprecedented level of ‘contrition’. But our detailed 1,500-word defence of the story was sent by return. We heard no more from City or their lawyers on the matter.
Eighteen months later, the Football Leaks cache showed that we actually had only half of the story. City’s owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group, were in fact bankrolling Fordham, according to the leaks, as a way of paying part of the players’ wages. Not only were City boosting their income against the rules but reducing their headline wage bill as they did so.
The leaked emails saw City charged by UEFA four years ago and left facing a two-year Champions League ban. They successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which found that the alleged offences took place too far in the past to be investigated, under UEFA’s statute of limitation. City were still fined the best part of £9m for what CAS called ‘obstruction of the investigations’.
The club has been charged for how they paid Roberto Mancini – the man who was at the helm for their maiden Premier League victory
Manchester City have won the Premier League six times since the Abu Dhabi takeover
If found guilty, Man City (Erling Haaland pictured) could face a points deduction or expulsion
The consequences were minimal when they breached UEFA FFP rules in 2014, too: a £49m cap on spending in the next transfer window, a Champions League wage cap and four players fewer than everyone else in their squad for that season’s competition.
There will be no statute of limitation at the Premier League’s independent commission. There will be no recourse to CAS if the decision goes against City.
The Premier League are under pressure from their 19 other clubs to apply utmost rigour to this —and most of all Liverpool, already nursing a grievance having run City so close for so long. Those clubs have complied with FFP, cohering with the view that if you play someone’s competition, you abide by their rules — whatever your views on them might be. City are confident of legal success, as they always are.
They are sceptical of the process, as they always are. They were quick to note yesterday that the timing of the charges ahead of this week’s Government white paper on football governance was likely to be used by the Premier League as evidence of it being able to deal with governance issues itself.
The next set of machinations will probably drag out long beyond Pep Guardiola’s tenure, as City’s lawyers will comb over every inch of the Premier League’s case. ‘They are going to mount a very robust defence,’ says Liverpool University’s Kieran Maguire.
Some would say the reputation of City and their owners are now on the line. Others would say that the grubby emails, the army of lawyers and the steadfast reluctance to disclose the documents to those who investigate have left it irredeemably tarnished already.
MAN CITY Q&A: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE ENGLISH CHAMPS?
By Mike Keegan
HOW SERIOUS IS THIS?
This is huge. Manchester City stand accused of breaking the Premier League’s rules more than 100 times since their Abu Dhabi takeover. A guilty verdict could see the champions relegated. It is as stark as that. This is the biggest scandal in the history of the competition. City will fight the claims with everything they have but defeat could bring the club to its knees.
HOW HAS THIS COME ABOUT?
In December 2018 the Premier League launched an investigation into allegations that Manchester City had failed to comply with football’s financial regulations. It followed claims published by the German magazine Der Spiegel of various misdemeanours by the club. One of the central allegations was that City owner Sheikh Mansour had disguised personal funding in the shape of inflated sponsorship deals, allowing him to swerve the rules and pump money into the club that would allow it to sign big names.
UEFA also launched their own investigation. That concluded in 2020 with a two-year Champions League ban and fine – which City successfully overturned at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The top flight’s probe continued, however, although updates have been few and far between before yesterday morning.
WHAT ARE CITY ACCUSED OF?
There are more than 100 alleged breaches over nine seasons, split into four sections.
The first relates to City providing ‘accurate financial information that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position, in particular with respect to its revenue (including sponsorship revenue), its related parties and its operating costs’. The claim is that City failed to do this.
The second, which covers between 2009-10 and 2012-13, is on the requirement for clubs to ‘include full details of manager remuneration in its relevant contracts with its manager’. City’s manager at the time was Roberto Mancini. According to whistleblowers Football Leaks, who passed on their information to Der Spiegel, Mancini had a base salary of £1.45m net with City, but also had a ‘shadow contract’ worth £1.75m a year with Abu Dhabi club Al Jazira.
The third set deals with alleged breaches of Premier League rules which require clubs to comply with UEFA’s FFP regulations between 2013-14 to 2017-18, while the final tranche highlights alleged breaches of profit and sustainability rules between 2015-16 and 2017-18. It also includes charges relating to ‘co-operation’ with the Premier League’s investigation. The claim is that City failed to co-operate with elements of the probe.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
An independent commission will be appointed by chair of the Premier League judicial panel, Arsenal supporter Murray Rosen KC. It is thought that those selections will be made imminently. Proceedings will be confidential and heard in private. City will need time – first to evaluate what they are alleged to have done and then to prepare a defence. They may also examine the chosen members of the panel and flag any potential issues as they see fit.
Insiders believe we could be talking ‘years rather than months’.
WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES?
According to the Premier League’s rulebook, a wide range of punishments are available to the panel. They stretch from a slap on the wrists to expulsion. Points deductions, replayed matches and fines also feature, as does the ability to suspend any penalties.
WHO WILL WIN?
Impossible to say. There are various ways of looking at it. The first is that the Premier League would not have taken on one of its biggest clubs unless it thought it had clear evidence and a good chance of victory. The second is that they felt backed into a corner under pressure to act from City’s main rivals. What cannot be disputed is that City, aided by deep pockets and with their reputation on the line, will defend themselves with everything they have.