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INTERVIEW: David Conn, The Guardian

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

The Guardian’s David Conn is essential reading for fans who wish to dig a little deeper and understand the often murky business of football finance. David is also the author of The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? (1998) and The Beautiful Game? Searching the Soul of Football (2005) and has been named the FSF’s Football Writer of the Year on three different occasions.

His latest book is Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up and David describes it as a more “personal” take on the game than previous efforts. Richer Than God covers David’s formative years, how he came to love football and City, but also charts the club’s (occasional) high and (frequent) low points against the backdrop of football’s astonishing transformation in the 80s and 90s, right up until Sergio Agüero’s astonishing last-minute winner in May 2012.

There are also amazing insights into the backroom dealings at a top-flight club – from Peter Swales and Franny Lee, to Thaksin Shinawatra and Shiek Mansour, it’s all there. But this isn’t just a book for City fans. They might have lived it, but plenty others will love it – buy your copy from Amazon.

The FSF caught up with David and he was kind enough to answer a few of our hastily scribbled down questions…

The FSF: Thanks for the interview David, the book’s a great read. It struck us that out of all the thousands of writers out there, not too many do what you do. How did you get into this investigative-sports-journalism carry on?

David: I grew up a City fan and my journey into investigative journalism actually started at City with Franny Lee’s takeover of the club from Peter Swales in 1994. At the time I was a little naïve and wide-eyed. I loved the club and cheered in Franny Lee and wanted Swales out. Franny Lee equalled a golden age while Swales was, in my eyes, a dark force.

So on the Saturday I cheered Franny in and on Monday I went to interview him for a business magazine and that’s when I began to understand the nuts and bolts. I qualified as a lawyer before becoming a writer, so I understood the detail of how the influx of huge TV money was changing football. It shocked me that “my” club was structured in such a way that it could be taken over like any other corporate deal – one businessman sells his shares to another. It had just never occurred to me that my club was in fact a company.

Francis Lee planned to launch City on the Stock Market so a holding company was formed to bypass the FA’s rules which were meant to prevent directors from cashing in on a club, they did it by forming a holding company which in turn owned the club. I just didn’t think it was right – that’s what started it off and that’s what still motivates me.

The book chronicles being a fan and what that means, and then there’s the revelatory moment. Getting to grips with the corporate flow and Stock Market flotation. Understanding the FA’s rules. Understanding that the Premier League’s breaking away was a carve-up in which the game was exploited to make huge sums of money for a small group of opportunists.

People get upset about wages but for me the big thing is people making money off the back of “our” clubs. Manchester City were given a stadium built by public money, it was an extremely generous and unique gift by Manchester City Council and, in the long-term, set them up for the takeover by Sheikh Mansour. However City were not a community club; they were a company owned by private shareholders and, in my opinion, there should have been a claw back if an owner made windfall profits selling the club with the benefit of the stadium built with public money.

Ultimately the beneficiary of this was Thaksin Shinawatra who made huge sums of money after he sold the club on to Sheik Mansour. Shinawatra was the most undeserving person possible with a history of human rights abuses and corruption yet he made £90m personally when he sold Manchester City.

And that is explored in the book?

Yes, the book tells the story of Manchester City and the extraordinary transformation under the Abu Dhabi ownership – I interview the key figures but it’s also my story too. To me the game is a game. A gift. An emotional attachment throughout peoples lives yet clubs were, and are, being financially exploited and this is presented as a brave new world.

The story of Manchester City is one of bloody-minded loyalty from supporters and it should be cherished for that. It’s not a business, brand, or product that people should be able just to buy and own.

When I started out we didn’t know about about supporters’ trusts or different models of ownership, but now the German model is well-known [the 50%+1 rule ensures that most German clubs are owned by their members]. Their clubs are owned by supporters, so to believe in that is not utopian or unrealistic. It’s an ideal. Once I understood that I found it very difficult to think that things should be any other way.

Putting that to one side, a Premier League title must be nice! Given your life-long support for City was it difficult not to “go soft” on Sheik Mansour? How did you square that with your self-evident support for fan ownership and financial fair play?

Sheikh Mansour isn’t “football” as we believe it should be and fans of many other clubs resent the huge money which has been put in to City. But the interesting contradiction is that Sheikh Mansour’s regime have been expert in their work. They’ve treated former players far better than some local owners and treated the club’s history with respect. It’s enlightened, and enlightened self-interest, on their part.

That makes them very different from a great many British owners and local businessmen who oversaw ramshackle grounds and inadequate investment in the 80s and 90s. So there are a lot of contradictions there, they are world class business people and to see that applied at Manchester City has been an education and pretty fascinating, regardless of my reservations for the business model.

So yes, I was emotional over the Premier League title but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned over the past 20 years. I still felt detached from the raw emotion of supporting the club, as I had for many years; I believe in supporter ownership. But I was emotional for the memories, of growing up, supporting City, and what it meant to me over the years as a supporter, and the incredible story of Manchester City, and contradictions of those feelings, are what I have tried to communicate in the book.

I decided I could also tell the story of football through Manchester City and I could do that as part memoir, part “hard” story. This is, after all, the story of a club in east Manchester, one of the poorest parts of Britain, being bought by some of the richest people on the planet. But because it’s my club, and my story too, I can do that with a little more humour and a personal touch than the investigative stories of my previous books.

The book’s chapters jump alternately from your childhood and growing love for the game to City’s takeover by billionaires from Asia and then the Middle East. It really does emphasise the development of top-flight football from local teams for local people, to the worldwide market of the Premier League era. How do you think young fans across the planet will relate to “their” team in the global-era?

It’s almost impossible to believe that they have that same emotional connection, they’re primarily a TV audience and I guess it’s a bit like watching a World Cup without England in it. You might really like Brazil or Italy, you might go out and buy their shirt, but it doesn’t define your life. Manchester United have started referring to fans as “followers” in their documents and I suppose it will be more like following someone on Twitter.

In part my story is a coming of age one. We supported our team as the game was transformed with more money than ever flowing in. The previous era was more stable but the realisation that the game was big business could have happened to me in the 80s too. I could have interviewed Swales 10 years earlier and found that directors were helping themselves to certain perks – it’s a story about me losing that wide-eyed innocence too.

I have two girls and they’re not so interested in football but I have friends with boys and their boys still love the clubs. It’s maybe slightly less intense and there are so many other things vying for their attention – Facebook, music, and so on, but we don’t know where the game will be in 20 years. Maybe they’ll be saying, wasn’t the game so innocent back then? What’s still amazing is the power and appeal that clubs still have over grown-up emotion.

Your skills aren’t confined to writing either – it seems you were quite the player?

I always loved playing although I wasn’t one of the most naturally skilful. In my teenage years I got into girls and other distractions but never gave up football like others did. I played for my school and two clubs, I basically played every day of the week. I once interviewed Jason McAteer and he said that at a crucial point in his career, he “found his engine”. At 16 I sort of found my engine, I was really fit and found I had good stamina playing in central midfield, box-to-box.

Our teacher invited Crewe Alexandra’s coach Alan A’Court along and he asked me to play for Crewe’s youth team against Liverpool youth the following week. On that Saturday I was watching Football Focus when it was announced that Crewe’s manager had been sacked and the backroom staff were going with him! So I never got to play against Liverpool. That was the best I ever was – my football high point was A’Court’s football low point. [A’Court played for Liverpool under Bill Shankly and represented England at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.]

I rediscovered the pleasures of playing in adulthood – football is a gift for playing. It’s a joy to play, to be active, not just a passive spectator. There’s a crossover between football fans and football players but also a divide at the same time. Too often the air time is given to the celebrity soap opera element of sport, and compared to the amount of air time given to actually promoting the benefits of playing, well, it’s tragic.

The book is also a damning indictment of previous governmental failures to promote the benefits of sports participation – selling off playing fields and closing local swimming pools while simultaneously investing billions in elite sport. The football authorities and institutions don’t get off either. Do you think fans’ groups also have a responsibility to promote participation in amateur sport and not just passive consumption of the professional game?

I actually do think supporters’ organisations should make that connection. Supporters Direct’s mission on ownership, the FSF and its Safe Standing Campaign – I completely support these things but I also think that we shouldn’t allow sport to become an entirely passive thing.

Being a football fan is totally celebrated and it feels like you’re going against the tide to ask the question – but should 100,000 be watching 22 men run around? Then I discovered there was a real debate about this years ago, which is pretty fascinating and reassuring. The Guardian archives include an article from 1923 which begins, “Anybody who is depressed by the thought of some 50,000 able-bodied men, in every great English city, looking on at a few others playing football every Saturday afternoon…”

It was a big movement at the time and people bemoaned the move to sport becoming showbiz, more about watching than playing. There’s been a massive decline in participation levels when it comes to 11-a-side football. There’s a joy in playing football and it is tragic if it becomes solely a spectator thing – I think that has contributed to the obesity crisis and modern life for most people becoming too sedentary. I think I would still feel detached from even a supporter-owned club if it didn’t also promote participation; I think professional football clubs should have major provision for ordinary people to do sport too. I don’t think it should just be about sitting down – or standing up – and watching.

David, thanks again for your time, and keep up the good work.

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