Who Decides the Big Six?

Today I’m taking a look at the so-called current Premier League Big Six and the significance of football history. It frustrates me when people assume that any group of clubs have been the biggest throughout football history and so I’ve decided to post this article.

It considers the claims of the so-called Big Six and has some findings that may surprise fans of some of those Big Six clubs. This article is available to subscribers to my site. Subscribing costs £20 a year and subscribers have full access to everything posted on the site, including audio interviews with John Bond, Malcolm Allison, George Graham and others, plus the entire text of Manchester A Football History and a PDF of my first book From Maine Men to Banana Citizens. You can always try it out by subscribing £3 per month and cancel at any time. No matter whether you sign up for a year or a month at a time you get full access to everything for as long as you are a subscriber.

Anyway, here’s the article…

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Historic Name That Ground – Week 1 Answer

On Monday I asked you to name the ground featured in the above photo. Well, here’s the answer…

It’s Tottenham’s old White Hart Lane ground. I also asked if anyone knew the event being staged… It’s a boxing match between 32 year old British Heavyweight Champion Jack London and 24 year old Bruce Woodcock (the winner in the 6th round) in July 1945. There was an attendance of almost 40,000 and this was the first commercial boxing event in the open air in England since 1939.

London’s the boxer on the left with Woodcock on the right.

Come back on Monday for the next ‘Historic Name That Ground’.

Each week for the next few weeks I’ll post an image of a football ground taken in the past and you can see if you can recognise the ground. Some will be easy (believe it or not there are some grounds that have not changed much in all those decades!), others not so. You’ll be able to post your view in comments at the bottom of each page.

The following Friday I’ll post the answer.

The 1981 FA Cup Final

On this day (May 9) in 1981 the 100th FA Cup Final took place between Manchester City and Tottenham.

Here for subscribers is a long read on the build up to that game, the final and the post-final scenes. It contains material from interviews I have performed over the years with Dennis Tueart, John Bond and Joe Corrigan. There are also a few quotes that may surprise readers of what discussions took place after the final.

Here goes….

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Parallels – MUFC 2021 and MCFC 1993?

Some people say that history repeats. I’m not so certain about that but I do think we can learn a lot from history about modern society and how things develop. Actions are often similar decades apart and, unless we learn from what’s gone before, we do often make similar mistakes or not consider how things could turn out. Parallels should be looked for and considered.

This weekend (May 2 2021) has seen the postponement of the Manchester United – Liverpool Premier League game due to concerns over the safety of players and staff. Whether it should have been or whether there had been any potential for players to be injured is debateable but postponed it was.

United fans had been protesting on the forecourt outside Old Trafford a few hours before the match and some managed to find their way into the stadium. Footage of some smashing a door down and others seemingly walking straight into the stadium at a door manned by stewards have circulated, causing various conflicting views as to how fans managed to get into a stadium that should be impenetrable (if a few hundred fans can get in to a closed and secure stadium what does this say about the general security of the venue?).

The fans that made it in to the stadium found their way on to the pitch and television broadcast the scenes. Eventually the stadium was cleared, although Sky TV told us of a second group of fans who had got into the stadium through the second tier. Ultimately, all fans were cleared but the game was postponed. Fans were also positioned outside the Lowry Hotel where the United team were and television told us that there were concerns as to whether the team would be able to safely travel to Old Trafford. 

Similar views were expressed about Liverpool (don’t get me started on the safety of teams arriving at Anfield!).

Whether any player was in actual danger or not didn’t seem to matter. This was the view being expressed by those paid to describe the scene.

So, what should we make of all this? Well, we have been told that the protests were against the owners of Manchester United, the Glazer family, and the birth of the European Super League. The Super League plan has been halted (I’m sure it will keep coming back as the birth of the Premier League did) but the Glazers still own United.

I opened this post by saying how parallels should be looked for and considered and, as a historian, I cannot help but compare what’s happened this weekend with events at Manchester City in 1993. Back then the Blues were run by chairman Peter Swales.

Swales had mismanaged the club for two decades and had taken a hugely profitable and successful club, piled it with debt and seen it lose pace with some of its traditional rivals. Fans had been angry about his chairmanship for years and had demonstrated regularly. Swales Out was often the most popular chant at Maine Road and the pre and post-match demonstrations were an everyday part of life as a City supporter. Fans loved City but hated Swales.

Inevitably, when City were successful the Swales Out protests were not as visible as they were at times of failure – and this has been true at United. There have been many, many United fans who have constantly highlighted the faults of the club’s ownership and they have campaigned, but the wider fan base has been quiet when the successes have occurred. This was true at City (though successes were less frequent at City during Swales’ chairmanship).

Frustrations at Manchester City continued, even when the club had relatively successful seasons. For example, the Blues finished fifth two years running in 1991 & 1992 – poor by 1970s standards but better than the 80s – but fans still wanted Swales out. Part of the reason lay in his support for the proposed Premier League, which began in 1992-93 but had been discussed for several years before that (it was initially planned as a complete breakaway from the Football League by the biggest clubs who were determined to reduce the money they passed down to the rest of football – hmm, parallels here that often get forgotten!).

The Premier League was anticipated to make the rich richer and clubs that had lost their way, like City because of Swales and his supporting directors who had placed the club in enormous debt (for the time) which meant they struggled to compete for the best, were going to make up the numbers to some extent.

The first season of the Premier League went okay for Manchester City. They finished ninth which was a little disappointing but in itself was not the main concern. That was still Swales’ chairmanship and the general mood was poor. Fans had had enough. 

City’s chance of glory that season faded in a FA Cup quarter final with Tottenham and fans’ frustrations at their chairman and directors spilled out. It was a day when Swales’ new stand was opened – the Umbro Stand – and this was small-time compared to the club’s history and heritage. The stand it had replaced held over 9,000 seated. The new stand was basically two rows of executive boxes with about 4,500 seats in front. The ordinary fan felt that with that stand and the birth of the Premier League they were no longer relevant. Hospitality, money and TV deals seemed to matter most to club owners. 

The frustrations that had been bubbling for years (and we must NEVER underestimate the efforts City fans made demonstrating against their directors and for how many years they did this) bubbled on to the pitch. Live television captured the scenes as City fans invaded the pitch and the FA Cup quarter final was halted.

The media criticised the couple of hundred fans who made it on to the pitch. They didn’t ask why they’d done it, they just assumed City fans were unhappy at losing a FA Cup game. Had they bothered to ask fans – I was there and knew the situation and have over the years discussed this extensively with people who were on the pitch – they would have realised that they climbed on to the pitch out of frustration. Frustration at the way football was developing and frustration at Peter Swales and his supporting directors. 

Fans were right to be frustrated and history has shown that their predictions (covered extensively in City fanzines at the time) about the way football was developing to create an elite and more money for certain clubs was right.

I interviewed Peter Swales about two years after that pitch invasion and he told me that he should have listened to the fans and resigned that night. I agree – things would have been different for him and for City. Maybe in a few years the Glazers will say the same about this weekend?

That 1992-93 season saw Manchester United win the top flight for the first time in 26 years and United’s success brought added pressure to those in charge at Maine Road. The frustration of seeing your nearest rival achieve something that you’ve not done for years (City had been the last Manchester team to win the League prior to 1992-93 as they’d won it in 1967-68) gave fans further ammunition. Fans could point out to Swales that he became chairman of a club that had been hugely successful (four major trophies in the previous 5 seasons before his chairmanship) and profitable (previous chairman Eric Alexander was proud of the profitability of the Blues in the years before Swales). They could also ask ‘where did the money go’, ‘Why were we mismanaged?’ etc.

That event in City’s history is similar to some extent to what’s happened at United. Years of frustration at the owners/directors; the recognition that a rich club had been placed in significant debt; the proposed birth of a new league; the resurrection of a neighbour who seems destined to have a bright future just at a time when your directors don’t seem able or willing to compete etc. 

The proposed change of structure to football, where greed of club owners seemed more important than what the fans wanted, was the catalyst to the demonstrations at United this weekend.

Please don’t be fooled into thinking this is a demonstration against the European Super League – that’s the catalyst but United fan dissatisfaction runs much deeper than that. As with City’s 1993 FAC quarter final defeat and the birth of the Premier League that season, these are catalysts that bring the wider fan base on board (and often the media attention), but they are not solely the cause. 

In 1993 the media claimed City fans were unhappy because they’d lost the FAC tie. Well, yes, but they’d lost plenty of other FAC ties over the years and never invaded the pitch. That tie became the visible outpouring of dissatisfaction, just like the European Super League has created a situation which has allowed United fans to bring more visibility to their longstanding protests against the club’s owners. 

So where do we go from here? Well, there’s one major change since 1993 and that is that the majority of media coverage seems to have sympathy with fans this time. But those working in the media should ensure they go and talk to the fans who were actually on the Old Trafford pitch and ask them why they were there. That would help frame the discussions about what it all actually meant. Some media coverages has said in rather simple terms that United fans were campaigning against the European Super League – no, it’s part of a long standing dissatisfaction with the club’s owners, but I’m not a fan who went on the pitch (that’s my interpretation but best way to find out is to ask those who were in Old Trafford).  

In 1993 the media didn’t ask City fans why and they made assumptions which painted football fans extremely negatively. Instead of showing them as people who cared about how their club was developing they were presented as hooligans.

If we’re thinking about parallels then it’s worth considering what happened next in 1993 so that United fans can shape things differently or prepare for the worst! Back in 93 the momentum at Maine Road continued but, as with the widespread protest of the 1980s at City, nothing could change while the majority shareholders supported Swales. Put simply, if you own the club no amount of fan pressure can force you to sell. You only sell when you want to.

Swales felt the protests would die down (he explained all of this to me in an interview) but this time, as protests continued in 1993-94, former player Francis Lee decided to mount a takeover. That was eventually what forced Swales to stand down.

Sadly, for City the damage was done though and financially Lee’s City couldn’t compete with clubs who were able to spend freely like Blackburn (a major benefactor at the time) and those who were already benefitting financially from Premier League success. City ended up dropping to their worst ever position in the late 1990s and were financially adrift of many of their traditional rivals. Only the takeovers of 2007 and 2008 could help the club regain its position as a serious trophy challenger.

If we consider the City situation as an example, then it seems that the best chance United fans have got to change the ownership of the club is if someone like Gary Neville came in to front a major takeover of the club. Even then, as with City, it may well be that the damage done to the Reds and the debt placed on the club limits its future.

It does make you wonder what would have happened had Alex Ferguson, who had spoken out against the Glazers before the takeover, opposed the Glazers when they took over his club. Had Ferguson stood down back then maybe the protests against the Glazers would have been immense?

Football owners have never been properly policed and there are examples throughout the English league system of clubs whose futures were jeopardised by owners who have gambled on future success by borrowing to fund purchases, or who have sold club assets or placed a club in debt for their own personal gain. Change in football’s governance is needed. Simply changing owners is not the answer because football is a business and any owner wants his/her business to be profitable for him/her and shareholders.

Fans views, whether in the 1980s or 1990s campaigning against the Premier League and football chairmen, or in the 2020s campaigning against the Super League and football owners need to be listened to. Understand us and work with us – you might help make football an even greater spectacle.

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2021 League Cup Final – The Fan Experience

Sunday April 25 2021 brought the first League Cup Final played during any form of Covid lockdown in England. The 2020 final had been the last major final played in the country before the pandemic led to various lockdowns and then the continuation of football without fans.

Some football clubs, including Tottenham, had been allowed to have a limited number of supporters at their home games during the early stages of the 2020-21 Premier League season, but Manchester City had not as they were in a regional tier that prevented crowds. So, for many of us, the last physical game we attended was the 2020 League Cup final (some City fans did of course attend the 1-0 FA Cup victory at Sheffield Wednesday on March 4 and the Old Trafford derby of March 8).

In the period between our last ‘live’ match and the 2021 League Cup final we had to sit at home watching City’s games played in empty stadia or, occasionally, at grounds with a small number of fans in but never with any ordinary City fans in. Former City star Mike Summerbee, the club’s ambassador, would often be seen, masked-up, at games when TV camera crews recognised him and it was always nice to know there was at least one person steeped in MCFC history there.

When the announcement came that the delayed League Cup Final (it was postponed until April in the hope that fans could attend) was to have up to 8,000 fans at Wembley there were then several dilemmas for fans. This was to be a test event and almost 2,000 tickets were to be issued to each competing club, which fans would have to pay for, and 4,000 would be given away to residents around Wembley and some NHS staff. 

Many fans felt it was unfair that Wembley residents would be given tickets (each could apply to bring a guest too) while fans paid and there were the usual concerns about balance of support – would the fact that tickets were to be given to local residents benefit Spurs for example? 

Most fans had no issue with NHS staff being given tickets with some Blues suggesting that NHS staff (and other key workers) who were season ticket holders of the two clubs should be offered the tickets. Lots of other suggestions were made plus, of course, some fans felt it would only be appropriate to attend a major game like this when ALL fans would be allowed back, though that still seemed some way off in April 2021.

To attend the final Manchester City used their loyalty points system and cup scheme as usual but then there was an added layer where fans had to live in certain postcodes: M, SK, BL, OL, WA, WN, PR, FY, BB, LA, CH, CW, BD, HD and HX​ and Greater London. In addition we had to have covid tests in the build-up to the final, including a lateral flow test that had to be performed at a test centre after 1.30pm on the Saturday before Sunday’s final. 

This was difficult for many to arrange as, for example, some of the councils within the postcodes allowed did not have test sites available at weekend. Some booked to have tests close to Wembley, which caused some logistical issues on cup final day, and others had to travel in to Manchester on the Saturday. Inevitably, some did not get negative tests back in time and missed out.

Those lucky enough to get hold of tickets also had to state their method of travel with a limited number of car parking spaces meaning that option simply was not available for some fans. Specific coach and train travel was set up but the costs were prohibitive for some. Others pointed out their concern that once the trains arrived at Euston (or Watford) there would still be a need to travel to the stadium itself. To some this negated the need for travel on specific trains or coaches, but of course the conditions had been imposed by the Government and footballing authorities, not by the competing clubs.

At the stadium on match day the surrounding area seemed full of shoppers trying to pick up a bargain at the retail store but fans seemed few and far between. The photo above (Wembley Way looking towards the stadium) was taken about one hour before kick off. This would normally be packed at this time.

Close to the stadium the Wembley Way ramps that used to carry people up to the stadium have been demolished and a series of steps have been erected instead. Fans had to show their lateral flow test results, tickets, and photographic ID before being allowed up the steps to the stadium. They had to queue at these checkpoints and then, once they’d been allowed through they could make their way up to the stadium turnstiles. They were discouraged from waiting outside the stadium and were encouraged to go to the turnstile.

In previous years drinks had been allowed into the stadium if they were in plastic bottles and the lids were removed. This year no drinks, not even water, were allowed in the stadium, but staff did allow fans to carry in plastic bottles (without lids) as there were water fountains inside (typically positioned near the disabled toilets) and these could be filled up there. This is well worth remembering if you need to have drinks for medical purposes but do not want to pay Wembley’s expensive prices.

In the stadium bars and catering outlets were open as usual and while there was a considerably smaller number of fans within the concourse area, social distancing was not particularly in evidence. Having said that all fans had been tested but supporters were unclear whether Wembley staff, security, stewards and so on had been tested. 

In the bowl of the stadium all fans had been positioned in the same stand plus the corners. This was the stand containing the Royal Box and directly opposite the TV cameras. The cynic would suggest that this demonstrated, as always, that some think the TV spectacle is more important than those in the stadium. Surely congestion in the toilets and other areas could have been eased had fans been spaced out in a wider area, or even if they’d have chosen blocks around the stadium with perhaps Spurs fans on one side or end and City in the opposite stand? If it’s pure safety then that would be the logical thing to do.

In the seats we were positioned predominantly in alternate seats with the row behind and in front of us following a pattern which was supposed to mean that there would be no one directly in front or behind of you. As some fans were in groups/families who had travelled together they sometimes moved next to others in their group on the same row – officially we were told that wasn’t allowed but inevitably it happened (we all wanted to be next to the people we’d gone to the game with and didn’t want the seat gap) and no one tried to stop it. 

During the game stewards regularly reminded fans that they had to wear face masks throughout – from the moment we had shown our test results and tickets through to leaving the stadium after the presentations we had to be masked up. Of course, when eating or drinking masks were lowered.

Throughout our time in the bowl of the stadium fans would be moving along the rows to their places, and so social distancing was not possible at those times.

After the game we were free to leave en masse if we wanted. As City won the cup most City fans stayed for the presentations and left at various points during the celebrations, meaning there wasn’t a crush to get out. Spurs fans seemed more keen to leave of course, but whether this caused any issues I do not know. Presumably, social distancing is impossible to manage when an entire section chooses to leave at the same time.

If you were one of the lucky ones who had managed to get a car parking space it was refreshing to travel away from Wembley without the huge traffic jams we normally experience. There were roadworks and a few problems on the motorway but nothing like normal.

So, that was the general experience of attending as a Manchester City fan at the first game we’ve been allowed to attend as City fans in over a year. It’s not the story of the game but I hope it gives an idea as to how the crowd management happened.

Wembley 2021

At Wembley for Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur. I was uncertain whether it would be worth the faff but in the end I couldn’t stay away. I got my negative lateral flow test last night (about 7pm Manchester city centre).

Here’s hoping it’s a great final. My last ‘live’ game was last year’s League Cup Final, so I feel like a proper glory hunter who only shows interest when there’s a trophy at stake! Let’s hope it’s not another 12 months before we get chance to attend another MCFC game.

Disappointed They’ve demolished part of Wembley Way though!

1956 Semi Final and Abuse for Trautmann

On this day (17th March) in 1956 a solitary goal from Bobby Johnstone was enough to see Manchester City beat Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. The game led to considerable abuse for City’s German ‘keeper Bert Trautmann. To understand why read the story of the semi-final here (for subscribers):

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Spurs, The Umbro Stand, Swales Out and That Pitch Invasion!

On this day (7th March) in 1993 Manchester City faced Tottenham in the FA Cup Quarter-Final at Maine Road. It was a day that saw the media express shock at the behaviour of City’s fans when they invaded the pitch during the tie with Spurs.  They condemned the supporters without understanding the background story.  To put the record straight it’s vital the day’s events are covered correctly.  Here for subscribers is the full story of that game, including quotes from Niall Quinn and Peter Swales (from my interviews with them in the years since that day…

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A Remarkable Comeback – Spurs v MCFC 2004

On this day (4th February) 2004 Manchester City managed a remarkable comeback in the FA Cup away at Tottenham Hotspur. The story of that game (and film of it) is available here:

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