‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’
Manchester United do not lose 6-1 at Old Trafford often. In a season of seminal results (no one is going to forget Arsenal’s silly breakdown at the Theatre of Dreams) this still stands out. It is the kind of result that may one day be looked back upon as marking a sea change – a result that marked that fateful point, when we finally started taking Serious Club Manchester City seriously.
Of course even before Johnny Evans (less a footballer than a verb, synonymous with ‘to fuck up’) tried and failed to do defending before exploding into the surface of the Death Star, Manchester City had had an impressive season. Ditching the ‘broken team’ concept that Mancini employed for most of last season (and at his time in charge of Inter) this year’s City have adopted a more holistic formation, with Agüero, Balotelli and Dzeko taking turns to provide star performances up front, and David Silva doing a fine impression of the best player in the world (just don’t tell Messi or Ronaldo). Even last season City were good enough to finish in the top four. In fact, ever since the disinterested Swede (Eriksson) took the City job and signed talents including Elano, Martin Petrov and Corluka – and certainly since they took to riding their sweet Sheik’s dollar – teams have regarded City as a decent side. But it would seem that for many involved with Manchester City this is not enough. Money can buy you success, but can it buy you seriousness?
The clamour for seriousness is a recent phenomenon at Manchester City. Historically the Citizens have never loitered far from pathos, nor bathos. Previous promises of success have left them stood disappointed, looking whimsically at the camera. This time, however, is the real deal, and the executives at City want to make sure that everyone realises this (which is odd, given how self-evident it is). Paramount for the board is projecting the air of a big club – a Serious Club. At the Champions League draw, the City delegation evoked the image of a dad behind the wheel, clearly lost but too proud to ask for directions: ‘Of course we’re at the Champions League draw. We’re just one big club amongst others here. Just a room full of big bitchin’ clubs.’ That this was City’s first appearance in the Champions League appeared to be something of a taboo subject. One can imagine former big cheese Gary Cook briefing the delegates beforehand, instructing them to play it cool and not embarrass themselves in front of the men from Madrid and Milan.
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Of course Garry Cook is something of a sensitive subject for Manchester City. He was, after all, forced to step down from his post after somewhat tasteless statements pertaining to Nedum Onuha’s mother (and her unfortunately amusing use of adjectives). Yet on reflection, Cook might have been the perfect man to be in charge of City. He, more than anyone, pushed the line of City’s newfound seriousness. Romping into the distance with attempts to sign Kaka, coordinating provocative marketing campaigns such as that which saw former United star Tevez plastered across billboards, and playing the lead role in the bizarre docudrama that accompanied the signing of Samir Nasri. Cook believed that City were big time, and he’d tell this to anyone who’d listen, and if they weren’t listening he’d make them.
Yet there was something else about Cook that made him the perfect front man for Manchester City. This second quality was, ironically, that which lost him his job: his blunderous propensity. The Cookie Monster’s long list of faux pas does not need to be recounted, it is so familiar. Apparently paradoxically, the person keenest to portray City as a serious club was the silliest thing about them. But on reflection, this was not paradoxical at all – rather it was entirely appropriate. As mentioned above, there has always been an element of pathos&bathos to City. How perfect, then, that their super slick CEO was also a bungling corporate loon. Perhaps, for those fans somewhat alienated by the takeover, this kind of a figure was a necessary piece of continuity with City’s past, a totemic clown linking the Manchester City of the past with the Manchester City of the future. Granted, Cook was cringe worthy, but isn’t the occasional cringe something that is part and parcel of being a Citizen? His dismissal was not just the termination of a contract – it was an attempted exorcism.
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Without a figure such as Cook, how are City fans meant to relate to their club? The Cult of Seriousness is not limited to the club’s hierarchy – it is also evidenced on the terraces by an increasingly vocal lack of a sense of humour in certain sections of the support. There is also an increasing tendency to want things both ways – to be a big, serious club, but also to be able to play the underdog card. Indeed, City have spent almost their entire history in the shadow of Manchester United, a club that is undoubtedly amongst the biggest in the world; United were always the rich neighbours, buying their way to success. But now that it is City who are able to throw their cash around, one has to wonder whether the newfound tetchiness stems from a collective shame stemming from the adoption of United’s methods, of their capitulation to the culture of unsustainable spending that saw Chelsea reviled in the mid-2000s. This identity crisis at the heart of Manchester City means that supporters struggle to define their relationship with the club (and even more so their relationship with mercenary figures such as Tevez and his, frankly, disgusting salary and soul). In response some will find themselves alienated, but others will have to aggressively realign themselves with the club – a realignment towards the club’s new modus operandi: Seriousness.
The uncomfortable thing about the humourless attitude adopted by Manchester City (both as a club and amongst large groups of the supporters) is the inability to accept the novelty of their situation. Being a football fan can be a fairly thankless endeavour for extended amounts of time, with occasions for celebration few and far between. With the recent takeover, Manchester City have undergone a genuine revolution – a different beast to the Randy Lerner revolution at Villa or the John Henry revolution at Liverpool. In a short period of time, City have gone from relegation contenders under Stuart Pearce to Champions League potentials under Mancini. This is remarkable and one would think that City fans would recognise this, whether or not it betrays the fact that City is not a big European club in the same way as AC Milan or Real Madrid are. For in recognising this novelty, they might also manage to discern the fact that this surreal situation is not entirely extraneous to the pathos&bathos that had previously characterised the club. What, after all, is sillier than Manchester City bringing in top players such as Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero out of the blue (moon)? Perhaps the newfound Seriousness of Manchester City is entirely in line with the endearing silliness that the club has always possessed. Perhaps the inmates are still within the asylum, their chief delusion now their own sanity.