I will be here, no matter what happens – Pep Guardiola
If Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour was watching his side’s 2-0 win over West Ham at home in Abu Dhabi, it would have taken about five minutes for him to discover his club’s supporters were behind him in his battle to overturn a two-year Champions League ban.
Down the side of the Etihad Stadium pitch, between the second and third tiers of the stand opposite the players’ tunnel, hangs a banner telling him ‘Manchester thanks you for 10 great years’. Sheikh Mansour knows he has left a lasting legacy here.
Low down, either side of the West Ham fans who occupied the corner of the South Stand, were the City hardcore. The ones who pay their money to follow the team through what used to be bad times and now, thanks to an investment from the Gulf state that is nudging up towards £2bn, are generally very, very good times.
Those fans are not into PR spin. They sing from the heart. “Sheikh Mansour, My Lord, Sheikh Mansour”. This was followed by the familiar: “Guardiola, we’ve got Guardiola.”
After that it got a bit stronger. “We’ll see you in court,” started one song and after Rodri had put the hosts in front. “Uefa” was mentioned in another two-word effort.
In both instances, the missing words included an expletive that left no doubt about the negative view held by a substantial number of City fans regarding European football’s governing body.
Smaller, home-made banners declaring “Uefa mafia” and “Uefa cartel” were spotted. The West Ham fans tried to get a reaction, with “1-0 to the cheating club”.
“City’s going down with a billion in the bank,” the hosts responded. It was amusing knockabout stuff on a night when the result was never in doubt.
Yet there is strength of feeling amongst Blues supporters. There is a long-standing belief that Europe’s elite want to exclude City from their club. Events of the past few days have done nothing to dispel that view.
“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Liverpool don’t like Manchester City encroaching onto their territory,” said Jeff Dutton, a long-time City fan from Northwich, before the game. “They want to keep City out.
“The club have said they have done nothing wrong and I believe them.”
City fans have a fractious relationship with Uefa.
Manchester City fans held up banners during their 2-0 Premier League win over West Ham
They feel they were victimised when they were prevented from attending a game at CSKA Moscow – despite many supporters already booking flights and hotel rooms – because of poor behaviour of the Russian club’s fans, only to find hundreds of home supporters managed to get in anyway.
This came a few months after City were fined £49m for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations. After this came a threat to fine them for booing the Champions League anthem.
So now, when chief executive Ferran Soriano declares the club have not broken FFP regulations by inflating sponsorship deals and hiding payments, and did co-operate with Uefa’s adjudicatory panel in the case that has ended with City being thrown out of the Champions League for two seasons, they believe him.
Soriano is yet to answer any questions from external media about the Uefa case – and will not do so until the club’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport is decided.
There was some hard thinking done among the City hierarchy before it was decided he should talk to internal media. The club are desperate not to walk into a legal problem.
Having made a central theme of their response to Uefa a complaint that information about the case was leaked to the media, they are adamant there is no chance of them doing the same until a conclusion is reached.
After the game, Pep Guardiola trod a delicate line when asked if he had seen evidence to support City’s appeal. “I know a little about the reasons why,” he said. “I trust what they told me and I support the club 100%. But I am not the person to talk about it. It is so sensitive with the legal side.”
In various post-match media engagements, Guardiola was rather more certain when he repeated he was behind the club “100%” and confirmed in his own words what everyone had discovered through others since Friday, namely the former Barcelona coach will stay at City no matter what happens, “unless they sack me”, which they won’t.
The case now moves to Cas. City hope for a swift outcome but not at the expense of a thorough examination of the facts.
Even without the threat of further legal avenues being explored, it means there is no guarantee a conclusion will be arrived at before the clubs competing in next season’s Champions League are confirmed, so City could be amongst them.
As far as Europe is concerned, the only certainty at this stage is that Real Madrid will be coming over for the last-16 second-leg encounter on 17 March. If anyone is there on behalf of Uefa, they might do well to arrive a little late.
“The booing of Uefa’s anthem will be quite intense that night, I can guarantee that,” said a City fan as he headed into the night.