How can a Manchester City supporter come to terms with the global brand that is Manchester United?by Howard Davies / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Sunday edition of the Straits Times of Singapore puts a weekly question to its readers. It is quite a serious broadsheet, so the questions can sometimes be high-minded. Should China be admitted to the WTO? Was George Bush right to reject the Kyoto treaty? Earnest Singaporeans e-mail their answers in large numbers. A few weeks back, though, the Straits Times tried a different tack and asked its readers: “do you approve of David Beckham’s new haircut?” The number of responses was a record high (with a sizeable majority voting against the motion-mohicans are not yet acceptable in Lee Kuan Yew’s new model republic). Cut to Beijing, where I boarded an internal flight a few months back-full to bursting with Chinese businessmen. As we stood on the tarmac, I leafed through the local in-flight magazine. In 80 pages there was one word only in Roman script-Vodafone, on the shirts of the players in a Manchester United team photograph. Cut to Ho Chi Minh City, where the breakfast reading in our hotel was the Saigon Times Daily, which told me that David and Victoria Beckham had been voted (by someone-perhaps Viet Cong veterans) the most envied global couple. Travelling in Asia is, you can see, a trying experience for a lifelong Manchester City supporter, who hasn’t felt the need to visit Old Trafford since April 1974, when Denis Law’s back-heel condemned United to relegation. Thirty-five years after Harold Wilson pulled us out of Malaya, Britain has a presence again east of Suez: it’s called Manchester United. At Maine Road we proudly unfurl witty banners reading “We’re the pride of Manchester- You’re the pride of Singapore,” but it would be churlish not to recognise that something extraordinary is going on. Manchester United has become a brand name with global reach. It is, indeed, one of the very few British brands which achieves instant recognition almost everywhere-except, perhaps, in the US. And while many would argue that Roy Keane, or Ryan Giggs, has done every bit as much to put the club where it is today, David Beckham, with his Spice Girl accompanist, has now achieved iconic status. Earlier this year, Beckham lovingly chronicled the outward features of his transformation in Beckham: My World (Hodder and Stoughton)-a coffee table book for Gold Blend drinkers. Even he cannot begin to grasp the transformation in football fame; just how different Beckham’s brand is from what has gone before. The scale of the change can best be gauged by reading another new football biography from the blue half of Manchester, at the other end of the 53 bus route. In Manchester United Ruined my Life, Colin Shindler chronicled his own sad obsessions as a City-supporting boy growing up in a hostile environment. His cry for help was answered by Mike Summerbee, the flying right winger of City’s championship winning team of 1968. Summerbee has now offered himself, and his family, as subjects of a three-generation study of English footballing life: Fathers, Sons and Football. Summerbee’s father, George, was a journeyman defender who spent eight years with Preston North End, living in digs on ?2 a week, playing occasionally for the first team, before descending through the lesser reaches of the league in Barrow and points north. Mike’s son, Nick, flattered to deceive at Swindon, City, Sunderland and Bolton, and is now in the twilight world of free contracts and loan spells. The gulf between George and Mike was, as Shindler shows, enormous. Mike, with his model wife, his half-share in a boutique with George Best, his championship medal and his England caps, was a light year or two ahead of his dad. He was a football household name. Yet the distance between Summerbee and Beckham is larger still. The name of Summerbee is not known in Ho Chi Minh City’s hottest bar (Apocalypse Now, since you ask) and never was. His hairstyle is, and, I would hazard, always was a matter of little interest to the readers of the Straits Times. The fame and fortune of the best of British football has, in other words, been developing on a log scale in the last 50 years. This is a version of the “winner-takes-all” economic phenomenon. The marginal cost of transmitting a unit of live football anywhere in the globe is close to zero. And if you can watch Juventus versus Manchester United, why bother with Shenzhen versus Shanghai, let alone Manchester City versus Watford? A version of the economic and technological forces which are driving concentration in broadcasting, accounting and investment banking affects football, too. Those teams which made the cut a few years back, when cable and satellite brought a billion-household audience within reach, have gained what seems to be a sustainable competitive advantage. United is now on a par with Arthur Andersen or Goldman Sachs. City are still ranked with the Manchester Building Society, or Green, Shindler and partners, Chartered Accountants of Deansgate. Does this matter? Should we care? Who are “we,” for this purpose? It would be idle to pretend that City supporters do not care. At some visceral, brutish level, we cannot bear it, and Shindler has carved out a profitable niche beating our collective breast. (For which he has attracted some sustained abuse from other blues, on the grounds that he is benefiting from their pain.) But there are grounds on which we can make common cause with the generality of British football fans, and not just at the “stand up if you hate Man U” level. Many supporters feel that their game has been hijacked. Football was, not so long ago, about tribal loyalties, about pitting eleven of our local boys against eleven of yours, about a sense of place and belonging. Of course some players moved around. George Summerbee was a Swindon boy transposed to Lancashire. But most teams had a strongly local character. Curiously, Manchester City’s 1968 side was the last all-English team to win the championship, probably the last ever. Now, teams are multinational and often change radically from year to year. (Manchester United are by no means the most dramatic example of either phenomenon. Indeed, their success is partly attributable to the maintenance of a settled squad.) Moreover, ticket prices have soared. Standing is outlawed. For many traditional supporters it is hard to get to see a game. When City last visited Fulham, you had to have been a season ticket holder for four years just to apply for a seat. There is the paradox. Even as British football has become a global property, there has been no diminution of local interest. (Crystal Palace may be the exception that proves the rule, with more fans of their Chinese centrebacks in Beijing than in south London.) Most big clubs, as they have “de-localised” have nonetheless seen their local fan base grow. Perhaps the very fact that United are booming in Hong Kong reinforces loyalties in the back streets of Salford. Perhaps those fans’ willingness to fork out ?39.99 for replica shirts made for 10p in Vietnam is a kind of reverse compliment to those who pay tribute from afar. So, notwithstanding Shindler’s eloquent nostalgia for a simpler age, we don’t seem to care that our game has gone global. Jean Veron, United’s ?28m Argentinian signing from Lazio, is already an honorary member of the Cheshire set. Manchester United can continue to play in pointless but lucrative tournaments in Brazil and elsewhere, fielding their reserves in the FA Cup, and we don’t mind. Nice of us, really. But what of the effect on the players themselves? Summerbee, like Beckham, seems perplexed by the modern game. Beckham may not be, as many have said, the sharpest pencil in the box. But he is charmingly aware of his need for a sharpener and has clearly found one in Victoria. He seems to be decently puzzled by his status as a global brand-as footballer and male model. There is a certain benign daftness about the couple-maybe the first family designed for the pages of OK! magazine. But if wearing a sarong, tattooing his child’s name on his back and getting his hair done every ten days are the most rebellious things he does, we can rest easy about the impact on our pre-teen daughters’ morals. So Shindler and I, and others like us, can only look on in mute horror as Manchester United go from strength to strength. All we can hope for is that they over-extend themselves. Perhaps, I dream, they will become soccer’s Pierre Cardin, a brand done close to death by overexposure. But for now, the future is bright; the east is red.