One of the great naiveties of football is that a club’s sense of self-worth is stored in its trophy cabinet.
Granted, an impressive collection of silverware—especially one that includes some recent prizes—is a physical symbol of success, but it still comes second to something else. Something less tangible.
This is likely because most football fans, if they’re honest with themselves, expect trophies anyway; at least the fans of the really big clubs.
And there it is. That intangibility.
A big club.
But what, exactly, is a big club?
For Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, it is one that wins matches in the here and now.
In his pre-match press conference ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League appointment with Barcelona, the Chilean told reporters, as per the BBC, that there was "just one club in Manchester" and that it was his.
But the 60-year-old also limited his assessment to just "this season," adding that what local rivals and reigning Premier League champions Manchester United had done in recent seasons could not be overlooked.
That said, his answer was given in Spanish, and according to his actual answer, as reported by the Guardian, he referred to City as the "biggest team" in the area.
Manuel Pellegrini says, in Spanish, #MCFC are now the biggest team in Manchester.— Ben Smith (@BenSmithBBC) February 17, 2014
Assume for a moment that Pellegrini’s intention was to speak to City’s impressive record since his appointment back in May.
Just three points back of Chelsea in the English top flight (with a game in hand), and having progressed into the latter stages of each of the Capital One Cup, FA Cup and Champions League—all the while producing the sort of offense that has them on course to make history—City have certainly been better than United this season.
But are they bigger? Do City carry more weight than their famous neighbours?
The first club in sports to be valued at more than $3 billion US when Forbes produced their 2013 valuations, United are worth nearly four-and-a-half times as much as City and out-earned them by more than £100 million last season, according to Deloitte.
Those numbers, combined with stadium size, brand power and international popularity, are what make a club "big," although on-field success is both another figure in the equation and a means of producing the financial figures in the first place.
Of course, it’s hard to believe Pellegrini was at all interested in launching this sort of debate when he made his comments, which is just as well.
Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich lead the Deloitte football club money league. http-//econ.st/1jWihY7 pic.twitter.com/zjXqNRpgES— Jorgen Sundberg (@JorgenSundberg) January 28, 2014
The "big club" argument is every bit as vociferous as the on-field one, and if an example is needed, just ask supporters of Newcastle and Sunderland to decide which of the north-east outfits is bigger.
And neither, it barely needs pointing out, wins much of anything—ever.
Football fans tend to feel as much a part of their club’s size—of the valuations and tabulations—as they do its league campaign and cup runs, which is especially useful if they’ve not been winning trophies or even contending for them.
Which, until very recently, was Manchester City.