The Remarkable Story of Manchester City's Rise Under Sheikh Mansour

Rob Pollard@@RobPollard_Featured ColumnistOctober 18, 2016

Sheikh Mansour (centre)
Sheikh Mansour (centre)Francois Nel/Getty Images

It’s been one of the most remarkable stories in modern football. On September 1, 2008, Manchester City were taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan's Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), changing the face of the club—and the English game—forever.

Between 1996 and 2003, City were a club stumbling between divisions, with a series of relegations and promotions defining the period. But in 2007, real hope arrived in the shape of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who acquired a 75 per cent stake in the club for £81.6 million and installed former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager.

Shinawatra came with a questionable reputation having been embroiled in charges of corruption back in Thailand, something that would come back to haunt him later. 

Eriksson went on a trolley dash around Europe, signing a collection of relatively unknown players at the cost of around £60 million. It was one of the best seasons the club had enjoyed in a long time—significantly better from the sleep-inducing football produced under Stuart Pearce.

City played attractive football, and in Elano, Michael Johnson and Geovanni, they had players capable of brilliance. City were in the top four at the turn of the year, but the season ended on a sour note. They sunk to ninth and lost 8-1 on the final day to Middlesbrough. Eriksson was sacked.

Twelve months after the false hope of Shinawatra, the real deal arrived. Shinawatra’s assets had been frozen; then-chief executive Garry Cook travelled the world in search of new investment, and he delivered in the most emphatic way imaginable.

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ADUG assumed control of the club, turned them into the richest side in the world overnight and set about turning them into a winning side. Their targets were the highest imaginable; the City fans could barely believe what had happened.

They have made good on almost all of their promises. They’ve revolutionised every aspect of the club, modernising at a staggering rate, yet have remembered the club’s values, which are rooted in the community.

They inherited a side managed by Mark Hughes, whom Shinawatra installed after sacking Eriksson. The Welshman had impressed during spells with Wales and Blackburn, and Shinawatra and his advisers identified Hughes as the man to take City forward.

Mark Hughes
Mark HughesAlex Livesey/Getty Images

However, it soon became clear Hughes was a less impressive transfer-market operator when he had an abundance of money to spend, making a series of high-profile errors and failing to oversee the kind of progress City's owners expected during his 18 months in charge.

He spent a staggering total of £270 million. His first and only full season saw City finish 10th, one place lower than Eriksson had managed on a far stricter budget, and he was sacked in December of his second season with City in sixth place. 

"A return of two wins in 11 Premier League games is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed and set," read a City statement at the time. 

Hughes was a spectacular failure. Few managers will ever enjoy such an abundance of transfer funds, and his 47 per cent win ratio was desperately poor. It should be remembered that some of his more successful signings—Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta—were played out of position under his watch and found their best form once he had departed. Although there were some fans upset at his departure, they must now realise it was their desire to see some stability in the dugout after years of turbulence, rather than common sense, that was driving their unrest.

A squad with Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott, assembled at great cost, should have been far better than it was. City were disorganised and going nowhere. Their owners had shown patience towards a manager who wasn’t their choice, and he deserved to go. Most clubs would have cut their losses at the end of Hughes’ first season.

Roberto Mancini replaced him, and so began one of the most exciting and successful periods in the club’s history.

The Italian instantly shored City up at the back. They had been conceding at an alarming rate under Hughes, and within a few weeks Mancini had tightened them up and made them hard to beat. He led them to a fifth-place finish, marginally higher than when he arrived, but the difference was clear to those watching City closely. They were now on their way to becoming a successful side with a winning mentality.

Roberto Mancini
Roberto ManciniANDREW YATES/Getty Images

Their progress continued the following season. They signed Yaya Toure, David Silva, Jerome Boateng, James Milner and Aleksandar Kolarov, qualified for the Champions League for the first time and won the FA Cup, their first major trophy in 35 years.

Mancini had promised to “take that banner down,” a reference to a sign made by United fans that hung inside Old Trafford mocking City for their long wait for a major piece of silverware. He made good on his promise. They defeated United in the semi-final at Wembley, with Yaya Toure’s goal the difference, and it was that day that even the most sceptical City fans began to believe Mansour’s millions had changed the culture of the club.

A few weeks later, they beat Stoke City in the final, again Yaya Toure was the match-winner, and the 2011 FA Cup was theirs. Mancini had done the hard work. The defeatism that had plagued the club for decades had been removed. The fans, the players, the staff—everyone connected to the club—suddenly felt differently. City were set for years of success. 

It was time to fine-tune the squad and keep the progression going. Sergio Aguero signed for £38 million—and Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy also joined the club—and City flew out of the blocks at the start of the following season. They won 12 of their first 14 games in all competitions, beating Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford along the way. They were becoming the dominant side in English football.

However, they wobbled badly, and by early April they were eight points behind leaders United with just six games to play. It looked all over.

Nothing at City is ever easy. Years of turmoil and mishaps don't leave you overnight. Their form in the first half of the season suggested they would win the title comfortably, but it was going to take something special to reel United in. 

But something special did happen. City won their final six matches, including a 1-0 win over United, and finished above them on goal difference, securing their first title in 44 years. Aguero's winner in the thrilling 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium that secured the title is arguably the most famous moment in Premier League history.

They had done it the hard way, but it made it sweeter and more memorable. 

Mancini with the 2012 Premier League trophy
Mancini with the 2012 Premier League trophyPAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Mancini’s autocratic leadership style eventually caught up with him, though, and the season after the glorious title win was considered a failure in the Etihad boardroom. Players were unhappy, and there had been a series of off-the-field issues causing the club concern.

City finished second (but never gave United a scare as they cantered to the trophy unchallenged) and lost against Wigan Athletic, who had just been relegated from the Premier League, in the FA Cup final.

The Sky Blues sacked Mancini and replaced him in the summer with Manuel Pellegrini, who arrived having established a reputation as one of La Liga’s finest operators after stints at Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga.

Managerial appointments tend to be a reaction to the previous one, and the arrival of Pellegrini appeared to be exactly that. The Chilean is a calm, excellent man-manager. The turbulence of the Mancini era needed stabilising, and Pellegrini did so immediately.

His first season was a wonderful success—arguably the best in the club’s long history. They won their first, and to date only, league-and-cup double, winning the League Cup thanks to a 3-1 win over Sunderland and then recovered from what looked like a perilous position to overtake Liverpool and win their second title in three seasons. They scored 156 goals in all competitions and played some remarkable football.

His second season went well for the first few months, and City were level with Chelsea at the turn of the year and looked well-placed to retain their title—but a spectacular collapse saw them surrender in meek fashion.

Manuel Pellegrini
Manuel PellegriniTom Dulat/Getty Images

Off the field, though, things were developing. ADUG sanctioned a £150 million spend on a new first-team training and youth-development facility. The City Football Academy (CFA) opened in December 2014 and immediately became the envy of every club in England. Brian Marwood oversaw its creation and delivered a state-of-the-art facility with everything an academy player or first-team star could want to help improve and prolong their playing career. 

City were also engaging in exciting off-field plans. The City Football Group (CFG) was created, a conglomerate of clubs from across the world all bearing the City name. New York City FC, established in 2013, were the main addition alongside Manchester City, with Melbourne City, Yokohama F. Marinos, Man City Women and Melbourne City Women also part of the group. 

It was a groundbreaking venture. City were buying clubs in different continents, sharing medical and scouting data across the group, enticing sponsors to get involved and spreading the City name across the globe. The financial benefits are still being realised, but it's clear the initiative has already had significant benefits for all concerned. 

The regression on the field continued in Pellegrini’s final season in charge, though. City won the League Cup again and made it to the Champions League semi-final for the first time—but their Premier League campaign was miserable. They finished fourth with just 66 points, an unacceptable a points haul for a squad as talented as theirs. After a superb first season, he left with his reputation tarnished after a miserable 18-month period that sullied his reign.

It had been announced in January that he would be stepping down as manager at the end of the season, replaced by Pep Guardiola, the most sought-after and highly regarded coach in the game. Txiki Begiristain, City's sporting director, played a vital role in his appointment, having been the man who gave him his first managerial job when the pair were at Barcelona together.

Pep Guardiola
Pep GuardiolaRobbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Guardiola arrived having won 21 trophies in seven seasons as a manager. It represents the remarkable improvement at City under Mansour’s ownership. They are now one of the most attractive propositions in the game, for players, coaches or investors, thanks to the work carried out by ADUG, which has been headed by club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak.

The club is unrecognisable from the one they took over. The playing staff is light years ahead, as is the club’s training facilities, media operation and general infrastructure. Their stadium has been expanded and the club is now self-sustaining and has turned a proft for two consecutive years. 

“Manchester City has now reached a level of sporting and commercial maturity that allows one to feed the other,” adding that this was the point they have been striving to achieve "since the takeover in 2008," Mubarak said this week as City announced a £20.5 million profit for the last financial year. 

“I believe the 2016-17 season represents the beginning of a critical new phase in the evolution of Manchester City.

“We know that we have the playing, coaching and off-field capabilities at our disposal to achieve great things in English and European football in the years ahead.”

The next phase of their journey has begun. With Guardiola in charge and the club in such rude health across the board, they now want to become a European superpower. Given what they have achieved over the last eight years, it would take a brave person to bet against them doing it.

Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and follows the club from a Manchester base. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.