Beyond the 'Emptyhad' Jokes: Searching for the Soul of Manchester City

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 23, 2019

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Empty seats at the Etihad Stadium home stadium of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Etihad Stadium on January 14, 2019 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Mary D's Beamish Bar is so close to the Etihad Stadium you can hear the team announcements from inside.

A two-storey white-brick building with a flat roof, barred windows and a team of burly door staff in orange hi-vis vests, Mary D's teems with supporters before every Manchester City home game. But with kick-off looming in the second leg of City's Champions League quarter-final against Tottenham Hotspur, the crowd has thinned out almost completely.

In an area just inside the entrance, a dozen people sit around tables, their eyes fixed on a large television screen mounted on an interior wall above a pair of flickering fruit machines. Others watch from beside the bar. At the back of the room, a game of pool is underway on one of two adjacent tables. The dark linoleum floor bears the sticky legacy of a thousand partially spilled pints.

When Raheem Sterling puts City ahead in the fourth minute, levelling the tie on aggregate, the roar from the stadium slaps the side of the building like a sonic boom. The fans inside Mary D's leap to their feet in celebration. There are embraces, clenched teeth, purposeful air punches and more than a few expletives.

Mary D's Beamish Bar, with the Etihad Stadium in the background
Mary D's Beamish Bar, with the Etihad Stadium in the backgroundTom Williams

Anxiously watching the TV from an upholstered banquette in the middle of the room is Les Fox, a 61-year-old father of four and lifelong City fan. He would love to be watching the match inside the ground, which is a mere two-minute walk away across Ashton New Road, but says tickets were too expensive.

"I used to follow them everywhere in the '70s and '80s, but I can't afford it anymore," he says.

The Tottenham match is a sellout, but that has not always been the case for City's Champions League home games in recent years. Television pictures of empty sky-blue seats have given opposition supporters ample fodder for taunts: small club, no fans, "Emptyhad."

John Hay is 23 and works full time as a carer for his mother. He has a season ticket in the Etihad's South Stand that cost him £310—the second-cheapest season ticket on offer in the Premier League. But games in the domestic cups and European competitions must be bought separately, and a meagre income means John cannot always afford them, even though he desperately wishes he could.

"I literally can't afford to go to all the cup games. The money isn't there," he told Bleacher Report. "It's frustrating that there's not the solidarity from other fans that you'd maybe expect. I'd travel to every single City game if I could."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Manchester City fans celebrate before Raheem Sterling has his goal ruled out by a VAR decision during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at at Etihad Stadi
Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Hay comes from a family of City supporters and says there are photographs of him wearing his first replica kit at the age of six months. He has been a season ticket holder since 2003, when City moved to Eastlands, and despite health problems, he has missed only three Premier League home games during that period.

He finds it particularly frustrating that the empty-seat issue is framed in a way that suggests City's fans are staying away because they don't want to go, whereas in some cases, they simply can't.

"We're talking about people who can't afford to go to football," Hay says. "Poverty in Manchester is very bad. In the constituency that I live in, Manchester Gorton, child poverty is at nearly 50 percent.

"I'm poor but I can afford to go to football, luckily. For a lot of people, football's the furthest thing from their mind."

Russ, 53, was taken to his first City game at the age of three by his grandfather and "grew up on stories of Frank Swift, Bert Trautmann and Peter Doherty." He got his first Maine Road season ticket when he was 12 and has watched City play at over 100 grounds.

Registered as a disabled supporter, he also has one of the £310 season tickets. But with a weekly income of just £160 in welfare payments, he struggles to get to cup and European games. He missed City's FA Cup semi-final against Brighton & Hove Albion at Wembley in early April and only got a ticket for the Spurs game because one of his friends was away.

"I couldn't go to the semi-final because I simply couldn't afford to go," he says. "The tickets are too dear [expensive] and there were no trains back after the game, so you have to stay over. That's a week's money for me in one day. I simply could not justify it. It broke my heart not to go."

At City's well-supported rivals, such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, any match tickets that are not sold to local fans will quickly be snapped up by supporters from further afield. But although City's fanbase has grown steadily since Sheikh Mansour's 2008 takeover turned the club into a major player on the European scene, they still lag behind their domestic competitors.

"United can say, 'We'll put tickets at this price and if people don't want to buy them, somebody else will come along,'" says David Mooney, creator and producer of the Blue Moon Podcast.

"City don't have that touristy fanbase who want to go for the experience. City's fanbase generally comes from an inner-city, working-class background. There are elements of the same thing in United's fanbase, but they have a much larger contingent of people who are from outside Manchester and are willing to travel."

David Mooney

A City spokesman told Bleacher Report: "We are committed to offering ticket prices that are accessible to our supporters. In recent years we have consistently provided one of the cheapest season tickets in the Premier League, with adult seasoncards starting from £310 and U18 seasoncards priced at £95."

Back at Mary D's, the tension has become almost unbearable.

As an extraordinary game enters stoppage time, City lead Tottenham 4-3 on the night but trail on away goals. Suddenly, Sergio Aguero breaks free on the right and plays in Sterling to score. Inside the pub there is an explosion of noise. Fans hug, kiss and leap onto the seats in celebration, limbs flailing, beer cascading from loosely held plastic pint pots. Briefly, it is absolute bedlam. Then the eye is drawn back to the TV screens. Pep Guardiola has stopped celebrating. The goal is being reviewed by the video assistant referee. Aguero was offside, it won't count. City are out.

In Mary D's, silence. The fans watch the screens open-mouthed in disbelief. They shake their heads. Then they stand, mumble their goodbyes to each other and head outside, melding into the stupefied throng of supporters traipsing away from the Etihad and into the night.

Guardiola had challenged City's fans to rise to the occasion prior to the game, provocatively asking to see that they "really want to get to a semi-final." It was not the first time he had spoken in such terms.

The fans' disappointment after the match told its own story, yet some supporters continue to hold mixed feelings about the Champions League. They have long complained about what they see as unfair treatment at the hands of UEFA, which disciplined City over Financial Fair Play infringements in May 2014 and has been accused of doling out uneven punishments for other transgressions. The Champions League anthem is routinely booed.

"I think maybe what he [Guardiola] doesn't understand is that a lot of City fans have real antipathy towards the Champions League," says Russ, who was speaking before the Spurs game. "It's a UEFA thing and we don't like them. He wants it far more than we want it."

Mooney agrees. "I can take or leave the Champions League, but if we don't win the Premier League this year, I'll be devastated," he says.

The apathy about the Champions League is an example, Mooney says, of City supporters' tendency to "see things differently." City fans are renowned for having an irreverent sense of humour, and their indifference toward football's most important club competition testifies that a hardy nonconformist streak is alive and well.

As Dave Wallace, founder of the King of the Kippax fanzine, explains, to be a City fan is to assume at all times—and regardless of all evidence to the contrary—that if things can go wrong, they will.

Dave Wallace selling fanzines outside the ground

"When we won the title in 2014, we didn't start singing 'We're going to win the league!' until five minutes from time when we were 2-0 up against West Ham. And we only needed a draw," Wallace told Bleacher Report. "Liverpool's fans were singing it from January onwards."

Wallace is 75 and has supported City since 1955. He has seen it all—six relegations, six promotions, four league titles, three FA Cups, six League Cups—and despite the profound changes the club has undergone on and off the pitch since Sheikh Mansour pitched up with his petro-billions 11 years ago, he feels City's soul remains intact. "It's still City, with City's DNA," he says. "'Typical City' and all that."

For longstanding fans, an important part of City's appeal was the club's status as perennial underdogs. If their recent success has been greedily enjoyed, it has also been a little bit bewildering.

"It's weird," says Russ. "I've been a Blue all my life and I never, ever, ever imagined that we would win things. I didn't go to City to win things—that wasn't the point. I went to City because that's where my mates went, that's where I enjoyed going and that's where I felt comfortable. I was happy on the Kippax with the lads. It was our day out.

"I'm certainly not decrying where we are now, because it's amazing, but I wouldn't ever want us not to have had what we had. Because it was important. That's what formed us as a club and as people."

Manchester City's Abu Dhabi ownership has sparked ethical debates
Manchester City's Abu Dhabi ownership has sparked ethical debatesJON SUPER/Associated Press

When City's fans are not being goaded by rival fans about their supposed inability to fill their stadium, they are being held to account over the human rights abuses perpetrated by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. It is a delicate subject for any City fan, and while many are unsure how to respond to it, others are of the opinion that it cannot be ignored.

"There needs to be an acceptance that these people aren't great people," says Hay. "There are punishments for being gay in Abu Dhabi, there's a lot of human rights issues. Fans of other teams raise it as a sort of point-scoring thing, but we can't just say, 'You're just saying that to make a point.' Because there is a point."

With Guardiola's side closing in on an unprecedented domestic treble, one thing all City fans can agree on is that there has never been a more exciting time to support the club. And after decades in the shadow of their rivals from the other side of the city centre, Manchester United's current travails make City's victories taste even sweeter.

"The United fans are fairly quiet at the moment," says Wallace. "They come up to me in the pub and they moan about United, as if I'm interested in [Romelu] Lukaku or how they've got better players in the youth team.

"They used to laugh at me for being a City fan. They don't do that anymore."

The barmaids wipe down at Mary D's. The last few punters drift away. Losing used to come with the territory as a City fan. Those days are long gone now.