你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste
Plastic fans or overseas fantastic fans?
When it first happened, we were a little jealous. No. In fact, we were bitterly jealous. As the likes of Liverpool, Manchester Utd and Arsenal gathered overseas fans, City had no hope in hell of travelling beyond Greater Manchester. Together with other so called big 4 club Chelsea, they often dominated the pathways into European football’s top competition and commercial cash card. Terms likes ‘plastic fans’ or phrases based on the geography of where a fan came from, ‘Kent reds’, ‘Singapore reds’, or ‘Here’s another ferry from Ireland’ could be heard. Ignorant fans labelled the new followers as glory seeking lightweight supporters in a heartbeat. I know, because I used to say it and still do from time to time.
Before the Premier League was formed, history served Man Utd well, they’d won it in ’68 – as the first English club to do so. Liverpool did better beating the rest of the pack in 1977, 1978, 1981, and 1984. Nottingham Forest were a founder club of the Premier League – and have the European Cup in 1979 and 1980. Of the 22 founder clubs that season, only 12 are in the 2019/20 season of the Premier League. Like Nottingham, the other 9 clubs have had a topsy-turvy recent history. Where are Wimbledon?
The Champions League followed the European Cup. For the former, Aston Villa won it in my birth year. However, only Chelsea, Man Utd (twice) and Liverpool (twice) have managed to win it in 25 years of the Premier League. Man Utd received global acclaim on how they rebuilt a club following the Munich air disaster and capitalised on a social liberation and liberalisation in the 1960s. They cashed in on the surrounding pop culture with “Fifth Beatle” George Best and so on. Football fans and even the neutral fan could join in or follow a team beyond their own turf. They wouldn’t be begrudged their second club from time to time. It was the norm.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have appeared in the Champions League since cavemen bashed clubs over dodos. They’re almost ever presents having qualified for seemingly every edition. Barca have managed 15 straight seasons of last-16 knock-out games. Their 16 domestic league titles since 1990 has featured just four finishing standing outside La Liga’s top three. Since 2008-09 they have finished twice, three times. They won the other seasons. Real Madrid last finished 4th in La Liga’s 2003-04 season and also clinched a Champions League Place. In 1996-97 they didn’t join the Champions League – having qualified in the edition of the season before. The Champions League rebrand of the top European Cup started in 1992, at about the same time as the Premier League in England. The global branding of Spanish football has been clear – and one rarely unbroken for Real and Barca. They bucked the trend in terms of fans following top clubs from Asia. Neither team sported red, like the flags of Singapore, China or Hong Kong’s sponsors Sharp name. But, their following was few and far between until Ronaldo and Messi arrived. Then, they banked on superstars.
In the years leading up to the Premier League, floating on the stock exchange wasn’t a bad move. Man Utd did that. City just floated – with no direction. As branding clung to fashionable stars like Beckham and Giggs, football entered a new era for City too. Financial ruin caused by off the field mismanagement and on the field turmoil. Freefall entered the blue half of Manchester with little sign of abating as one club would march to a historic treble (that people seldom hear about these days). Even City signing Chinese player Sun Jihai in the early 2000s did little to stem the flow of international fanbases looking from the east towards somewhere west of Manchester.
Liverpool have won zero of the 27 Premier League titles on offer yet have fared well in Europe during the Champions League era. They like Man Utd, have been in Europe, to the FIFA World Club Championships and European Super Cups. The International Champions Cup has featured them plenty. Exposure beyond the Pennines, Irish Sea and the Lancashire boundary has been kind to them. Man Utd have been described as a global brand – long before City lifted a Premier League trophy. Overseas tours followed the money as City spewed out close to home European numbers like Hamburg’s HSV and Oldham Atheltic away. Even Stockport County and Sheffield Utd had a crack at China – although West Brom came first, long before the Eastlands was a term.
Manchester City’s first foray into the Champions League came from a third-placed league finish in 2010/11. City have featured 8 times in UEFA’s top competition since reaching the semi-final twice, hardly enough to make a dedicated Wikipedia page on City in the Champions League. Higher league places mean higher Premier League revenue and City gave won half of the Premier League titles on offer since their first on 2011/12. Since the takeover in 2008 they’ve shot from ‘marketable lovable team seeks caring partner’ to ‘dominatrix of the year’. Back to back titles, especially considering the strengthening and determination to dethrone City’s centurion of point getters has justified some clever marketing deals.
City and Utd having a derby in Beijing could have been a big thing. It was a farce and never happened. USA had that first privilege at a later preseason. As thousands of red shirts outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium cried, shouted and shown general anger, pockets and handfuls of City fans skipped around Beijing bars, experiencing the City fan culture. A few days later, similar happiness happened in Shenzhen and the culture of Manchester – and football spewed outwardly. Shenzhen Blues and Hong Kong Blues were soon joined by 11 more groups – recognised as official supporters clubs by Manchester City. The OSC formed in 1949 and now has around 250 clubs globally, with around 20,000 registered members. It provides a direct and sometimes challenging link to Manchester City. It is officially recognised and backed by the club but remains independent. Kevin Parker has been voted as General Secretary for 20 or so years running now. He does wonders for the club in a demanding voluntary role. Alan Potter, Howard Burr, Mike Young, Christine Wardle, Karen McCormack are names that help run this ever-expanding organisation, but I don’t know their exact roles. They get mentions in matchday programmes and online from time to time but maintain quite a modest presence.
The annual membership for Manchester City’s Official Supporters Club goes far. A percentage goes to City in the Community. Another amount is made available for charitable applications by the Official Supporters Club membership. Shenzhen Blues donated around £500 to a children’s charity, A Heart For China. The membership gives a card, often a gift and the chance to apply for tickets by each branch. There are many other benefits and event support is one. One thing that as a supporter travelling from nation to nation, or town to village in the UK, means that knowing where your nearest OSC is, you can say hello. So, if you’re in Addis Ababa or Newton Heath, you’ll not be far from one. When I first moved to Dongguan my closest branch was Hong Kong Blues. I met up with that lovely branch until Shenzhen Blues became mainland China’s first branch. From then, I have met so many mainland fans and expats here on work, or just visiting and that is exactly what an OSC should be for: to bring people together.
The Premier League Asia Trophy featured in Nanjing and Shanghai and we’re not really here… we never thought we’d see this many blue shirts or this level of enthusiasm overseas. To continue this writing, I will explain why fans of English clubs overseas are fantastic – and not just plastic unlike the Leeds fan who shouted, “Our fans are from Leeds, your fans are Chinese” at someone not even born in Asia… in Perth this week. Man Utd’s 4-0 win over their bitter Pennine rivals shouldn’t have come into his thinking. Anyone the video us out there.
To be continued.
再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā