English clubs · Football finances & business

City Blues – A Tale Of Two Cities

Can Birmingham City and Manchester City, the blue halves of the cities whose names they bear, end their histories of underachievement under new Asian owners?

The only major trophy Birmingham City has won in its 132-year history is the League Cup in 1963, when it defeated its far more illustrious fellow Birmingham club, Aston Villa, in the finals, over two legs. By any measure, it is a miserable return for the only club that bears the name of England’s second most populous city. Despite being city rivals, Birmingham City’s record bears no comparison to that of Aston Villa. In fact, it bears no comparison to the two other historically great West Midlands clubs, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion.

So what has motivated Carlson Yeung, a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, to purchase a 29.9% stake in Birmingham City? While the club is still controlled by the Gold brothers, David and Ralph, and David Sullivan, Yeung, who purchased the stake in mid-July 2007 for £15 million, has made it clear that he wants to complete a takeover as soon as possible. Yeung transacted the purchase of shares through Grandtop International Holdings Ltd, his clothing company which is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

The Golds and Sullivan, who separately made their fortune in adult-oriented businesses, took over Birmingham City in 1993. Despite missing out on promotion to the English Premier League in four consecutive seasons between 1998 and 2001, and being relegated from the EPL in 2005-06, the club has only had three managers since 1993, unusual in an industry in which managers are often quick to be sacked for the lack of success. Birmingham City also lost to Liverpool in the League Cup Final in 2001.

However, despite investing heavily in the club, including the redevelopment of its St. Andrew’s ground, and providing the manager, Steve Bruce, with a decent transfer budget over the years, the club has found it difficult to attract the numbers of fans that the Golds and Sullivan might have hoped for in England’s second largest city.

Little is known about Yeung who, until earlier this year, was chairman of Hong Kong side Hong Kong Rangers. A personal friend, former England, Liverpool and Real Madrid winger, Steve McManaman, is reported to have acted as his advisor in his effort to buy an English club (Reading and Sheffield Wednesday were rumoured to be his other possible targets), and is an executive director of Grandtop.

Yeung has also made it clear that he wants to bring Chinese players to Birmingham City. Although he has said that who is brought in will depend on the manager’s requirements, Tim Bredbury, former coach at Hong Kong Rangers, accused Yeung of having interfered with team selection when they were both with the Hong Kong club. It is difficult to see Bruce taking kindly to any interference by Yeung at Birmingham City.

More importantly, Yeung is clearly looking to market Birmingham City in China. How successful he will be with a club with the profile of Birmingham City remains to be seen. Without achieving success in England, what would the club have to attract fans in China? Birmingham City’s return to the EPL this season provides Yeung with a platform, but success will require substantial investment on players. The players brought in so far over the summer (including Garry O’Connor from Lokomotiv Moscow for £2.7m, Stuart Parnaby from Middlesbrough on a free, Fabrice Muamba from Arsenal, for an undisclosed fee, Olivier Kapo from Juventus for £3m, Daniel de Ridder from Celta Vigo on a free, and Franck Queudrue from Fulham for £2.5m) are at best only good enough to avoid relegation.

The takeover of Manchester City by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin last month has had much wider coverage. Thaksin has also brought in the former England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, at the helm. Eriksson has spent big to bring in the likes of Rolando Bianchi from Reggina for £8.8m, Elano from Shakhtar Donetsk for £8m, Martin Petrov from Atletico Madrid for £4.7m, Javier Garrido from Real Sociedad for £1.5m, and Valeri Bojinov from Fiorentina, Gelson Fernandes from FC Sion, and, Vedran Corluka and Dinamo Zagreb, all for undisclosed fees. It was reported in TimesOnline last week that Eriksson admitted to having seen many of his new signings only on video.

While his record as England manager was very mixed, Manchester City fans must be hoping that Eriksson can repeat his successes at club level. Eriksson is the only manager to achieve league and cup doubles in three different countries (in his home country of Sweden with IFK Gothenburg, in Portugal with Benfica, and in Italy with Lazio). It is hard to say how his detached an unemotional style of management, which did him no favours as England manager, will go down with the Manchester City fans, in sharp contrast with his predecessor, Stuart Pearce.

Not unlike Yeung at Birmingham City, Thaksin is keen to bring players from his home country to the club. It was reported two weeks ago that Thaksin had offered trials to three Thai Internationals, striker Teerasil Dangda and defenders Suree Sukha and Kiatprawut Saiwaeo, all of whom played for Thailand in last month’s Asian Cup. Manchester City already have a Chinese international in Sun Jihai.

As a football club, Manchester City has much in common with Birmingham City – from the blue half of a major English city, they have traditionally played second fiddle to their more illustrious neighbours. Manchester is the fourth most populous city, while Greater Manchester is the third largest metropolitan area, in England. When other social factors are taken into account, Manchester is often regarded as the second city in England, as reflected in a BBC poll conducted in February this year.

Both clubs suffered the ignominy of relegation for the first time to the third tier of English football in the 1980s or 1990s, before climbing back up to the top flight. Both clubs have also had a tendency to yo-yo between the top tier and the second tier, and as such, are amongst the clubs most often relegated from the top tier and promoted from the second tier.

Yet while Birmingham City have had little success, Manchester City have had successful periods in its history, most recently between 1968 and 1976, during which time it won the title, the FA Cup, the League Cup (twice) and the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup. Further, many Manchester City fans believe that the club has more fans within the city of Manchester than its local rivals, Manchester United (which if a beer ad appearing on local buses is to be believed, are the only football club in Manchester).

Manchester City’s greater heritage as compared to Birmingham City is reflected in the fact that it has secured a financial heavyweight as its foreign investor. A top-half finish must surely be the target.

What both clubs need right now is a period of consolidation in the EPL, before they can hope to win trophies. Success on the field is required before the clubs can be effectively marketed in Asia. Manchester City looks the better placed of the two clubs.

(The article as appeared in the Weekend Today on 11 August 2007)


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