On Saturday 11 October 1975, my dad took me to my first ever football match: Aston Villa (hooray!) against Tottenham Hotspur (boo!). I would be lying if I were to claim that I could remember much of the game now. I was so captivated by the spectacle, and particularly the unimaginable noise of 50,000 people shouting vaguely in unison, that I spent much of the time looking anywhere but the pitch.
That day marked the start of a ritual for the two of us that would endure until I left home at 18. Every other Saturday Dad would drive us to the ground from our home in Nottingham, with the radio tuned to Birmingham’s commercial station, BRMB, which always had a more partisan, Villa-centric take on sports reporting than the BBC.
Upon walking the final mile to Villa Park, we’d head first to the club car park, where the players and managers of both sides would each have to fight off an army of hangers-on, pre-teen autograph hunters and – once – gangland enforcers apparently looking to collect a debt from a player. Andy Gray, Brian Little, Martin Peters, Alan Hudson, Bobby Robson … reader, you may not know them, but I harassed them all, and still have the written evidence.
And what a time to become obsessed with football, and Villa in particular. Masterminded by unsmiling manager Ron Saunders, they were just about to embark on a remarkable renaissance that within seven years would see them win the league for the first time since the Edwardian era and then top that by winning the European Cup.
They were halcyon days; certainly they were more egalitarian. At the start of every season there would be seven or eight teams that could legitimately fancy their chances of winning the league. At the time, Liverpool were the best team in the country, but they were far from infallible. In 1975-76, they did come out on top, but only by a single point from QPR, and they only won 55% of their fixtures.
Fifty years later, that element of unpredictability seems like a relic from a distant age. Now, Manchester City – who take on Inter Milan in Istanbul on Saturday in a bid to win the Champions League for the first time – are indisputably the best team in the country. Indeed, they have just won their fifth league title in six years. During those six seasons, they won an astonishing 76% of their league matches. Bookmakers are understandably offering very long odds on any other team usurping them next season. Fans of other clubs now spend their summers wistfully wondering whether they might dare to dream of finishing as runners-up.
Yes, each of City’s players is phenomenally talented. Yes, as a team they play absolutely beautiful football of a calibre that I couldn’t have imagined in the 1970s, as I watched Villa’s no-nonsense centre-half Ken McNaught boot the ball out of the ground one more time. But how has this happened? In a word: money. In 2008 the club was bought by a private equity fund owned by Abu Dhabi’s royal family. They proceeded to spend their near limitless petro-funds hoovering up many of the world’s best players, as well as the best coach.
Of course, the arrival on the scene of the Abu Dhabi United Group wasn’t the starting point for domestic football’s transition from race to parade. The Premier League was seemingly formed in 1992 as a means of concentrating wealth and power among the biggest clubs. But the gradual abandonment of any pretence of there being a level playing field happened rapidly after the takeover of, first, Chelsea (by Roman Abramovich in 2003) and then City. Ultimately such stifling dominance of the game by one team, such a yawn supremacy, is hardly healthy for a game that relies on some degree of competitiveness.
This thought came to mind as I watched City demolish Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final last month and heard the commentators and pundits on BT Sport insist that “we all” would be hoping that they would go on to finally win club football’s biggest prize.
But just who is this “we”? Away from the TV studios, many football fans actively loathe the way that City’s financial muscle has distorted the English game over the past 15 years. Having succeeded in making the Premier League so boringly predictable, extending that chokehold to Europe by beating Inter on Saturday would hardly be something to celebrate.
And that’s before we even get to the more than 100 financial doping charges brought against the club by the Premier League earlier this year – which they vociferously deny. As long as this enormous question mark is hanging over whether they reached their position of dominance by effectively cheating, why would any neutral want them to (further) prosper?
Hating other teams has always been as much a part of football fandom as supporting your own. These days my personal hierarchy of revulsion is determined by how morally bankrupt a club’s owners are, rather than more traditional factors such as local rivalries or whether or not Lee Bowyer was playing for them. Indeed, since Newcastle’s takeover by the sovereign wealth fund belonging to Saudi Arabia – a country that dismembers dissenting journalists, although you’d be forgiven for thinking this is less important than Kieran Trippier’s free-kick prowess – they have seized the role of apex supervillains. (Clubs can be rehabilitated: throughout the Abramovich years, I despised Chelsea, now they’re just funny.)
Cheering on foreign opposition against English sides is certainly not any kind of new phenomenon, either – after all, if you really loathe a club, why should that not extend beyond national boundaries? In the mid-1990s, Arsenal played a cynical, but successful, brand of anti-football, characterised by defensive tactics and gamesmanship. When they were defeated by Spain’s Real Zaragoza in the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup final thanks to a sublime last-minute Nayim goal, it wasn’t solely fans in Aragon and Tottenham who were celebrating. And if there was a funnier moment in the whole of 1975 than Dirty Leeds unluckily losing the European Cup final to two late Bayern Munich goals, well, I’ve forgotten it.
Nowadays, the continent’s biggest clubs are effectively interchangeable, aggressively marketed, multinational brands. Almost all of the world’s best players, whatever their nationality, belong to a small cabal of English, French, German, Italian and Spanish clubs. Whereas once an occasional glimpse of a top European side felt like an exotic treat, TV coverage has made the football world much smaller. This season, for instance, UK broadcasters have shown AC Milan more times than Villa. Is it any wonder that matches between English and international clubs have lost any element of “us v them”?
With such familiarity with the top continental leagues, there’s not even English exceptionalism as a reason to cheer on City on Saturday. Indeed, in today’s interconnected world it feels curiously parochial and old-fashioned – Brexity, even – for neutrals to insist on supporting English club sides in European competition.
“We all” want Manchester City to win the Champions League? Not in my name, sadly. Forza Inter!
Phil Mongredien is a member of the Guardian Opinion desk’s production team