Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and how we can match their joy in the modern Man City’s moral maze – Dominic Farrell

It’s been a very entertaining seven months covering Manchester City as Fan Brands editor at the MEN but one moment stands out as the most jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring from Pep Guardiola’s team. Bernardo Silva’s scorching volley at Aston Villa in December came within a purple patch when City seemed to be staging their own goal-of-the-season competitions – the sort of strike that makes you do weird involuntary noises and leaves you open-mouthed.

But, as I move on to pastures new (yes, forgive the self-indulgence), it’s also worth reflecting that Bernardo’s masterpiece was not even my favorite goal scored by City at Villa Park in 2021. That distinction goes to Phil Foden’s equalizer last April during a successful title run-in that will hopefully be repeated this time around. You’ve forgotten that goal already? Fair enough, City do put away an awful lot and Foden clipping home Bernardo’s cutback right-footed was the sort Guardiola’s men score all the time.

The reason I’ll always be particularly fond of that goal is that I had no idea how it’d make me feel. The trip to Villa was City’s first outing since the European Super League debacle. Like many fans, I felt the club’s owners had horribly and callously miscalculated – briefly throwing their lot in with a spectacularly stupid land grab at the expense of 127 years of history.

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But of course, I jumped up and cheered (working from home during the pandemic, no press box etiquette required). Foden was the perfect man to offer a reminder that this club is just in your bones and will remain there, you don’t really get a choice, because it’s in his bones di lui too. No matter what the latest thing is to make me feel a little conflicted and uneasy, I’m absolutely shallow enough that City kicking the ball in the goal makes me happy. Always has, always will.

Not sticking to football

There is, of course, plenty to feel conflicted about in the modern game and when supporting the modern Manchester City. Our stated aim with City Is Ours was to provide “a more fan-orientated platform” to “reflect the mood in the stands as well as the press box”. Hopefully, we’ve managed to do that at times but, on reflection, it feels like there was an omission from that would-be mission statement.

So much of modern football discourse takes place far away from the stands or the press box and pings around on the internet, on social media and in the comment sections. Very often, whether there is bad faith or the best intentions, it ends up being an absolute bin fire.

That pure sensation of joy I mentioned from when Foden and Bernardo scored in front of the Holte End? You’ll find none of that. The events of recent weeks – and, for goodness sake, a few football fans having a mard on Twitter is way, way down the list of global problems – has made me think about this a lot. If we’re ambling out of a two-year pandemic straight into World War Three, is it not time to try and give that joy all the space it needs to provide a little levity?

For a section of City’s online fanbase, arguing on the internet seems to have become an integral part of the supporter experience. We’re not getting enough credit! Why are you talking about our owners when it’s Chelsea v Newcastle? What about the owners of teams x, y and z? City’s aren’t state-owned! Gary Neville is just biased and wants United to be the best again! There’s a media agenda against City!

Whether or not you think you have valid points on any of these or other bones of contention, does it not become a bit exhausting? When your grandchildren ask you wide-eyed, decades from now, what you spent your time doing when you were watching Pep Guardiola’s fantastical, record-breaking, majestic Manchester City, do you really want the answer to be “policing journalists on Twitter”?

Plenty of matchday banners at City home and away feature Oasis lyrics and the middle eight to Digsy’s Dinner feels pertinent here. “These could be the best days of our lives,” and for City fans, they should be in so many respects. The next line, “but I don’t think we’ve been living very wise” feels like a warning over those parts of the online chat that don’t look like any fun at all.

Stuck in the middle with Blues

It’s always handy for media luvvy types like myself to remember Twitter isn’t real life. On one side, there are City fans who will rage against any slight, perceived or otherwise; on the other, there are fans of other clubs crying outrage at the death of football. There looks to be a ratio split between those with genuine concerns over state involvement in historic football clubs and human rights abuses, and others who shout ‘OIL CLUB’ as the latest idiotic bastion of tribalism. Decide for yourselves how that ratio shakes out.

In between, I’d venture there are a vast number of City fans who love the club, love the success but feel varying degrees of discomfort over our team’s proximity to an authoritarian state with a dismal record on matters such as political prisoners and women’s and LGBTQ + rights to involvement in the war in Yemen.

Phil Foden scored the winner on an emotional day at Everton

Despite the rush of those heady days of Super League protest, we have to acknowledge that fans have little to no say over who runs their football club. Newcastle supporters have had to witness Eddie Howe’s fumbling response to Saudi Arabia’s public execution of 81 men over recent days.

A small handful of those fans taking Saudi flags to games really isn’t great but how much relevance it has beyond a few people looking like prats is negligible. If the Toon Army had any say over who actually ran their club, Mike Ashley would not have been there for 14 years.

Ashley was a bad owner in the old English tradition, much like the widely-loathed Peter Swales during his long and ruinous Maine Road tenure. Owners who don’t invest and let clubs wither are bad; owners who invest and win trophies are good. It used to be just that simple but, as Chelsea have found recently, vast wealth associated with abusive regimes comes at a cost.

A Newcastle United fan waves a Saudi Arabia flag during the Premier League match against Tottenham last year
A Newcastle United fan waves a Saudi Arabia flag during the Premier League match against Tottenham last year

Neville’s Monday Night Football assertion that it was time for City’s board to undertake some ‘risk assessment’ in the aftermath of Roman Abramovich’s downfall missed a fairly clanging differential from Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine and any of Abu Dhabi’s own transgressions as part of the United Arab Emirates. The UK government has decided to hit Russia’s oligarchs where it hurts in response to Vladimir Putin’s military action; on Wednesday, Boris Johnson headed over to the UAE cap-in-hand asking for more oil.

So long as government policy remains as it is, there will be no Abramovich-style reckoning for Sheikh Mansour. If you’re 100% happy with everything about who owns City (you probably haven’t read this far), then crack on.

Doing the work

For those who have the queasiness mentioned above – the most recent bout personally arriving when Oleksandr Zinchenko was emotionally sheltered and embraced by his City teammates while the UAE abstained on the Russia vote at the UN – how do we navigate this reality with our enjoyment, sanity and conscience in decent order? On a recent episode of the excellent Stadio podcast, presenter and writer Musa Okwonga (yes, people in the comments, he’s a United fan – boooooo!), Addressed these matters eloquently.

“Being a football fan is like being a patriot or loving your country,” he said. “If you truly love a country or an institution, you engage with all that it is – the good and the bad. You look at [how there is] more we can do here, how we can improve this.

Rain, hail or shine, MCFC Fans Foodbank Support are making a difference to the lives of Manchester's most vulnerable
Rain, hail or shine, MCFC Fans Foodbank Support are making a difference to the lives of Manchester’s most vulnerable

“To love a club is to engage with all that it is and to do that openly in your circles, to do so in a way that is uncomfortable. If you feel shame at an aspect of your club and what it’s doing, in terms of its ownership or human rights issues, take that shame and use it. Be more inquisitive, see if you can support organizations doing work in the area to combat the wrong that your club is doing.

“That could be supporting investigative journalists or a political lobbyist who has tried to do something progressive in a particular area. Sign a petition, but do something. ”

So don’t feel powerless, don’t feel the need to argue arduously online. Do something positive to affect the change you want to see if you’re so inclined. Through being a City fan, you might have become aware of imprisoned human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor and want to support him. You might wish to donate to UNICEF’s campaign to aid the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. You might simply acknowledge and accept all these wider conversations aren’t going away because they care about more important things than football tribalism.

Football can be a force for good and progressive change within a society with which it is fully entwined, even today when ownership and decisions take place so far above the heads of all fans. This is why myself and Alex Brotherton have sought to champion the phenomenal work done by MCFC Fans Foodbank Support.

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Nick, Alex and the rest who take part in and organize those matchday collections and so much more would bridle at this label, but they’re heroes – helping the most vulnerable in our city by using the platform and community of the Manchester City fanbase, who continue to give so generously. Another example was the fabulous Ninety Three Twenty-curated podcast marathon in support of the same cause. These are the places where the ties that bind fans through football give us power, so put your energies there and let’s do the work together.

Clumsily, that brings me back to the joy of the Blues putting the ball in the goal and the particular joy of it being Stockport’s own Phil Foden – just the latest part of the unending shared history of love, hate, elation, despair, family, friendship and contradiction that is Manchester City. Cherish it and engage with it in a way that fulfills you and doesn’t drain you because what’s the point when these could be the best days of our lives.


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