It was the summer of 2007, and not the Abu Dhabi takeover of the next year, when Manchester City’s future changed for good. But if 2008 felt like winning the lottery for most City fans, the previous summer was more of a bittersweet period.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Thai Prime Minister, bought the club from its more modest owners, and former John Wardle, who had personally taken a large financial hit to keep City afloat, took up a new role on the board.
The new chairman’s record while as Thai Prime Minister – both on his human rights record and his alleged corruption – made some uneasy about his arrival, but in terms of sporting success, there was no doubt that City needed the sale. Under Stuart Pearce the previous season, City had scored just 10 home goals all season – still a Premier League record low – and didn’t score any at all after New Year’s Day.
To go from that, then, to appointing former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and transforming the club, seemingly from top to bottom, was a welcome change, at least on the pitch.
The change wasn’t immediate once the season ended, though. City lost two key players from the season before, Joey Barton was sold to Newcastle, and Sylvain Distin ran down his contract and joined Portsmouth on a free, joining up with David James and Andy Cole who joined the south coast club a year earlier. So there was some rebuilding to do.
But once Eriksson was appointed, and the new owner’s money started to come into the club, City were incredibly active.
In the summer of 2006, City spent money on just two players – Andreas Isaksson, to replace David James, and Joe Hart, a promising young goalkeeper from Shrewsbury Town. Just a year later, the club spent £41m in the summer along, signing eight players, each of whom were supposed to be first-team regulars.
Rolando Bianchi, Gelson Fernandes, Geovanni, Martin Petrov, Vedran Corluka, Elano,Javier Garrido, Valeri Bojinov were all signed before the end of the summer, and cost City over £40m – the biggest outlay since the club returned to the Premier League in 2003 under the leadership of Kevin Keegan, who signed the likes of Robbie Fowler and Nicolas Anelka.
Looking back, adding eight players to the first team was always going to cause confusion and a lack of understanding between players, but City managed to start incredibly well, losing only four games before Christmas. But after January 2nd, City only won four times.
Just like the season before, the second half of the campaign was a drag, and ended in a bitter disappointment. Eriksson’s job was under threat, but even if the board didn’t quite see it the same way, the fans were still optimistic. A Save Our Sven campaign led to banners visible around the City of Manchester Stadium hoping to persuade the board not to get rid of the manager. But after an 8-1 defeat to Middlesbrough on the final day of the Premier League season, the manager’s fate became inevitable.
The attitude of the fans up until that point was that the manager had brought the sort of optimism – and at the start of the season at least, success – that City fans hadn’t known since the early days under Keegan. The signings were ambitious, the appointment of a big-name manager was exciting, and the club looked to be embarking on exciting times. That’s what made the manager’s sacking look so harsh – until the final game of the season, that is.
And yet, Eriksson probably wasn’t given the boot for the humiliating defeat at the Riverside alone, even if that made it that bit easier for the board to get rid. In the end, the manager paid the price for the folly of signing eight players with the aim of completely regenerating the team within one transfer window.
It was that very act which led to so much excitement, and it was that optimism which in turn led to sympathy for Sven. But that very decision was the one that killed him in the end.
When you sign so many new players, received wisdom will tell you that the new recruits will need time to ‘gel’. That’s usually true, but for City in 2007, before Christmas, it was remarkably not the case. The wave of optimism and novelty perhaps carried the club over the crest of a wave, but when the feeling wore off, it was obvious that a bunch of strangers attempting to achieve success in the Premier League was a long shot. Perhaps that’s why the manager deserved another season, but at the time no-one could know that better still was yet to come.
After the Abu Dhabi takeover, and the appointment of Mark Hughes, City started to morph into the club that would win the Premier League for the first under Roberto Mancini just under five years after Eriksson spent £41m in one August transfer window, a figure that now looks quaint by comparison.
None of the eight are still at the club, and perhaps only Elano is remembered as the kind of player City could still field today. But although the club will probably always have a 2008 watershed, and any year before that will probably be remembered as a different era, the summer of 2007 was the start of it all.