Manchester City: An Illustrated History

In Jules Verne’s 1874 novel, Around the World in 80 Days, protagonist Phileas Fogg wagers a hefty sum that he can traverse the globe, latitudinally, in 80 days or less. It’s a daunting task, but one made possible by the creation of locomotives in the preceding decades. Centuries ago, a global circumnavigation took months—years, perhaps. All it takes now are a few plane rides totaling no more than a couple of days. The world has changed so much and the way we discuss matters should reflect this alteration.

By the late 1800s, Britain’s national rail system had sprouted from one line to reach across Great Britain, propelling cargo and passengers alike. By the looks of it, you’d think Britain’s railways had been expanding for over a century. The inaugural Liverpool-Manchester route only launched in the 1830s and it was a period of “Railway Mania” in the coming decades which saw massive amounts of investment poured into the industry. Investors came out of nowhere to propose new tracks just as their American adventurists counterparts rushed to California to find gold. By 1880, British rail business was booming. Space was being traversed unlike any time before.

Rail travel not only rapidly shaped how people in Europe saw travel more broadly, but how they perceived space and time itself. A 1939 Quarterly Review article alludes to the establishment of a UK-wide rail system, which would see “the whole population of the country…at once advance en masse, and their chairs nearer to the fireside of their metropolis by two-thirds of the time which now separates them from it.” With the railway one could travel to and from Manchester with a quickness hitherto unseen, but the true exploitation of space is how the train traveler perceives their journey.

The way these travelers perceived the space around them varied greatly from trips on horse-drawn carriages. With horses, one feels every bump in the road, sees every tree clearly, and experiences a heightened risk that someone will pull a gun on one’s carriage with the intent to rob or kill. The fear of route interruption is drastically reduced in a train car and the journey exquisitely smooth, but the passenger’s perception of reality becomes distorted. In short, one can no longer see each and every tree because the human eye becomes overloaded.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch writes of how a railroad traveler experiences the journey: “What is experienced as annihilated is the traditional space-time continuum which was characterized by the old transport technology.” A journey which once took a day now takes hours, and the impossible is now possible. Our minds are not built for this, so we lose a certain perception which is so readily available for someone walking on the streets. In Manchester, trains would slow as they passed Hyde Road, home to an earlier inception of Manchester City Football Club, in order to accurately perceive the reality of an early football match. 

Pause to consider for a moment that modern football is not so different from train travel. Looking at the quickness with which the current Manchester City side play is like looking out of a train window; the untrained eye cannot perceive what is going on. Space is extremely important: Pep Guardiola uses “positional play” to try and exploit it effectively. The idea of closing down an opposing player finds its roots in the will to decrease their amount of space, making them uncomfortable and less likely to make a correct decision. The objective of a train is synonymous to the instructions Kevin De Bruyne receives from Guardiola before a match: exploit space. Shape it, change it, bend it to your will. 

When Manchester City (named Ardwick FC for much of the late 1800s) began in earnest as a club, nobody knew how important space would become in football. What those in the Manchester area did know was that football was a great way to get at-risk kids off the streets and away from violence, which was rife in the city. The foundation for what is now one of England’s most successful teams began as a way to restore peace in a world experiencing rapid change. Now, the club has become a product of drastically increasing rapidity, in communication, transportation, and profit-hungry corporations. 

How does one come to grips with the nature of this modernity? Tradition and community play a part. By tying our livelihoods to common experiences, like supporting a football club, we become part of a community. We are more whole. A connection is also formed between us in the modern age and those who came many years before us—a City fan has always been a City fan, whether he or she attended the opening match at Maine Road or only recently began supporting the club. The community retains its own history through its very continuation; though the supporters of City today are a fraction of the total, they hold the collective consciousness for the whole.

Manchester City: The Official Illustrated History attempts to put that continued conscience into words in an age defined by a never-look-back spirit. In this pursuit, author David Clayton is successful. So much of City’s history is whitewashed by a fixation on the present, meaning that jabs like “Your club has no history/You were nothing before oil money”—partially true though some of them may be—do not take into consideration the whole. By fleshing out the history of the club in its entirety, Clayton shows us just what those naysayers have missed.

The Official History is beautifully crafted, combining Clayton’s extensive knowledge of the club with photographs emblematic of its greatest moments. The author affords no less attention to City’s early 20th century successes than its recent Centurion prosperity, nor greater pride for its legendary 20th century players than Sergio Aguero or Vincent Kompany, which makes the book a great resource for the early days of the club, specifically.

The very linear nature of the prose cedes little ground for narrative. Instead, what we are often left with is a “cold-hard facts” account of Manchester City from 1880 to 2019. There are moments of fright (Bert Trautmann’s broken neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final) and moments of joy (Trautmann’s triumph over pain to lift the ’56 Cup), but the impression I was left with can be described as monotonous. This is not a wide-ranging critique of the author, but a commentary on the way Official History reads. Not of its historical account, for in this department it exceeds expectation, but of its narrative pace, or lack thereof.

History is not linear in that some moments hold greater importance than others, and that should be reflected in how we teach and read it. Joe Mercer’s City could be argued to have had a greater effect on the club than Pep’s current squad, but it’s a far-fetched stance. Reading Clayton’s account of the duo’s time at City gives little indication of the impact Guardiola has had not only on the club, but also in England, Europe, and the world. For better or worse, Manchester City are a global football brand. They weren’t during the time of Mercer, but the book gives no weight to this concept.

As the book is produced by the club itself,  I won’t criticize Clayton for his lack of emphasis on City’s Emirati ownership, though it is downplayed quite a bit. I am, however, compelled to say that the entire concept of how modernity has shaped and is shaping the club is ignored. The train conductors watching over Hyde Road in the 1880s had to slow down to see the games, but not by much. Now, everything is coming at us quicker. Modern transportation means I can fly from Boston to Manchester to watch a game, as can those from Mumbai, Beijing, or Cape Town. I can stream the games from my phone, thousands of miles away. As someone without a previous connection with the club or city, I may insert myself into its socioeconomic sphere. Americans and Chinese make the club money. The club is international. Joe Mercer’s City was hardly so.

This is all to say that Official History serves its purpose as a coffee table conversation starter extremely well: those yet unaware of City’s history will be welcomed by the book’s matter-of-fact style. Even fans of many years will enjoy the moments which have slipped the collective memory. 

But the facts are not the club. The club is a history, a community, combining facts with ideas, with people and with lived experiences to form a whole—a narrative. City’s narrative does not trace from 1880 to 1900 to 1920 to 1940, etcetera. It may be tracked from its inception in the late 1800s, when Manchester (and the world!) was a different place, to the advent of professionalism and dominance of English tactics, to the despair of a working-class city during wartime, to a tumultuous period of joyous promotions and disparaging relegations, to a renaissance sprouting from UAE investment, to the greatest team Europe has seen in quite some time. Guardiola’s City is not the entirety of the club’s conscience, but it has forever shaped how we see City, Manchester, football, and politics, among other subjects.

What space does Manchester City hold in our collective conscience? Is it just a club, one part of a massive machine that is Modern Football? Or is it more: a story of how a working-class club in England came to represent the amoral exploitation of the South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East? Is it another chapter in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, a playground for the greatest manager to show off? We can find an answer through an exploration of not only the club’s historical facts, but also of their meaning.

The world is in flux. We as football aficionados meet this reality every single time we turn on Sky Sports or NBC. The oligarchs and murderous leaders control many of our clubs and the sponsors which feed their coffers. Italy, Ukraine, and other countries must confront racism unlike ever before, as it has taken center stage with their favorite sport. People died building stadiums for Qatar 2022. The case of Manchester City is one of the most representative of this fluxion and our literature should support that notion. 

“Oh, I don’t know that. The world is big enough.”

“It was once,” said Phileas Fogg, in a low tone…

“What do you mean by ‘once’? Has the world grown smaller?”

“Certainly,” returned Ralph. “I agree with Mr. Fogg. The world has grown smaller, since a man can now go round it ten times more quickly than a hundred years ago.”

The world has indeed grown smaller. Simultaneously, it has become infinitely more difficult to comprehend.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.

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