I have not read many books on football, but after reading David Conn’s ‘Richer than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing up’, I feel that I may have read the best one already. The title of the book tersely encapsulates its wider contours: the ethereal, starry-eyed world of a young football fan, the moments of euphoria and agony that accompany the beautiful game, and Conn’s internal conflict with the dreamlike surreality of the days gone by and the ruthless reality of the modern football.
David Conn is a sports journalist and writes for ‘The Guardian’. ‘Richer than God’ is Conn’s personal memoir of the emotional recollections of his boyhood football club Manchester City and the story thereof. While Conn recounts his tryst with football from his early childhood days, the book transpires into more than just a tribute to his beloved club. A trained lawyer by profession, Conn delves into the changing face of the modern football and makes many painful revelations on the way. The veneer of riches led the once proud owners to commit themselves to Faustian deals with the unscrupulous and slippery foreign investors whose only intent was to turn the good-ol’ clubs into money-spinning apparatuses. ‘Richer than God’ is partly a story of what modern day football has come to, however much the fans may like to suspend their disbelief, and partly, a tale of confusion reigning rampant inside the mind of the author whose imagination of his once benign, for-fans-only football club stands thwarted as imperious professionalism creeps into the picture.
In 2009, Sheikh Mansour, the multi-billionaire member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, bought Manchester City from the disreputable former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra. Fuelled by the unending riches stemming from the oil reserves, Sheikh and his cohorts turned around the fortunes of Manchester City and reinstalled the club to the top echelons of the English football. For Conn, this transformation raised more questions than it answered. Yes, the enormous success that followed the billionaire Sheikh’s takeover wiped out a typical fan’s resentment of not winning enough trophies and not subduing the city rivals, but for Conn, the déjà vu bad taste in mouth lingered as the Sheikh wasn’t the first to lay a claim to changing the club’s fortunes. Unlike an average ecstatic fan, Conn driven by his professional expertise seeks more answers than meet the eye. The disconcerting tales of the preceding Man City owners, including the highly dubious Shinawatra, unfold the author’s soreness with the whole football-club-buyout phenomena where owners turn out to be more of poachers than caretakers.
Crestfallen by the cold reality of seeing his cherished club turning into a billionaire’s entertainment plaything, Conn recounts several precedents from what he, arguably, feels were the golden days of the club. A trip into the author’s retrospective memory allows the reader to peek into the struggles and the hard-earned accomplishments of the Manchester City football club. Conn’s vivid descriptions of the minutest details of the club he grew up idolizing and his own journey as a football fan both amuse and educate.
Clearly not a fan of overseas riches shaping the beautiful game, Conn deserves praise for stimulating the discussion as to who truly owns a football club. If the last two decades of footballing history are anything to go by, it’s not the fans surely! The owners and the board with one eye on the annual profit and ‘brand appreciation’ preferably take decisions that help bring in more money than the ones that essentially make fans happier. So a player could be sold, if the powers-that-be feel that his market value has peaked or a manager could be sacked if he fails to tick off all items on the owners’ wish-list, much to the disgruntlement of fans.
Conn laments the bygone days of sociable and confiding owners who everyone in community thought of as one of their own and who pitched in with their own money to soak up their club’s losses not expecting anything in return. Conn markedly accuses the pay-TV bonanza unleashed by BSkyB in the early ’90s for the subversive influence on the game in Britain. As the word about the football world’s newest gravy train spread, more and more wide-eyed, rapacious moneymen made a beeline to buying English clubs.
The FA, the English football’s governing body, are roundly criticized by the author as they kowtowed to the demands of the big football clubs and helped pave the way for the moneyed premier league, thus widening the financial chasm between a few and several. Apparently, the FA rulebook of 1899-1900 clearly stated that football clubs existed to play and progress the sport, not to make money for their owners. But the football clubs which now had a fixation on big money started metamorphosing into limited companies. As a plc, the clubs could sidestep most of the financial norms laid down by the FA and satisfy the urges of their shareholders and owners.
As a reader, I felt both enlightened and galvanized by ‘Richer than God’. At the expense of sounding repetitive, let me again sound off that this book covers vaster footballing matters than just focusing on the checkered past of Manchester City. Author straddles the Manchester City F.C., the bygone and the modern football, alongwith his own frolics and travails as a fan. Conn’s investigative eye coupled with some good and ugly facts of the modern day game make ‘Richer than God’ a must read book for every football lover.