Could Erling Haaland soon be running out for a league match at Rochdale or Tranmere Rovers? Are Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers about to get the Premier League title that so painfully eluded them? Must Sergio Aguero’s moment-to-end-all-moments now be viewed differently, an asterisk placed alongside the 93:20?
All of those ideas are on the table at the moment, with Manchester City, the current champions, accused by the Premier League of more than 100 separate breaches of financial rules over a nine-year period between 2009 and 2018, and of spending the last four years attempting to obstruct and impede the league’s investigation process.
If found guilty, then City, English football’s most successful club of the last decade, face a wide range of sanctions, up to and including expulsion from the Premier League itself. It could be stripped of its league titles, banned from fulfilling its fixtures, prevented from signing or registering new players or fined an unlimited amount.
It all sounds very dramatic, granted, but then the accusation from the Premier League is that City, who have won six of the last 11 titles and established themselves as the world’s richest club in terms of revenue generated, have been cheating the system for years. These are not minor oversights or administrative errors, the Premier League claim; rather, it is rule-breaking on an industrial scale.
So if all or even some of the charges are proven, then the punishment must fit the crimes. And if that means relegation and/or points deductions, or tarnishing the wonderful memories left by Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Co. then how could anyone really argue? Fining one of the world’s richest sporting institutions a few quid, or asking Pep Guardiola to work with only one of the best squads in the game - as well as one of the most well-backed youth systems around - for a few transfer windows is hardly going to act as a deterrent, is it?
City, for their part, will strongly contest the charges, and claimed in a statement on Monday that a “comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” exists in support of the club’s position. They have already won a similar case against UEFA, who in 2020 attempted to ban them from European competition for two seasons and fine them €30 million (£27m/$32m) for breaking FFP rules, and nobody within football expects this issue to be resolved swiftly, with months, even years, of legal wrangling anticipated.
What is clear, though, is that this has the potential to be one of the most significant moments in English football history, a case which could drastically alter the landscape of the game, both in this country and across Europe.
City’s rise to prominence since they were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United group, led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in 2008 has been remarkable, comparable only to that of Chelsea under Roman Abramovich a few years earlier. Newcastle, who were taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in 2021, may soon find themselves in that category too.
It has been achieved by spending huge sums of money, on the best players and the best managers, the best facilities and the best executives. They have spent it well, unquestionably, building some of the finest teams and playing some of the finest football imaginable, but there is little that is organic about the growth of a club that finished no higher than eighth in the Premier League’s first 16 years, and which was playing in the third tier as recently as 1999. They got to the top with money, lots of it, and the Premier League believes they did so fraudulently.
And so the battle lines are drawn once more, the lawyers have been called for again. The story will run and run, for sure, especially if City’s battle with UEFA is anything to go by.
There will, naturally, be a lot of rubbernecking in their direction, as rivals hope to gain ground on a club which has threatened to leave them all behind. The likes of Liverpool and Manchester United could gain a league title or two - how much that would actually mean to them is another debate entirely - Arsenal might gain an edge in this season’s title race, Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Pep Guardiola may start to question their futures, while potential transfer targets, Jude Bellingham for example, may feel it wise to avoid committing to a move to the Etihad at this stage. The Premier League and its members would like a verdict by the end of this season, but that feels highly unlikely.
City supporters, of course, will pray for an acquittal and will seek to defend their club at all costs - we can surely expect some pointing in the direction of Chelsea, whose spending over the past two transfer windows has been little short of absurd - and there will be plenty of accusations of bias and of prejudice. The online debate, no doubt, will be rendered almost meaningless by tribal allegiances.
One thing is for sure, though. This is a story that has the potential to change football’s past, present and future. The reputation of Manchester City, and all associated with the club, is on the line, and so is that of the Premier League, and of the sport in general. Don’t forget that this month, the UK government is due to publish a White Paper, which is expected to support the idea of an independent regulator for football. The suggestion there is that the sport is either unable or unwilling to govern itself properly.
The Premier League’s charge sheet against City suggests they are prepared to challenge that suggestion. The nuclear button has been pressed, the richest members club in football has gone after the richest member in its club. It’s going to get messy from here, you can be sure of that.
City, of course, believe they will win. On the pitch and off it, City have done little else but win since Abu Dhabi rocked up.
But if they are found guilty, then they must face severe consequences. For starters, their 21-year stay in the Premier League should be well and truly over.