Man City fans were right to criticise Pep Guardiola over empty seats jibe and should demand more

Spending the second half of last week away from the keyboard meant watching the row over what Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola did and didn’t say about his own supporters unfold from a distance. Safe to say it was a maddening experience.

The general stance from the City fanbase at the start of this week appears to be broadly along the lines of “please, can we just move on?” and understandably so.

But Tuesday brings a home Carabao Cup tie against Wycombe Wanderers and the kind of attendance any normal person would expect, meaning the honking, harrumphing banter bus of Simon Jordan, Jamie O’Hara et al will also be in town.

The chain of events appeared to unfold as such: Pep Guardiola, still raging from tearing several strips off Riyad Mahrez during the 6-3 win over RB Leipzig, said “I would like more people to come on Saturday” after 38,062 watched his team’s 2021/22 European opener; Kevin Parker, general secretary of City’s Official Supporters Club, felt fans had been slighted and said “in the nicest possible way, I think maybe [Guardiola] should stick to [coaching]; Guardiola responded angrily, neglected to apologise and then – before and after Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Southampton – claimed his initial words to BT Sport had been taken out of context.

The most striking element as the spat unfolded was Parker being turned on by a significant number of the very supporters he defended. The OSC chief said he was subjected to a “vitriolic” reaction on Twitter.

Pep Guardiola had to get in the ear of Riyad Mahrez against RB Leipzig.
Pep Guardiola had to get in the ear of Riyad Mahrez against RB Leipzig

If Parker was a surprise villain, the ever-present big bad of “The Media” was more predictably blamed for much of the whole sorry affair, somewhat neglecting the fact that empty seats chat would have remained the preserve of the usual obsessive and odd social posters if not for Guardiola’s petulant post-match missives.

Of course, some of the above is generalising and this can only be so helpful when discussing a body of people as vast as the fanbase of a major football club. But City fans deserve much better than what Guardiola said and the torrent it unleashed. Those who called it out should be praised rather than their dissent being framed as some kind of disloyalty.

We’re not really here

To understand why public discussions over the City fanbase remain so emotive, it is important to go back to the dark days of the late 1990s. The terms of engagement between the club and its supporter base were vastly different then but still define plenty of what we see today.

City were on their way to the third tier of English football and were, by any reasonable sporting measure, completely and utterly hopeless. Gluttons for punishment, the fans kept on trudging through the Maine Road turnstiles. In their lone Division Two season, attendances frequently topped 30,000.

Especially during the first half of that belatedly successful 1998/99 campaign under Joe Royle, when a club who ruled English football 30 years earlier were brought to their knees by the likes of Lincoln, Wycombe and York, City’s inspirationally loyal fans were the only thing to recommend about a decrepit institution.

The moment when Paul Dickov scored in the 1999 play-off final underlines why City fans understand the basic unfairness of European Super League

As Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United piled up trophies and trebles over the road, the City faithful were the toast of neutrals everywhere – cast as the authentic, “real” fans of Manchester who followed their team through thin and thinner.

I was 12 during the Division Two season. City were in a different tier of the English football pyramid for each of my years at secondary school. In primary school – in the mid-1990s, for crying out loud – I was the only Blue in my class in a very Red area.

Being good, loyal and celebrated fans was all we had. You weren’t exactly going to gush over the exploits of Ged Brannan and Gerry Creaney. Talk about how our fans were from Manchester, what great attendances we got against Blackpool and Northampton – it was all a staple of life as a City fan, nuts for the inevitably harsh winters.

The best team in the land and all the world

Within a decade of overcoming Gillingham at Wembley in the Division Two play-off final, the badge worn by Paul Dickov and Nicky Weaver that day adorned Robinho’s chest. It was and remains the most logic-defying alteration of circumstances for any team in English football history.

No, Sheikh Mansour’s boundless fortune means this is not an underdog story and no one ever suggests that. But for a fanbase to experience the lowest lows and highest highs of a club’s existence within the same generation is unprecedented.

Dickov’s injury-time heroics against Gillingham preceded Sergio Aguero’s versus QPR by a mere 13 years. Tens of thousands of the same people were in the stands (or scrambling to get back into the stadium) for each goal.

File photo dated 13-05-2012 of Manchester City's Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring the third goal during the Barclays Premier League match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday December 19, 2019. You know that a sporting moment is iconic when the TV commentary that comes with it is equally recognisable. Manchester City served up arguably the greatest ever finish to a Premier League season in 2012 as they scored two goals in injury-time of the last match to pip rivals Manchester United to the title. United had thought it was job done and after winning at Sunderland they waited on the pitch as City, needing to win, trailed to QPR with 90 minutes on the clock. But Eden Dzeko's header and then Sergio Aguero's strike in the fourth minute of added time, brilliantly soundtracked by Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler, won City their first ever Premier League title and sparked scenes of absolute bedlam at the Etihad Stadium. See PA story SPORT Decade Moments Photo credit should read Dave Thompson/PA Wire.
Sergio Aguero wheels away in celebration against QPR

There are elements involved in and surrounding Manchester City’s current ownership that invite understandable debate and conjecture, some of it informed and some not. There are more important factors at play than the sensibilities of some people from Manchester going to watch their team.

However, the fact is that the same people who were widely celebrated as salt-of-the-earth examples of how best to conduct a specific leisure activity are now being derided as “plastics” who follow an “oil club” and terrible people who can’t fill their ground, merely for conducting the same leisure activity a couple of decades on.

The particular circumstances of City’s rise mean the club’s successes have received different coverage to that afforded to other title-winning teams. Journalistically, this is understandable, but it also leaves fans feeling short-changed when the garlands afforded to Roberto Mancini and Guardiola’s sides have come with caveats and hesitant praise in some instances, rather than the eulogies they had to endure during the Ferguson years.

This is why Guardiola’s words last week caused so much angst. City fans feel, sometimes with more justification than others, that they get a raw deal in terms of coverage and attitudes towards them. These have shifted as radically as their club’s fortunes over recent decades.

There is no reason to doubt Guardiola at all when he says “I love this club” but his post-match funk declared open season on a fanbase that already feels like it has become public property and kicked repeatedly as a result. Even before we consider the risible spectacle of a multi-millionaire telling regular punters how they should spend their disposable income, if Pep knows the club’s history as he says he does, then the outburst was and remains unacceptable.

We’ve got Guardiola

Unacceptable is, of course, not unforgivable. Guardiola’s name was chanted loudly during Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Southampton.

And rightly so. This is a tactical genius to whom few in the history of the game compare, who has masterminded the greatest years in terms of trophies in City’s existence. Additionally, his charity work to help disadvantaged groups such as displaced persons, give a reasonable indication that he is a good man.

You see, it’s possible to hold those opinions of Guardiola, alongside believing he acted in a self-absorbed fashion after the Leipzig game, in the same head at the same time.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Unfortunately, there were far too many examples of absolutism after the City manager responded to Parker’s criticism. The Official Supporters Club were accused of fuelling negative coverage of the club – a state of affairs that would have seemed completely absurd a week ago and, frankly, still does now.

Due to the relationship detailed above, regarding how perceptions and coverage of City’s support has changed, this defensiveness around any perceived negativity is common.

Instinctively backing your side is as much part of being a football fan as involuntarily shouting “man on!” but it feels as if plenty of City fans do this to an extent that it becomes counterproductive.

If you round on a supporter spokesperson who fought your corner against an aloof-sounding manager, you look like a group of people who will dutifully suck up price rise after price rise at the box office, who won’t grumble too loudly about a digital ticketing system rolled out with minimal consultation or hour after hour on the phone waiting to speak to someone – anyone – at the club about that or the fact the ticket exchange scheme did not apply to cup games until the eve of the Leipzig match.

As it goes, City’s prices are pretty good compared to other Champions League clubs in England. But why not make them better than pretty good when your club is in such a financially strong position? Why not lead the way with genuinely progressive pricing and reach out to communities and demographics who have been left behind by the gentrified Premier League experience?

Fan Brands – Man City

You may notice this piece of writing has been produced by a name you’re not familiar with on our regular Manchester City content.

That is because we are expanding our horizons and starting to bring even more to you from a whole host of different voices. We have appointed a whole host of people who – like our journalists – care deeply about what’s happening at Etihad Stadium – but sit in the stands rather than the press box.

We want to give you raw, authentic fan voices about the big issues at Man City – which is why the story you have read today might sit on Manchester Evening News for now, and is part of the MEN family, but is not representative of those who work there full time.

Keep your eyes peeled for more info on where you can read more from this author in the future. But in the meantime, we hope you enjoy what they have written.

Adoring and idolising Guardiola for his exploits as a tactician is fully understandable. But you do not need to go into bat for him when he seems to question your appetite for supporting your club. Being grateful for the good fortune of Sheikh Mansour’s fortune is normal, but it doesn’t mean jumping through hoops to attend expensive football games is okay. You owe obedience to no one in the boardroom or dressing room. It was your club before it was theirs and will be after they leave.

Reasonable dissent and lobbying your club to improve the fan experience is nothing to be ashamed of and should be encouraged. The wonderful work done by MCFC Fans Foodbank Support and the recent foundation of the Manchester City Independent Supporters Trust show there is a will to hold City to account when it comes to filling its brief as a community institution.

There’ll be another tiresome empty seats debate at some point in the future, with the same old debates and banter hashed once again. In the meantime, to invert the famous President Kennedy line, ask not what you can do for your football club – ask what your football club can do for you.

What do you think about how Pep Guardiola has conducted himself since the RB Leipzig game? Follow our new City Fan Brands Writer Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.