Saturday, 19 September 2009

David Conn on the last days of Thaksin

We have a lot to be grateful to Sheikh Mansour for. Spending £200m on players in twelve months has been rather helpful. We are, if you hadn't noticed, a significantly better team because of it. We have a decent shot at a trophy or two in the next few years, for the first time in my lifetime. I could go on and on but I don't need to.

One thing, though, that needs to be said is this: we ought to be grateful to Sheikh Mansour for what he saved us from, almost as much as for what he has turned us into. Because in the months leading up to the takoever, we were in a real mess. The Thaksin project had been unravelling for some time, but by August we had no money, an owner on the run, players almost being sold without the manager's say-so (remember that August weekend when Corluka and Ireland almost left), and £19m strikers coming in with just as little managerial input. There's nothing quite like a badly run football club, and for those summer weeks, I would go as far as to say that we were in a worse state than any top flight club in English state. Debt, chaos and panic are one thing. But international arrest warrants? That's a whole new ball game.

This is the central point of David Conn's second exclusive City news story, appearing in Saturday's Guardian. And what he reveals suggests that things were even worse than we thought. The biggest single revelation is that Mark Hughes considered quitting, such was the mess he walked in on:

"I made the switch from Blackburn because I thought City was a club with potential, in a good financial position, and there would be money available," he reflected ruefully. "The reality wasn't exactly what was described and sold to me. In fairness we were able to go into the transfer market, but there seemed a focus that players had to be sold, and I realised that maybe the resources weren't in place that I thought."

The Carrington facilities were also not as he had expected, bearing no evidence of investment. "The training ground was not fit for purpose," Hughes recalled plainly. "I was quite shocked by how run down it was. Blackburn Rovers is a good club, well-run and organised, it has top-drawer facilities as a consequence of the money Jack Walker invested, and I made the assumption …" he paused. "That was my failing last year; I made too many assumptions. I assumed that people and facilities would be top quality and it was patently obvious they weren't."

The other man who stepped right into the middle of the mess was Garry Cook, brought by Thaksin in June 2008 to run the club following Alistair Mackintosh's depature and Thaksin's Richard Kimble moment. And, as with Hughes, by August he was regretting his decision to come to City:

Cook felt that the job he had been brought to do, to lead a "renaissance" of City, was impossible, and that "the fabric of the football club had been taken away". He soon realised there was no money; City borrowed from Standard Bank against Premier League TV money not yet received, and bought players on deposit.

"Thaksin's money was locked away. Every bit of revenue was being accelerated and the players were being mortgaged. We got into a position where we couldn't pay the players – and John Wardle [the former chairman who had sold his shares and left the board] was asked to lend the club £2m. I was working stupid hours to make sure I was not missing anything; I was living in this paranoia...

"My wife had packed up everything in our house in the States, the furniture was in transit, and I sat in my hotel room in Cheshire crying down the phone. I felt I had unravelled everything, undone all my hard work, because I had been seduced into this role. I realised I had taken my family into the lion's den."

This is pretty serious stuff. Just think of a possible alternative history here: no buyer comes in late in August 2008, meaning that those late purchases - Shaun Wright-Phillips and Pablo Zabaleta - were never possible. The chaos continues. Hughes and Cook quit later that autumn. Graeme Souness is brought in to keep us up. Thaksin, on the run, can only hope that the club continues to function in his absence. Souness is forced to sell Elano, Martin Petrov, Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards. Jô is sent back to CSKA Moscow. Thaksin desperately tries to offload the club to John Wardle or David Bernstein. Souness gets City relegated. Then what: more sales? Administration? The takeover was as good news for what it brought us as for what it delivered us from.

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