Speaking to the local press, Sunderland’s ‘keeper produced a few soundbites about the stark contrast between Manchester City and ourselves. Pointing to this weeks’ signing of John Stones, for £47.5m, Vito produced a statement of devastating understatement:
It looks to me like every team is getting better every season, so you need to keep the pace with them.
If he delivered it with a straight face, the local journalists writing it up didn’t say. Because Sunderland look like going in to today’s match with an £8m capture of a Chelsea reserve and a £5.5m double deal for Manchester United youngsters McNair and Love, as the sum total of three months’ work this close season.
But, it’s not just superstar bodies on the pitch that reveals the difference between the two football clubs. In almost every department, Manchester City outstrip Sunderland and if there are some interesting lessons to be learnt from one of the Premier League’s current exemplar models of maximising revenue, resources and potential, it's probably now a decade too late for Sunderland to learn sufficiently in order to catch up.
It wasn’t always like this. It’s only seventeen years since I was dragged along to Maine Road, by a Wycombe supporting mate, to watch a dull League Division Two game. City were managed by Joe Royle that day, who later that season masterminded a Play Off return to England’s second tier. This was 1998/99 and Man City were in the doldrums, but Sunderland were on the up - finishing the season with 105 points to gain promotion to the Premier League.
I felt Manchester City’s awkward embarrassment that day, lining up against Wycombe Wanderers in the old Division Three. It had only been ten years since I’d felt that slight cringe every time Sunderland rocked up at a third tier ground; but I had a profound respect for the folks who made their way to City’s old stadium each week. It is the last time I can recall being asked for money at an away game to mind the car by local kids and the social club at Maine Road where we had a few pints was warm and lively. It was a great old ground, a hotch-potch in a run-down area. It had many similarities to Roker Park and even now, the area in which it once stood looks eerie without it, just as Roker Baths Road looks lost without the grand old lady of Sunderland looming above it.
But, time waits for no man; and one thing which sure hastens the ticking of the clock in clouding old memories is hard cash. Money can revolutionise a familiar landscape quicker than the passage of time. Now, my memories of Manchester City belong to a different era; bulldozed by the billions of Sheikh Mansour.
It’s not just the blatant flaunting of money on the pitch though. At 5.30pm the old cliché kicks in, as it always does, football being the great leveller and for 90 minutes all that matters is two sets of eleven men on the pitch, and a few thousand on the terraces, trying to outwit each other. It’s the differences between Manchester City and Sunderland off the pitch as well that concern us.
Take one aspect of the cash-cow Premier League monster - Commercial revenue. It’s a clear factor which is having an ever increasing influence on how clubs gain a competitive advantage over each other. It basically involves all the other stuff that goes on at a club that isn’t football related, though each club tends to calculate it slightly different in its accounts.
From the last figures available (year end 2015) – Manchester City: commercial income £173m, gate and match day income £43m; Sunderland: commercial income £21m, gate and match day income £11m.
Brains with greater financial acumen than mine have poured over such figures in a depth I’m incapable of, but suffice to say – that’s one heck of a gulf.
Manchester United’s current shirt sponsorship deal is worth more than all of the clubs outside of the traditional top six put together. Manchester City’s is worth £20m with Etihad, Sunderland’s deal with Dafabet £6m, and our deal is considered pretty decent. Manchester United believe Paul Pogba’s signing will deliver £40m in commercial revenue in the first year alone; that’s double what Sunderland get for every drop of commercial income they can wring from the market. It’s mind boggling.
Sunderland do not seem to be able to compete, even with our nearest neighbours. A few years ago, Newcastle and Sunderland were pretty even when it came to commercial cash, but in the most recent Premier League years (I hasten to highlight ‘Premier’ of course) that has ceased to be the case and Newcastle have raked in more. The chronic lean towards all things Newcastle in the North East doesn’t help. But, with a year of Premier League football only being available in the red and white corner of Tyne and Wear, one hopes that Sunderland’s marketing strategy – in attracting fans and corporate bodies to the wonders of Stadium of Light hospitality, is sufficiently robust enough to sell its product ahead of the bizarre Rafa-clamour for second rate football.
How do clubs in provincial towns and cities, who are away from the regional epicentres of big business and big finance, compete? Stoke, Burnley, Hull and dare I say it Sunderland. It feels like it’s too late. The gulf is too big and Financial Fair Play means we just can’t catch up. Last season’s Leicester shock won’t happen again, because the money men have thrown everything they have at preventing it recurring. The world’s best coaches have been brought in to the Premier League and given enormous resources to make sure no upstart ever again pinches a title or a Champions League spot.
For now at least, football is still a sport and I didn’t mean this to turn into a whinge about money; but that’s what Saturday comes down to – the Mansour millions behind the Pep Guardiola show, showcasing on Sky. Sunderland are an after-thought. It even feels like a dead rubber of a season opener. Negligible transfer business means little excitement about our starting eleven; we’ll start our season in October, or January, as usual. We’re turning up simply to give City someone to get 3 points from; and I feel quite strongly about that.