Expensive signings, new facilities and player discord: how it feels to be inside a football club takeover

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Manchester City wanted to make a statement with the signing of Robinho in 2008 – GETTY IMAGES

Gareth Barry was wavering when he sat down inside an Abu Dhabi hotel with Mark Hughes and Mark Bowen to discuss his potential transfer from Aston Villa to Manchester City in the summer of 2009.

“He didn't really want to come,” said Bowen. “And I just said, ‘Listen Gareth, this is like a big juggernaut that’s going to keep flying along. Mark and I are on it. We might fall off but you’ve got to just get on, and stay on for as long as you can, because you will win trophies’.”

Bowen was proved right on all three counts. The juggernaut that he had tasted over the previous 10 months did prove unstoppable. He and Hughes were themselves soon unseated. And Manchester City have since accumulated 13 trophies.

The memory of being aboard that ride on day one – September 1, 2008 – has also been rekindled following the extraordinary past fortnight at Newcastle United.

“The Manchester City academy had a golf day,” says Bowen. “Myself and Mark were on a buggy and his phone was red hot. The new owners wanted to make a statement. They had a figure of £35 or £40m. The three names were Robinho, Dimitar Berbatov and Franck Ribery. Mark would have a conversation, we would drive onto the next hole, and it would be, ‘We have got bids in for all of these players’.”

Robinho was famously signed from under the noses of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea but there was soon then also a very different but even more significant statement of intent.

Hughes had told the chairman, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, that some of the facilities at the club’s training base were not fit for purpose. The first international break loomed and, to the surprise of the club’s staff and remaining players, they were told to keep away from the facility.

“It was like an episode of Changing Rooms – they literally remodelled the training ground in 10 days,” says Simon Wilson, who was then head of performance analysis and would go on to become the City Group’s director of performance analysis. “Everyone came back and were just, ‘Wow. I want to be here. I better raise my standards’. It was what they called a ‘build and fix phase’. Anything broken they fixed. Anything needing to be built they built.” This extended to revolutionary performance analysis. “We were like kids in a sweet shop,” says Wilson.

Etihad Academy – OFFSIDE

City group director Simon Pearce had explained to staff the culture in Abu Dhabi. The emphasis was on delivery first, talking second. It meant casualties but also an excitement and creative tension ripping through every building. “You were suddenly seeing your club changing every day,” says Bowen. “What would I say to anyone at Newcastle? Lap it up. Enjoy it.”

Yet with change comes also discomfort, scepticism and tension. New power bases are formed. Relationships are being forged. Jobs are lost as well as created.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had scored 70 goals in the three seasons before Abramovich became Chelsea owner in 2003. And then suddenly in came two new strikers in Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu. “My experience was of great excitement, but also a lot of uncertainty,” says Hasselbaink, now managing Burton Albion. “You are obviously thinking about your future. ‘Am I going to be part of this?’ Claudio Ranieri said that I could go, but I didn’t want to. I got my head down. I was top scorer the next season. You have to be mentally strong. It wasn’t easy. With a lot of players comes friction.” Ranieri would famously call himself a “dead man walking” during that 2003-4 season despite finishing second in the league and reaching the Champions League semi-final.

Overseeing dressing-room change can also be hugely challenging. Queens Park Rangers were taken over by the Malaysian businessman Tony Fernandes shortly after winning promotion to the Premier League in 2011. “Some players who got the club promoted were still on a Championship contract,” says the striker Jay Bothroyd. “Players came in on much bigger contracts. Players knew that and didn't like it.” Having eventually lost their jobs at Manchester City – finding out on the morning of a game against Sunderland in December 2009 – Hughes and Bowen were the indirect beneficiaries of the ownership change at QPR. The problems they found, however, were just as Boothroyd had described.

“There are no secrets in the dressing room – and the players know the sort of numbers others are on,” says Bowen. “That’s fine if that player comes in, hits the ground running, and produces. But sometimes you can bring in a top player who might take a little longer to settle. Jose Bosingwa had a Champions League winners’ medal in the draw. He didn’t exactly hit the ground running. You can hear the voices around the training ground: ‘What’s he doing? He’s picking up this amount of money. It’s a joke’.”

QPR experienced some dressing room discontent after Tony Fernandes became its big-money owner – GETTY IMAGES

Existing staff, especially those who embody the culture and values of the club, are crucial. Les Chapman became Manchester City kitman in 1997 and was there during the days when they had sunk into the third tier of England football. He was also still there by the time that City were collecting multiple Premier League titles almost two decades later.

“If we signed a player in the week, and he was playing at the weekend, you had to get his measurements, find out his preferences and get all the kit ready,” he says. “I think we signed seven players in three weeks at one stage under Sven [Goran Eriksson]. The more new players, the more work. I loved it.

“And you suddenly had this great diversity of cultures and backgrounds. If we were signing a guy from Spain, I’d ask the Spanish lads for one or two swear words in Spanish.

“More big players started coming in and they had all their idiosyncrasies. It wasn't just a T-shirt, slips, shorts, socks and sweat shirts any more. You had tights, compression shirts, snoods, gloves, rain jackets.

“I used to cut a piece of foam out from the medical equipment that Mario Balotelli would use as his shin pads. He just put anything down his socks. Peter Schmeichel had a new kit for the warm up, a new kit for the first half and new kit for the second half.

“By the time I left City in 2015, we had 17 staff getting changed on matchday alone – sports therapists, scientists, masseurs, doctors, a full time set piece coach. I did all the staff kits as well. I did it on my own for eight years. I think there are four kitmen now. It needs it.”

Newcastle can also expect huge change in how they are perceived externally. Micah Richards says that opposition players would constantly tell his City team-mates that they would be in league three without their ‘oil money’. There will be a large queue of wannabe players, agents and executives forming outside St James’ Park with pound signs in their eyes.

What can Newcastle fans expect now their club has been bought by Saudi Arabia’s PIF? – ACTION IMAGES

“The whole world knows you have been taken over,” says Wilson. “All the prices in the transfer market are a bit higher. You want to move as quickly as you can, under the radar, so you have made strides before you get blocked off.”

Kevin Parker, secretary of the Manchester City Supporters’ Trust, says that there is even an adjustment for the fans. “One of the first songs that City fans would sing was ‘City is going down with a billion in the bank’,” he says. “Our thought process had been, ‘Typical City’. Francis Lee would say that City could win cups for c***-ups. It was in our DNA but that’s changed completely.

“I’m happy for the excitement this will bring Newcastle supporters. Everybody deserves the right to dream. The moral responsibility is with the people who sold Newcastle and the people at the Premier League.”

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