Manchester City’s dominance is distorting football fandom

And so, on May 14, 2024, modern Premier League football reached its logical next step: Tottenham Hotspur fans rooting against their team when facing Manchester City because they’d rather lose than have rivals Arsenal win the title.

First of all, this is in no way a criticism of the fans who chose to do that. Doing so is entirely their choice and to anyone suggesting what they did was irrational: well, have you met a football fan? There’s also an extent to which this would have happened in any era given how intrinsic schadenfreude has always been to the football fan experience.

But while much of the chatter on this topic before the game centred on the rights and wrongs of wanting your team to lose, maybe that was slightly missing the point.

Rather than telling fans how to feel, perhaps we should think about how it is that we’ve ended up with a situation where celebrating rivals’ misfortune is pretty much the maximum most teams’ fans can aspire to each season. Yes, laughing at your rivals has always been a big part of being a football supporter, but it becomes a problem when that’s pretty much the only part of being a football supporter.


When fans want to lose: ‘Every time we attacked, we booed our own players’

City, cheered on by their own fans and plenty of Spurs ones, beat Tottenham 2-0 in Tuesday’s game. They will likely win their fourth Premier League title in a row on Sunday. No team in English football history has won four consecutive titles.

This is an unprecedented period of dominance and, in that context, it’s unsurprising that supporters of other clubs have to find their enjoyment in whatever way they can.

And it’s not just the Premier League — City tend to hoover up the domestic cups as well. In the past decade, only seven English clubs have won a major trophy (the Premier League, domestic cups or one of the three European cups). In the previous decade (2005 to 2014), that number was 10. It was 10 from 1995-2004, too, and 13 from 1985-1994.

Essentially, it’s getting harder and harder for non-elite clubs to win anything, let alone the Premier League. Though an honourable mention for Watford, who nearly added to that tally of seven when they reached the FA Cup final in 2019… a final they lost 6-0 to Manchester City.

Ruben Dias, Stefan Ortega, Manchester Cit

Manchester City’s Ruben Dias celebrates with team-mate Stefan Ortega at the end of Tuesday’s game (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Spurs, a much bigger club than Watford and a member of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’, have not won a trophy for 16 years. City can’t be blamed for that — they didn’t emerge as a major force until a few years after — but that was the context for the weird situation that developed in the lead-up to Tuesday’s game and then festered during it.

The Spurs head coach, Ange Postecoglou, was irritated by the discourse before the game, saying he’d never understand not wanting your team to win, and he was raging about it after.

“Of course it does,” Postecoglou said when asked if the strange, subdued atmosphere affected the players against City. “It is what it is. I can’t dictate what people do. They’re allowed to express themselves in any way they want. But yeah, when we’ve got late winners in games, it’s because the crowd’s helped us.”

The Spurs fans weren’t hostile towards their own team and many cheered as normal, but it was a very different atmosphere from a standard big game and the City goals were followed by chants about Arsenal.

A small number of supporters did City’s “Poznan” celebration after they had taken the lead and a few wore Tottenham’s old light-blue away kit to show where their loyalties lay. Video footage emerged of Postecoglou arguing with a supporter on Tuesday night, who it’s been said was celebrating one of the City goals. On Saturday, on the way back from the 2-1 win over Burnley, some Spurs fans were singing the City anthem, “Blue Moon”.

The weirder thing in all of this is not how much Spurs fans wanted to revel in Arsenal’s misfortune — that’s totally to be expected — but how little feeling City engender in rival fans. As the dominant team in English football, one would expect them to evoke a mixture of hatred and begrudging admiration. As Manchester United and Liverpool once did. Instead, there’s generally a numbness towards City or, often, actually an appreciation for the useful role they perform in denying teams that fans of rival clubs actually care about.

When you take a step back, the situation is strange. A league that prides itself on competitiveness will almost certainly, by Sunday, have been won by the same team for the last four years and six of the last seven. Oh, and that same team is facing 115 charges for alleged breaches of Premier League rules (which they deny).

But is that team hated, or even disliked? Nah, not really. No one really has the energy or can conceive of an alternative. City winning the league is just what happens. To be bothered by it would be like getting annoyed by the colour of the sky, or complaining that there are only seven days in the week.

James Madd

Tottenham’s players show their frustration during their 2-0 loss to City (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

It’s such a weird situation that, inevitably, there will be collateral damage from time to time for people who are new to it. Like Postecoglou on Tuesday, who was furious at what he perceives to be a parochial, small-time mentality of those inside and outside the club who favoured self-sabotage over progress against City.

“I think the last 48 hours has revealed to me that the foundations are fairly fragile, mate,” he said, before adding pointedly: “What other people, how they want to feel, and what their priorities are, are of zero interest to me.”

Postecoglou is desperate to compete with City, but with Pep Guardiola in charge and the current ownership in place, how realistic is that? As Arsenal and Liverpool have found out, you can do all the right things and you’ll still almost always fall short. So the general feeling is by all means go for it but, in the meantime, fans of most clubs take their kicks when they can get them.

It was almost forgotten in the local rivalry psychodrama that Spurs would have had a decent chance of qualifying for the Champions League if they’d beaten City on Tuesday night. But even that prospect has left a lot of fans cold over the last few months, with many feeling that there’s little point qualifying for a competition you have no real chance of winning.

And so to the final day of the Premier League season, which will naturally be hyped up, even though everyone knows the chances of much drama are minimal.

There were genuine laughs in the press room on Tuesday night when Sky Sports tried to big up the last round of games and the potential for a thrilling finish. City last lost in the league in December and aside from games against their title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool, have dropped two Premier League points in 2024.

Their record-breaking fourth title will be met largely with indifference by the rest of the country. Aside from the relief that Spurs fans feel that Arsenal haven’t won the title; just how Everton and other supporters felt two years ago when it was Liverpool denied by City on the final day.

Those emotions are about as good as it gets for most supporters in 2024 and while, to some extent, it’s ever been thus, it’s never quite been like this.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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