Pablo Zabaleta hails impact of Abu Dhabi in decade of success for Manchester City
LONDON: It was a day before the summer transfer window closed on Sept. 1, 2008, when Pablo Zabaleta signed for Manchester City.
With owner Thaksin Shinawatra’s assets frozen and concerns about the former Thai Prime Minister’s finances and future, it appeared an uncertain period rather than one the full-back, who had cost £6.5 million ($8.4 million) from Espanyol, now describes as “unbelievable.”
Within 24 hours the picture became clear as the club announced takeover plans and a British record £32.5m purchase of Brazilian frontman Robinho from Real Madrid.
It was dramatic and a definitive moment in the history of a club founded in 1880 as St. Mark’s (West Gorton) and then the Ardwick Association Football Club before taking the Manchester City name in 1894.
Zabaleta says he was “privileged” to witness the dawn of that new era 10 years ago, one driven by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s investment through the Abu Dhabi United Group.
“When Robinho came from Real Madrid, it was ‘wow’. We knew this is something massive,” he told Arab News.
“But it was difficult at that time to see how far the club would move forward.”
Robinho’s arrival was a statement of intent, the superstar to make the world take notice of a Manchester club that had long lived in the shadows of their more successful neighbors at Old Trafford.
The club’s then-executive chairman, Garry Cook, was tasked, alongside chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, with trying to develop the club on and off the pitch and challenge Europe’s elite.
City fans, many who had watched the club struggle in the third tier 10 years earlier and long forgotten their last top-flight title success in 1968, were appeased by the long-term vision, shared values and ambition.
“There was always a certain amount of concern given what had happened with foreign owners at other clubs,” reflected Alan Galley, chairman of the Manchester City Supporters Club.
“But from the very start, the vibes were always sounding good. Garry Cook understood the fans’ point of view and knew where club was going. He said at the start it would be a 10-year plan to get us where we are now — and he’s been proved right. This last 10 years has been brilliant.”
The journey to becoming England’s No. 1 club — three Premier League titles among seven major trophies — was not without difficulties nor drama.
Robinho started well, but left an expensive disappointment, as did many others, while luring Carlos Tevez away from United and the subsequent “Welcome to Manchester” billboard prompted Sir Alex Ferguson’s jibe about City being “noisy neighbors.”
Failed moves for Kaka and John Terry were notable, while managers Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini came and went until the long-coveted Pep Guardiola finally took charge in 2016.
Before he had to resign in 2011 over an email controversy, Cook tried to instil a “culture of success rather than a culture of survival” and much-needed changes were made at the club’s dilapidated Carrington training ground as well as major sponsorship deals inked such as the one with Etihad Airways which subsequently led to stadium naming rights.
Captain Vincent Kompany, currently City’s longest-serving player having also joined just before the takeover, shared a tale of how the old gym had a punch bag and one glove, which had a big split in it. A “dump” is how he described their Carrington base.
It was a far cry from the £200 million Etihad Campus and City Football Academy, opened in 2014 and featuring 16 football pitches, three gyms, swimming pools and bedrooms for players.
“It was great for the new players to come to the CFA and have all the facilities,” added Zabaleta. “But they didn’t all see the old Carrington ground.
“Even until my last day at the club I don’t forget how it was. Even when you are successful, don’t forget where you come from and keep some humility to move forward.
“Even now when the fans are over the moon at the way the team is playing and winning trophies, when you ask the old generation about Maine Road, the old stadium, they also feel proud.”
Nor does the Argentine forget the challenges for players at that time in trying to create history.
“Of course there was big pressure for everyone. We knew big players would come in because of the money and it was a big challenge for everyone to keep their place in the squad.
“We needed to prove we were good enough to stay. Some players came because of the big money, good contracts, but in football it’s not all about money. It was important at that time to create a team with a winning mentality in order to challenge the top teams.
“It was not just about having big names, but commitment from everyone, love for the club.
“Some players came, after one year they were gone, and didn’t feel this way. That’s why players like David Silva, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero were so important.
“They had the chance to play for the best clubs in Europe and yet they came to City and stayed for so long, seven, eight years. They became legends.
“They will leave at some point and other players will come and have to show the same love, passion and commitment, stay for many years and challenge for big trophies.
“I was there nine years, made my name and grew as a player, grew up with the club. It was special.”
Zabaleta, who made 333 appearances for City before joining West Ham last summer, added: “People from everywhere are trying to buy clubs, but the thing is how they do it. That’s what was important from Abu Dhabi. It was not just about buying the club and that’s it.
“Khaldoon was very bold all the time, talking to players, everyone, trying always to improve something. He came to the training ground, the games, and that was fantastic.
“Apart from all that they did to make the club better, they cared about the players. They made us feel like a family, feel wanted. The last time I met Sheikh Mansour in Abu Dhabi in 2017 with City, he said I remember the first time I met you, you were full of hair.
“It was true. We played a friendly game in 2009 against the UAE team. Now I was bald and we were laughing because it showed how long we had been together. That’s why the top players have been here at City for a long time. They felt like it’s their home.
“You cannot forget either what the owner did with the training ground, with the community, creating jobs for the local people. People don’t always talk about this, but you have to give them credit.”
When City signed Samir Nasri from Arsenal in 2011, Sheikh Mansour’s investment topped £1 billion.
That year saw a Mancini-led City lift the FA Cup, their first major trophy since 1976, and qualify for the Champions League for the first time.
The following season, in a nerve-shredding 3-2 final-game win over QPR sealed by Sergio Aguero’s injury-time goal, they ended their 44-year wait for the title.
“Winning that title was the most important thing to try to create this feeling that it’s not about the money at City,” added Zabaleta, 33.
“You don’t win only with big names or big signings, especially in the Premier League. First we won the FA Cup and then the title and that was the moment everyone was talking about Man City.
“But it was tough before then. We learned a lot of things, like in the Champions League at the beginning.
“The squad was very strong, but we were not ready mentally to challenge in the Champions League and then play with the same intensity in the Premier League and switch to the FA Cup. It was a process of learning for the club, the players, everyone, to create a team mentally strong enough to compete in all competitions. In 10 years City have changed all this.”
Zabaleta and City, under Pellegrini, won the title again in 2014, reached the semifinals of the Champions League two years later and lifted the League Cup twice.
And with a City Football Group brand encompassing clubs and partnerships worldwide, Guardiola at the helm, a squad blessed with world-class talent that were champions in record-breaking fashion last season, and training facilities the envy of many, Zabaleta believes City can be dominant for the next decade.
“The future is bright,” he added. “Everything is there for them to do this.
“You see the Amazon Prime series ‘All or Nothing’, they choose Man City to do this. Why? Because it’s the team everyone is watching at the moment.
“That’s why it’s incredible how City went from a modest club, modest team to one of the best in not just Europe, but the world.
“Now when you see they have Pep, the quality in the team and way they are playing, it is something for the Manchester City players and fans to be proud of.
“Every season City are now expected to win trophies and looking to do something special.
“The ambition is always to have the strongest squad, to challenge in domestic competitions and the Champions League — that’s what they want to win one day.”
For someone like Galley, who watched his first game in September, 1956 against Sunderland aged 12, it really is fantasy football.
“We have to pinch ourselves at how good it is now,” he said. “We think there’s more to come. We want that Champions League because that’s what United fans always throw back at us for not winning. And I can’t see anything going wrong while these people are in charge.”