Manchester City, Chapter 8: City Football Group's Asian equation

Well established on the home front? Check. Significant inroads made into America and Australia? Check. So, what's next for the City Football Group? Asia of course...

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The City Football Group already have a minority stake in Japanese side Yokohama F Marinos, who are owned by group sponsors Nissan and are already benefiting from the expertise of Manchester City.

Indeed, on the day FourFourTwo visits the City Football Academy, four officials from Yokohama are there on a fact-finding mission.

The Group isn’t ruling out further additions to their list of clubs in the future, with China a likely destination.

(Aguero) wanted to take a selfie and luckily the Chinese president accepted – David Cameron, too

Manchester City went over to the Far East during pre-season and chief operating officer Omar Berrada pinpoints it as a very important market, saying they’re keeping “an open mind” about how they can grow their presence in the country.

That has already involved them selling a 13 per cent stake in the City Football Group to the China Media Capital consortium in late 2015 for a huge sum of £265 million (S$480m), giving the group a valuation of more than £2 billion.

That deal took place with the aim of boosting City’s presence in China; chairman Al Mubarak makes it very clear that there are no plans for owner Sheikh Mansour to relinquish any more of his stake. It came just over a month after Chinese president Xi Jinping made a personal visit to the City Football Academy in Manchester alongside then-Prime Minister David Cameron. It was a visit that produced a piece of marketing gold for the club.

“That was initiated by Sergio Aguero – and it was all completely unplanned,” Berrada chuckles. “He wanted to take a selfie and luckily the Chinese president accepted – David Cameron, too.

"It was fantastic to see that picture on the front page of major newspapers around the world, and every time we go over to China, people reference it.

The infamous selfie from City's Twitter page

“We were honoured to receive the Chinese president. It was all part of a state visit and he wanted to see a good example of youth development facilities, because there’s a big focus in China now on developing grassroots facilities. We want to be part of the story in China, and help to continue developing football there, as well as in Japan, Southeast Asia and Asia in general.

“There are some fascinating markets that we think could have a role in football in the future – maybe India, Indonesia, Vietnam. There are markets where football hasn’t traditionally been the number one sport, but is now starting to grow very quickly.”

President Xi isn’t alone in asking for a look around City’s youth facilities. “The number of requests we get is ginormous,” says the club’s head of academy coaching, former Blackburn Rovers title-winning winger Jason Wilcox.

We want to be part of the story in China, and help to continue developing football there, as well as in Japan, Southeast Asia and Asia in general

“Clubs want to come, and so do other football associations, different sports, performance and arts – everyone wants to see what we’re doing.”

That’s not just because of the sheer scale of the facilities, but because they’re already getting results. As well as paying sizeable sums to recruit some of the finest young talents in world football – Leroy Sané, Marlos Moreno and Oleksandr Zinchenko signed for Manchester City in the summer and Gabriel Jesus arrives in the new year – the club’s own youth teams, led by academy director Mark Allen, are becoming increasingly successful.

The under-18s were national league champions last season, as well as being FA Youth Cup finalists for a second year running, while the under-16s and under-14s both claimed eye-opening 9-0 wins over Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.

In total, the club’s junior teams won 14 trophies last term, right down to under-10 level. Understandably, Wilcox is excited.

“We have got great players coming through,” he says. “We want a steady stream of first-team players coming from our academy.”

It was the city of Manchester that produced the Class of ’92, the group of players who’d help rivals United to dominate the Premier League for years. City would love to do something similar one day.

City strive to unearth their own version of the 'Class of '92'

“That’s the aim,” Wilcox says. “Barcelona did it; Man United did it. Whether we are going to produce six or seven star players in a short period remains to be seen, but what we’ve got to try to do is produce multi-million-pound footballers who are Manchester City through and through.

"This has always been a club of the community and the fans are as excited about getting a young player through as they are about signing a player for £50m. What we’ve got to do is produce a player of our own worth £50m – and why not?

"We’re capable of doing it and we have a manager who believes in giving young lads an opportunity. Pep Guardiola watches the under-18 games on a Saturday morning when he can – he always makes time to say hello – and when the youngsters go to train with the first team they’re used to all of the drills, because we have been developing this style of football for quite a while now.”


Manchester City's Youth Team Trophy Count: 2015-16:

  • Under-10s: Premier League National Futsal, Wormerveer Tournament, PT Sports Cup, Raddatz Immobilien Cup
  • Under 11s: Deichmann Cup, Premier League National Finals
  • Under 12s: Champions Cup, Frankfurt
  • Under 13s: Premier League International Tournament
  • Under 14s: Torneo Reino de Leon, Spain
  • Under 15s: Premier League Floodlit Cup Northern Division, Premier League Floodlit Cup Super-Final, Cayman Islands Airways Youth Cup
  • Under 18s: Premier League North, Premier League National

City haven’t forgotten the importance of the parents, either. At the City Football Academy there’s an impressive indoor area, complete with creche, from where they can watch training when it rains (this is Manchester after all) or when temperatures drop, and even on-site hotel rooms reserved for them if they’re visiting their children from some distance away.

Some of City’s young talent is from further afield: there’s optimism about Spaniards Brahim Diaz, Aleix Garcia, Pablo Maffeo and Manu Garcia, as well as the left-back Angelino, whose progress was aided by a loan spell at New York City FC.

But there are also potential stars who were born in Manchester, such as Tosin Adarabioyo, Cameron Humphreys-Grant and Brandon Barker, to name just three. The latter is one of four players currently out on loan at NAC Breda in the Netherlands, due to a partnership agreement that will see the Dutch second-division side provide Man City youngsters with experience of first-team football.

Some 61 per cent of the Blues’ academy players hail from Greater Manchester; 36 per cent from the city itself. “People like to say that we are not signing up local talent but, despite the perception, we have got a lot of good Manchester boys,” states Wilcox.

“We want the best local talent here with us. It would horrify me if the best Manchester boys were choosing to play for Liverpool or someone else instead. There’s a lot of talent in this city.”

The biggest task will be to convert the talent that has flourished at youth level into players who can then establish themselves in the first team.

“The level of talent we have to find is somebody who can come through and replace David Silva, Vincent Kompany or Sergio Aguero, and that’s really tough,” Brian Marwood admits. But 20-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho is proof that the step up can be made: the Nigerian striker has impressed so greatly since his debut last season that he is now second only to Aguero in City’s pecking order upfront, with Wilfried Bony joining Stoke on loan.