Manchester City’s dominance distorts football fandom

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

First of all, this is in no way a criticism of the fans who chose to do this. Doing so is entirely their choice, and to anyone who suggests that 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 discussion on the topic before the game focused on the rights and wrongs of wanting your team to lose, perhaps that missed the point a bit.

Instead of telling fans how to feel, maybe we should think about how it is that we’ve gotten into a situation where celebrating the misfortune of rivals is about as much as most teams’ fans can aspire to each season. Yes, laughing at your rivals has always been an important part of being a football fan, but it becomes a problem when it’s almost the only part of being a football fan.

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

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

This is a period of unprecedented dominance and, in this context, it is not surprising that supporters of other clubs must find pleasure in any way they can.

And it’s not just the Premier League – City have a tendency to aspire to domestic cups too. In the last decade, only seven English clubs have won a major trophy (Premier League, domestic cups or one of the three European cups). In the previous decade (2005-2014), this number was 10. It was also 10 in 1995-2004 and 13 in 1985-1994.

Essentially, it’s getting harder and harder for non-elite clubs to win anything, let alone the Premier League. Although an honorable mention for Watford, who almost 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 teammate Stefan Ortega at the end of Tuesday’s match (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 later – but that was the context of the strange situation that developed before Tuesday’s game and then blossomed during it.

Spurs head coach Ange Postecoglou was irritated by the pre-match speech, saying he would never understand not wanting your team to win and was furious afterwards.

“Of course I do,” Postecoglou said when asked if the strange, low-key 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 yes, when we have late winners in games, it’s because the crowd helped us.”

The Spurs supporters were not hostile to their own team and many cheered as usual, but it was a very different atmosphere to a standard big game and City goals were followed by chants of Arsenal.

A small number of supporters did City’s ‘Poznan’ celebration after taking the lead, with a few wearing Tottenham’s old light blue kit to show where their loyalties lie. Video footage has emerged of Postecoglou arguing with a supporter on Tuesday night who is said to be celebrating one of City’s goals. On returning from the 2-1 win over Burnley on Saturday, some Spurs fans sang the City anthem ‘Blue Moon’.

The strangest thing about all this is not how much Spurs fans wanted to enjoy Arsenal’s misfortune – that’s to be expected – but how little feeling City generate in rival fans. As the dominant team in English football, one would expect them to arouse a mixture of hatred and grudging admiration. As Manchester United and Liverpool once did. Instead, there is generally a numbness to City, or often, in fact, an appreciation for the useful role they play in denying teams fans of rival clubs really care about.

When you 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 past four years and six of the past seven. Oh, and the same team face 115 charges for alleged breaches of Premier League rules (which they deny).

But is that team ugly, or even unlikable? No, not really. No one really has the energy or can conceive of an alternative. City won the league is just what happens. Getting annoyed by it would be like getting annoyed with the color of the sky or complaining that there are only seven days in the week.

James Madd

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

It’s such a weird situation that there will inevitably be collateral damage from time to time for people who are new to it. As was Postecoglou on Tuesday, who was furious at what he clearly perceives to be a parochial, small-minded mentality from those inside and outside the club who favored self-sabotage over progress against City. “I think the last 48 hours have revealed to me that foundations are pretty fragile, my friend,” he said, before adding bluntly: “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 owner in place, how realistic is that? As Arsenal and Liverpool have found out, you can do everything right and you will almost always come up short. So the general sentiment is undoubtedly to go, but in the meantime fans of most clubs are taking their kicks when they can get them.

It was all but forgotten in the psychodrama of the local rivalry that Spurs would have had a decent chance of qualifying for the Champions League if they had beaten City on Tuesday night. But even that prospect has left many fans cold in recent months, with many feeling there’s no point in 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, although everyone knows the chances of much drama are slim to none.

There were roars of laughter in the press room on Tuesday night as Sky Sports tried to play up the latest round of games and the potential for a thrilling finish. City last lost in December and, apart from games against their title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool, have dropped two points in the Premier League in 2024. A record fourth title, will be met with largely indifference from the rest of the country. Apart from the relief that Spurs fans feel that Arsenal didn’t win the title; just as Everton and other supporters felt two years ago when Liverpool were denied by City on the final day.

These emotions are just as good for most supporters in 2024, and while to some extent it was ever so, it never was.

(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)