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Delusion vs. Reality: Manchester City and the ‘Emptihad’ moniker

Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola gestures on the touchline during the UEFA Champions League group C football match between Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach at the Etihad stadium in Manchester, northwest England, on September 14, 2016. / AFP / PAUL ELLIS        (Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night, I stumbled upon a video titled “WHY DON’T CITY SELL OUT THE ETIHAD?”, involving four adult men representing Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton fan channels. Curiously absent was a Manchester City supporter – perhaps to highlight the idea that we have no fans – or maybe they just couldn’t find one who wouldn’t tear their factless bullshit apart.

Without going into too much detail about the video, I can understand why it was made. Football fan channels are a competitive business, people have to pay the bills, and topics such as this do get the clicks (and subsequent ad revenue). The football journalism and media business is now a desperate race to get as many clicks and views as possible, in order to remain relevant and generate income.

There is a quote that has falsely been attributed to the likes of Lenin and Goebbels. Whoever came up with it, there is value to it and it can be applied to some football fans online: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

In the age of social media, ‘joke’ accounts with a million followers, memes, the cool kids ‘rustling’ and trying to impress each other, it’s easy for misinformation to spread. One such example is Robinho saying he thought he was joining Manchester United instead of Manchester City in 2008. He never actually said that, of course – it was fabricated by someone, went viral, and somehow became one of the false truths I am referring to.

The ‘Emptihad’ topic has been popular for a few years now. Remember, Manchester City went from the club with a huge and loyal fan base to having no fans (or having some, but all of them plastic Johnny Come Latelys who used to support Chelsea), virtually overnight in 2008 when taken over by a wealthy Arab.

Whenever a few hundred season ticket holders no-show a game, type #Emptihad into Twitter and you’ll witness this phenomenon at work. A group of kids and, even worse, grown men buying into an idea that City have no fans or have a half-empty stadium every week. It’s almost like they share a single brain and are incapable of independent thought. Ever played that game, “Lemmings”? Something like that.

These people are allergic to the facts. Many of them chose to support a Premier League power-brand because that club is famous, has a culture of winning most games and has a large following. By living their lives vicariously through their football club and boasting about its size and success, it boosts their self-esteem and ego. Equally, branding any side with fewer supporters than their own as a “small club” also helps them achieve a brief feeling of self-importance.

The Facts

There is certainly an issue at the Etihad Stadium of many people who have purchased tickets (or a season card) not showing up. This happens everywhere, but is quite noticeable at the Etihad. From the club’s point of view, those seats are normally sold for Premier League games, so it’s job done, though obviously it would be more aesthetically pleasing for all to see them occupied every week.

The most absurd thing about the “Manchester City have no fans” mantra is how far from the actual truth it is. Not only are City now, in 2016, regularly the third most attended club in the country, but even before the Arab takeover and even before the stadium expansion, large numbers flocked to the stadium.

Let’s rewind to the 2004-05 season. Chelsea stormed to the Premier League title under José Mourinho with a record 95 points, while Liverpool pulled off the “Miracle of Istanbul” to beat AC Milan in the Champions League final. Manchester City, with modest expectations back then, finished in eighth, just outside of the UEFA Cup places.

But what did Chelsea and Liverpool have in common? Both clubs had lower average attendances in the Premier League than Manchester City. City averaged 45,192 fans per game, third only to neighbours United and another well-supported underachiever, Newcastle. Liverpool averaged 42,587 and Chelsea managed 41,870. Supporters of both clubs will point out that City had a bigger stadium (which was sold out most weeks). That is true and this is not a shot at either club. Rather, it is a lesson to the blissfully ignorant masses of today that City had plenty of supporters before they became nouveau riche, and were getting incredible attendances to watch the side struggle for a top half finish.

Since City said a tearful goodbye to Maine Road and switched to the City of Manchester Stadium, they have never been less than the sixth best supported side in the country. And anyone who endured the Stuart Pearce era, when City’s average dropped to 39,997 (the lowest at the new stadium), deserves a lifetime achievement award for turning up every week. From the 2003-04 season up until the 2015-16 season, City’s average attendance and ranking within the Premier League was as follows.

Manchester City attendances

SeasonAvg. Attendance % of capacityPL ranking
2003–0446,83498.1%3rd
2004–0545,19294.7%3rd
2005–0642,85689.9%4th
2006-0739,99783.8%6th
2007–0842,12688.3%6th
2008-0942,90090.5%5th
2009-1045,51395.4%3rd
2010–1145,90596.8%4th
2011-1247,04599.2%4th
2012-1346,97499.1%4th
2013–1447,08099.3%4th
2014–1545,365*97.1%4th
2015–1654,04198.8%3rd

* Stadium capacity was reduced due to expansion works.

If you look back at Maine Road attendances, you’ll find a similar story, of big crowds following the club even as they languished in the third tier of English football. It must also be mentioned that that after adding thousands of seats to the stadium, Premier League games have continued to sell out. Less important cup games are a different matter, but the same can be said of most clubs.

Last season, over one million supporters attended – or bought a ticket to attend – a Premier League game at the Etihad Stadium. Besides Manchester United and Arsenal, two sides with huge global followings, no other club could boast that in England. For City to be able to do that while the brand is still growing globally, is hugely impressive. Once again, this is contrary to the misinformation that is spread around the internet. These are the cold, hard facts.

One other fact is that Manchester City currently have higher average attendances than renowned clubs such as Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Roma, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint Germain, Benfica, FC Porto, Ajax, Feyenoord, Celtic, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce.

I could go on, but you get the point. When was the last time you heard a big deal made about the attendances of all these clubs?

The Empty Seat Obsession

There is an obsession, driven by the press – including some individuals who shall remain nameless but are given VIP treatment by City at the Etihad – about empty seats in England. While a disproportionate amount of coverage on this topic is about City, other clubs get it too. Manchester United had tiers closed and thousands of empty seats on Thursday night, and it received a few headlines.

Having run City Watch for a number of years, I’ve become familiar with the foreign media (particularly Spain, Italy and Germany) and how it works. Empty seats have been known to get a mention too, certainly not with the regularity as in England, where football seems steeped in tribalism more than ever. Where fans celebrate the income their club has earned, when it is often THOSE VERY PEOPLE who are being asked to pay extortionate prices for tickets and merchandise to help achieve this.

Empty seats are really not an issue in most countries, where there seems to be an understanding that not filling a stadium doesn’t mean the club is meaningless or any less important. Barcelona rarely fill the Camp Nou and a couple of years ago drew just 38,505 for a Copa del Rey game against Real Sociedad. To put that into perspective, that is 39% capacity. If the Etihad was to ever be 39% full, that would mean a crowd of around 21,500 – even the hastily rearranged game against Borussia Mönchengladbach, with thousands unable to attend on short notice, brought in around 10,000 more than that.

Delusion vs. Reality

Manchester City will continue to grow as a club and more fans will arrive. Every year, season cards sell out quickly and it is said that around 10,000 remain on the waiting list for one. The North Stand expansion is likely to go ahead sooner rather than later and City will sell close to 60,000 tickets for every Premier League game in a few years time. That may be hard to believe for people who get their information from the mischievous red tops, banter accounts on Twitter, or Dave down at the local, but it is an accurate prediction based on the current demand for season tickets.

We’re in the post-truth world now, where honesty seems less important than ever, and so the ‘Emptihad’ jibes will go on. I’ve noticed that many City fans are highly sensitive about this topic – after all, it’s an attack on a fan base that has rarely been anything less than exemplary throughout the years. Just remember, in most cases the offenders are trying to make themselves feel important and fit in with the flock.

The reality is that City is and always has been a very well supported club. Keeping in mind the decades of zero success, the number of people who continued to turn up throughout the years was unbelievable. In the present day, attendances are regularly 54,000-plus and only seven clubs on the continent had higher averages last season – within a few years, that number could be reduced to only five (Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund).

Emptihad? Sure, there will continue to be empty seats, but don’t let it get in the way of the fact here – that Manchester City is one of the best supported clubs in Europe.

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