When Saturday comes – lessons from Manchester City’s success

Oh Manchester, so much to answer for – just one of Stephen Morrissey’s lyrics amongst many, but they sprung to mind on Sunday afternoon when the blue half of Manchester got one over the red half of town and earned the bragging rights, the first time in a generation. A blue moon over Manchester. Not that we often have a red sun, rather grey clouds and rain.

Meanwhile, 30 miles up the road in Burnley, we’re eagerly awaiting the Championship fixtures published 9am 18 June to welcome Bolton and Blackburn, and hopefully Blackpool next season too, where we’ll overcome alphabetical order and be Lancashire’s Number One. Of course, we all ready are and always will be Number One, whatever the statistics of a league table say.

Having previously blogged about Barcelona’s tactical approach to the game and lessons we can take into business, I’ve looked at Mancini’s Marvels and pulled out some thoughts as to the key features of the team’s success, and suggested ten ways in which business owners and managers can likewise raise their own game by learning from their example.

1. Collective pride instead of individual egos. Football, by its very nature, requires teamwork. While big egos are common, long-term success is built on a strong team ethic. Some teams bank on the ability of one star player. However, City stood out in that not only were all the players important, but that no one was indispensable either. Companies should remind themselves that teamwork and group pride are essential for success.

2. Balance between youth and experience. The City team, with an average age of 26, had just the right mix of talented youth and more experienced players. Teams that rely too much on youth often lack the experience needed to flourish. On the other hand, older teams are unable to withstand the physical demands of the season. For companies, having a balanced team enables constant rejuvenation, the transfer of knowledge from seniors to juniors, and takes advantage of youthful irreverence and elder wisdom.

3. Solid leadership. One essential part of Mancini’s success was his captain, Vincent Kompany, who brought discretion, calmness and patience to the role. Firms, like football teams, often struggle due to an absence of strong leadership.

4. Dream big and believe in it. Watching the games over the season I was taken by City’s players’ high level of self-belief. Of course, dreaming big does not by itself guarantee success, what made the difference was that the players seemed to think the dream was attainable. To win a 38 game season in the last two minutes of the final games shows this! The same goes for companies. In order to develop a genuine dream for the company, there must be a shared mission that is bold and big on passion, yet grounded in reality.

5. Professionalism. With their Dubai backers’ deep pockets, City attracted the finest foreign players as a means of reaching the highest levels of competition. This seemed to make the English players in the squad raise their own game. This virtuous circle of continuous improvement has had a huge, positive effect on the team’s technical levels, which impressed throughout the season. Frequently, certain firms – family businesses, in particular – tend to avoid the professionalism process, because they fear change. As a result, they miss out on potential benefits, including enhanced performance and greater longevity.

6. Leverage competition. Fierce competition between the top four clubs in the Premier League has led to higher levels of competitiveness. It is often forgotten that competition can have positive effects on company performance, leading to more innovation, productivity and growth.

7. Faith in strategy. City’s fast-paced, creative style of play meant it could pick other teams apart with relative ease. More importantly, unlike the other teams they always kept the same style, regardless of circumstances. Firms, like football teams, must accept that good strategies often take time to crystallise. Results don’t always come with the first try, and patience is vital in achieving long-term goals.

8. Ability to overcome adversity. City had to overcome the prospect of losing their final game – 1-2 down and into injury time – and yet still went on to win the game and the league. This was the result of strong morale, a collegial atmosphere and a profound passion for what they were doing. Disappointing results are just as common in business, but you can overcome them, if you have passion, ability and mind-set to win.

9. Do not let dependency dictate your future. After so many decades of disappointment, the City team could have been forgiven for succumbing to defeatism. But while history matters, past results are not necessarily good predictors of future performance. Business executives need to challenge the belief that path dependency is hard to break, and acknowledge that experiences from the past are not necessarily the best recipes for the future.

10. Fans’ support. A key external factor in City’s triumph was the strength of the support received from their fans, like Burnley’s, always regarded as genuine football fans. City’s support is based largely on a traditional fan base, passed down from generations of the same family, predominantly Mancunians. This creates a genuine emotional connection and gives people reason to believe that bigger things are possible.

Fans (customers) are obviously equally important for companies. When firms gain a following, revenues improve, and profits and cash generate benefits for all stakeholders, leading to an improved ability to innovate, enhance corporate image and reputation, and build a better business.

But like many, I don’t see Burnley FC as a business and the role of the fans as customers. However I’m in a generation which has seen the game run by money. You can’t avoid talking about it with Manchester City and Chelsea’s recent rise. It’s the word ‘business’ that gets me. Admittedly a football club is now, more than ever, a business with assets, employees, a management structure, a marketing department etc. and tries to make money. But how many ‘businesses’ do you know that have provided such a multitude of emotions for so many people consistently year upon year and have legions of dedicated followers? To quote Sean Bean in a Sky Sports advertisement football is a feeling that can’t be explained, but we spend our lives trying to explain it.

Despite looking for the business lessons from City’s success – remember it is game – everyone talks about the riches of playing in the Premiership. It’s not about pride, pitching your wits and skills against the very best, building a team from talented young players – the reward of getting into the top league is all calibrated in monetary terms. For me, it’s still romantic, evocative. Every time I leave Turf Moor after a home game, I walk through the streets of terraced houses around the ground with the hordes of people, and turn round to see the floodlights fully 100ft high adorning the exterior of one of the stands, lit up in the twilight. I think of the families, adults and children alike who frequent those houses and who sometimes catch a glimpse of these lights through their bedroom windows or through the gap between streets and what it must mean to them to have their football club on their doorstep, serving the community and uniting residents year upon year.

Friendships, relationships and family all come and go. They live and they die. But one thing that certainly stays for life is your football club, and I’m chuffed for the die-hard City fans I know. It’s nothing like being a loyal customer, you only have one team, and it’s an emotional, lifetime commitment. But this is slowly being eroded with the financial pressures to succeed and the cost of being in the Premiership club, which is ultimately closed to clubs like Burnley because we have passion, a heritage and an identity  but not an overseas billionaire to fund us. But do you what, it’s all about how you measure success and why you follow your team, and for me it’s about my team, my fellow fans, seeing a good game, winning more than we lose, and simply being there.

So it’s come down to this: Manchester City has been crowned champions of England for the first time since 1968. Or put another way, a business that over the last five years has outlaid nearly double what its nearest financial rival can stump up, saw the results of all that hard work, with a final day triumph decided on goal difference.

The facts are that City’s net spend for the last five years is £419m, dwarfing Chelsea’s £156m, Liverpool’s £120m and Tottenham’s £67m. Bringing up the middle are the titans of Sunderland with £69m, Aston Villa on £68m and Stoke on £60m, while Manchester United limp in at a lowly eighth with £52m. When a club with the largest revenues in world football is being out-spent on player resources by Stoke, something surely must be rotten in the state of Mancunia.

The typical football fan’s experience is low-key, downbeat, a series of disappointments with random spikes of unheralded, unfounded optimism that it could be our year. From this, coupled with the typical fan’s insistence on returning for the same treatment, season in, season out, arises the rueful humour that it doesn’t matter what they serve up to the customer, we’ll be back.

So the ten lessons for business from City’s victory, let’s hope there are more insights next year. Tell that to City fans though and chances are they don’t care, it’s all about being the Kings of Manchester – at any price – and next stop Europe, out spending the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid with Sheikh Mansour’s dirhams.

Good luck to them, but it’s not for me. For us folks at Burnley, it’s more than 90 minutes. In today’s super-saturated, Sky Super Sunday climate in which football seems inescapably, blaringly dominated by money, for us it’s still putting on that claret shirt with pride. This is Burnley, not Barcelona, When Saturday Comes.

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