Neville argues that Premier League owners must open up to fans

‘City’s Abu Dhabi owners have transformed Manchester – but it’s time we forced owners like them to answer tough questions’: Gary Neville’s damning verdict on Premier League club owners in latest extract from his new book

  • GARY NEVILLE outlines his plans to reform and modernise football 
  • Sheikh Mansour has transformed Man City since taking ownership of the club 
  • We all marvel at the City side, but should we question the money that pays for it? 
  • The city has been changed for the better thanks to Abu Dhabi investment

I don’t have a problem with owner funding as long as they can afford it, as Sheikh Mansour clearly can. But it does raise questions about exactly how a state interacts with the Premier League. 

And what rules need to apply to regulate owner funding. But there are probably bigger questions of a graver nature to ask when we’re considering whether Abu Dhabi and now Saudi Arabia should be part of a Premier League club.

We all marvel at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but should more questions be asked about the money that pays for it? 

Gary Neville has delivered a damning verdict in the first extracts from his brilliant new book

Sheikh Mansour has completely transformed Manchester City since taking ownership

Sheikh Mansour is the deputy prime minister of the country. It’s hard to believe he’s not aware of the reports from international organisations about human rights, and treatment of immigrant workers, women and the LGBT community in the United Arab Emirates.

What Abu Dhabi have done in Manchester in association with the city council is exceptional. It’s not just the stadium and the Etihad Campus, where I trained with England when I was Roy Hodgson’s assistant and which is an extraordinary facility. The entire area has been transformed and we’re a better city thanks to Abu Dhabi investment. 

The criticism has been that they got the land on the cheap. But, trust me, no other property developer in Manchester would have wanted to take on that land and invest £1bn to build homes. It was too risky. And they have also provided land and money to build a leisure centre, sixth-form college and a health centre for the community. 

There is no doubt residents have benefited from Abu Dhabi and that in turn has encouraged money from the USA and Asia to come in and enrich the city, create more jobs, better working conditions, better pay; to improve lives and improve our region. Abu Dhabi’s investment in City has been a trailblazer.

The Citizens have won four Premier League titles in the last five competitive season

But the more I learned about Abu Dhabi, beyond the City team and beyond east Manchester, the harder it is to just turn away and say these aren’t our concerns. We can’t really be passionate about getting things right in our own country regarding our failures over human rights and ignore what is happening in Abu Dhabi just because they also give us Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne. 

And yet clearly we can’t change Abu Dhabi in a way we can effect change in the UK. Sheikh Mansour isn’t going anywhere and his model of investment has revolutionised our game. If our understanding of Abu Dhabi was better it would have pricked our conscience about what goes on there.

And yet when the former president, Sheikh Khalifa, died in 2022, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, travelled to the UAE to meet with MBZ and pay his condolences. ‘The bond between the UK and the UAE is deep,’ said a statement on Prince William’s behalf. That’s how important the UAE and its oil is to his country.

I’ve tried to understand the balance of the great positives that Manchester City’s ownership have achieved on and off the pitch, and some of the major human and workers rights abuses that occur in the UAE. Should the two issues be separated?

The investment from Abu Dhabi has allowed the owners to build a dynasty at the club

Should state related ownership be allowed? All these questions need to be answered satisfactorily by a new regulator for football.

My personal position has always been to work with other nations and not expel them. Being round the table means you have more chance to change and alter behaviours than you do on opposite sides of the fence. Football is powerful and can influence political and societal issues. 

One thing I am clear on is that entry into football ownership in this country must be done through an independently created licensing system with transparency. This licence should be regularly reviewed by the regulator to assess owners’ external activity away from the game. We’ve seen with Chelsea and Roman Abramovich that we can’t just turn a blind eye.

Saudi Arabia gets a PR boost at Newcastle but no one gets to question them. And that’s not just an issue for Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. It is also true of the big American owners. They get the trophy, but we never hear from Liverpool’s John W Henry unless it’s a pre-recorded apology video.

We’ve seen with Chelsea and Roman Abramovich that we cannot turn a blind eye to politics

Joel Glazer has directed policy at Manchester United since 2005 and he has never once done a TV or newspaper interview in the UK or been asked questions about his multiple failures. He has started meeting with fans after the Super League fiasco but who knows how long that will last?

The current lack of accountability is completely unacceptable. Whether you’re from New York or Newcastle, Saudi Arabia or Southend, if you want to play our game, you should have to stick to our rules.

All clubs should have an annual meeting that is open to season-ticket holders and members. The regulator should ensure that the ultimate beneficial owner of the club is there to address the fans and answer questions. If that’s a head of state or a reclusive oligarch, so be it. They should be there with their chief executive.

All clubs should have an annual meeting that is open to season-ticket holders and members

In addition, at least once a year, Premier League owners and key executives should have to come before a panel of the regulator, potentially with journalists invited to contribute as well, to answer questions in public. 

Not just questions about who you’re going to sign in the transfer window. If the panel want to ask about Jamal Khashoggi or LGBT rights, that’s totally legitimate. There should be no bars. It should be like a House of Commons Select Committee. The panel should have the right to summon EFL owners as well.

If you want to enjoy the riches of English football, you should open yourself up to questions. If you don’t like that, tough. It’s ridiculous that Eddie Howe is the only person at Newcastle we get to ask about human rights or that Thomas Tuchel is left to answer questions on the Abramovich sanctions. Owners need to be forced out of hiding. We can’t change government policy in Saudi Arabia but we can scrutinise the owners of Newcastle.

Extracts taken from The People’s Game: A View From A Front Seat in Football by Gary Neville which is published on Thurs, Sept 15 (Hodder & Stoughton). Neither Gary Neville nor the publisher has been paid for these extracts.

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