And although there were no fans at any of the club’s Premier League games this season to soak up its success — there were 2,000 at its Carabao Cup victory in April — this year’s title, comprised of a slow start, a historical winning run and success in multiple competitions has been “insane,” according to Onuoha.
“For them to be able to come back in the manner in which they did and play some of the best football we’ve probably ever seen in Premier League history, to win that many games in a row … We’re talking probably once in a career, if you’re lucky, team,” Onuoha, who was at the club for over 16 years, told CNN Sport.
“[Not having fans in stadiums] is a shame because the quality of football that they’ve played has been absolutely spectacular, and unfortunately not enough people have been able to witness it in the flesh.”
Even though manager Pep Guardiola shored up his defense — which was a problem in the 2019/20 season — with the acquisition of Rúben Dias from Benfica in the summer, City entered the season as underdogs to reigning Premier League champion Liverpool.
City had a slow start to the season and after seven matches, Guardiola’s team sat 13th in the tabl, but then everything seemed to click.
From November 28, 2020, until March 7, 2021, City didn’t lose a game, recording 21 successive wins and going a remarkable 28 game unbeaten-run, breaking the record for the most consecutive victories by a top-flight English team in all competitions and equaling the club record of unbeaten matches.
Former Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott singles out the 2-0 victory over Newcastle in December as the turning point in the club’s title push.
“The mentality [after the Newcastle game] where the manager addressed it as being the best performance in and out of possession,” the two-time Premier League champion told CNN Sport.
“I think he was more concerned with how the team were playing with the ball, not out of possession. Yes, they were losing [in the] early part of the season, conceding goals, but it was more to do with being patient and doing less running with the ball.
“And as you win more games, you gain more confidence and you gain more confidence as a team, [that] also diminishes the opposition as well when they see you and they know you’re sweeping teams to the side. It kind of gives you a psychological edge in the buildup to a game.”
Although City ended up stumbling against archrivals Manchester United, its procession to the title has showcased a mix of Guardiola’s tactical brilliance and individual wizardry from the team’s superstars.
Through the elegance we’ve come to know from Kevin de Bruyne, the all-encompassing action of Ilkay Gundogan and the breakthrough of young star Phil Foden, the club romped to its third Premier League title in four years.
The absence of fans will definitely “impact the celebrations,” according to Lescott, remembering the times he celebrated with supporters after winning the title for City.
However, the qualities shown by the players and Guardiola in this extraordinary season — with a crammed schedule and European Super League chatter rumbling in the background — deserve to be recognized and appreciated.
“You have to give a lot of credit because it’s taken for granted the kind of mental strength and the physical relentlessness that’s imposed on your body, so just to kind of day in, day out to stay focused and get the job done,” Lescott said.
“And I think the manager and the players have done a great job of keeping themselves fit and rotating the players when needed, because obviously this is an unprecedented season in regards to the fixtures and playing pretty much every four days.”
For the historically more successful Manchester United, the rise of its “noisy neighbor” has been a jolt.
Onuoha, who has been a fan of City since his youth and joined the club’s academy in 1996 despite having the choice of both Manchester clubs, remembers the days when the first team and the youth team used to play on the same training pitch.
He was also a former ball boy for the club. He reminisces about the ball boy room being right next to the tunnel in City’s old stadium, Maine Road, and the close connection the players and the fans had, even though the team was no world-beater at that stage.
A move away from the old-school Maine Road to the more cavernous, modern City of Manchester Stadium — now Etihad Stadium — in 2004 was a portent for the club’s modernization.
While acknowledging a move was vital for the club’s development, playing in the new stadium “lost a bit of the magic that existed at Maine Road,” according to Onuoha.
“Maine Road was truly … it was an incredible stadium. People have got so many memories from it. You had the character of each individual stand, taunts or chanting towards this side, chanting towards that side. It was one hell of an experience.”
From the intimate Maine Road to hosting Barcelona in the grand opening of the new 55,000-seater stadium, playing against legends such as Ronaldinho, change was in the air at Manchester City.
Following the brief ownership of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from June 2007 to September 2008 — which stabilized the club’s finances — the current owners took over and changed the European football landscape.
Upon its arrival in Northern England, the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) was quick to throw money at City.
Kieran Maguire, a university lecturer on football finance and author of The Price of Football, told CNN Sport last year that the club spent £62 million ($77 million) on transfers in 2008, the summer after Sheikh Mansour took charge, which included breaking the British transfer record on Brazilian forward Robinho the same day as the takeover.
That was about 12 times what the club had spent the previous year. Onuoha describes walking onto the training ground to face someone of Robinho’s caliber as “surreal.”
And City’s outgoings on players only grew in the years that followed. Two seasons later, the likes of David Silva, Yaya Touré, Mario Balotelli and Edin Džeko were all brought in as, according to Maguire, £165 million ($204 million) was splashed on transfers in 2011.
Further incomings continued over the years, with stalwarts such as De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Ederson and Dias all moving to Manchester.
But more importantly than the vast amount of money spent on transfers and infrastructure for Onuoha, it was the talk of long-term change and success that set these new owners apart for the players and fans.
“Hearing the talk that these guys are serious. They want to win the league. They want to win this. They want to say help the city. They want to turn the club into something,” he explained. “It’s definitely a project to get to the top.
“Those guys committed to changing the workforce, whether it’s players, whether it’s staff or bettering the workforce, even if it’s retraining people already in there. One of the goals was: We want to be competitive to the point we are winning trophies. We’re not just finishing in the top half of the table. We want to win trophies.”
And they didn’t have to wait long. In 2011, City won its first FA Cup since 1969, and the season after, Sergio Aguero helped deliver City its first league title in over 40 years in remarkable fashion, scoring in stoppage time to secure a crucial 3-2 win against QPR.
Since that dramatic conclusion to the 2012 season — Onuoha was playing for QPR against his boyhood club that day — the team has gone on to win four Premier League titles, another FA Cup and six League Cups.
And while the Champions League has remained elusive — so far — there’s no doubt that Manchester City is one of Europe’s top clubs.
Whether it be through smart player transfers or investing in a new training ground, there’s no question that Sheikh Mansour has elevated the club’s standing.
But more importantly for Onuoha is how the club has made a concerted effort to affect more than what happens on the pitch by giving back to the community.
“It’s spread everywhere, providing facilities and stuff, but it takes them into the community. And obviously success on the field is always going to be a major aspect of it all. But it leaves a legacy [that] goes beyond the trophies which they’ve won.
“I think they’ve understood the nature of a City fan. They do understand the club’s history. And even though they’re winning most weeks at this point, there’s still probably a vast majority of the fan base who are used to them not winning at all.
“So when they see all the success now, it’s almost this feeling of like it’s not going to last. But even if it didn’t last, they still left a very, very positive legacy in the city of Manchester itself.”
Not bad for the “noisy neighbor.”
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