S ilenus the satyr, stumbling with age and wine, was taken captive by the Phrygians and taken before King Midas. But the king recognised him as a friend and joyfully led a celebration of his guest’s arrival, lasting 10 days. On the 11th day the king with gladness came to the field of Lydia and restored Silenus to his foster son, Bacchus. The god, delighted at his father’s return, offered Midas a gift. “Make it,” Midas said, “so Manchester City, whom I supported even in the Third Division days, are the richest club in the world.” Bacchus accepted and Midas returned, rejoicing in his bane. But as City won, and kept winning, he came to understand his strange misfortune, for it didn’t make him happy.

One of my earliest memories is of walking into the kitchen and saying: “I wish we lived in Liverpool.” Surprised, my mam asked why. “Because then we might win things.” Looking back, being born and growing up in Sunderland, and being unaware till much later that some people chose their teams, seems an incredibly fortunate escape. Being a fan of a superclub looks immensely stressful. Seriously, have you seen how stressed they are, all the time? Far better to have a couple of pints with your mates, drift along to the game and half-watch it talking nonsense, comfortable in the knowledge that none of it much matters.

Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way? Well, yes. That is exactly why football matters. As a mate said after last season’s Wembley defeat by Charlton – which made Sunderland the second team, after Bolton, to lose in the final of the FA Cup, League Cup, EFL Trophy, Championship and League One play-offs – if we ever do win again at Wembley, it’s not going to feel quite right.

That is a natural defence mechanism and plenty of groups have claimed defeats are precisely what prove their specialness. But still, from the perspective of a League One occasional, it seems preferable to the alternative when the down of a rare defeat (or, at the top of the Premier League these days, draw) becomes more powerful than the up of a victory, when winning becomes so familiar you have to beat Real Madrid to create much of a ripple.

That shift of focus must be particularly hard to process if you’ve grown up supporting a team whose fans revelled in their haplessness, only for a couple of takeovers suddenly to transform your team into a remorseless winning machine. Or, to put it another way, have Manchester City fans really been happy since the moment Sergio Agüero’s shot hit the back of the net three minutes and 20 seconds into added time for their win over QPR on 13 May 2012?

If City beat Aston Villa in the EFL Cup final on Sunday, they will have won eight of the past nine domestic trophies (if you include the Community Shield, which Pep Guardiola certainly does). That is a period of success unprecedented in the English game and they’ve achieved it playing highly attractive, intelligent football. Losing to Villa would bring embarrassment; what would winning mean? How much better, really, is eight than seven, especially with the loss of the league title looming?

If winning brought joy, you’d imagine City fans would be in a state of unbridled glee. Yet even before the Uefa ban, their fans seemed oddly fractious. As they completed a unique domestic treble by beating Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final last season, a City fan stormed the press box at Wembley raging that, as he saw it, his club hadn’t got the credit they deserved.

Since then a section of City social media has slipped into wild conspiracy theory, claiming that not only is Uefa out to get them but that there is a group of journalists coordinating attacks against them. Quite why they would do that, or who is doing the coordinating, or how you coordinate people who struggle with restaurant reservations, remains unclear. But paranoid resistance to an ill-defined enemy is perhaps preferable to acknowledging the awful truth that their club has ceased to be the entity they grew up loving and has become a propaganda tool for a foreign state. And, more broadly, that success isn’t as much fun as everybody assumes it will be.

This is a paradox of the superclub era. As the rich have got richer, so the discourse around football has become angrier. Quite apart from fairness and competition, and the vague moral purpose sport once had, it increasingly feels that a basic joy has been lost to football. When superclubs have such advantages over the rest, the expectation becomes of victory and anything else comes to seem like failure.

Players and crowd share the joy of Sergio Agüero’s goal that won the title in 2012



Players and crowd share the joy of Sergio Agüero’s goal that won the title in 2012. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Images

The greatest triumphs, the ones that are longest remembered and most enjoyed, are those that are unexpected, those that end a long barren period, those against the odds. City had that with the Agüero goal. To look as if they were about to choke at the last and save themselves in that way must have been the greatest of releases, a mass slaying of demons. But when success becomes an obligation, something unhealthy takes root.

For some that frustration has been directed outward. If only journalists made more of the successes, the logic appears to run, then fans would be able properly to enjoy it. Why does Uefa hate them so? And for City, everything, all the beautiful football, all the brilliant goals, has been undercut by the background knowledge that it was funded by questionable money. Far easier to attack the messenger and spin fantastic conspiracies than accept that.

Midas tried to flee his riches, hating what he had wished for. Finally, tortured by his hateful gold, he raised his arms to the heavens and begged forgiveness and Bacchus sent him to the source of the River Pactolus to wash away his cursed blessing.

How many City fans now, in their heart of hearts, wish something similar were possible, wonder if all the success was really worth the moral compromises and the hassle? What, in the end, is happiness?



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