Two years after Nedum Onuoha joined Manchester City’s academy, the club he supported was relegated to English football’s third tier.
Fast forward 23 years, and the club has joined Europe’s elite, having just won its fifth Premier League title in nine years on Tuesday after fierce rivals Manchester United were defeated 2-1 by Leicester City.
The city has been transformed under the stewardship of Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who took over the club in 2008 and has finished outside of the top two only twice in the last nine years. Under their leadership, the club reached its first Champions League final in its history this year.
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 spectacular, and unfortunately not enough people have been able to witness it in the flesh.”
Despite the fact that manager Pep Guardiola strengthened his defence, which was a problem in the 2019/20 season, with the summer acquisition of Rben Dias from Benfica, City began the season as underdogs to reigning Premier League champion Liverpool.
The city had a slow start to the season and after seven matches, Guardiola’s team sat 13th in the table, but then everything seemed to click.
From November 28, 2020, to March 7, 2021, City went unbeaten in 28 games, breaking the record for the most consecutive victories by a top-flight English team in all competitions and matching the club record for unbeaten matches.
Former Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott cites the club’s 2-0 win over Newcastle in December as a watershed moment in the club’s title bid.
“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 we’re 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.”
Despite falling short against archrivals Manchester United, City’s march to the title has featured a combination of Guardiola’s tactical brilliance and individual wizardry from the team’s superstars.
The club won its third Premier League title in four years thanks to the elegance we’ve come to expect from Kevin de Bruyne, the all-encompassing action of Ilkay Gundogan, and the breakthrough of young star Phil Foden.
The absence of fans will undoubtedly “impact the celebrations,” according to Lescott, who recalls the times he celebrated with City fans after winning the title.
However, the qualities displayed by the players and Guardiola during this extraordinary season deserve to be recognized and appreciated, even with a crammed schedule and European Super League chatter rumbling in the background.
“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.”