The club's first League Cup final since their 1976 win over Newcastle is a reminder that Sheikh Mansour's investment has altered the landscape in ways nobody could have envisaged
When Manchester City last went to Wembley to play in the League Cup final, in 1976, I was 11, and Dennis Tueart's overhead kick to beat Newcastle United 2-1 was the most breathtaking high point of a young supporter's life. The photograph of Tueart's goal, which decorated crowds of bedrooms, preserves him in his sky blue cup final shirt with no sponsor's name on the chest, the 100,000 crowd mostly standing to watch. Tueart's back is perfectly parallel with the pitch, his eyes fixed on the ball, right boot stretched overhead to arrow it down, three Newcastle defenders frozen around him. It is probably the image I have looked at more than any in my life, so much did I gaze at it as a kid.
Sunday's League Cup final return of the club bought in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi – who has spent £1bn amassing Manuel Pellegrini's likely all-foreign team, Joe Hart excepted – prompts thoughts of how the club and English football have changed beyond anybody's 1970s imagining.
Even back then some old‑timers would grumble that football was not what it had been, that it had become too money-driven since the abolition of the maximum wage and clubs' retention of players' contracts. Sir Tom Finney's recent passing has reminded us that Preston North End thwarted his desire to move abroad and earn more, yet this tethering of his generation was presented as players' loyalty, which was eroding by the 70s.
Tueart and Dave Watson, another England international and defensive crag in that fine 1976 team, had been signed by City from this year's final opponents, Sunderland, for fees of £200,000 (Tueart was signed jointly with Mick Horswill) after they starred in Bob Stokoe's team that won the extraordinary 1973 FA Cup final against the power of Leeds United.
Yet alongside that pair, Joe Royle and the midfield sparkle of Asa Hartford, the other seven players in the City team named in the Wembley programme (cost: 20p) had been with the club since they were boys, from the long-serving Alan Oakes to the emerging talent of the winger Peter Barnes, who drove in the first goal.
In the writer Gary James' Manchester: the Greatest City, his encyclopaedic history of the club, there is a picture of a ticket for the 1976 final, located in Wembley's east standing enclosure. The price was £1.50. It was the modern era. Players' earnings and transfer fees had been unshackled, the game and Tueart's overhead kick were televised by ITV in colour, but at those prices even the highest class of football was recognisably the people's game.
Junior blues captivated by their team, which had been steadily rebuilt after the late 1960s and 1970 triumphs of the side featuring Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, had no inkling that 1976 would stand for so long as the last trophy won, and that within three years City would be deconstructed. Peter Swales, the chairman (football did not talk of clubs having "owners" then), brought back Malcolm Allison, coach in the golden years, believing he could finally vanquish United. Instead, he sold Barnes, Hartford and Watson – with Royle, Tueart and the 1976 captain, Mike Doyle, already gone – and signed eccentric replacements, most famously paying Wolves £1.4m for the midfielder Steve Daley.
My clearest memory of relegation in 1983 is not Luton Town's manager, David Pleat, skipping across the Maine Road pitch after their 1-0 victory, but of my friend's 21-year-old brother crying inconsolably. We had grown up with City as a top club, superior to United for most of the 70s, but we would learn there was no easy way back. The roared-in return of the former hero Lee, to supplant Swales finally in 1994, resulted only in relegation to the third tier in 1998. City only clambered out with that last-throes defeat of Gillingham in the Wembley play-off final, the year that United won their treble.
During those first years of football's transformation, spearheaded by United, into a Premier League breakaway business of eyewatering ticket prices, replica shirt selling and stock market flotation, some mistook City fans' glum humour and singing of Blue Moon as the embracing of failure. That was never true: there was always a conviction that "we're not really here" – a yearning fora return among the top clubs. Yet I do not remember it being part of anyone's dream that City needed a rich man to buy the club and pour fortunes in, that revival could not be attained by effort, determination, a youth policy.
Now Sheikh Mansour's extraordinary project, financially fuelling Manchester City into football's elite and into becoming a global billboard for Etihad Airways and Mansour's family-ruled emirate of Abu Dhabi itself, has met remarkable acceptance by City fans and the wider game. From a crowd that habitually scowled its resentment of the old chairman, Swales, who sat and took it, hangs a banner at the Etihad Stadium thanking Sheikh Mansour, who has attended only once.
How will today's 11-year-old boys, half-running up Wembley Way with their dads, remember this Capital One Cup final in 38 years' time, when they are their dads' age? Is it possible they will look back at this occasion, when the ticket prices are a mere £40-£100, the top players paid only £200,000 per week, both clubs are owned by overseas investors, as their age of glorious innocence?
David Conn's book Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, is published by Quercus