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Fortifying the future at Fortress Etihad

Manchester City’s transformation into one of Europe’s biggest and most prestigious clubs continues with the Etihad set to become the second largest stadium in the Premier League.

A public consultation exercise showing proposals to expand the present 48,000 capacity to beyond 60,000, concluded yesterday, with City set to reveal their preferred option next week.

The comprehensive approach by the club has sought to address a host of topics, not least, boosting home attendances in line with City’s enhanced profile, accommodating an ever widening fan base and striving to provide a peerless match day experience, both in terms of what happens on the pitch and the atmosphere and facilities within the stadia.

With the club enjoying an excellent relationship with Manchester City Council and working in partnership on the exciting Etihad Campus development, it’s highly unlikely City will meet with any opposition to the ambitious expansion programme.

The principal focus is on adding a third tier to both the North and South stands with approximately 6,000 seats at each end. A primary consideration of the consultation process is to determine whether to extend both stands simultaneously, or opt for a staggered approach.

Much seems to depend on the size of the waiting list for season tickets, hence City are launching a sales drive as of next Wednesday, inviting fans to place a £100 reservation-deposit on seats in the new third tier seating at either end of the ground.

City’s own research and data shows that all of the home sections of the Etihad have sold out for Premier League matches over the past two-and-a-half seasons, apart from one occasion.

Last season the away support section behind the goal in the South Stand sold out for 11 of the 19 PL fixtures. In most instances City supporters were able to take up the extra seats. Indeed the accommodation of away fans has been a major element in the consultation.

Like most clubs, City are keen to have an electrifying atmosphere come kick-off time whether it be lunchtime, 3pm or tea time on a Saturday, early or late afternoon on a Sunday or night-time fixtures.

The ‘banter’ between sets of fans can often set the tone for proceedings, but as a counter balance, City – like any team playing at home – want to maximise that advantage.

The debate has raged long and hard as to whether City are too generous to opposition fans, allowing them to encourage their team from behind the goal in the South Stand.

Most away fans in the PL are shunted to the side where the perception is one that they can’t be as influential in roaring their team on, especially at corner kicks and situations in and around the box.

St James’ Park, Newcastle is a prime example. An oxygen tent and vertigo tablets wouldn’t go amiss when populating the away section at the home of the Toon.

That said, it was a heavenly experience when Yaya Toure bagged a brace in the penultimate game of City’s title-winning 2011/12 campaign.

A re-shaped Etihad could see away fans ‘seated’ (like most away fans, bums, never touch seats during the match) in a narrower band of seats through all three tiers in the corner of the South Stand.

The effect would be to nullify the benefits of a vociferous away support whilst not necessarily killing off the atmospherics. It would also make it easier to segregate away fans and therefore ease any worries from a health, safety and policing perspective.

Conscious of wanting to optimise crowd ‘noise’ and singing, the covering of any extended North and South Stands is being assessed by acoustics experts, in a bid to contain sound within the arena, rather than have it dissipate into the Manchester sky.

Harmonising acoustics with the aesthetics is a prime consideration at the Etihad, not just for when the City fans blast out a celebratory chorus of Blue Moon, but also in its capacity as a prime venue for major concerts during the summer months.

If you’ve paid top dollar for the likes of Bon Jovi, Take That, Muse or whoever, you want to keep that sound reverberating in your ears rather than have it drift off over Beswick and downtown Droylsden!

Initial estimates suggest the construction work could be completed within 18 months and, subject to planning permission, could even begin during the present 2013/14 season.

The construction work will have a minimal impact on the match day crowds, with the only temporary casualty likely to be the Legends Lounge hospitality suite in the South Stand.

Pricing and affordability are also key factors being considered by City’s decision-makers. With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules to be adhered to, the club has an obvious requirement to boost match day revenues, but not to the preclusion of fans who are feeling the pinch in this economic downturn.

Much has been made of the proposed £299 season ticket in the extended North and South stands, helping make PL football more accessible and affordable at an average of just £15.73 per match.

More evidence of how money-mad Manchester City are ruining football...NOT!

It’s not only commonsense, it also makes business sense to ensure a 60,000 plus arena is full each and every game. The obvious knock-on effects of sales at the City retail store, food, drinks and programmes should not be under estimated.

In striving to accommodate lower income customers, City are also helping the next generation of City fans embrace the club.

City know the demographics of their support and it’s imperative the club capture the imagination of young fans to complement the ‘old timers’ , the diehards who’ve been through thin and anorexic times, prior to Roberto Mancini’s reign.

Many old City fans wear the badge of honour of : ‘We were here when we were sh*t’ and some object to the influx of new fans, often and sometimes unfairly, dismissed as ‘gloryhunters’.

Rightly or wrongly, if a club is to reach the top and remain at the pinnacle of both English and European football, it has to be commercially viable.

Such success can only be sustained by ‘globalisation’ with City emulating and, who knows, in time perhaps surpassing, the popularity of those across the way in Trafford.

It is both naive and ill-informed to perpetuate the notion that City should not court markets in the USA, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. It doesn’t mean the club has compromised its links with Manchester and its local environment – nothing could be further from the truth.

The award winning City in the Community (CITC) arm - in the safe hands of ex-keeper Alex Williams MBE - continues to forge ever stronger bonds throughout the city and surrounding areas, putting so many positives back into Mancunian society.

Who in their right mind, would dare to suggest that Sheikh Mansour’s extensive and continued investment in Manchester can be anything but beneficial for all parties – the club, the local economy, business and commerce interests and employment prospects.

The development of the Etihad is a vital building block in City’s blueprint for sustainability and profitability and the real beauty is that it will be financed outside of the suffocating constraints of Michel Platini's FFP regulations.

By David Walker

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