Welcome to Manchester: The Inside Story of a Famous Billboard

Every day, David Pullan took a detour on his
way to work, heading round the Mancunian Way, then through a divided football city until
he came out at the junction near Strangeways prison and the old Boddingtons brewery. Then,
he would look up to the billboard that, for two weeks in July 2009, formed another landmark
on Manchester’s cityscape. He would find a place to park and as he walked
over to get a closer look, he would be reminded why he had made sure those three words of
mischief — “Welcome to Manchester” — were positioned high enough off the pavement to
prevent Manchester United supporters from defacing it. “Every morning” Pullan told The Athletic,
there would be socks filled with red paint lying on the street at the bottom of the poster.
“Overnight, the United fans would come down with tins of red paint, fill up these socks
and throw them at the poster to try to turn it red. But it never properly worked.” Pullan was the Manchester City executive who
convinced the club that Carlos Tevez’s signing was an opportunity to have a bit of fun at
United’s expense. It was the banner that came to symbolise City’s shifting ambitions
at a time when they were still the new kids on the block, in their first year of Abu Dhabi
ownership and fighting to establish themselves among the football elite. It showed Tevez, a United player for the previous
two seasons, in a familiar pose: arms outstretched, with wild hair and jagged teeth. Now, though, it was a sky-blue backdrop with
a message that read as if the Argentine striker was new to town or being introduced to the
real Manchester, rather than the one, if you understand the local rivalries and geography,
that had a Stretford address and took a large proportion of their support from neighbouring
Salford. Pullan, who was City’s chief brand and marketing
officer, chose the location deliberately, opposite the Manchester Arena, because it
formed the border between the two cities. The billboard was strategically positioned
to face towards Salford. And it was so provocative that even Garry Cook, the former CEO who was
notoriously unapologetic and bold in his ambition, was unsure at first whether it was a good
idea. “Garry didn’t want to run it because he
felt it was antagonistic towards United fans at a time when the whole Abu Dhabi ethos was
to be respectful,” Pullan remembers “They didn’t want to play that game.” “I sat down with Garry and said ‘it’s
tongue-in-cheek, it’s funny, it’s a way of showing our fans that, despite all the
changes and all the money coming into the club, we still understand them and we still
care about them. We aren’t being disrespectful. It’s celebratory. Garry was persuaded that
it wasn’t a negative thing to do. The fans loved it.” Pullan still has a framed picture of the News
of the World’s back page showing the poster in all its controversial glory. It also led to publicity as far afield as
Malaysia, Australia and the United States, including an article in the New York Times
asking whether City’s intention was to show that Tevez had found a different city than
– to quote – “the poseurish Manchester represented by the nationally and internationally
renowned United, who count more supporters abroad than they do at home.” The entire stunt — designed by Johnny Vulkan
and Carl Johnson, co-founders of the New York-based advertising agency Anomaly — cost £30,000.
City even won a couple of awards for what Pullan describes, on a return-on-investment
basis, as “one of the most valuable pieces of marketing ever.” Yet nothing could have been more precious
for City, in those early stages of their Abu Dhabi-funded growth, than the sulphurous reaction
of Sir Alex Ferguson. For the previous 20 years, Ferguson had never
bothered himself too much with the team from the stadium he called “the Temple of Doom”.
When he talked about United’s rivals it was always Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea,
even Leeds. City were an afterthought. But no more. The poster, he said, was “stupid and arrogant.”
City were “a small club with a small mentality.” Ferguson had bitten, big-time. “It’s City, isn’t it?” he said. “All
they can talk about is Manchester United. They can’t get away from it. That arrogance
will be rewarded. It is a go at us, that’s the one thing it is. They think taking Carlos
Tevez away from Manchester United is a triumph. It is poor stuff.” Ferguson’s reaction also led to a certain
amount of unease behind the scenes at City. “The fact it irritated him caused a bit
of a wobble with the owners,” Pullan said. “They didn’t want to take him on, head
on. They didn’t want to make it out that City was the future and United were the past. “We weren’t trying to annoy Ferguson but
the fact he allowed himself to get annoyed by something so small tells you everything
about the direction of travel at that time.” When the two teams locked horns in the Carling
Cup semi-final later that season, amid all sorts of new tensions, the television commentator
introduced the first leg from the Etihad with the words, “Welcome to Manchester. Tevez scored both City goals in a 2-1 win
and ran to the touchline to taunt Gary Neville, an unused United substitute. Neville, who
had remarked in the media that United were justified in not signing Tevez, responded
by giving him the middle finger. Tevez would later describe him as a “boot-licking moron”
on Argentinian radio. The tone was very much set. Or, rather, it was set in Tevez’s first
Manchester derby in City’s colours, this time at Old Trafford, and another wild affair
probably best remembered for Ferguson christening the losing team the “noisy neighbours.” Michael Owen scored United’s winner in a
4-3 classic and, within moments of disappearing down the tunnel, Ferguson had subjected City’s
chief communications officer, Vicky Kloss, to the full “hairdryer” treatment, shouting
in her face in the apparent belief that she had been behind the “Welcome to Manchester”
campaign. Ferguson did not seem to care about an obvious
hypocrisy given that, at the other side of the stadium, a banner was permanently in place
to mock the number of years since City last won a trophy. United had even used a photograph
of the “ticker”, as it was known, as part of a membership drive in their match-day programme
when City visited Old Trafford for an FA Cup tie in 2004. United could never claim the moral high ground,
even in response to City’s obvious cheek.

36 thoughts on “Welcome to Manchester: The Inside Story of a Famous Billboard

  1. "Aguerooooooooo!!!!!!!"

    That, and when Eden Hazard scored against Tottenham to seal Leicester's position as the Premier League winners, are still two of the best footballing moments that make grown men watching those videos shed a tear.

  2. Do you do anything other than stories from the athletic remember when this channel actually did its own original stuff

  3. This transfer really shifted the landscape in Manchester. Not immediately, but overtime. Carlos Tevez Rooney and Ronaldo were an ELITE front three. Don’t sleep on how big this was

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