August 1998. City are in the second division. With eight managers in eight years, the club have become standard bearers for footballing ineptitude, and the jokes hang heavy in the Manchester air.
There’s the time Franny Lee fainted in the league chairman’s conference. “Franny, Franny, wake up. You’re in the conference”, “Eh? What happened to division 3?”.
And the woman struggling with her bags in Asda; “Can you manage love?”, “No chance Mr Bernstein, I’m not that daft”.
And there’s more. You can hear the sound of clashing cymbals drifting over from Stretford every weekend. Ho Ho. United are sweeping all before them and City are the nation’s joke club.
But the season has started with a couple of wins and City’s support has become a national story. A 30,000 crowd in the first game of the season, a comfortable win, suddenly a corner has been turned and there’s optimism in South Manchester. The fan’s demands are simple and reasonable: 100 points, 100 goals and the Auto Windshields Trophy. History books are scoured for record points totals and the road atlases are dusted down as fans make plans for excursions to exotic football outposts like Wrexham and Gillingham, with humour in their hearts, ready for some fun in the mud. This is the time. This is going to be fun: City, despite their odd-looking new centre forward, are about to storm back up the football ladder.
It’s a sunny Friday evening. I’m in The Didsbury and it’s packed with expectant blues as we face Fulham. There’s a big away support at Craven Cottage for the second game of this historic season. The game is on live television, a rarity in those days. Fulham, with new money, are on the rise but we are City, the big boys, resounding favourites for the title. Time for Genial Joe Royle to teach that grumpy little curly man who the real daddies of this division are. We sit back, exchanging banter and charging our glasses. Like the fans of the invisible man, we’re not really there, but we are in spirit. And in wine. And particularly in beer.
My beer is only half drunk and our Georgian centre half, a big reason for our optimism, is stretchered off, badly injured. Then we’re a goal down. Our defenders chase shadows, Fulham run riot and the pub is stunned. The game finishes 3-0 and it could easily have been six. I slink off home with realisation seeping over me like mustard gas. Fulham have hammered home the truth like a stake through the heart. This isn’t going to be the walk in the park we all believed. Maybe, just maybe, City haven’t turned the corner at all. Can things actually get worse than that awful day at The Brittania Stadium three months ago?
They can and they do. The Autumn of 1998 becomes almost unbearable. Big, expectant crowds watch fired-up opposition routinely embarrass a bunch of nervy journeymen wearing the famous sky blue. In the stadium optimism is replaced by tetchiness and at times frustration boils up like foaming blood. The management criticise the supporters in the press for persistent negativity. The players look like schoolboys entering the headmaster’s office as they come out of the Maine Road tunnel. City are imploding and it’s frightening as hell.
Christmas and Manchester City sit in the bottom half of the table. The comedians in Stretford are having a field day. Heard about the new sky blue Oxo cube? Laughing stock they call it. Boom boom. But that joke isn’t funny any more. It’s too close to home and it’s too near the bone. Stoke, the divison’s pacesetters, arrive in front of a capacity Maine Road crowd on Boxing Day, and City look all set for further embarrassment at half time, trailing by the only goal. But something rather magical happens that day. Dickov, Taylor, Weikens et al come out looking pumped up for the first time all season, the crowd sense this and respond and suddenly the game is won amid scenes which are closer to an outpouring of relief than joy. There have been too many false dawns to celebrate this one too wildly, as the cynics in the Sherwood mutter into their pints. A 0-0 draw in the ice at Blackpool seems to prove them right.
Next up it’s Fulham again, this time at home. Now top of the league, they are as close to swashbuckling as football’s third tier can offer. Thoughts of that awful August night are not far away amongst the capacity crowd but there’s a cautious optimism based on the Stoke result and a couple of new signings, a tricky winger called Terry Cooke and a man made from steel, Andy Morrison. City storm onto the park and light up the January Moss Side sky. Wave after wave of attacks rain down on the Fulham goal. The goals flow as the floodlights glow. Keegan looks stunned as Horlock bangs in the third. The roof is coming off Maine Road, the players have a spring in their step and suddenly it’s obvious. City have really, truly, turned the corner at long last, and the renaissance is beginning. The winning run, predicted by an increasingly strained-looking Joe Royle all season, has finally arrived and belief swills around the pubs of Rusholme. I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives, and now it’s happening in mine as I toast victory long into the night.
Those two Fulham games, two wildly contrasting 3-0s, whilst mere footnotes in the club’s rollercoaster history, represented two bookends. They signalled the start of a final, mad, awful descent into the pit of footballing hell and the emergence from it, renewed. The Autumn of 1998 has been largely forgotten by City fans, who have painted that most memorable of seasons in gold in their memories. Most will tell you that the whole club pulled together and got the job of promotion done as a unit. But it wasn’t like that at all as the leaves, and the football world, turned red. Many feared that the club as they knew it was finished. There have been lots of memorable matches between the two famous clubs but these represent two of the most poignant and significant in the evolution of Manchester City from the drunk in the gutter to the lord of the manor.
Have you heard the one about the football club who rose from the dead? It’s a cracker.