The Rise of the Champions

By David Mooney, Fri 22 June 2012 13:40

The Rise of the Champions

It’s something of a sad affair when you’re a 24 year-old male and you can be considered an expert on something that isn’t picking your nose or scratching. But I, and I daresay most other City fans of a similar age and demographic, am widely knowledgeable about a subject that could be described, at best, as irritating and, at worst, downright infuriating.

The 2011 FA Cup was City’s first trophy in 35 years. The 2012 Premier League title was the first time the Blues have been the best team in England since 1968. If I’m honest, it does make me laugh the horror and shock experienced by Arsenal fans that they – get this – haven’t won anything since 2005. How can any team anywhere have no success for seven years? It must be so difficult for them.

I have friends who support Bradford and Wolves. Imagine how they feel.

My earliest memory of a City match is being drenched to the bone wearing a black bin bag in the Platt Lane Stand of Maine Road as Mark Robbins scored a late winner for Leicester in the early 1990s. To be honest, since then, despite often seeing signs to the contrary, it wasn’t quite the success story that that five year old had hoped for.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been good times. I’ll never forget the promotion season under Kevin Keegan, the five added minutes at Wembley in 1999, the derby day victories – especially the Munich anniversary game at Old Trafford, the end of season pushes for Europe… but despite the success signs being present at regular intervals, City have fallen at several hurdles more often than a horse with three legs running the Grand National. The seeds have always been in place, but the flowers have never quite blossomed.

In fact, they normally withered and died.

Though City’s problems started long before I can remember, I think the first relegation from the Premier League in 1996 sums up the club better than any long winded metaphor I can conceive. The image of Steve Lomas holding the ball next to the corner flag to preserve a 2-2 draw that would be marginally enough to see City safely down into Division One was trumped only by that of the substituted Niall Quinn bursting from the dugout to inform his team-mate that a point wasn’t enough to save the club. It was then generally agreed that City should be searching for a winning goal.

That goal, obviously, didn’t come and it was the start of a rollercoaster seven years where City blew every other yo-yo club out of the water and chose to yo-yo between three divisions, instead of the more conventional two. In fact, I got my first season ticket in the 1997-98 season and – just to give you some perspective, here – I didn’t watch City play in the same division in consecutive seasons until 2003-04, after they had stayed in the Premier League the campaign before.

Skip forward to April 1997. City had two games left of the season and were battling against relegation to the Second Division. Their games couldn’t have been better – they were playing two teams also fighting to avoid the drop – QPR at home and Stoke City away. Two victories would keep the team in the division.

And it was going well when Georgi Kinkladze gave City the lead against QPR. But, as always, it went disastrously wrong when first Mike Sheron levelled. It was a goal that only City could have conceived. After Martyn Margetson had illegally picked up a backpass and been penalised for it, rather than carry the ball back to his goal and get back into position, he simply handed the ball over to the nearest QPR player, who took a quick kick, squaring to give Sheron an open goal.

It didn’t end there. Jamie Pollock then wrote himself in QPR folklore, scoring the own goal that put City’s opposition ahead. Credit where credit’s due, though, it was a bloody good own goal. So good, in fact, that QPR fans hijacked a poll and voted Pollock one of most influential men of the last 2000 years. He ended up rating higher than Jesus.

City rescued a draw, but that meant that, on the final day of the season, they would have to beat Stoke and hope that one of Portsmouth or Port Vale lost. And, in a turn of events that could only conspire against City, both of those teams won, while City thumped Stoke 2-5. Nothing changed in the league and City were down.

Then, at the end of December 1998, I was sitting in the back of a blue Peugeot 405, at the tender age of 11, listening to Andrew Dawson slot the ball past Nicky Weaver and condemn City to a 2-1 defeat at York. At the time, I probably didn’t realise how much of an important moment in City’s history it would be, but that defeat left the club in their lowest ever league position – I suppose it’s times like this that remind me just how lucky I am that it didn’t all spiral on downwards from there, really.

When Joe Royle applied the brakes to City’s downward slide that December, he was able to shuffle things about to get the club out of reverse and put them into first gear. By the time the playoffs came along, City had gotten up into second gear and climbed out of the league at the first attempt, albeit with a cough and a splutter.

With a squad that was largely unchanged from the season before, City finished the next season in fifth gear and flew into second place, guaranteeing automatic promotion to the Premier League. Though, needing just a point to ensure second place at Ewood Park on the final day of the season, the club didn’t half do it the hard way: They were a goal down at half time thanks to Matt Jansen and Blackburn had hit the woodwork four times, while a David Johnson goal at Portman Road meant Ipswich were leading, putting them into second place and City in third.

But goals from Shaun Goater, Mark Kennedy and Paul Dickov, as well as an own goal from Christian Dailly, saw City promoted and the City fans were confident once again. The confidence was boosted by the summer signings of Paulo Wanchope, Alf Inge Haaland, Steve Howey and, notably, the former World Player of the Year, George Weah. Even the manager himself was talking about the possibility of getting into Europe.

Of course, City were relegated.

In came a new manager, namely Kevin Keegan, and with him some new and exciting players – the gem of the 2001-02 season being a free transfer by the name of Ali Benarbia. But it wasn’t a one man team by any stretch of the imagination; Eyal Berkovic played with him in the middle – leading to many satirical and perhaps ill-judged headlines about how Arabs and Israelis can work together. Stuart Pearce joined to shore up the defence, while, despite later admitting he didn’t get on with the manager, Shaun Goater hit the form of his life, becoming the first City player since Francis Lee to score over 30 goals in one season.

With the Division One title under their belt and some excellent football played, City moved on to the next level and finished ninth in the Premier League the following season, qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to the Fair Play League. The run of form saw City beat United in Maine Road’s final derby game. Added to that, the signings of Nicolas Anelka and Robbie Fowler gave the club a bright outlook.

And that meant it was no surprise to any football fan anywhere that the club was nearly relegated again the following season. Aside from another impressive derby day victory and one of the best comebacks in football history at Tottenham in the FA Cup, there wasn’t much for City fans to cheer about. The club was knocked out of the UEFA Cup earlier than expected to the Polish side Groclin. In fact, had it not been for David James’ penalty saves to preserve draws against Wolves and Leicester, and Leeds’ catastrophic goal difference, City could have been in a lot more trouble than they actually were.

Despite starting well, Keegan’s tenure at City ended with a whimper. He resigned just after a home defeat to Bolton, allowing Stuart Pearce to take charge for the end of the 2004-05 season, where City fans would be presented with yet another false dawn.

It all started well for ‘Psycho’. Apart from defeat at Tottenham in his first game, City finished the season with an unlikely leap towards the last UEFA Cup spot. Going into the final day of the season, City sat in ninth and Middlesbrough sat in eighth spot (which would have been enough to qualify for Europe). Typically, it was City against Middlesbrough at Eastlands that would decide both clubs’ fates. City needed to win. For Middlesbrough, a draw would have been enough.

So, at 1-1 with five minutes of the game left, Pearce made his first managerial “last-roll-of-the-dice” decision. With an extra forward on the bench, he opted against putting Jon Macken on in place of Claudio Reyna, choosing instead to play Nicky Weaver and stick David James up front for his height. Then City won a penalty… a goal would leave Middlesbrough less than a minute to find an equaliser and City seconds away from another European campaign.

Robbie Fowler stepped up and missed.

City were gunning well under Pearce, until a series of injuries and suspensions saw the club win only one of their last 10 games of 2005-06 and an utterly awful season of struggle, not helped by a total lack of funds, followed in 2006-07, encompassed by the club’s inability to score at home after New Year’s Day. In fact, that season, City scored 10 home league goals – three of them in one game. If you missed that match with Fulham, you missed 30 percent of them.

‘Psycho’ moved on and he was replaced by the former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson. The club was taken over by Thaksin Shinawatra and anticipation spread when news broke that millions of pounds worth of new and exciting players had joined the club. City got their first derby win at Old Trafford in 34 years and enjoyed a first derby double in even longer.

And, at Christmas, it was all looking good and City were in fourth – confidence of a top four finish was at an all time high amongst City fans. But a disastrous second half of the season, culminating in an 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, saw the team finish ninth. A European place was gained through the Fair Play League… again.

Despite a ropey first season, Hughes started his second campaign at the club well. Excellent performances were joined by clean sheets and early victories, but as Christmas approached on the horizon, form began to dip. A 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford in time added on to time added on was a bitter pill to swallow. And it was those four goals where it all started to go wrong for Hughes.

The following game, West Ham at Eastlands on Monday 28 September, was his last league victory until Saturday 5 December. For 68 days, City didn’t manage a win in the league. Nor did they slump to a defeat, but rather they drew seven matches, throwing away leads and gifting away silly goals.

After the victory over Chelsea that December, City managed just one more win before Hughes lost his job – in true City style, everybody knew that he had been sacked during the game, including the man himself. In his final three games, against Bolton, Tottenham and Sunderland, City picked up four points, but conceded nine goals. And, ultimately, it was the defence that many people thought led to Hughes’ downfall.

Then Roberto Mancini arrived.

City just missed out on the League Cup semi final, losing to another last minute United goal. They just missed out on Champions League football, losing to a late Peter Crouch winner in the penultimate game of the season. The end of the season came and it felt like another false dawn.

But that was buoyed by summer signings of quality players.

Of course, it was a mixed bag to start with – win, lose and draw in the league – but, slowly City turned on the style. One or two blips in form didn’t blot the copybook too much and, once the club had gotten into the top four on Sunday 19 September, 2010, they never dropped out of it.

For the first time in a long time, City did everything right, both on and off the pitch. And it resulted in automatic qualification for the top European competition and a successful FA Cup campaign, including a satisfying semi final revenge against the team from across town.

But it doesn’t end there. The following season, City began with their third trip to Wembley: The Community Shield match with Manchester United. City’s performance was a disaster, but, somehow, they ended up two goals in front, on the stroke of half time – thanks to Joleon Lescott and Edin Dzeko. United’s pressure told, however, and two quick goals after the break pulled them level.

It was at this point so early in the season that Vincent Kompany’s role in the success of the club began to be spelled out. He made a rather uncharacteristic mistake in the final minute, gifting the ball to Nani and the Portuguese winger ran half the length of the field, took it past Joe Hart and slotted it into the net. At that stage, it felt awful to witness, but looking back at the end of the season, Kompany would come out on top.

The response to that defeat was immediate. A record breaking start to the season saw City smash their way to top spot, scoring goals for fun. Notably, Tottenham were dispatched at White Hart Lane 1-5 and United fared even worse, losing out to City at Old Trafford 1-6. It was their biggest ever Premier League home defeat and it was at City’s hands. Worse for them, it put the Blues five points clear of them in top spot.

To their credit, however, United battled back. Soon, on level games, the two Manchester clubs were on level points, City only on the top of the league thanks to their superior goal difference. But, just as it looked like it was going to go to the wire, March 2012 happened. A wretched month for City, the club started it two points clear of United on level games. Defeat in the first game of April left the Blues eight points behind, again having played the same number of matches. The points lead had gone. Even the goal difference lead City had boasted was no more – United on +51 to City’s +49.

Seemingly, the false dawns were back and big time. It was painful.

Roberto Mancini publicly conceded the title. In every interview, he denied that City could win it and confirmed the club would simply carry on doing their best, but it wouldn’t be enough to take top spot. Call it a mind game with United or a mind game with his own players to ease the pressure, either way it worked.

United lost to Wigan, while City thumped West Brom. The gap was five points again. The Reds then threw away a two-goal lead against Everton at home to draw 4-4, while City beat Wolves. The gap was down to three points – with the Manchester derby to play.

For United, a win would see them virtually crowned champions, with them needing one point from their final two games. A draw would keep City at arm’s length and likely allow them to retain the league. City needed to win, or else it was curtains.

Step forward Vincent Kompany. The captain. Leader. The man who had made the error in the Community Shield to lose the game. The man who had been sent off – wrongly – in the FA Cup third round tie at home for a challenge, again with Nani. On the stroke of half time, his bullet header gave City the lead and it would turn out to be the goal that would decide the game. The Blues were back on top of the league, again on goal difference.

A hard-fought win at Newcastle, matched by United’s result against Swansea, left the league going down to the final day of the season: For City, it was QPR at home. Level points and an eight goal advantage meant that, should the Blues win, it would take a goal frenzy from United at Sunderland to steal it from them.

In many ways, it’s fitting that Roberto Mancini’s successes have come in games over Stoke (FA Cup) and QPR (Premier League). Thinking back to 1998, it was the games against these two clubs that saw City drop into their lowest ever league position and it signalled the worst time to be a City fan. Okay, so the Blues went undefeated against them back then, but that wasn’t enough. The 2-2 draw and the 2-5 win left the Blues relegated to Division Two.

Now, 1-0 and 3-2 wins have ended City’s trophy drought and left the club sitting as the best team in England for the first time in over four decades. It’s remarkable the coincidences that football can throw up sometimes.

And, after so many false dawns, this all feels too good to be true. It feels like we’re all going to wake up and it’s going to have been a horrible trick played on us by our minds: No Champions League, no FA Cup, no Premier League winners medals and City still hanging around Division Two and being the laughing stock of football throughout the world. Yet somehow still playing QPR and Stoke.

But here’s the good news: This is no dream.

City are back.

David Mooney's book, Typical City, is now available to pre-order in paperback from here – or the ebook is already available to download in the Amazon Kindle store here.