BY TOM JACKSON
At the start of the 1997-98 season there was a tentative optimism around Maine Road. Ex-Nottingham Forest boss Frank Clark had seemingly steadied a ship which had seen four managers in the space of six months. He had the calm demeanour needed at a time when panic and rot was setting in following relegation by goal difference from the Premier League in 1996. Clark was backed in the summer to guide the club to the promised land with several signings, notably, a club record £3million on striker Lee Bradbury. Installed as favourites for the league, the campaign started poorly and continued in the same vain.
By February 1998, City were in deep trouble. Fans were treated on Valentine’s Day; not with chocolate and roses, but with a 0-1 defeat at home to Bury. If feelings in the stands weren’t fraught enough already, then this defeat was the final straw. Disappointment and tension gripped the club. A myriad of faceless, average players swelled the dressing room to 50-plus professionals. With the club plummeting and the unthinkable prospect of relegation to the third tier becoming a very real possibility, Franny Lee dismissed Clark and sent an SOS to Joe Royle. His first task was to devise a plan to keep the club up. By deadline day he had dispensed with a dozen or so players and brought four men in. One of whom was Leonard Shaun Goater.
In hindsight, it’s hard to think of City fans feeling anything but joy at the thought of ‘The Goat’ but it wasn’t always this way. A few things contributed to the fans’ initial lack of warmth to him.
Firstly, Royle had benched Georgi Kinkladze, unquestionably the best player in the squad, in favour of his preferred ‘Dogs-of-War’ tactics more fitting to a relegation battle. The Georgian was a talisman to the crowd, idolised, lifting the Kippax faithful at a time when despair was all too prevalent. Any player would have a hard time replacing him in the team. The Goat’s home debut was a local derby with Stockport County. In it, he proved to be the antithesis of the balletic Kinkladze. He was all arms and legs. An ungraceful display did, however, bring about his first goal for the club, rebounding a tackle from the keeper into the net. What would become, at Maine Road, a typical Goater strike.
Secondly, this was the worst City team in living memory. The slide the club had been on for around six years was reaching a third tier nadir, not helped by the other half of Manchester experiencing unprecedented levels of success. No players at the club were revered, save for Kinkladze. Players bore the brunt of the club’s mismanagement and it would take a heroic effort to turn those views around.
Following the inevitable slump into the Second Division, Royle continued to prune the squad. The Goat would be installed as main striker with Paul Dickov supporting. He would score regularly during the season, important goals at that, but still the slump could not be broken. A 1-2 defeat at York City at Christmas left Manchester City in their lowest league position in history. The phrase “typical City” was all too common and was summed up nicely in the book Cups for Cock-ups by Ashley Shaw, which was published at this time.
A tragic comedy was being played out weekly for the Manchester masses much to their chagrin. To arrest the slide things needed to change and a Christmas clash with Stoke City proved the starting point. Lifted by a bit of festive spirit, the crowd adopted a to-hell-with-it attitude at half-time with the team trailing. It seemed as if the club couldn’t sink any lower so the fans were going along for the ride and were determined to enjoy it. This feeling transferred onto the pitch and momentum gathered, eventually resulting in a 2-1 victory – Gareth Taylor nabbing a late winner. City had come from behind to win for the first time in what seemed like years. During the game, the failings of the players were forgotten and rather than adored, the team were accepted.
The Goat wasn’t exactly Colin Bell but he was a willing, if unspectacular striker and maybe that’s just what was needed. In the play-off semi-final game against Wigan Athletic he won a huge place in the fans’ hearts sending the Blues to Wembley with a goal suspiciously close to being handball. He would often find a way to put the ball in the net with any part of his body, and as many would argue, always being in the right position at the crucial moment is, of course, the sign of a good striker. Typical Goater. For many City fans, myself included, this would be their first trip to Wembley. Even if it was under less than auspicious circumstances it was a big deal and the club, and fans, had The Goat to thank.
The following season, the terrace ditty ‘Feed the Goat’ was born. Like many chants there will be conjecture as to how and when this started but I first remember the song away at Forest after another display of The Goat’s prowess, scoring two. Looking for back-to-back promotions, fans were buoyed by a swashbuckling team who had a genuine goal scorer with a solid attitude and a sense of humour. It was just what was needed; winning football and light relief from the turmoil of previous seasons. The Goat worked his magic in a goal against Charlton Athletic in a top of the table clash in March. A chipped pass from Ian Bishop found him on the edge of the box. Swinging his long right leg at the ball, he looped a volley over the keeper into the top corner. The resulting replays showed contact made was very much in the shin region. Typical Goater.
Momentum continued and consecutive promotions were achieved. Yet again during the final game of the season, at the crucial moments the Goat played his part, levelling the score with Blackburn Rovers before City went on to win 4-1. Celebrations in the Ewood Park crowd after the game involved the players coming out to join ten thousand City fans who had made the trip. The Goat, mobbed, led a chorus of Blue Moon, elated.
A difficult year in the Premier League, marred by injury, followed as The Goat tried to prove himself a top-flight striker. In the company of Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer he looked out of place, but not one City fan could ever say he lacked desire and effort.
Kevin Keegan’s arrival sparked The Goat to hit greater heights. In the 2001-2002 season, he netted 32 times – a feat not achieved at Maine Road for decades. With the additions of Ali Benarbia and Eyal Berkovic, City had a creative edge no one could touch in the division. The Goat was being fed chance after chance. It was this year that he became recognised as an accomplished forward. Sure, he still looked a bit ungainly, but his movement and finishing had improved. A volley (struck with his foot this time) against Gillingham, after a flowing move and a chipped back heel from Benarbia, showcased this. He rightly earned a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
In Manchester City’s final year at Maine Road, Goater wrote his name into folklore with his 99th and 100th goals for the club against Manchester United. His first came after famously pickpocketing Gary Neville and the second a sublime chip over keeper Fabien Barthez. Up against his former club, with a wealth of talent at their disposal, The Goat looked firmly at home. The crowd had come to adore him and every cheer and chant for him he’d earned. Despite this, most fans could see him being side-lined in favour of Keegan’s new signing Nicolas Anelka. A fitting end to his City career was to lead the teams out as captain in the final game at the old stadium; recognition for his achievements at the club and the bond he had with the fans.
Over the years, in interviews and TV appearances, Goater has always seemed a genuine, humble, affable man – one who has embraced the humour and good-natured banter at his expense. His passion for City shines through, still referring to the club as “us and we”. He is a fan, and in an era when footballers seem increasingly out of reach from the terraces, he remained a relatable footballer. It’s a measure of how nice a bloke he is that the only negative things he can summon up in his autobiography are to inform us that Nicolas Anelka was a bit big-time (apparently the Frenchman thought he was “the Daddy” and Kevin Keegan didn’t really care for him. These points are hardly revelations.
In arguably the most important game of City’s recent history – the 1999 Play Off final –The Goat tackled the Gillingham keeper who was left stranded, allowing Kevin Horlock to put City ahead in the game 2-1. The now famous Paul Dickov leveller in the 95th minute was only possible after the ball fell to him from a deflected Goat shot.
This contribution to the club will not be forgotten, and without The Goat the rise to the top and the riches that followed could not have come their way. He may not have the style, skill or speed of Sergio Aguero but he will be as fondly remembered as him by those who saw him play. Simply put, Manchester City could not compete for players of Aguero’s ilk in the late 1990s. The club needed honest players to get back to the top division and stay there. Whatever reservations City fans had of him in the early days, he more than overcame them. This is what cemented the bond he has with City. No matter what adversity faced him at Maine Road, he took to it head-on and always with a smile. He was a player that worked hard, never gave up, improved his game and delivered when it mattered. Regardless of the division he played in he scored goals and that meant a lot to him and the fans alike. He celebrated each of his 103 goals with that beaming smile as if he were one of the Maine Road crowd. Only players with that type of connection have such affection bestowed upon them.
Feed The Goat and he will score!
FOLLOW TOM ON TWITTER @tommybluemoon</stron