Last time out we opened our series on ‘Falls from Grace” with a look at possibly the Granddaddy of them all; Manchester United’s descent from European Champions to relegation in little more than half a decade. As drastic (and amusing) as that was, it isn’t unique, as the ‘achievement’ was to be duplicated and even bettered fourteen years later when Aston Villa managed to get relegated just five years after winning Europe’s major trophy.
While that particular yarn remains a tale for another day, this episode looks at some of the trials and tribulations of Manchester United’s noisy neighbours, City, over a more extended period of time.
Until the much-discussed and highly controversial takeover of the club in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group, Manchester City was known, rather affectionately, as a bit of a comedy club. Although not disliked by the majority of neutral fans, it was a club that attracted a fair amount of merriment and good-natured mickey-taking amongst the footballing fraternity.
With two league titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup to the club’s name, there was a fair deal of history for fans to hark back to, but the absence of a major trophy since 1976 was an ever-nagging bone of contention.
Before 2008, Manchester City’s best period had come in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the management axis of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. Together the duo had plundered the league title, FA Cup, ECWC and League Cup in the space of just three seasons, and just as Manchester United’s star was beginning to dim, it seemed as if City were finally in the ascendency.
However, the impetus couldn’t be maintained and despite some good spells in the mid-seventies, City never did quite wrest the title of top dogs away from United for any sustained period. By the end of the 1970s, Manchester City were once more on the doldrums with Malcolm Allison making an ill-fated return to the club as manager and the side hovering around the relegation zone. A temporary lift came in the form of John Bond and an FA Cup Final appearance in 1981, before a disastrous relegation just two seasons later and the beginning of twenty years bouncing between the divisions.
Promotion back to the top flight was achieved in 1985, but was followed swiftly by relegation in 1987. Two years later and City were once more back in the top flight and looking forward to better days under first Howard Kendall and then his successor, Peter Reid. Two top-five finishes were achieved by Reid in 1991 and 1992, and with the onset of the Premier League on the horizon, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that City could once again be serious players.
This is when it all started to really go wrong.
When Manchester United took the inaugural Premier League title the spotlight was always going to be on Reid, and City Chairman, the irascible Peter Swales, who perhaps hadn’t particularly wanted to appoint Reid in the first place, pulled the trigger. His choice of replacement, Brian Horton, was, in the eyes of the City faithful, underwhelming, to say the least. Although he didn’t do a particularly bad job, the club never looked likely to challenge for honours as United drew further and further away.
Eventually, Swales had had enough and sold up. In his stead came a consortium headed by former player, Franny Lee, and once more dreams and hopes were raised. With the benefit of a quarter decade hindsight, Lee’s tenure in charge was pretty much a disaster, and in 1996 the club was relegated once again.
So, whilst neighbours Manchester United were busy winning their second league and FA Cup ‘double’ in three seasons, City were facing up to life outside the top division yet again. Whilst nobody was particularly expecting City to immediately bounce back this time, nor were they anticipating just how far they yet had to fall.
The 1996-97 season kicked off with the incumbent manager, Alan Ball, still in situ but by the turn of the year, City had been through five managers in total. After Ball resigned he was replaced by first Asa Hartford temporarily, then Steve Coppell who quit after just six games, Phil Neal who managed 10 matches, and then finally Frank Clark who took over the reins as New Year’s Day loomed.
Clark was not the man to turn City’s fortunes around, however, and City slipped into the relegation zone. It looked like the unthinkable really was about to happen and City would suffer a second successive relegation. A late run of form combined with results elsewhere going City’s way meant that at least this indignity was spared but it was to prove to be a temporary reprieve.
The following February, with City once more embroiled in a relegation battle, Clark left the club and it was down to another former player, Joe Royle, to have a go.
His first few months at the helm were anything but successful and as the season came to an end, City were indeed relegated from the First Division. It was some drop in status for a proud club with a massive fan base. Although by this time the club’s Maine Road ground was looking tired and run down, City were still attracting high gates and fans were, in the main, sticking by the club.
So, what had gone wrong? How had it come to this that a club the size and support as City now found itself preparing to play league matches against Wycombe, Colchester and Macclesfield? Again, as with United’s own fall from grace two decades earlier, it would be easy to write the whole episode off as one being down to ‘bad management’, but perhaps the roots of City’s demise were deeper and not merely down to any one cause.
Chairman Peter Swales was never the most popular of men amongst either the City fans or many of the players and managers of his time in charge, and perhaps it was an eagerness to oust him that had City supporters throwing their support behind Francis Lee and his takeover. Finances then became tight and bad managerial decisions were taken, and the club found that once it was on the slippery slope it was very hard to climb off again.
Still City fans refused to abandon their club and they seemed determined to enjoy, as much as is possible, their spell in the third flight in a self-deprecating good-humoured manner. Home attendees of over 30,000 were not uncommon, whilst the City travelling support turned every away game into a carnival-like atmosphere.
That was all well and good, but the business of getting out of the division at the first time of asking was a serious one and proved to be much harder than anyone had first anticipated. Expected to sweep their way to automatic promotion, City found themselves scrambling around in 11th spot three months into the season and their malaise looked like continuing indefinitely.
A good run in the New Year lifted City into the play-off places but with Fulham racing away with the Second Division title all City could do was to forlornly chase Walsall for the runners-up spot. This in itself proved to be a bridge too far and so City had to settle for a spot in the play-offs.
First up were Wigan Athletic in the semi-final. Things couldn’t have got worse as City fell behind in less than 30 seconds. With time running out, an equaliser was squeezed out and so the sides started the second-leg all square. Back at Maine Road a few days later and another less-than-convincing performance at least saw City squeeze home by the only goal of the game.
Onto Wembley then, and a winner-take-all clash with Gillingham, then managed by the ever-footballing purist, Tony Pulis. A rather dour game was still goalless with less than 10 minutes of normal time remaining, but then in the 81st minute, Carl Asaba put Gillingham ahead. Although City immediately went on the offensive in search of the equaliser, Gillingham were holding out without too many problems and when Robert Taylor added a second for the Gills with just a couple of minutes left on the clock, the game was surely up for City and at least another season in the third flight beckoned.
City were not quite beaten yet, though, and when Kevin Horlock scored on the stroke of 90 minutes, there was still hope. It was then that referee, Mark Halsey somehow came up with the notion that there should be five minutes of added-on time, and it was in the very last of these that Paul Dickov squeezed home a last-gasp equaliser to force extra-time.
To this day, Gillingham supporters feel aggrieved at Halsey’s decision to conjure up the additional minutes from somewhere, but it could be argued that it was a pivotal moment in the history of Manchester City. Had City been unable to climb out of the third flight at the first attempt there is a school of thought that it may well have spelt the end for the club.
Finances were already precarious and another season spent in no man’s land may just have proved to be the tipping point.
As it was, no further goals were added in extra time and City prevailed in the resulting shoot-out to take up their place back in the second flight. The following season saw Royle’s men clinch a second successive promotion and City were back, at least temporarily, amongst the nation’s elite.
City were once again relegated in 2001 and Royle was sacked, only for Kevin Keegan to take over and mastermind an immediate promotion the following season.
Following the club’s move to the City of Manchester Stadium in 2003, the club’s profile once again started to rise and several investors were interested in taking the club over. After a highly controversial dalliance with Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, the club was finally bought by the almost as controversial Abu Dhabi United Group.
Investment in the club has been spectacular and so have results on the pitch in the last decade with five of the last ten Premiership titles finding their way to the now-named Etihad Stadium.
For all of City’s modern successes, however, some nostalgically look back on the days of struggle through rose-tinted glasses and remember the days of third flight football as ‘the good old days’.
Goodness knows why.