David Mooney, writer for ESPN and Typical City, has recently published a new book: Looks Like Scunny Next Season. It’s a fascinating insight into City’s famous 1998/99 season where promotion from Division 2 saved the club from possible extinction. Mooney has tracked down every single member of the ’99 squad and got their thoughts on the season 15 years on.
Over the next few days, we’ll be bringing you a series of edited chapters, starting with today’s on Joe Royle, the manager who led City to back-to-back promotions and returned us to the Premier League. Has there been a more important City manager in the last 30 years?
You can order the paperback version of Looks Like Scunny Next Season for £10 via David’s website.
Chapter 15 – Joe Royle
“It was pure Manchester City,” the former manager says to me about the Playoff final. “I was feeling confident. We’d won at Gillingham and, quite honestly, I thought we were the team in form. We’d finished the season very strongly to the point where, at one stage, it looked like there was a chance of automatic promotion. But, given our position prior to Christmas, I suppose the playoffs were great to have.
“I was just hoping that those who can do, do on the day,” he continues. “You’re looking for your best players to perform. For instance, it was a blow Bish [Ian Bishop] didn’t start. It was unfortunate because I’d wanted him to miss the league game previous to it, where he picked up a hamstring injury, but the bugger wouldn’t listen. I think he was suspicious that if we’d played well and won without him then he wouldn’t play in the playoffs. So I adhered to his wishes and, of course, he did his hamstring.
“I wanted him on the pitch as soon as I could, really,” he says. “And he laughs about it because I’d previously credited him with changing us – and he did, because he got us passing the ball again. But he did change the game because he went on at 0-0 and then we went 2-0 down!”
The ex-manager laughs as he retells the story. “But quite seriously,” he continues, “he had an influence on the team and he had respect that was always going to be a big part of the day. He got us passing the ball – we’d been ok, but we hadn’t been anywhere near our best.”
Despite City being just on top for most of the game – and creating the better chances – the Blues suddenly found themselves two goals behind with only a few minutes to play.
“I remember turning to Willie Donachie and saying ‘it looks like Scunny next season,’” Royle says, with Scunthorpe having won promotion from Division Three at Wembley the day before. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Scunthorpe, but it was just the way I was feeling.
“Of course, the goal from Kevin Horlock changed it and the fourth official put five minutes up,” he adds. “Asa [Hartford] was the first to spot it. He came running down and told me and the whole thing just grew from there. In pure City style, they’d taken their striker off to try and kill the game and I was convinced that, in extra time, we were going to do it. I thought we had the impetus and had the upper hand to go on and win it, but we didn’t.
“I knew that togetherness would take us a long way. And then penalties… Bloody penalties. I’d lost in the playoffs with Oldham so I didn’t have particularly good memories of the playoffs. We’d lost on away goals then. So I started worrying slightly when it went to penalties.
“We’d been practising penalties and Nicky Weaver hadn’t got near too many. He was going to be an England goalkeeper but for injuries and distractions. He wasn’t great at penalties – but it’s a different thing. A lot of good penalty stoppers haven’t necessarily been great goalkeepers and vice versa. Peter Shilton – who was the best I ever played with – wasn’t great at penalties.
“And then Nicky went on to stop two and they blazed a third over. His celebrations will long be remembered.”
Royle also says he was surprised at the person who missed City’s only unsuccessful kick: “In all the penalty practises we had, Dicky had been comfortably the best penalty taker we had. He’s a great guy, totally committed and a completely different person on the pitch – when he’s crossed the white line, he thinks he’s six foot five! When I joined City, he wasn’t a bad kicker of the ball, but he was an over-excitable kicker of it. He used to get into great positions and then try and smash the ball into the back of the net.
“I said to him, ‘calm down and concentrate on hitting the target – you won’t score unless you hit the target’ and when his big chance came [in the playoff final], he side-footed it,” Royle says. “I’d like to think prior to my arrival he might have blasted it and possibly missed the target. He didn’t, it was controlled and he got us there.
“So, when it came to penalties, I was very confident with Dicky,” he says. “And then he went and hit both posts and it didn’t go in. I’ve never seen that before.
“The coach home was quiet. One of the first things that happened was David Bernstein came up to me after the game and said, ‘I’ve had contact from the town hall – they want to know if we’ll do an open top bus tour next week.’ I said no. Manchester City celebrating coming out of the third tier isn’t right.”
When Royle joined City, in February 1998, the Blues were in a precarious position in Division One. The club had 14 games of the season remaining and were second bottom in the league, having won just seven matches all campaign. Succeeding Frank Clark, Royle explains what it was like when he first walked through the door.
“It was muddled,” he says. “It was a club in turmoil. There were too many players that shouldn’t have been there, really. They’d had a succession of managers who had all brought players in, but hadn’t been able to get rid of players. We had over 50 pros when I got there – and sorts of players that time had forgotten. The first deadline day was spent in the boardroom just letting players out on loan or on frees just to reduce the wage bill. It’s no secret we were financially bereft.
“When I signed the contract there, the board didn’t know who was going to be in charge come the new season,” he continues. “They didn’t even know if they would still be there or even if the club was going to go into liquidation. They offered me a contract until the end of the season.
“I said, ‘well, I’ve no problem with that personally, but I don’t think it’s what the fans want to hear. So I think the best thing would be to tell me that I’ve got a three year contract, but have a clause in it where either party can cancel it at the end of the season.’ And that’s what we did – by the end of the season, they were happy with what they’d seen and wanted me to stay on.”
There can be little argument about the influence Royle had on the club. Working with chairman David Bernstein, he managed to reduce the wage bill to a manageable level, he reduced the size of the squad and created a team with harmony in the dressing room, and, on top of all of that, he dug the club out of the hole that it had fallen into. He got everybody pulling in the same direction and – albeit it with a couple of scares along the way – earned successive promotions, catapulting the Blues back into the Premier League earlier than most were expecting.
After returning to Division One at the first attempt, Royle tells me that the club’s aim was to hold their position and remain in the second tier. Having only just escaped Division Two the season before, few were expecting what happened next.
Following the Blues’ 1-0 win at home to Birmingham, the club was sitting in second place on 86 points with one fixture left to play. Ipswich were five points behind in third, but had a game in hand, meaning the Tractor Boys had to win both matches and hope City lost on the final day to stand any chance of that second automatic promotion slot.
In typical City style, Ipswich won.
Worse, at half time on the final day of the season, they were beating Walsall at Portman Road, while City were losing at Blackburn – Rovers had hit the woodwork several times in the first half and had battered City into the ground, but had only found the net once. Had results stayed the way they were, it was the Suffolk team who would finish second.
“We sat down at half time,” Royle says, “and I said to the players ‘this isn’t us. We’re lucky we’re still in this. But don’t forget something that we have behind us is that we always score. We’re only 1-0 down and we always score.’
“And then soon after half time, they hit the post again and it came back and dropped into Nicky Weaver’s arms and I turned to Asa [Hartford] and said, ‘there’s something going on here, this could be our day!’ I honestly felt that, but I didn’t expect us to run out 4-1 winners.”
Royle then explains to me how that game nearly saw Maine Road kitted out with some new equipment: “One of my greatest friends in football had been a young secretary at Oldham when I started there,” he says. “Tom Finn was then on the board at Blackburn and I met him in the close-season and he was genuinely pleased for us that we’d gone up – though I don’t think he could tell Graeme Souness [Blackburn’s manager at the time] that.
“And after a few drinks, I tried to buy the posts and crossbars at Ewood Park off him,” he says, laughing. “I won’t say he got irate, but he told me where to go!”
That victory sent the club back to the top flight – where, despite a spirited start to the season, the Blues ultimately fell short of what was required to stay in the league. Over the course of the season, wins were hard to come by – with City earning just eight over the course of the campaign.
“We started off ok,” he continues. “Andy Morrison had his continuing knee problems, Richard Jobson was still playing when he had no right to be – his ankle was that bad that he was a hero every time he put his boots on for us – and the Goat scored goals. But all round, we didn’t quite hack it. Whether we should have spent more or spent differently, it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line was that we didn’t do it.
“There was a month where everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for us,” he says. “Danny Tiatto scored a goal at Middlesbrough when he ran past player after player from the halfway line and it was disallowed for Darren Huckerby standing offside on the other side of the pitch. Then we had a goal disallowed against Tottenham for no reason at all and they went to the other end and scored in the last minute. And that’s when you start thinking that maybe Lady Luck’s decided that this isn’t going to be for us, this year.”
Royle was sacked in the summer.
I ask him if the decision to relieve him of his duties came as a shock: “It did only because I’d met with Bernstein the previous week in a restaurant in the curry mile and we had a good chat about things and about why we’d gone down. And he challenged my staff – he said he had great confidence and belief in me, but not in my staff and he intimated that he wanted me to sack Alex Stepney, John Hurst, Roy Bailey and even Asa Hartford maybe.
“And I said I disagreed because they were the same staff that had seen us go up two divisions. I said I thought we’d been caught out and that we’d not had the best of fortune – although every relegated manager says that – but I did say that I knew the team that was going down was a better one than the team that went up.
“We left that meeting to meet again on the Monday morning to discuss plans for the new season with, as I believed, John Wardle and David Makin,” he continues. “But when I arrived, I found it was a full board meeting and when I went in I was told I was to be sacked. And that was that.
“But I’ve got nothing but affection for Manchester City as both a player and a manager. I’ve got great friends there and it’s a wonderful club that has a great feel behind it and a great tradition. And I’m delighted for what’s happening there now.”
On that point, I suggest to Royle that it was his groundwork that laid the foundations for the club to be seen as investable by the likes of the Abu Dhabi United Group, but he dismisses the suggestion completely. “I will accept,” he says, “that the Gillingham game was very, very important in City’s history – probably the most important because you just don’t know where it would have gone had they had to spend another season in that division.
“The platform for the modern success came with money – as it did with all clubs. In 1963, Everton were the Merseyside Millionaires. Then Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool… They’ve all had their spell of being big spenders and being successful. And not to forget Blackburn Rovers, who were big spenders for three years and won the Premier League.
“Let’s just say we put a support under the club when it was badly needed,” he concludes. “And I’m proud of that. It was a lovely time in my life, with great memories. Sad memories, too, but it was a great time.”
Written by David Mooney