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.
After the truncated chapter on Joe Royle we published last week, this time we’ve got a sneak preview of the Gerard Wiekens section. Wiekens, as those of you old enough will know only too well, was a superb servant to the club, a classy, if somewhat slow, defender, who proved a better signing than we could ever have imagined.
You can order the paperback version of Looks Like Scunny Next Season for £10 via David’s website.
The plane touched down in Bremen, Germany and I let go of my dad’s hand, having come close to ripping his knuckles out of their sockets throughout the whole of the flight’s descent. I’m not a fan of flying. In fact, I hate it. I hate it so much that – on arranging an interview with Gerard Wiekens, now living and working back in his home country of the Netherlands – I made sure the dates tallied with when my father could book time off work.
From landing in Bremen, we took a three-hour coach journey across the Dutch border to Groningen, where our hotel was. Gerard lives nearby and I was due to meet him the following day. We checked in, enjoyed the evening meal and got our heads down for the night.
After breakfast the next morning, my mobile rang and Gerard told me he would come to the hotel. Roughly half an hour later, we met in reception and took a seat in the restaurant to have a chat about his time in England.
City endured quite a poor start to the [1998-99] season. Fortunes changed after Christmas, but Gerard couldn’t explain why: “The only thing I can say is that we had a squad of players that were too good to play in the second division.”
The turn of form saw City finish third – five points behind Walsall in second place and a huge 19 points off Kevin Keegan’s runaway champions Fulham. That meant the lottery of the playoffs and a two-legged tie with 6th placed Wigan. The first leg – which was the last game ever played at the old Springfield Park stadium – couldn’t have got off to a worse start, as a mix-up between Wiekens and goalkeeper Nicky Weaver allows the hosts to score within 19 seconds.
When I ask the Dutchman about it, I tell him I’d already got the goalkeeper’s version of events. “So, he probably told you it was his fault?” Wiekens says with a cheeky grin on his face.
“We had a throw in and it came to me, but the ball was very fast. The striker [Stuart Barlow] was coming, so I pretended to kick it up field to clear it. I thought the ball was quick enough to go to the keeper so we could keep possession. But he also thought I was kicking it long, so he went backwards and Barlow got the ball and scored. It was a bad start.
“In that game Paul Dickov scored the equaliser and I was very happy with that. After that game, a few days later, we had the player of the year do and they’d picked me. I heard fans talking about that game and that mistake, but it was too late to get another as player of the season!”
Dickov’s equaliser followed by Shaun Goater’s dubious winner in the second leg put the Blues into the final, where they would meet Gillingham – winners over Preston in the other semi-final.
“It was a terrible game from both sides,” he recalls. “Gillingham didn’t play well and we didn’t play well. And then they scored and you think it’s going to be very difficult to get promoted, but you try everything because one goal isn’t that much.”
He remembers the opening goal well: “I went to close down my opponent and he put it through my legs. It made me look bad,” he says. “Even their second goal wasn’t good defending. Not only me, but the whole team.
“But after the second goal, you think it’s over and out. You could see the feelings of the fans – they left the stadium, they were moaning, they were unhappy. It’s just a very bad feeling. You see another season in the second division and you didn’t want that.
“And then it was the last minute of injury time. I kicked a long ball to Gareth Taylor. He headed it on to the feet of Shaun Goater and he found Paul Dickov who scored. What you feel then is unbelievable: You’ve played 90 minutes, you’re tired, and you didn’t feel well because you’re losing the game. Then he scores and you think you’re going to do it. We were high and in the mood, and everybody thought that Gillingham were there, so it was a bad time for them.
“He [Royle] was a nice man,” Gerard says. “As a manager, I liked him. He was friendly, he was interested in your private life, and I had a really good time with him. Normally, when you play every game, you like the manager better than when you’re a sub or if you’re not playing, but it was great. He was a great man.
“When he was sacked, it was a shame. I don’t know if he could have turned it around. In the end City did well, but it was sad to see him leave.”
Wiekens’s chances in the first team became severely limited. Despite barely putting a foot wrong, he was seemingly left behind when Sylvain Distin joined the club and formed a strong partnership in defence with Steve Howey. With Richard Dunne also in the wings, the Dutchman had slipped down the pecking order.
Come the November of the 2002-03 season, though, and the Blues faced a defensive crisis. Both first choice centre-backs limped out of a League Cup defeat at Wigan, four days before the first Manchester derby of the campaign. Instead of lining up against United with Howey and Distin across the back, the Blues threw in Lucien Mettomo (who had made just two other appearances that season) and Wiekens.
For such an important game, fans were worried the back four would be rusty – having barely played together and barely played at all in the build-up to the match. In the end, though, the Blues won 3-1.
“They [Distin and Howey] were both good defenders,” Wiekens recalls. “If they’re better than me, then they should be playing – that’s normal. But, as a player, you want to play. You try hard, but it was difficult. I was around my thirties and wanted to play.
“The Manchester derby was my first game that season. It was strange because I didn’t expect to play. I’m not sure if I was even on the bench for the games before and suddenly I had to start in the biggest game of that season. It was the last derby at Maine Road.”
There was extra incentive for Wiekens to perform well in that game. Facing him was a striker who had been drawing all the plaudits since moving to Manchester United in 2001. He was also Dutch – and it was Wiekens’s job to mark Ruud van Nistelrooy.
“When he was playing in Holland for a small club called Den Bosch, I was playing for Veendam,” Wiekens remembers. “We played against each other and I also had to mark him then. I did a good job then, too, and even scored the winning goal.
“So I was feeling ok. I’d played against him and I knew I could do well against him, but he’s a great player and United were a great team. It was very difficult to get a result in that game, but it went well. I did well.”
Perhaps understandably, Gerard played down his performance in the Manchester derby. Having been thrown straight in at the deep end for that game, he didn’t just keep his head above water, but managed to complete a hefty swim set too. Had it not been for Shaun Goater stealing the limelight with his 99th and 100th City goals, the Dutch defender could well have been named man of the match. There was certainly a strong case for it – van Nistelrooy didn’t get a kick.
Despite such a good display, Wiekens made just six more appearances for the club in the remaining six months of that season. His final game for the club was to come right at the start of the next campaign.
“The last game I played was TNS,” Wiekens recalls. “I captained the team and we won.
“My contract was coming to an end that year,” he says when I asked him if he realised, when walking off the pitch, that it might have been his last game for the club. “The year before I’d only played five or six games, so I knew it’d be very difficult to get into the team. You never know if it’s your last game. I don’t know how I was feeling. It was early in the season, but afterwards I never played again.
“I had a great time [at City]. I never expected to play abroad and I was 23 at that time, my wife – who was my girlfriend then – was 22. If you then have to go abroad just the two of you, it’s not easy. But I have to say, my seven years in Manchester were incredible. They were the best years of my life and the same for my wife.
“She was really finding it difficult for the first half a year,” he continues. “When we went over, I met people and they took me to places, but she had to find her own way. But after that, she felt fine. Both or our kids were born in England and when we left she found it harder to leave than I did!”
When he was released at the end of his contract, Wiekens returned to the Netherlands and to the club where he started his career: FC Veendam. “It was a big change going back,” he says.
When the interview had come to a close, Gerard make an offer that I just couldn’t refuse. We’d wandered back to the reception area when I expected to shake his hand and we’d go our separate ways, but instead he invited both me and my dad on a tour of some of the parts of the region that are significant in his career. Ten minutes later, we were in his car and heading to the training pitches at FC Groningen – where he now works with the junior players.
From there, we headed to the Green-White Army’s stadium. To gauge the level of Groningan’s team, my dad asks who Gerard would compare them to in England. He tells us there at a similar level to Everton – a team that performs well each season, but more than often just misses out on European places. He tells us he was offered the chance to play there several times – but he turned them down each time out of loyalty to the team that had given him his first chance.
So, why is he now training the youth players at Groningen? The answer is quite a sad one – Veendam, where he spent roughly half of his life, no longer exists. In March 2013, the club went out of business, unable to pay debts of €675,000 and Wiekens was out of a job. It was then, with a heavy heart, he took up Groningen’s offer.
He took us to the (now deserted) De Langeleegte stadium. As we get out of the car at the stadium, there’s an eeriness about the whole area. It’s behind a residential street where life continues as normal. It’s enclosed by trees, which hide it from the surrounding area, and there’s an unusual quiet despite the busy road that runs beside it. We walk around the side and get a view of the pitch, but are unable to get any closer – the gates are bolted shut.
“They were always struggling to get the finances right,” Gerard says. “At the end, with all the troubles with the companies, it was just a bad period for everyone. They didn’t have the right money anymore and were declared bankrupt.
“It meant I lost a club, a place where I went for 22 years – and I’m 40 so it’s a long period of my life. I went everyday to that club and suddenly it’s gone. Normally, when you stop and don’t go to the club anymore, you miss it – but you can see games or go to training or whatever. But it’s just gone. It leaves you with an emptiness inside.”
It was a very strange atmosphere at the stadium and discussion turns towards similar examples of clubs struggling financially in England. Chester City – now Chester FC – went bust and reformed, while there was the season Portsmouth were close to going out of business whilst still in the Premier League. Wiekens even remembers when Stockport were in a higher league than City – but is shocked to hear they’re now a part-time, non-league club in the Conference North, five divisions below the Blues.
As we get back into the car, I assume we’re heading back to the hotel. The day’s wearing on and the two bumbling idiots from England have taken enough of the former footballer’s time, but he’s got one more surprise in store for us. All the way, it felt like we were heading the wrong way for where we were staying and that hunch was correct, as we pulled into a residential area off the motorway and onto his driveway.
At his home, he’s converted his garage into a memorabilia room – somewhere he keeps all his bits and bobs from his playing days. There’s a few City shirts framed on the wall, and some other Dutch players he’s played with or against too. I spot Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United shirt from the final derby at Maine Road, framed next to a Dirk Kuyt shirt from the national team.
Before we leave, I have to find out if they ever go back to England. “Sometimes,” he says. “It’s always like coming home – I get to one or two games a season, but it’s hard working in football.
“My sons are both City mad, though.”
Written by David Mooney