With Advent now under way and the countdown to Christmas now on, Typical City is looking at an incident, player or match specific to the club that corresponds with each date. In today’s edition, David Mooney looks back at City’s back to back promotions…
Sometimes something unexpected happens and it’s good. All too often something unexpected happens and it’s a pain in the backside – like when you forget your keys and get locked out, or when the car behind you doesn’t stop in time and shunts into your boot. But sometimes life can exceed your expectations and give you a lovely little gift, wrapped in a nice box with a cute bow.
In 1999-2000 Manchester City fans got one of them.
It’s a story that starts back in May 1998. The Blues travelled to Stoke having given up the opportunity of securing Division One survival was in their own hands by drawing with QPR at Maine Road the week before. That result left the London club safe and City in second-bottom, a point behind the Potters – who occupied the final relegation position. Joe Royle’s side were also a solitary point off Portsmouth in 21st and Port Vale in 20th.
That meant on that final day of the season, one of Stoke or City would go down at the very least – and the winners would have the chance to stay up. But that was entirely dependant on Bradford or Huddersfield beating Portsmouth or Port Vale respectively. Both lost, so whatever happened at the Britannia Stadium was meaningless – the two teams were heading down to Division Two.
Typically, City put on a show and won 5-2.
The expectation was that the Blues would walk Division Two. They were easily the biggest team in the league and broke records with the away following everywhere they went. Yet, the start was difficult and they’d won just seven of the first 22 games. To put that into context, the victory in the 23rd match – a scrappy 1-0 at Wrexham – marked the mid-point of the campaign and that win lifted City to seventh in the table, 15 points off the top and 13 off the automatic promotion places.
It’s a widely-held myth that the lowest point the club hit was following a defeat to York, just before that Boxing Day trip to Wrexham. Symbolically, that might be true as the Blues were in 12th place after 22 games and the league was beginning to take shape by that point. However, they’d actually been lower in the table – they hit 14th after the first four games, which saw one win, two draws, and a loss.
Things definitely weren’t going to plan.
However, something clicked at that point and the club showed title-winning form in the second half of the season. They lost just twice more, winning 15 and drawing seven of 24 games. It looked like they might just sneak into second place ahead of Walsall, but a wobble at the start of May did for that objective – as Wycombe won at Maine Road and Bristol Rovers fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at the Memorial Stadium.
Two playoff semi-final games against Wigan were narrowly negotiated, too. The Blues fell behind in the opening seconds of the first leg at Springfield Park, when Tony Vaughan’s throw-in wasn’t dealt with by Gerard Wiekens and Nicky Weaver, leaving Stuart Barlow to nip in to score. Paul Dickov equalised with the final goal ever scored at that stadium for a 1-1 draw.
Shaun Goater scored the winner in the return game, though even to this day is adamant that he didn’t handle it. He claims that he chested the ball over the line, but the replays are still inconclusive. Either way, the goal stood.
In many ways, had the season not been a total disaster at the start then it would never have been as memorable for the fans. Say the Blues had steamrollered the league and walked the division, like many had expected – it would have been buried as ‘that year City were rubbish but got out of it’.
Certainly, the fluorescent yellow and dark blue kit the club wore that year would have never been held in such high regard had it not been worn for the comeback at Wembley against Gillingham.
Indeed, the manner of that promotion – losing 2-0 in stoppage time of the playoff final, only to draw 2-2 and win on penalties – probably helped the following season. The expectations for 1999-2000 were simple: City, don’t f*ck it up. Don’t get relegated again. Don’t embarrass yourselves. Don’t do anything stupid.
By god, did they do something stupid. They got promoted again.
The players from that team all talked of unity and squad spirit, and that winning form continued. They lost the opening game of the campaign, but had showed signs that they were ready for Division One – and indeed had seriously flirtations with top spot right the way up until Christmas. They were regular leaders of the division, making a mockery of the bookies’ odds as they’d laugh in the face of tough away fixtures, defend well and come away with a well-deserved victory.
In the first seven games, they conceded just two goals and racked up 16 points. They went to Ipswich as league leaders, but a 2-1 loss knocked them down to third. They recovered and mid-way through October the Blues were top of the table again and, but for two weeks in December, they stayed there until early January.
The signs were good for promotion. Even after a wobble of no wins in seven – where City drew five and lost two – they still managed to stay in third place. Seven wins in the last nine matches earned the runners-up spot, after Charlton took advantage of the slip-up in February to power on at win the championship.
Even the game at Blackburn on the final day was crazy. The hosts battered City into submission in the first hour, got their noses in front and hit the woodwork on four separate occasions. At one point, ex-City striker Ashley Ward turned Richard Edghill on the edge of the box, shot for the top corner and beat Weaver all ends up. But the goalkeeper turned to watch the ball hit the post and come straight back to him, landing in his arms. Joe Royle admitted to thinking it was probably City’s day when that happened.
He wasn’t wrong – Goater equalised, before an own goal from Christian Dailly put the visitors in front. Mark Kennedy pretty much secured promotion, before Dickov – just like at Wembley – scored the final goal of the game.
“I’m a lucky little sh*t, aren’t I?” – he said of his ability to score in those two key City matches.
There are few teams whose can ever say they’ve enjoyed back-to-back promotions and there’s probably only City’s supporters who can know the pain, the anguish, the anxiety, the nerves, the disappointment, the relief, the exhilaration, the panic, the anger, the unadulterated sheer joy of being on the brink of losing everything, only to snatch victory at the death.
The 18-month period of January 1999 to May 2000 was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Who’d have it any other way?
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Written by David Mooney.