As City travel to Stoke this weekend – a place where the club doesn’t have a brilliant track record – the Halcyon Digest goes back to a time when both the Blues and the Potters weren’t quite faring as well as they are now. In fact, this edition is going to roll two games into one for context.
It’s not often that a 5-2 victory goes uncelebrated, but that was City’s first ever visit to the Britannia Stadium. It was tinged with pride of a good performance but was overcome by the crushing disappointment of a relegation to their lowest ever position in May 1998.
Before the match, the picture was simple. City began second-bottom of Division One, with their opponents third-bottom and a point ahead. Both Port Vale and Portsmouth were catchable for either side, providing one of them failed to take maximum points and both were away from home. Safety from relegation was out of City’s – and Stoke’s – hands, but if they were to stay up there had to be a winner.
Emphatically, there was. However, when the ball hit the back of Neville Southall’s net for the third, fourth and fifth time, there were little to no celebrations from the players. Even before the days of smartphones and 4G, they knew what was going on elsewhere – Portsmouth and Port Vale had healthy 3-0 advantages each and all that a victory on the Potteries was going to do was ensure Joe Royle’s men went down in the third relegation spot instead of the second. Results elsewhere made it a dead rubber.
The damage wasn’t done that afternoon, it had been done in the 45 matches previous.
Fast-forward eight months and things were starting to change. In Division Two, the Blues got off to a slow start and it was only their second-half of the season form that propelled them into third and the playoffs. When these two sides met again at the Britannia Stadium at the end of January, City were in ninth position – eight points behind Stoke in fourth.
The match was won by an acrobatic effort from Gerard Wiekens. He found space in the box from a left wing corner and controlled the ball on his head as it came to him. As it was falling back down, he swivelled and volleyed it into the net. He was still proud of the goal years later – when I interviewed him and he took me to his home, he showed me framed photographs of him belting it into the net hung in his garage, which has been converted to a pub-style games room.
Perhaps the only other real highlight from that match – aside from a red card for the home team – made it onto A Question Of Sport’s What Happened Next? round. As the ball was heading out of play for a goal kick – but being chased down by a City forward – one of the ball boys ran onto the pitch and picked it up, throwing it back to the Stoke keeper before it had gone behind. The referee missed it.
That match was City’s sixth in a run of 12 unbeaten and was part of the first sustained run that the Blues had on second place. Stoke would win six more fixtures all season.
City: Weaver, Crooks (Bishop 54), Vaughan, Edghill, Wiekens, Horlock, Brown, Cooke (Whitley 79), Pollock (Dickov 79), Goater, Taylor
In the UK chart, Offspring were at number one with their hit Pretty Fly For A White Guy.
Cinema-goers in the UK were flocking in their droves to see Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, and (yes!) Martin Clunes in Shakespeare In Love.
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Written by David Mooney.