“Dad, what does ‘we’re still here’ mean?”
It was sometime in the 1999-00 season and Manchester City were playing their way towards promotion to the Premier League. They’d been on quite the journey since I’d really started to understand how football worked and I’d been introduced to the club as a season-ticket holder in the year they were to sink to their lowest ever position. Relegation at the end of that 1997-98 campaign didn’t dampen my spirits, though it understandably did for thousands of older and far wiser heads.
That above question escaped my lips as a 12-year-old supporter, as I sat with both my mum and my dad and my schoolfriend Will. The fans around us had set off a rendition of the song “twenty-three years, and we’re still here”. We’re still here. I didn’t understand – of course the club was still there; it hadn’t moved, it wasn’t going to move, and it would always be Manchester City and we would always be its followers.
What was so significant? My 12-year-old mind was taking the phrase too literally.
There’s innocence in that question that goes with the territory of supporting an unsuccessful team. I had been taken to Manchester City matches as a child, been bought a Manchester City season ticket and formed a connection to Manchester City. They were my team, not through anything other than indoctrination by my parents admittedly, but nevertheless they were the team that I was to follow for the rest of my life – through thick, thin, thinner and thinnest.
It’s a lie to say that winning matches didn’t matter at that time, because it did. I was crying when City were losing at Wembley because I knew that I didn’t like losing, especially on the big occasions. But it’s not a lie to say the defeats were easier to accept. After all, they were more frequent for one thing, so loss became a feeling 32,000 Maine Road regulars could soon laugh about.
That harrowing cry “twenty-three years, and we’re still here” was galvanising. It said to those supporters – to Manchester United fans in particular – that only cared when their team were winning trophies, and didn’t care at any other time, that Manchester City weren’t going away. Branded the noisy neighbours by Sir Alex Ferguson when they threatened his Empire at Old Trafford in 2011, this was City’s true era of being the noisy neighbours. It was a lot of fuss about nothing but hot air and supporters were nailing their Blue colours to the mast like never before.
We were City fans. We were everyone’s second-favourite team in that slightly patronising show of solidarity for the gallows humour, inflatable bananas and fancy dress on display. Who needed trophies? They were going to have to do more than a 23-year run without a major cup success to get rid of us.
“Twenty-four years, and we’re still here.” It continued, as the Blues battled another relegation from the top flight – and as Manchester United racked up another Premier League title. They gleefully kept a banner, unofficial of course yet still clearly club-sanctioned, on the stand at Old Trafford tracking the years that it had been since the Blues had been successful in a cup competition and it continued to tick through the digits. Not that they were obsessed with little old City, at any rate.
“Twenty-five years, and we’re still here.”
“Twenty-six years, and we’re still here.”
It went on and on and it never looked like ending. As City continued existing as a Premier League club, United kept on winning trophies – and it was only a season of dire football under Stuart Pearce in 2006-07 that began to drive people away. Maybe the fans had actually been broken? “Thirty-one years, and we’re still here.”
Following the takeover by Sheikh Mansour and the levelling of the playing field between City and the top end of the Premier League, the supporters fancied their chances of putting to an end the barren spell. Roberto Mancini famously promised to rip down that Old Trafford banner, but had egg on his face at his first attempt of winning a trophy as the Reds scored a last minute winner in the League Cup semi-final second leg to progress to Wembley ahead of the Italian’s team in 2010.
“Thirty-four years, and we’re still here.”
Throughout the 2010-11 season there was the very last outing for that particular song. Yaya Toure’s left boot put a stop to it, as he belted a loose ball past Stoke’s Thomas Sorensen in the 74th minute of the FA Cup final at Wembley and sent the City fans in the stands behind the goal into delirium. Thousands who had spent the campaign chanting “thirty-five years, and we’re still here” erupted with three-and-a-half decades of pent-up frustration when Martin Atkinson blew the full time whistle in their 1-0 victory.
At Old Trafford, a forlorn fan dragged a tattered piece of tarpaulin down from the stand.
At Wembley, a cheeky fan held up a new version reading: 00 Years.
Sunday’s League Cup final with Liverpool is an opportunity for Manchester City to add their fifth major domestic honour to their collection since 2011. It would be Manuel Pellegrini’s third of those, his second League Cup to go with his first and his Premier League title. In turn, they would sit alongside Mancini’s FA Cup and top flight title, as well. It’s fair to say things have changed at City.
The game will be played 40 years to the day – 28 February – that the Blues lifted the very same trophy in 1976. That was their very last before going through decades of mediocrity and it was with a high quality team in an era where it was unfathomable that the club would just drop off the radar like it did.
Then again, City have always been the best at being the worst, if you know what I mean.
One man who’s got big connections to both the golden era and the dark times at Manchester City is Joe Royle. He played centre-forward for the Blues in the final in 1976 in the number nine shirt, before going on to manage the club through and out from its lowest ever ebb. In the dugout, he couldn’t put the brakes on quickly enough to prevent relegation in 1998, but earned back-to-back promotions in 1999 and 2000 to get City back into the top flight.
In an interview with the Blue Moon Podcast, he said he’d never have dreamed it could go so badly wrong for the club after that match in 1976: “The City faithful were certainly well and truly tried during those 35 years [between trophies]. It seemed to be up and down. It’s never ever been boring supporting City.
“We were a good team,” he continues. “The following season we would go on and finish second in the division by a point to Liverpool.”
City never built on that cup win and that second placed finish. In fact, they never matched that runner-up position until they bettered it by winning the top flight in 2012, some 35 years later.
“It was a long, long time [without success at City] and you never would have thought it,” says former City defender Tommy Booth. He was another of the 1976 final team that found it hard to believe it was the last trophy in so long. He featured that day not in his usual role as a centre-half, but instead by starting the match in the midfield. “There were lads who grew up with City that never saw them win anything. But they still supported us throughout them bad times.
“Then there’s my grandkids now who see City at the present time and they think it was always like this!”
Tony Book managed the club for the League Cup win in 1976. In doing so, he became the first person in English football to win the trophy as a player and then from the dugout, having previously captained the side to victory in the competition in 1970. Speaking to the Blue Moon Podcast, he explained that he never would have expected it would have been so long between trophies for the team after that victory at Wembley.
“It has been a difficult time for City supporters over the years, you know,” he says, but he agrees the future couldn’t be brighter for the club. “It’s a different ball game now, [since] the new owners came in. They’ve done a magnificent job for the club and it’s only going to get better and better from now on.”
City took on Newcastle for the final in 1976. While it’s the Blues having a tough time with the number of players they have available in 2016, it was their opposition who had problems 40 years ago. The Magpies were battling a flu virus that had swept through the team; six of the side weren’t able to report for duty the day before the match.
The only problem for Book’s side was for defender Dave Watson – he’d suffered a back spasm at a training camp in Tring, Hertfordshire, but he came through it and was able to start the match.
It finished 2-1 to the Blues and, in truth, they were much the better side throughout. They took the lead through Peter Barnes in the first half – and Joe Royle explains his role in the set piece.
“[I remember] challenging the goalkeeper for the first goal that Peter [Barnes] smashed in,” he says of the set-piece routine. “We worked on something new [in training]. You like to take something new into a final. There was a bit of blocking off and a dummy run and Doyley [Mike Doyle] peeled round the back. He was terrific in the air, he had a great standing leap, and he won the header.
“I challenged the keeper for his header and as it dropped down Barnsey stuck it away, which he could do. He was a super striker of the ball.”
Dennis Tueart, who would go on to score the winning goal, remembers it just as clearly, as he spoke to Sam Roscoe for the Blue Moon Podcast: “We took all their big lads to the back post. Peter Barnes and I were at the near post, with Doyle on the D of the penalty area.
“Ged Keegan dummied the ball from the free kick, Asa Hartford then hit a great cross-field pass to the far post. We had five players who’d turned to face the ball coming across the goal. It ricocheted, bounced to Barnes, 1-0.”
The Newcastle equaliser later in the half was somewhat against the run of play. Alan Gowling snuck the ball under Joe Corrigan on an isolated Magpies attack late in the first period, but it didn’t take City long to re-establish the lead after the change-round. Famously, many fans admit missing it because of the crowd on the concourse at half time.
It was one of the most memorable goals Wembley stadium has seen.
“[The second goal] was something special, you know, with the Dennis Tueart overhead kick,” manager Book remembers. “It’s not very often you see something like that in a final. It was a special goal from a special player.”
Tommy Booth was involved in the winner: “We had a free kick and Willie Donachie took it. I managed to get my head on it and head it across goal and we all know what happened next.
“Afterwards, the press were talking to him [Tueart] and I was walking past,” the number eight continues, laughing as he explains. “And he said to the press, ‘ah, yeah, well, we practised that in training every week and we do that sort of thing,’ and I thought, ‘no, we don’t Dennis!’
“It was a great way to win the cup.”
The goalscorer says the chance all came about because of City’s make-shift midfielder, Tommy Booth: “The beauty of having [him] in the team was that, when we attacked down the left, Tommy would make his way into the middle. He was fantastic in the air and I just tucked in, hoping for something knocked back.
“The ball came in from Tommy and I had my back to the goal, and you just want to get a good contact. You know where the goal is, the goal doesn’t move. The ball came in behind me – and I’d always been pretty good at volleying – and I’ve scored about four goals as overhead kicks. I was quite comfortable doing it.”
City could have avoided the nervy finish that was to come had their third strike of the afternoon not been ruled out. “[I remember] having a goal disallowed,” Joe Royle says. “[I] chipped one in from not far into their half and I was given offside, which surprised me. I was never really quick enough to be offside. Nevertheless, offside it was.”
It was a shame that the linesman’s flag was up – it was an audacious finish and would have stood up there with other great cup final strikes.
As much as Newcastle pushed for a late equaliser, it never came and City’s players collapsed to the ground when the referee blew the full time whistle. On the sidelines, Tony Book hugged several members of his staff: “I went through it as a player,” he says, “but as a manager, there were a lot of changes that I had to make when I came into the job. I’d been playing along with a lot of the players and I was having to change the team.
“To go and win something after being in a team that had played so well and won so many trophies, it was difficult. Francis [Lee] went, Mike [Summerbee] went, Colin Bell was injured and Glyn Pardoe was injured.
“I was pleased that we came through it and won a trophy. I knew the chairman at that time was Peter Swales and he was a hard man to please, but I looked up there and I can remember him waving out to me, clapping his hands, as much to say, ‘well you’ve done it, son.’”
For the winning goalscorer, it was an extra special day because of the opposition. Newcastle had turned down the chance to sign Tueart as a teenager: “Most of the people that I knew [at the game] were in the Newcastle end, my family and friends in particular,” he says. “When you get rejected as a 15 year old, sometimes it does make your more aggressive, more sure and more confident. For me, it was a lot of self-satisfaction even though I was beating my home town team.”
Though, the striker did have problems collecting his prize: “I’d exchanged shirts with Alan Kennedy before I went up to collect a tankard, which you used to get in those days. I swapped my shirt for the black and white one and when I went up to collect my tankard, I forget who was presenting them but they said, ‘oh, you can’t have yours yet, you’re a Newcastle player!’
“So someone had to explain that I’d just swapped shirts!”
This season, the League Cup now represents City’s best opportunity of ending a two-year drought without a trophy. It seems strange to say that going a couple of seasons without a success in one of the four competitions the Blues enter is a bad period, but that’s the position the club has been catapulted into.
It also represents Manuel Pellegrini’s best chance of ending his City career as one of the club’s most successful managers to date.
“Two years, and we’re still here.”
Typical City is now funded by the readers through our Patreon page. Please consider funding us with $1 a month so we can continue to operate as we are now. It keeps the site independent and free from click-bait.
Written by David Mooney.