When I was selected for the school team in my first year at High School in 1979, it was a huge thrill.
My 11-year-old self still had dreams of being the next flying winger like Peter Barnes or an inside forward – a latter day Asa Hartford. I wanted something to mark the occasion; I was still using shin pads from the 1960s which my Dad had passed down, not great but an upgrade from putting newspaper down the front of your socks. I was taken down to the Merseyway shopping precinct to Sugg Sports – the go to shop back in the day and another of the old school stores which is sadly no longer with us – determined to get myself some City shin pads.
I was to be denied. There were Liverpool, United, Arsenal and Chelsea shin pads but no City; Chelsea but no City? The man in the shop said they were very popular and so they stocked them but I couldn’t understand this. Chelsea had not won anything for years and they were in the Second Division, so they could hardly have glory hunters snapping up merchandise in Stockport.
Crestfallen, I bought a generic pair of pads and began to foster a youthful dislike of the West London Club. My football career sadly didn’t hit the heights and so I began to live vicariously through the lads of my own age who made it into youth football at City; lucky for me this was the generation that would win the FA Youth Cup in 1986 with a two-leg victory over United in the final, with Lake, White, Brightwell, Redmond, Hinchcliffe, Scott and Moulden all eventually breaking into the first team. Bereft of resources to spend big, those young players were the ones the club put their faith in to get us back into the top flight in the 1988/89 season under Mel Machin.
By that season, the youngsters were at the heart of the team. They had the goodwill of the inflatable banana brandishing supporters and after a wobbly start the team got going. A midweek 3-1 away win at Chelsea on 20th September 1988 was a considerable scalp and was one of a sequence of five straight wins in the league. ‘Bob’ Brightwell got two that night and Paul Moulden got the other in a rather eerie Stamford Bridge in front of just over 8000 fans; the attendance was low due to the terraces being closed for the first six games following hooliganism during Chelsea’s First Division Play-Off Second leg game against Middlesbrough where they were relegated. It looked like Chelsea were suffering an early season hangover, but they had managed to hold onto most of their squad and would soon be terrorising the league.
By the time the teams met at a soggy Maine Road for a live televised game on the 18th March 1989, Chelsea were top and City were part of the chasing pack. It was a huge game with 40,070 in attendance and it felt like this was a chance to solidify our promotion hopes and even gives us a tilt at the title. Those hopes were quickly dashed, Chelsea were flying with confidence high and within fifteen minutes they were ahead. A corner was scrambled in by Kerry Dixon when keeper Dibble collided with his own defenders, a second followed eight minutes later Dixon got the better of centre half Brian Gayle, pulled defenders and the keeper towards him, then pulled it back to Kevin Wilson who tapped into an empty net. City worked their way back into the game and eventually started to put some pressure on the visitors goal, but as time slipped away they went a bit gung-ho and this led to third Chelsea goal. Following a cleared City corner, Neil McNab knocked a ball across the field to Paul Lake, the last defender, who miss-controlled and fell to the ground, full back Tony Dorigo got the ball and ran uncontested up field with two of his own players either side of him, he rounded Dibble and slotted in their third goal.
It felt like men against boys, but to City’s credit they kept going. Paul Moulden on as sub earned a dubious penalty which McNab scored, then late on a corner squirted through to young defender Gerry Taggart at the far post who slammed it in in the dying seconds to make it little more respectable, but in truth City were beaten by the better side. Chelsea romped to the title from this point and City got over the line to finish runners-up and get promoted with a final day heart-stopping late draw at Bradford. Chelsea at this point looked better equipped for the step-up to the First Division, City had a lot to do to reach the next level, but even with this set back it still felt they had the raw material to do it.
Almost a year later Chelsea were back at Maine Road again. They were having a good first season back in the top flight and would eventually finish fifth; City meanwhile had struggled and eventually sacked Mel Machin and replaced him with Howard Kendall, who set about adding experience to the squad – seemingly all ex-Everton players, so much so that some fans even dubbed the team Everton Reserves. Reid, Harper & Ward however added a bit more steel and know-how to the side, Heath came in and was not universally popular neither was Clarke as fan favourite Clive Allen was kept on the bench most of the time, but as results turned around most went with it, in the hope it would save the club from an immediate return to Division Two.
On transfer deadline day, which in those days was still in March, Kendall brought in a forward in the form of Niall Quinn from Arsenal, who was eyeing both first team football and securing his World Cup place at Italia 90. From that moment it felt like City had enough in terms of resilience allied with skill to finish the job.
Quinn made his debut in a midweek game against high flying Chelsea. He was partnered with Clive Allen that night and they made a difference, suddenly there was a focal point for the wide men, White and Ward, to hit in the middle. Quinn’s presence pulled attackers away from Allen and gave him more space and time; in a tight game it was Chelsea who took the lead, City held a line at the edge of the box, but gave time and space to Gordon Durie who beat Dibble at his near post with a powerful shot from outside the box. This was, however, a more resilient City side and they were winning the midfield battle and getting it wide for quick crosses; Allen went close with one header, then finally Quinn connected with a right wing cross from White and powered a bullet header past Dave Beasant, a dream start to his City career. Though it was a 1-1 draw it was clear City were up for the fight and had the tools to survive; the game had been a battle between two well matched teams, after this game City won five, drew two and lost only one game in the run-in, with confidence restored it looked like sunnier days were ahead.
When we met Chelsea at home in the following 1990/91 season with Peter Reid as manager, City were now the team in the ascendancy. The groundwork done by Kendall had been carried on, City were becoming a tough team to play at Maine Road and travelled well too. It was City who would finish fifth this season with Chelsea in mid-table. The sides met on 9th February 1991, on a wintry afternoon with snow on the terraces of the windy corner of the Kippax. A Gary Megson bursting run from midfield into the box off a Quinn flick put City one-up, then David White made it two off a hopeful Pointon punt, Dorigo fluffed a clearance and with pace White nipped in and lobbed the keeper. City were two up in twenty minutes; Chelsea grabbed one back through Dennis Wise mid-way through the second half to make it interesting, but City held out for the win.
This time it seemed that City were again an established First Division side. We had come a long way from that home defeat in the Second Division and had matched then surpassed the likes of Chelsea and were finally pointing in the right direction.
As for the youth team players of the school of 1986, not all had made it through the transition. Paul Lake had started his injury nightmare that season, some had been transferred, but Brightwell, Redmond and White remained and continued to do the club proud.
Written by Richard Donlan
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