It’s been almost two decades since Manchester City and Stoke held hands as they took the perilous plunge off the cliff into Division Two – the first time the Blues had been in the third tier of English football.
The club was in financial turmoil and the team was in disarray. A mid-season managerial change saw Joe Royle take over after Frank Clark’s disastrous reign in the February, and the writing was already on the wall even before Francis Lee resigned as chairman in March.
Despite having the personnel capable of surviving, City succumbed to relegation – in ‘Typical City’ style. A 2-2 draw with QPR on the penultimate game of the 1997-98 season, where Jamie Pollock scored that infamous own goal that secured Rangers’ place in Division One for the next campaign, left City’s destiny out of their own hands.
As fate would have it, fellow relegation candidates Port Vale and Portsmouth recorded victories at Huddersfield and Bradford respectively, meaning that City’s 5-2 victory at Stoke was in vain – they would have stayed up if one of them had lost. The Blues became the first former winners of a major European trophy to be relegated to the third tier of their domestic league.
It was the club’s darkest hour.
Having spent £31m over the previous five seasons in a bid to, at first, rediscover former glory and then make an attempt to return to the top flight, City had money worries. In fact, new chairman David Bernstein admitted that there was nothing left. Players were still on the equivalent of Premier League wages, while a mass clear out was inevitable in an effort to balance the books and prevent the club from entering administration.
Talismanic Giorgi Kinkladze left for Ajax. Uwe Rosler was another big name to depart Maine Road as he returned to Germany on a free transfer to Kaiserslautern, who had claimed their fourth German title as City were relegated.
It was strange for a club of City’s stature to be operating on one of the most meagre budgets in the division. Promotion rivals Fulham were bankrolled by Harrods’ owner Mohamed Al Fayed, while Wigan also had millions at their disposal through the investment of JJB’s Dave Whelan.
But the fan-base remained resilient and crowds on average of 28,000 – the 13th highest in the country during 1998-99 – turned out en mass at Maine Road to offer incredible support to the team.
However, as the Blues struggled to settle to their unfamiliar surroundings, Stoke had taken Division Two by storm and were the early pacesetters. Brian Little’s side recorded six straight wins and kept four clean sheets as the Potters sought an immediate return to Division One. City, meanwhile, languished in mid-table, finding putting any sort of winning run together difficult.
A poor run of form in the New Year saw Stoke pick up just 25 points from 22 games as they finished the season in eighth place and six points outside the play-offs. In contrast, City had found their feet and lost just twice in the league after Christmas – both 2-1 defeats at home to Oldham and Wycombe. In the midst of that run were victories away and at home to the Potters, 1-0 and 2-1 respectively. Royle would later say that the latter was the catalyst for City’s surge and Stoke’s fall.
After the 2-1 win at Maine Road in late December 1998, Royle admitted that they had had the “biggest argument of the season” at half time, as the team went back to the dressing room trailing to Larus Sigurdsson’s goal. But City turned it around in the second half through Paul Dickov and Gareth Taylor – their goals secured a vital three points to kick start the promotion charge.
The rest, as they say, is history.
It would be ten years before the two sides would meet again, this time in the top flight following Stoke’s promotion from Division One. City, now backed by an embarrassment of riches, won the game 3-0 thanks to a Robinho hat-trick before going on to lose the return fixture 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
The statistics make very pleasant reading from a City point of view. In the Premier League era, the Potters have visited the Etihad eight times and have scored just once. They’ve lost seven and won one – conceding 19 in the process. Mark Hughes’s side were thumped 4-0 on their last trip to City, with Kelechi Iheanacho’s second half brace adding to goals from Fernando and Sergio Aguero.
In fact, since recording a 1-0 win over Clark’s side at Maine Road in the 1997-98 campaign, Stoke have only beaten the Blues four times in the last 24 outings.
With games coming thick and fast for Pep Guardiola’s team, momentum is key and another victory will help put just a little bit more pressure on Chelsea and close the gap to eight points. The season, in effect, is just reaching boiling point and City are simmering away nicely.
Written by Chris Wildgoose
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