Manchester City’s great turning point: beating Gillingham on penalties

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The week after their neighbours had become champions of Europe, Manchester City finally won back the respect of their fans – though they made it difficult, as Ian Farrell recalled in WSC 212, October 2012

19 February ~ Anyone with a good memory for the cultural atrocities of the past may well be acquainted with Bernard Manning’s low-rent 1970s variety show The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club. Coming across this horror show of hopelessness I was shocked and saddened to see the once-mighty Roy Orbison hit rock bottom with an appearance. If a fan were to claim this as their favourite O moment, they would no doubt have got the sort of looks I receive upon telling non-Blues that the 1999 Division Two play-off final was as good as it got for Manchester City.

After the humiliating relegation of 1998, City fans at least thought they had a season of pushing around the little guys to look forward to. We were going to take out our considerable frustrations on inconsequential opposition and sweep majestically to the 100-point mark by Easter. Yes, we really did think like that. City’s status as one of the “big boys” was based on the stadium, the masochistically loyal support and some fading silverware, but very definitely not on the one thing that matters most: the quality of the squad. With Georgi Kinkladze gone and Nigel Clough finally levered off the payroll, players without a pathological hatred of the ball were in short supply. This was a side characterised by players such as Jamie Pollock, Paul Dickov and Andy Morrison. None of them looked out of place playing Macclesfield.

The view, expressed by Joe Royle in interviews and the fans in chant form, that the City game was the opposition’s “cup final” may have seemed distastefully arrogant, but there was a grain of truth to it. Teams such as Lincoln, York and Wycombe raised their game, giving far more than our overpaid “stars” seemed prepared to, to take an increasingly less noteworthy and exclusive scalp. Down in 12th at one point and cast in their familiar role as the nation’s favourite punchline, the fear of another season in Division Two finally saw effort replace arrogance. With the talented Terry Cooke arriving on loan, a good run-in saw them climb to third, but no other play-off side had scored fewer.

The supposed formality of a semi-final against Wigan turned out to be a nervous, tight affair, but we scraped through to set up a date with Gillingham – yet another “minnow” worryingly regarded as cannon-fodder – and my first trip to Wembley. Preparations were going well until four days before the game, when tragedy struck: United won the Champions League. With Germans on the receiving end, xenophobia tended to override any sense of injustice and most people seemed distressingly pleased for them. At the time, those of us not dancing in the streets were treated as traitorous pariahs. We were backed into a corner, alone. If possible, the play-off was now even more important.

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Once the balloons and opera singers and other tedious hoopla of modern finals were over, most of the game itself was a dull and nervous affair. The first goal did not come until the 81st minute, and it went to Gillingham. Utter disbelief. Four minutes to go and it was 2-0. Silence, punctuated by the odd volcanic bout of swearing. Why do we bother? What have they done to deserve us? How could they cock this one up?

Many made for the exits. We didn’t, but more through mortification than loyalty. With a minute to go Kevin Horlock hit a loose ball through a crowd for 2-1. At the time, part of me wished they hadn’t scored. Losing 2-0 is unanswerable; 2-1, and the false hope it brings, makes defeat feel worse.

Though we roared the team forward, there seemed little genuine belief. Late comebacks? That’s really more of a United thing. In the 94th minute, Shaun Goater bundled and bamboozled his way through to the edge of the area before slipping it through to Dickov and the world turned upside down. The ear-splitting noise, the ecstasy, the loose change flying out of my top pocket in the chaos. Everyone hugged and danced, shaking their heads, unable to take it in.

Once the commotion died down, I felt a creeping sense of unease. The goal just meant the game wasn’t over. United score twice to win, we score twice to earn the right to be shafted in extra time or on penalties. Is this just another opportunity for the cruel differences between supporting the two clubs to be rammed home?

The eventual shootout takes place at our end. Dickov, the hero of injury time, contrives to hit both posts but Horlock and Cooke are on target. Gillingham score, miss and have one saved by Nicky Weaver, City’s most consistent performer and a young man who seemed to have the world at his feet back then. Richard Edgehill, the archetypal non-scoring full-back, scuffs his home for 3-1 and it’s all back on Weaver. He saves it and leads a dash through the rain to our corner. It’s all over. City have struggled to achieve only what they had expected to do without effort, but this was not a time for perspective.

So much hung on the outcome, much more, in real terms, than on most higher-profile shootouts. Failure would have almost certainly seen Royle sacked and players and club staff let go as the financial crisis deepened. City would have had to accept, as Sheffield Wednesday would, that they were not slumming it anymore: that this was who they were.

With City in the Premier League 12 months later, the play-off was viewed as the great turning point. Though the club have continued to disappoint and infuriate, its epochal importance is undeniable. They had earned more than just 46 matches against slightly less unglamorous teams, they had won back the belief and respect of the fans. They had freed the club from self-pity and the feeling that they were destined for despair, with failure some cruel fate beyond their control. That it had happened in the lower leagues did nothing to dull this feeling: as so often in life, redemption had come at the lowest ebb. They could have their treble and their “Pride Of All Europe” nonsense. After the calamities of the past, just to be the pride of Moss Side was enough. Ian Farrell

This article first appeared in WSC 212, October 2012. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here