It’s hard to believe, watching Manchester City win the Premier League trophy this weekend, that it is twenty years since the blues were relegated to English football’s third tier. As a fan who endured that era, it makes winning the Premier League that much sweeter.
I remember being on the Kippax, watching Jamie Pollock score that remarkable own goal against QPR and thinking in the words of C3PO, ‘we’re doomed.’ And we were. Four points behind Rangers left City standing precariously on the relegation trapdoor, and a 2-2 draw did nothing, but the trapdoor began to creak.
City had briefly flirted with relegation the previous season, but rallied to finish 14th fifteen points above the relegation zone. The blues had high hopes for the coming season, with the £3m purchase of Portsmouth striker Lee Bradbury, and ironically, it would be Portsmouth who were City’s first test of the season. Bradbury failed to score on his debut as the blues struggled to a 2-2 draw. City were the first opponents Sunderland faced in their newly opened Stadium of Light, where the home side, managed by former City boss Peter Reid, won 3-1. This was followed by a 1-1 home draw with Tranmere Rovers and a 2-1 defeat at Charlton. It was going to be a long, long season.
But the blues don’t do things by halves and secured their first victory by winning 3-1 at promotion favourites, and eventual champions Nottingham Forest. But the blues could not get in their stride and continued to stutter. A 1-1 draw at Bury, where Kinkladze missed a penalty was followed by a 2-1 home defeat to Norwich. The blues hammered Swindon 6-0, before losing at Ipswich, drawing with Reading and losing to Stoke and QPR. A 1-0 home win over Crewe saw City pick up only their third win of the season and left them in 21st place, one point above the relegation trapdoor. Port Vale were the next team to beat the blues, 3-2 at Maine Road before a team and date synonymous with the blues arrived.
Exactly ten years earlier, on 7th November 1987, City hosted Huddersfield Town. At the time, the Terriers were bottom of the second division, had only won one game and were well and truly thrashed 10-1 by the blues. It was the same scenario when the teams met again, with Town bottom after only one win. Sure lightning wasn’t about to strike twice? No, City lost 1-0, but the blues would go on to claim just three wins out of nine before the end of the year, losing five including a 3-1 defeat at Stockport.
The New Year started with a fresh promise. A 2-0 win over Bradford in the FA Cup, was followed with a 3-0 win at Portsmouth. Things were looking up and City were now 18th in the league, four places above the drop zone, but only two points clear. The blues failed to win any of their next six league games, which included a 1-0 home defeat to Bury and left City back in the relegation zone.
Manager Frank Clark was dismissed and the blues brought in Joe Royle. The Oldham boss had previously rejected City when Peter Reid was sacked in 1993. Royal signed for the blues in 1974 from Everton and spent three years at the club making 99 appearances. One of his first signings was City legend Shaun Goater.
A 3-1 win at Swindon, 1-0 win over West Brom and a 3-1 victory at Huddersfield sent the team up to 17th, despite losing 3-0 at Reading in between, and gave the fans new hope that they would avoid the drop. It was to prove another false dawn. City would only win two of the remaining ten games, losing half of those, but by 25th April, with two games remaining, there was still a chance. If the blues could beat QPR in the final home game it would drag Rangers firmly into the dogfight.
And when Kinkladze scored with a free kick in the first minute the omens looked good, until former City striker Mike Sheron equalised for Rangers. Enter Jamie Pollock. The midfielder had been signed in March to try and stop City’s freefall and when he intercepted a pass on the QPR right, no one watching had any idea what would happen next. Flicking the ball over the attacker, Pollock then attempted to head the ball back to Nicky Weaver in the City goal, except Weaver was already coming out to collect. The crowd watched as the ball looped over Weaver and into the net to give QPR the lead. Lee Bradbury equalised but City now had to rely on results elsewhere, as well as winning at Stoke to survive.
The final day came. Stoke away. City had to win and hope that either Portsmouth or Port Vale dropped points. It would turn out to be the worst day in living memory. Shaun Goater gave the blues the lead in the first half to give the blues hope. And that hope was enhanced, when Paul Dickov made it 2-0. Stoke pulled a goal back, but the blues scored again through Lee Bradbury. Goater made it 4-1 before Stoke pulled another back. But by the time Kevin Horlock scored City’s fifth, the news had already filtered through that both Portsmouth and Port Vale had won their games. The players and fans could not celebrate victory. The trapdoor opened and City fell through.
The Premier League, of which City had been a founding member, was no longer in sight, and the fans, who were watching United win trophy after trophy could only dream about getting out of the third division at the first attempt. Any thoughts that City could one day win the Premier League were dismissed as pure fantasy.
The blues were down. But they were not out.