Continuing to chart our progress from Division Three to Premier League Champions, we look back at the 1998/99 season, City’s first and only foray into English third tier.
August 1998. The blues had suffered another relegation on the final day of the season, this time to take us further down the league than we’d ever been. Joe Royle was at the helm, having taken over from Frank Clarke in February. He’d failed to stop the rot, but that was then last season, and the reality was that we had to gain promotion at the first attempt. Some thought we’d walk the league, but others were more cautious. And they were right to be like that.
The season started with a home game against Blackpool. The Seasiders had knocked City out of the League Cup at Maine Road on penalties the previous season, so the blues were eager to gain some level of revenge. It ended a comfortable 3-0 win for the blues and the manner and ease in which City won, gave the impression that the club would be promoted in no time.
That hope would crash in spectacular style at Craven Cottage. Fulham, managed by former Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan, welcomed the blues for a Friday night game and promptly condemned City to a 3-0 defeat. The reality of how difficult the league would be truly hit home in the next game against Wrexham at Maine Road. The blues were hotly tipped to win the match, but somehow the visitors kept the blues at bay to secure a 0-0 draw. The last game in August came at Meadow Lane, home of Notts County. City had just beaten county 9-1 on aggregate in the League Cup but their league form left City wanting as they only managed a 1-1 daw. One win in four games left the blues in 16th position. Things surely couldn’t get any worse?
Unbeaten Walsall arrived at Maine Road and the blues finally got into their rhythm, winning 3-1. This was followed with a 2-1 home win over Bournemouth and a 1-0 away win at Macclesfield. But, as always seemed to be the case, City had given the supporters false hope, failing to win any of their following five games. Four draws in succession, 1-1 at home to Chesterfield, 2-2 at Northampton, 1-1 at Millwall and 2-2 at home to Burnley, was followed by a 1-0 home defeat to Preston. Wigan Athletic, the scourge of the blues future FA Cup campaigns, were beaten 1-0 at Springfield Park, but defeats at Lincoln (2-1) and home to Reading (1-0) and the doubts around City’s capability of promotion resurfaced. A 2-1 home win over Colchester did little to boost the faithful’s confidence, despite City ending October in 6thplace.
November started brightly with a 3-0 win at Oldham, but once again the blues failed in their next game, losing 1-0 away to Wycombe. City welcomed Halifax in the FA Cup first round, winning 3-0, before again drawing the next three league games: 0-0 at home to Gillingham, 1-1 at Luton, and another goalless draw, this time at home to Bristol Rovers. On 19th December the blues lost again, this time 2-1 at York City. The result saw the blues drop to 12th in the league, a full fifteen places behind leaders Fulham.
The defeat at York was a new low for the blues, but it seemed to finally spark some life into them, and they finished the year with successive victories 1-0 at Wrexham on Boxing Day and 2-1 at home to Stoke.
The New Year saw the blues exit the FA Cup 1-0 at Wimbledon, before embarking on a ten match unbeaten run. Following a 0-0 draw at Blackpool, the blues faced league leaders Fulham at Maine Road. City were still fifteen points behind The Cottagers, but turned in an amazing performance to win 3-0. A 1-1 draw at Walsall followed by a 1-0 win at Stoke left the blues in 8th position, but now within striking distance of the play-offs. February saw two wins and two draws; a 3-0 win at home to Millwall, 0-0 at Bournemouth, 2-0 at home to Macclesfield and a 1-1 draw at Chesterfield pushed the blues into 6thand a play-off place. After a questionable start, the blues were finally giving the fans true hope.
But just as the fans were getting excited, once again the blues let them down. March started with a goalless home draw with Northampton, but then produce the performance of the season away to Burnley. The Clarets had lost their last home game 5-0 to Gillingham, but the blues went one better. A Shaun Goater master show helped the blues to a 6-0 away win. The incredible run left them just eight points behind Preston in second place. If the blues could keep this going, they could secure an automatic promotion spot.
And just as the thought entered the fans thoughts, the blues at their unpredictable best messed it up again, losing 2-1 at home to Oldham. But the blip was temporary, with City winning the next four; 2-1 at home to Notts County, 1-0 at Colchester, 3-1 at Reading, and 1-0 at home to Wigan. The winning run was ended with a 1-1 draw at Preston, but soon picked up again, with a 4-0 home win over Lincoln, 2-0 at home to Luton and 2-0 at Gillingham. The latest run left the blues in third, just two points of an automatic promotion place, but Walsall had two games in hand. The blues fate was now in the hands of others.
On defeat in twenty one games soon became two, and perhaps the most surprising of the season. Relegation threatened Wycombe Wanderers arrived and walked away with a 2-1 win, the only team to complete a double over the blues all season. The defeat left City five points behind Walsall with two games to go, but Walsall still had a game in hand.
The blues promoted Walsall after a 2-2 draw at Bristol Rovers, and secured third place with a 4-1 home win against York. After a long, hard season, the blues faced at least two more games and those were against Wigan.
The first leg at Springfield Park ended 1-1, but it was the second leg that caused controversy. Shaun Goater scored the only goal of the game as the blues progress to Wembley, but Wigan claimed he handled the ball before scoring. The referee disagreed ad City were one game away from promotion. Only Tony Pulis and Gillingham stood in their way.
And so to Wembley and the blues last chance. The match was a difficult one for City fans to endure. Neighbours United had just been crowned European champions to go with the Premier League title and FA Cup, but here were City hoping to get out of the third tier.
A nervy first half ended goalless, and if the blues were to win promotion, they would have to break a stubborn Gillingham defence. And the chances of that happening dropped when Carl Asaba gave the Gills the lead. It was a major blow to City who’d had the better chances in the match. And City hearts sank when Robert Taylor raced clear to fire past Nicky Weaver to give the Gills a 2-0 lead. Gillingham fans celebrated and sang until they were hoarse and for good reason; it was they who were going up.
But City always like a challenge and when Kevin Horlock hammered the ball into an empty net from the edge of the area, the fans wondered if a comeback was possible. Ninety minutes had passed when all eyes looked towards the fourth official. Five minutes of injury time. Where did that come from? Asked the Gillingham fans. We don’t care, the City fans replied.
Tim was almost up when City launched what must be their final attack. In the 94th minute, City had a throw deep in their own half. The ball was launched forward and flick on was laid off to Goater. He was tackled but the ball fell to Paul Dickov on the edge of the area. His first touch took him into the penalty area. Barely looking up, he quickly steadied himself and pulled his right leg back, ready to take the shot. The crowd held their breath as he struck the ball, and watched as it flew past Vince Bartram. The net rippled, the fans screamed and Dickov celebrated like he’d just scored the winner in a cup final. The pain of the previous ninety minutes had gone in an instant. The blues had clawed away from defeat and gave themselves a lifeline. Could they take this second chance?
Extra time yielded no further goals and the play-off would be decided by a penalty shoot-out. City went first. Kevin Horlock struck first to give the blues the lead, and when Paul Smith’s penalty was saved by Weaver’s legs, blues fans began to dream. This was not possible, but somehow, City were making it possible.
Paul Dickov, hero goalscorer stepped up. He’s just scored from a more difficult position, so surely twelve yards should be a doddle. His shot sent the keeper the wrong way, but it hit both posts and bounced away to safety. The City players consoled Dickov as Adrian Pennock stepped forward with the chance to draw Gillingham level. Weaver bounced on the goal line, then stood and watched the ball sail past the post, and was as surprised as anyone in the ground before running of to celebrate.
Blues fans could hardly believe the position they were in. From 2-0 down to the brink of promotion. Nails were being bitten away in the blue half of Wembley as former United winger Terry Cooke stepped up and scored to make it 2-0. although Gillingham substitute John Hodge hit the target to make it 2-1. But City were almost there. Score two more penalties and we’re up.
Richard Edghill jogged forward and picked up the ball. The City fans held their breath. Edghill? What? Edghill? Really? It was brave of the defender who wasn’t renowned as a goalscoring defender, but he slammed a confident penalty in off the bar to make it 3-1, kissing the badge as he ran back to the halfway line. The blues were on the brink. One more penalty to score and that would be it, although if Gillingham missed the blues were promoted.
Up stepped former Tottenham man Guy Butters. The blues fans prayed for him to miss, for Weaver to pull off a save. Anything to promote the blues. Butters ran up, left footed and took his shot. Weaver dived to his left and parried the ball away to send the blues fans into delirium and Gillingham fans into despair. The blue half of Wembley erupted and Weaver just started running, like he was powered by Duracell, until he was finally caught and mobbed by his teammates.
It was an amazing end to a season full of ups and downs, but nothing more than City deserved. The blues lost two matches from the turn of the year and fully deserved their place in the second tier. The club had put the fans through hell, but they still turned out in their droves, averaging around 28-30k fans for their home matches, when the division average was around 8,000. City, the once great club who had fallen on hard times, were back after one season. It is widely believed that this game started our comeback and Dickov’s goal was the catalyst. Who are we to argue?
The blues emerged from the third division, battered, a little bruised but intact. They now set their sights on a Premier League return.