Continuing our series on City’s comeback from the depths of Division Three to Premier League Champions, we look at the 2001/02 season and the blues return to the top flight in style.
Following relegation the previous season and the subsequent sacking of Joe Royle, the blues eyed an instant return to the top flight. But first, they had to find a manager to get them there and it arrived in the form of Kevin Keegan. The former Newcastle and Fulham boss had resigned from the England manager’s role seven months earlier, but his appointment at Maine Road made City favourites for immediate promotion. Keegan brought future manager Stuart Pearce to the club, along with midfield duo Eyal Berkovic and Algerian Ali Benarbia.
The blues got straight down to business in the first game of the season, beating Watford 3-0 at home. After a goalless first half, the blues took the lead on 59 minutes through Shaun Goater. Then it was over to the debutants. Benarbia doubled the lead five minutes later and Pearce scored a trademark freekick with three minutes remaining.
City were up and running but were quickly brought down to earth at Norwich, where two goals in the last 15 minutes saw the blues slump to a 2-0 defeat and Paolo Wanchope was sent off in the last minute. It was looking like a familiar story for the fans, but a 5-2 home win over Crewe was followed by a 4-2 win at Burnley. Shaun Goater grabbed another treble at Turf Moor to go with his two against Crewe, putting him on six goals in four matches.
But the unpredictable City were to return, and the blues were on the receiving end of a 4-0 hammering at West Brom, before coming from 2-1 behind in the League Cup at Notts County to win 4-2, a goal from Shaun Goater sending the tie into extra time. City then beat Birmingham 3-0 at Main Road, before travelling to Coventry to lose 4-3. The blues came from behind to equalise three times, but an 89th minute goal won the game for the home side.
City travelled across the Pennines to face Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, and despite conceding in the third minute, the blues went in 2-1 up at the break. Wednesday equalised twice minutes into the second half, but four goals in twenty minutes saw the blues run out 6-2 winners. Three days later, City played another club from the Midlands, but dispatched Walsall with comfortable ease, winning 3-0. City’s home form was the best in the league, winning all their matches so far, but that was to change as the Crazy Gang arrived at Maine Road.
The blues had never had the best record against Wimbledon, and City had it all to do when the Dons went in 2-0 up at the break. The fans were shell-shocked, but more was to come and two goals in the last seven minutes condemned City to their heaviest, and only defeat of the season. The defeat left the blues 6th in the league, six points off unbeaten leaders Wolves. At this point, City had conceded twenty goals, which was only just better than 20 placed Barnsley (21 goals) and third bottom Stockport (22 goals).
October started with City thrashing Birmingham 6-0 in the League Cup at Maine Road, Darren Huckerby scoring four of them, before the blues embarked on a three game winless run. A 2-2 draw at home to struggling Stockport was followed by a dire 0-0 at home to Sheffield United. Huckerby scored the opening goal for the blues at Preston, but conceded an equaliser five minutes into the second half. Preston then scored the winner in remarkable fashion. Collecting the ball inside the centre circle, future blue Jon Macken unleashed an incredible 40 yard strike which beat Nicky Weaver and presented the points to the home side. The result saw City drop to ninth in the league and the early season title favourites were simply falling away.
But the blues began to pick up and would only lose another two before the end of the year, and four in total before the season ended. Grimsby Town were sent packing after a 4-0 hammering at Maine Road, the blues being 3-0 up after 24 minutes, before securing a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest, both goals being scored before ten minutes had been played. A 3-0 win at Barnsley put the blues into the play-off zone by the end of October, but they were still seven points behind the leaders.
November began by beating Gillingham 4-1 at Maine Road, again with the blues being 3-0 up at half time, before losing 2-1 at Portsmouth. Once more, Darren Huckerby had given City a half time lead, but two second half goals won it for Pompey. City came from 1-0 down at half time at home to Rotherham to win 2-1, before bowing out of the League Cup, 2-0 at Blackburn. Despite that run, the blues had dropped to 8th in the league and still were way off the leaders in terms of points. Could the blues turn it around?
The blues were made to wait in the first game of December at Grimsby, but a Darren Huckerby penalty was doubled by Shaun Goater in the last minute to give the blues a 2-0 win. City had a ding-dong battle away to Millwall, with the home side twice equalising City’s goals, but Shaun Wright-Phillips scored the winner with seven minutes remaining. With results elsewhere going in their favour, City jumped to third in the league, just four points off new leaders Burnley, but a defeat at Crystal palace saw the cracks resurface. The blues were 2-0 down at half time and not even a goal from Goater in the 68th minute could motivate the blues for an equaliser. The blues remained third, but were now seven points behind Burnley.
But City’s time was about to arrive. Kevin Horlock scored the winner in a 1-0 win over Wolves, who had a certain Joleon Lescott sent off just before half time. A Richard Dunne Own goal gave Bradford City the lead at Maine Road a week later, but the blues rallied and secured a 3-1 win over the Bantams. By Christmas, City were still in third place, but now just five points behind Burnley, with a game in hand. And the two would meet at Maine Road in the last game of the year.
But before that, time for revenge as West Brom arrived, The Baggies had inflicted a 4-0 thrashing on the blues earlier in the season, and this time they frustrated City as they escaped with a 0-0 draw. The result was enough to leave City in second place, just four points behind Burnley but the time the teams met at Maine Road. And City chose the match to show their most exhilarating football to date. Paolo Wanchope grabbed a first half hat-trick, with Berkovic also scoring to send the league leaders in 4-0 at half time. The Clarets did pull a goal back in the second half, but Darren Huckerby scored City’s final goal as the blues ran out 5-1 winners.
City started 2002 in blistering form, and took top spot on the first day of the New Year, beating Sheffield United 3-1 at Bramhall Lane, before dispatching Swindon Town 2-0 in the FA Cup. Norwich City were soundly beaten 3-1 at Maine Road, despite Danny Tiatto being sent off after just 12 minutes. The blues then completed a league double over Watford, winning 2-1 at Vicarage Road, before taking to the national stage for an FA Cup tie at Ipswich.
The Tractor boys had sent the blues down the previous season when they beat City 2-1 at Portman Road. Town were also struggling though by the time the two teams met, and it was possible a shock could be on the cards. And when Eyal Berkovic volleyed home Ali Benarbia’s corner, a stunning result was well and truly on. Shaun Goater made it 2-0 after the break, but despite Ipswich pulling a goal back, Goater made it 3-1 heading into an open goal. With the tie won, Darren Huckerby made sure, beating the offside trap and rounding the keeper before making it 4-1 to City. It was an amazing result that was shown live on TV and City’s next opponents, Keegan’s old club Newcastle, watched on with interest.
City beat Millwall in their last game of January as the blues began to break away at the top of the table, but Wimbledon again put a spanner in the works, winning 2-1 at Plough Lane. The blues embarked on another unbeaten league run, beating Preston 3-2 at Maine Road, before Newcastle edged City out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 win at St James’s Park. It was tough on City, who had looked like getting something from the game for long periods, but just couldn’t find that final finish.
Back to league action and a 0-0 draw at Walsall was followed by six straight wins. Sheffield Wednesday were hammered 4-0 and Coventry 4-2 at Maine Road, followed by three successive away victories: 2-1 at Birmingham, 2-0 at Bradford and 3-1 at Crewe. Kevin Horlock scored a 10th minute winner as City scraped past Crystal Palace 1-0 at Maine Road, before the blues decided the fans had had enough of winning. Jon Macken, a recent £5m signing from Preston gave City the lead at Stockport on 18 minutes, but top scorer Shaun Goater was sent off on the half hour mark. But the blues still looked good for another victory, until five minutes from time when Stockport levelled. The home side then scored the winner in the last minute to send the blues to their ninth and final defeat of the season.
City were held to a 1-1 draw at Rotherham, before beating Nottingham Forest 3-0 at Maine Road thanks to a Darren Huckerby hat-trick. By the end of March, City were still top, five points clear of second placed Wolves with four games remaining. And the next match saw City at their closest rivals, knowing victory would put them on the brink of promotion. And when Shaun Wright-Phillips gave the blues the lead, seven minutes before half time, the fans dared to dream. A win would give City an eight point lead with just nine left to play for, so when Wright-Phillips scored his second with ten minutes to go, the blues left with one foot in the Premier League.
But promotion would not be won in a match City played in. Wolves played Millwall four days later and a 1-0 win for the Londoners secured City’s place in the Premier League. The blues could now face Barnsley with a relaxed attitude, knowing that, next season they were a Premier League team again.
And the blues compounded their promotion in style, thrashing Barnsley 5-1. Darren Huckerby scored another hat-trick and Jon Macken got two as the blues celebrated in style. A week later, City won 3-1 at Gillingham and in the final game of the season, beat Portsmouth 3-1 at Maine Road, with Stuart Pearce signing off his playing career by missing a last minute penalty.
It didn’t matter; the blues were up and were looking forward to playing in the top flight again.