Continuing our incredible story from Division Three to three times champions, we look back at the 2005/06 and Stuart Pearce’s first full season in charge. The former England defender had taken over the reigns after Kevin Keegan resigned and took the blues to within a penalty kick of Europe. The fans expected great things to come the following season, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.
The blues pre-season was disrupted by the pursuit of City starlet Shaun Wright-Phillips. The youngster had turned in some brilliant performances for City and broke into the England squad, which then alerted the top clubs to come and take a look. Arsenal were first to make a move, but when Chelsea offered £21m for the winger, it was difficult for the blues to turn down. John Macken also left, leaving the blues short of attacking options. So the blues used £2m of SWP’s transfer fee to bring in Darius Vassell from Aston Villa and also signed Andy Cole on a free transfer, while Georgios Samaras would arrive in the January transfer window.
The blues now annual match against one of Europe’s top clubs saw Greek side Olympiacos visit Manchester, and the visitors took the lead when someone called Yaya Toure scored in the 27th minute. The blues hit back and Darius Vassell equalised in the 65th minute, before Bradley Wright-Phllips showed why he should take over from his brother with two goals in four minutes to win the match for City.
But the blues new look attack failed at the first attempt in the league as they drew the opening game at home to West Brom, and their first away game didn’t start too well as the went 1-0 at Birmingham in the 7th minute. But City came back and equalised through Joey Barton on 20 minutes, then Andy Cole scored the winner a minute after the break, his first for the club.
City then travelled to Sunderland and secured a 2-1 win, Darius Vassell opening his City account, with Trevor Sinclair making it 2-0. Sunderland pulled a goal back, but the blues held on to claim a second consecutive away win. The last game in August saw Portsmouth visit Eastlands. The visitors took the lead just after half time, but two goals in three minutes from Claudio Reyna and Cole’s second for City won the match and sent City up to second in the league, just two points behind leader’s Chelsea.
City’s impressive start continued at Old Trafford as the blues secured a 1-1 draw. United took the lead on half time, but Joey Barton equalised with 15 minutes left. Blues fans were dreaming and Pearce looked like the real deal until Bolton arrived at Eastlands and scored a winner deep into injury time to condemn the blues to their first defeat. City then travelled to Doncaster Rover in the League Cup, looking for a place in the next round. After a goalless 90 minutes, Vassell scored a penalty in the 93rd minute to give the blues the lead. But with two minutes of extra time remaining, City conceded a penalty and Rovers levelled. A penalty shoot-out ensued, which the blues embarrassingly lost 3-0 and their dreams of lifting the League Cup were over before it had begun.
A sorry City side then lost 1-0 at Newcastle, before the blues beat Everton 2-0 at Eastlands. Andy Cole scored another brace as City beat West Ham 2-1 at home, but a trip to Arsenal saw the blues take a usual defeat, 1-0 through a Robert Pires penalty. Halloween saw City at home to Aston Villa, where the blues won 3-1. Vassell scored a brace as City raced into a 2-0 lead and Cole scored a third for the blues after Villa had pulled a goal back. Despite those losses, City sat in fourth place, 11 points behind leaders Chelsea but just two behind second placed Wigan (yes, you read that right). But the hope the blues had given the fans didn’t last as a 2-1 defeat at Fulham was followed by 0-0 draw at home to Blackburn. Liverpool then arrived and completed a miserable November as City dropped to eighth place in the league.
December started with City desperately needing a win as the visited Charlton at The Valley, and in front of the TV cameras, City turned on the style. Andy Cole gave the blues the lead after 25 minutes, but the hosts levelled nine minutes later, only for Trevor Sinclair to put the blues back in front a minute later. It was 3-1 after 69 minutes through Joey Barton, and although Charlton pulled a goal back on 73 minutes, the blues wrapped up the points through Vassell (79) and Cole (84), securing a 5-2 away win.
City then travelled to West Brom and lost 2-0 and also had Andy Cole sent off in the final minutes. The blues next faced Birmingham at home and scored their fastest goal of the season. City attacked from the kick off and won a corner in the first minute, from which David Sommeil scored. Barton converted a penalty in the 13th minute as the blues threatened to run riot, and Antoine Sibierski made it 3-0 before half time. Bradley Wright-Phillips came on as a substitute and made it 4-0, before Birmingham pulled a goal back. That result left the blues in 7th place before Christmas, one point behind their next opponents – Wigan Athletic.
The blues recent results against the Lactics have bene less than perfect, and it could be argued that their struggles against their north-west rivals started on Boxing Day 2005. Sibierski gave City a 2nd minute lead, but City fell apart and were 3-1 down at half time. It was 4-1 after 70 minutes, before Barton and Cole made it 4-3, but the blues couldn’t find an equaliser. League leaders Chelsea arrived at Eastlands and won 1-0, before City travelled to Middlesbrough for a 0-0 draw. City ended the year in 8th place and were hoping 2006 would bring them better fortune.
But the New Year didn’t start well as City were beaten 2-0 at home to Spurs. After the earlier defeat to Doncaster, City were wary of their FA Cup opponents Scunthorpe United, and they had every reason to be. The visitors went in 1-0 up at half time courtesy of a 17th minute goal. But Robbie Fowler finally found some form and scored a seventeen minute hat-trick in the second half to send the blues through 3-1.
Manchester United provided the opposition at Eastlands for the next game. United were chasing Chelsea for the league title and needed the points to pull back the thirteen points they trailed the Londoners by. Lifelong City fan Trevor Sinclair gave the blues the lead on 32 minutes and Darius Vassell doubled the lead seven minutes later. United were reduced to 10 men after Ronaldo was sent off, but they pulled a goal back with 14 minutes remaining. The blues were desperate not to allow United to claw the game back and wrapped up the points when Fowler scored his last goal for the club after being set up by Vassell. The derby win should have sent City on a winning streak, but any chance of that happening ended at Bolton, as the Trotters won 2-0. City faced Wigan in the FA Cup at Eastlands and secured a place in the next round through Cole’s 83rd minute winner, proving we can actually beat them sometimes! City started February by beating Newcastle 3-0, then promptly lost 1-0 at Everton. Charlton were defeated 3-2 at Eastlands, with the blues taking the lead three times against The Addicks.
Back to FA Cup action and City at Villa Park. Despite dominating the game, City fell behind in the 72nd minute. It looked like the blues FA Cup run was coming to an end, but a young debutant by the name of Micah Richards stepped up to head home a corner in the final minute to force a replay. Richards was then interviewed on live TV and a ‘slip of the tongue’ had Match of the Day presenters apologising for him swearing.
City had three league games before the replay, starting at Anfield where Joey Barton was sent off and the team sent home with a 1-0 defeat. New signing Georgios Samaras scored twice in the first ten minutes to give City a 2-0 lead at home to Sunderland, but the visitors pulled a goal back on 24 minutes and the blues hung on for a 2-1 win. Next up was a trip to the south coast and a 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth, with the blues conceding a last minute winner. Samaras scored again in the FA Cup replay as City beat Villa 2-1 to progress to the quarter final. The blues were drawn at home to West Ham and many supporters believed it was City’s name on the cup this year. But before that game was a home match against Wigan, where once again the blues faltered, losing 1-0.
A place in the semi-final of the FA Cup would be a first for City since 1981. Only West Ham stood in the way. And they would prove to be an obstacle too many as the Hammers won 2-1 at Eastlands on their way to a Wembley final. This was followed by another four defeats as City’s season fell apart. The blues lost 2-0 to eventual champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, before Middlesbrough arrived at Eastlands and won 1-0. City lost 2-1 at Spurs and 1-0 at West Ham before they finally secured a win. On 25th April, Darius Vassell scored the only goal of the game as City beat Aston Villa at Villa Park, which was only their fifth win of the year. The blues finished April with a 2-1 loss at home to Fulham, and started May with a 3-1 defeat at home to Arsenal, before finishing the season in 15th place with a 2-0 loss at Blackburn.
Pearce’s City didn’t live up to the expectations the last few games of the previous season had promised and he would have to do something more if he was to keep his job the following season.