The previous season, City had marched to the First Division title, and once again were prepared to test their mettle against the best teams in the country. In order to make sure they stayed in the Premier League, the blues invested £13m for Arsenal’s former striker Nicolas Anelka, and £5m to PSG for Sylvain Distin, while Peter Schmeichel joined on a free from Aston Villa. Anelka’s fee was a club record and the blues were determined they wouldn’t make another drop from the top flight again. Also brought in was ex West Ham midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe, who signed from Lyon and would become a big hit with the fans, but would end in tragic circumstances.
The season started with a visit to Leeds, but it wasn’t the fairytale beginning the blues new signings had hoped for as the blues found themselves 2-0 down by half time, with the Elland Road club running out eventual 3-0 winners. But City didn’t have long to wait before securing their first win of the season as Newcastle were the first visitors to Maine Road. Darren Huckerby’s goal in the 36th minute was enough to give the blues the three points. A visit to Villa Park brought the blues back down to earth as Villa won 1-0, before City ended the month well with a 3-1 home win against Everton. Nicolas Anelka scored his first goals for the club and was denied a hat-trick as the opening goal was credited as an own goal.
City started September in sixth position, but the blues were about to embark on a six match winless league run, starting with a 2-1 defeat at Highbury, where Anelka scored an equaliser against his former club. The blues then had to come back from 2-0 at home to Blackburn to secure a point, Anelka scoring 10 minutes from time before Shaun Goater grabbed an equaliser in the final minute. That was followed by a 0-0 draw at West Ham, before Liverpool arrived at Maine Road and walked away with a 3-0 win. 2 points from a possible 18 saw the blues drop nine places in the Premier League.
City’s knack of conceding early goals continued into October, as Crewe arrived in the League Cup and took the lead in the first minute. City had to wait until the 69th minute to equalise through Eyal Berkovich, before the game exploded into life. An own goal on 84 minutes gave City the lead, but Crewe levelled two minutes later, only for Darren Huckerby to win the game 3-2 for the blues with a goal exactly a minute later.
A trip to St Mary’s saw the blues lose 2-0 to Southampton and City slipped again at home to Chelsea, as the visitors inflicted another 3-0 defeat on the team. That winless streak left the blues above the relegation zone on goal difference only, and they needed to start picking up points soon, and the next three games game them the perfect opportunity to do so. Sun Jihai and Nicolas Anelka scored in a 2-0 win at Birmingham, while Anelka was on the scoresheet again alongside Shaun Goater as the blues won 2-1 at West Brom. Those six points pushed the blues into 14th position, but were eight points behind their next league opponents: Manchester United.
But first was a match that would seem to start a trend for City – Away to Wigan Athletic in the League Cup. A televised match saw City slump to a 1-0 defeat at the Latics, a one-off result that would never, ever happen again…until the next time!
The match against United would be the last league derby to be played at Maine Road, with the blues set to move to Eastlands in the summer, and the faithful wanted a final win against their old foes. Their hopes of victory were raised when Nicolas Anelka gave City the lead in the fifth minute, slamming home after Shaun Goater’s shot was parried by the United keeper. It took three minutes form United to level, but City were not to be denied. A long ball forward looked innocuous and United defender Gary Neville should have easily dealt with it, however Goater muscled him off the ball before bending a shot past the keeper to put the blues back into the lead. The striker had an opportunity to make it 3-1 before half time, but the keeper saved well.
However Goater grabbed his second and City’s third six minutes after the break when a flick Ali Benarbia sent him through on goal and this time, Goater made no mistake. The blues ran out 3-1 winners and also won the final ever league derby at Maine Road, thanks to the man who was once rejected by United.
But City would soon be brought back to earth with a bump as Charlton Athletic won 1-0 at Maine Road and Shaun Wright-Phillips was sent off during a 3-1 defeat at Middlesbrough. However November ended with the blues beating Bolton 2-0 at Maine Road. Four wins and two defeats left City in 12th position
December heralded a resurgence in the blues, as they would only lose one match this month. It started with a 3-0 win at Sunderland, followed by a 2-2 draw at Charlton, Marc-Vivien Foe scoring both goals for City as the blues came back from 2-0 down with just 14 minutes remaining. Spurs beat the blues 3-2 at Maine Road, but Foe scored another brace as the blues beat Aston Villa 3-1 at Maine Road, before winning 1-0 at Fulham in the final game of the year. The sudden burst of form propelled the blues to 9th in the league, and firmly put any fears of relegation behind them.
2003 started with a 2-2 draw at Everton, with City conceding a last minute equaliser to deny them the win. The third round of the FA Cup saw City drawn against the other Merseyside team at Maine Road, and predictably, City exited the cup at the hands of Liverpool. A stunning goal by Nicolas Jensen gave the blues a 2-1 win over Leeds United, then City went and lost 2-0 at Newcastle, in a game where the blues were lucky to escape without conceding more. January ended with the blues thrashing Fulham 4-1, despite the Londoners taking the lead in the first minute.
February began with a 2-1 home defeat to West Brom, with new signing Robbie Fowler making his debut. City then travelled to Old Trafford, and despite being 1-0 down for much of the match, salvaged a draw as Shaun Goater equalised with four minutes remaining. It could have been better for City as Goater scored again shortly afterwards, but his winner was ruled out for offside, much to the relief of the stunned United fans. February saw only three games and the final was at home to leaders Arsenal. The Gunners had surrendered a decent lead over United in the chase for the Premier League title, but weren’t in any mood to let City get anything from the match. Arsenal were 4-0 up after just 19 minutes and made it 5-0 seven minutes after the break. Blues fans gave Arsenal striker Thierry Henry a standing ovation when he exited the field, such was his performance on the day and Nicolas Anelka again scored against his former club to give the scoreline a bit of respectability.
Just another three games in March, but it started off with another defeat, this time 1-0 at Blackburn before the blues beat Birmingham at Maine Road by the same scoreline. City conceded another five and had Sun Jihai sent off in a 5-0 thrashing at Chelsea to end the month in 12th place. April began with a 2-0 loss at relegation threatened Bolton, followed by a 0-0 draw at home to Middlesbrough. City then went to Spurs and won 2-0 at white Hart lane, a young Joey Barton getting on the scoresheet, before recording their final ever victory at Maine Road by beating Sunderland 3-0. A place in City history went to Marc-Vivien Foe, who went down as the last ever goal scorer at Maine Road in a City shirt, when he scored City’s third with ten minutes remaining.
The blues then lost at home to West Ham, who scored the only goal of the game with nine minutes remaining. A trip to Anfield was City’s final away game of the season, and the faithful expected their annual defeat at the hands of Liverpool. And that seemed to be compounded as Milan Baros gave the home side the lead on 59 minutes. But it was something of a shock when Nicolas Anelka converted a 74th minute penalty to equalise for City. What was even more of a shock was that was City’s first, and only penalty of the season. And to really send City heads into confusion, Anelka scored again deep into injury time to give the blues three points and a rare win at Anfield.
And so to the final game of the season, and Southampton were the last ever visitors to Maine Road. Surely not even the unpredictable blues would pass on this opportunity to give their fans the perfect send off? No, that would be insane to think that as Saints scored in the first half and never conceded. It wasn’t the ideal way to end an 80 year association with Maine Road, but as the whistle went, the curtain fell on a historic site that had seen victory and defeat, delirium and despair, but also a lot of confusion and frustration.
The blues finished a credible ninth position in their first season back, but qualified for the UEFA Cup, courtesy of the Fair Play league. As City finished top of the Premier League’s Fair Play League and England finished top of the European fair Play League, UEFA awarded an additional place to England in the competition and that place went straight to the blues. Kevin Keegan had guided City back to the Premier League and now into Europe.
Tragedy was to strike the blues during the close season with the sudden death of Marc-Vivien Foe on 26th June 2003, while playing for Cameroon against Colombia. Foe collapsed on the centre circle and medics spent 45 minutes off the pitch attempting to resuscitate him. Alive upon reaching hospital, Foe died shortly afterwards. As a result of his death, City retired the number 23 shirt in his honour and a plaque was unveiled at the new stadium in tribute to our fallen hero.
May he rest in peace.