The end of the last century and millennium was an interesting one for Manchester City. Relegation, relegation and promotion saw blues fans biting their fingernails, wondering what their team were going to put them through next.
Joe Royle’s side had been minutes from another season in Division Three (yes I’m calling it that from now on) when Paul Dickov struck to earn extra time and penalties, which saw the blues go straight back up at the first attempt. The following season was expected to be a consolidation season – make sure we establish ourselves in Division Two and make a push for promotion the following season. No one expected the blues to go for it in their first season back.
City had just beaten Liverpool in their final pre-season friendly at Maine Road, and faced Wolves at home on the opening day. With high expectations following the win over Liverpool, over 31,000 crammed into Maine Road to watch Wolves take all three points with a 1-0 win. Not the start City were hoping for.
The bleus went to Craven Cottage, exactly a year after losing 3-0 to Fulham a division lower. City again failed to score, but this time kept the home side out by securing a goalless draw. Then the blues decided to make their mark.
Kevin Horlock scored two penalties as City thrashed Sheffield United 6-0 at Maine Road and followed that up with another four wins – three 1-0 wins over Bolton, Nottingham Forest and Walsall with a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace sandwiched in between. And that’s not to mention putting Burnley out of the League Cup 6-0 on aggregate to set up a second round tie against Southampton. The blues held their own against the Saints, securing a 0-0 home draw in the first leg, before narrowly losing the second leg 4-3.
That defeat was followed by two successive away defeats at Ipswich and Norwich, but City returned to winning ways and started a 10 match unbeaten run which took them four points clear at the top of the league. Blues fans were unable to believe it. Twelve months ago, City were eighth in Division Three, 12 points behind leaders Stoke, but now here they sat, looking at a return to the Premier League.
City won eight wins of those ten games, including a 1-0 win at promotion favourites and closest rivals Charlton Athletic and a double over Port Vale, a bit of revenge for their part in sending the blues down two seasons earlier. But in true City style, they trued to mess it up. Huddersfield and Stockport County both won at Maine Road, while Wolves completed a league double over City by thrashing the blues 4-1. Many thought City had been found out and would start to drop down the league, particularly after the defeat to Stockport.
It was a short-lived blip, as City lost just one match in eleven, a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United. Six wins from those eleven matches kept the blues ahead of Ipswich in third place, while keeping up with leaders Charlton. The top three were beginning to pull away at the top, and City fans were slowly believing that the blues could return to the Premier League after an absence of four seasons.
Back to back defeats to QPR and Barnsley saw City drop to fourth place as Barnsley entered the race to join the Premier League elite. But that defeat at Oakwell would prove to be City’s last of the season.
Charlton had no started to run away with the league, but City had an opportunity to close the gap and move up the table as the Addicks arrived at Maine Road. Despite taking the lead, City allowed the visitors to level, but a 1-1 draw was enough to put City into second place again.
With ten games remaining, City stepped it up…after a 2-2 draw at Stockport that is. The blues won four on the bounce before drawing 1-1 at Grimsby. A 2-0 win over Tranmere was followed by a 2-2 draw at Portsmouth left City in second place, four points ahead of Barnsley in third, and five ahead of Ipswich in fourth. Crucially, the Tractor Boys had a game in hand on the blues, which would have seen City promoted had they lost it. Sadly, they won, but it did set up a grandstand finish.
A nervy final home match of the season saw the bleus beat Birmingham 1-0, while Ipswich kept the pace with a win of their own the following night. The blues were two points ahead and they just needed to win or match Ipswich’s result on the final day of the season to secure an unlikely back to back promotion.
As always, City didn’t make it easy and put the fans through hell. Losing 1-0 at Ewood Park by half time, the fans were buoyed by the fact that Ipswich were goalless in their match. That all changed in the second half. Town took the lead against Walsall before City found their rhythm. Shaun Goater equalised for City, before an own goal by Christian Dailly sent the blues 2-1 up. City fans were in heaven as Mark Kennedy made it 3-1 and last year’s play-off hero Paul Dickov made it 4-1. Ipswich won 2-0 but it didn’t matter.
A team, put together to stabilise the club, promoted in the most unlikely of circumstances. The odds on City making the play-offs was an outside bet at best. No one gave the blues a chance, but the underdog did it and earned a place back in the big time…again.