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How Manchester City Went From Division Three To The Champions League Final

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A Look Back At Where We Were To Where We Are Today

Manchester City v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Leg Two Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

If you’d have told a Manchester City supporter on 4th May 1998 that one day their team would be in the Champions League final, they would have you committed on the spot.

4th May 1998 was the day after the day before. And the day before had been a bleak one for the blues as they had dropped into the third tier of English football for the first time in their history. Despite a 5-2 win at Stoke, results elsewhere meant City fell through the trapdoor.

The Premier League, of which they had been a founding member, was rapidly becoming a distant memory, and talk about returning to the top-flight was so far in the future that the faithful would have been forgiven for thinking we’d never make a return.

To make things worse, in the following season United went and completed their treble, winning the Champions League with a last minute goal from their current manager. While they were winning Europe’s top prize in Barcelona, City were struggling past Wigan and facing Gillingham in the play-off final, which is where it really all started.

2-0 down with barely any time on the clock, Kevin Horlock fired home to give City hope. With five minutes of injury time and roared on by the huge following who had descended on Wembley in their thousands, City found an equaliser through Paul Dickov. Extra time yielded no further goals and the match went to penalties.

Horlock, Terry Cooke and Richard Edghill all scored for City, while goalscoring hero Dickov managed to hit both posts with his penalty. But the hero was Nicky Weaver, who stopped two Gillingham penalties as the blues won 3-1. They were back in the second tier, but no one could have dreamed City would go for promotion again, but Joe Royle’s side did.

City lost just three of their first 19 matches in Division One, putting them four points clear at the top of the table. Three successive defeats saw them drop to second in the league. However, the blues lost just three of their matches in 2000, entering into an 11-match unbeaten run that culminated in a 4-1 victory at Blackburn Rovers. Jubilant fans invaded the pitch to show the Premier League that City were back.

It wasn’t meant to be this time around though. The blues were hammered 4-0 on their return by Charlton, and it went downhill from there. By October, City were mid-table, but a 5-0 hammering at Arsenal set the blues on their way down the league. City would win just once in 16 games, a 5-0 win over Everton in December, and City wouldn’t take another three points until they travelled to St James’s Park and won 1-0.

That win kept the blues in touch with the other teams at the bottom of the table, while keeping their hopes of avoiding the drop alive. A 2-1 win at Leicester, a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford and a 1-0 win at home to West Ham only delayed the inevitable. Bradford and Coventry had already gone, and it was either City, Derby County or Middlesbrough, with the other two having a four-point lead over the blues, meaning City had to win their penultimate game at Ipswich or they were down too.

Hopes of a miracle were offered when Shaun Goater but City in front with 16 minutes remaining. Could they really pull this off? Turned out the answer was no. Within four minutes, Ipswich were level, then took the lead with five minutes left, breaking City hearts as they again fell through the trap door.

With Joe Royle dismissed as manager, in came Kevin Keegan and his attack-minded style. Keegan built a team full of intent, and while the blues lost 9 matches, they only lost once at home in the league as they stormed to the title with 99 points and 108 goals.

Keegan took City into Europe the following season, but their European adventure would actually start in Wales against Total Network Solutions. Easily navigating past the Welsh minnows, City overcame Belgian side Lokeren before facing Polish side Groclin Grodzisk. A surprise 1-1 draw at home was followed by a goalless away draw, which saw the blues crash out on the away goals rule.

In the league, City had mixed results before embarking on a winless league run that stretched form 2nd November to 21st February, where City gained a total of 7 points from a possible 42, leaving them once again close to the relegation zone. City survived going into the final day of the season, when they beat Everton 5-0 at the City of Manchester Stadium, but fans were getting restless again. They wanted to see the team higher up the table and challenging for silverware.

Keegan resigned in 2005 and was succeeded by Stuart Pearce. The former England defender took the blues to within a penalty kick of Europe when they faced Middlesbrough in the final game of the season. With the score at 1-1, Robbie Fowler saw his last minute penalty saved, and Boro, not City went into European competition as City finished 8th.

Two more dismal seasons came and went before the blues were bought by former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who wasted no time in dismissing Pearce and bringing in former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson. There was a buzz around the City as blues eagerly anticipated seeing what the Swede could do. Shinawatra sanctioned a spending spree and Eriksson took full advantage.

City won their opening three games, including a 1-0 home win over United. City went on to win every home league game until late December, when Blackburn drew 2-2. Despite the blues receiving a 6-0 hammering at Chelsea, they went into the New Year chasing a Champions League place.

2008 changed everything, with City winning just five more league games and suffered an embarrassing 2-1 FA Cup defeat at Sheffield United, when a balloon tried to claim the opening goal, and a disastrous final day slaughter on Teeside, when Middlesbrough put 8 past the hapless blues.

Erikssen was sacked and in came Mark Hughes, but then another change took place shortly after. ADUG bought Shinawatra’s controlling shares and City immediately set on their way to glory. The Swede had somehow taken us into European football and Hughes guided the club to the quarter final.

But despite losing just two of their first seventeen games the following season, sitting in sixth place and into the semi-final of the League Cup, Hughes was sacked and replaced by Roberto Mancini. The Italian took us to the brink of Champions League qualification, missing out by just three points.

The following season saw the blues reach the Europa League quarter final again, this time defeated by Dynamo Kiev, but Mancini took his side all the way to Wembley in the FA Cup, beating United in their first FA Cup semi-final for 30 years. The blues won the trophy and set their sights on the Premier League title.

The blues also qualified for the Champions League and, despite falling at the group stages, finally got through to the knock-out stage when Manuel Pellegrini took over from Mancini. The Chilean manager led City to the semi-final in 2016, where defeat to Real Madrid overshadowed his last season.

It was the closest City had come until now. Defeats at the knock-out stage meant new boss Pep Guardiola had to wait for his moment, but when it came, City took it in style.

Winning all but one of their group games, City were the only team to win every knock-out match as they marched relentlessly to Istanbul. Home and away victories over Monchengladbach, Dortmund and PSG have made City look every bit champions of Europe.

Yet every City fan you speak to can regale stories of that day back in 1998. Whilst that day is now just a distant memory, it is a stark reminder of where we used to be, and what we went through to get to this point.

It has been difficult, and while the pain and anguish still sticks firmly in the minds of the faithful, we can finally say it has all been worthwhile.