Que sera sera… Manchester City at Wembley

by Samuel Luckhurst

A plethora of Mancunians descending on north-west London and Wembley has been a near annual event over the last two decades since Alex Ferguson’s United beat Crystal Palace in a nocturnal replay in 1990. Excluding the 2001-2006 period that Football Association trophy finals were played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, United have been to both the old and new Wembley for six FA Cup finals, five League Cup finals, two FA Cup semi-finals and 11 Community Shield matches. For Manchester City, it has been so scarce that certain supporters have forgotten to spell ‘Wembley’.

Now Wembley beckons again, albeit a semi-final. Tales of the 1976 League Cup winning side are preferred to the 1981 FA Cup final defeat as the nostalgic yet painful reminder of City’s last major trophy. The ticker on the Stretford End switched to 35 years in February, and said Schadenfreude is gleefully serenaded by United’s away contingent with typical gusto. That they stand between City and a first Wembley final since ’76 makes Saturday a seminal one for blues who have endured a torrent of success befall their neighbours whilst suffering relegation thrice under the Ferguson era, one demotion leading them down to Division 2.

But what a rip-roaring end to that campaign it was. City were favourites to go back up yet Kevin Keegan’s Fulham romped to promotion with a staggering haul of 101 points, and with Walsall occupying the second automatic spot, City would have to settle for a play-off place seven points further behind.

Having vanquished Wigan Athletic over two legs, they were to meet Gillingham in late-May, yet arrived in London having witnessed the Freddy Krueger nightmare earlier that week of United scoring two stoppage-time goals against Bayern Munich to secure an unprecedented treble in Barcelona. Even when City won the league in 1968, they were surpassed by United’s European Cup success ten years after the Munich air disaster, so although they would be settling in the shadows again, the omens were badly good.

Fatigued having been to Barcelona for the midweek final with my dad, we still accepted tickets for the Gillingham end, with the Kent side making their first ever trek to Wembley. It was a morbidly miserable day in The Smoke and a perfect contrast to the sun-kissed Las Ramblas, but Wembley Way and the Twin Towers retained that magical lure. Having been there three times before, it was however patent to the 11-year-old me that while the spark was still alive within the Wembley atmosphere, it was yearning for renovation. No one around me could claim to be a seasoned Wembley-goer though so the exuberance was palpable, yet the abject weather and bench seats that offered no back support soon transcended the mood of the weather on to the folk from Medway, who are miserable-looking enough as it is.

Resplendent in their sickly bright yellow-and-blue stripes, which City supporter Rob Clyne mused “can only have been designed to remind us how abhorrently low we had sunk”, City were retrospectively outdone by the incongruous sight of Gills’ then manager Tony Pulis wearing a suit as the teams marched out from the tunnel. The first half was mainly uneventful, with the exception of Gillingham’s Barry Ashby escaping punishment for a blatant handball in his own box after Paul Dickov flicked the ball on looking for strike partner Shaun Goater. In the second period though, the pace of the game became more frantic as the rain lashed down to slicken up the notoriously slow Wembley turf and Goater hit a post after Mark Saunders had steered a header wide when poised to break the deadlock up the other end.

City’s adventurous play was to their cost though when Carl Asaba and Bob Taylor took advantage of the portly Citizens’ captain Andy Morrison to give Gillingham a two-goal advantage with less than five minutes to play. This ignited a hefty Manunian walk out.

“I walked out after they went 2 – 0 up, bins being kicked etc… there was a woman crying going through the exit gate and I put my arm around her,” said Bluemoon forum’s BigG. Alan Brazil, commentating for Sky at the time greeted the Taylor goal with “Bye bye Division Two for Gillingham, Division One here we come… party time in Kent tonight.”

But then Kevin Horlock rifled in past Vince Bartram to halve the deficit, yet forumista Blue Tooth claims that the goal “just made me angrier”, while others were staring at their hands in muddled darkness; cupping their face in traumatic disbelief. Unfathomably, five minutes of stoppage time were added on by referee Mark Halsey and in the fifth minute of the ninety Guy Butters’ challenge on Goater saw the ball squirm into Dickov’s path. He toe-poked the ball into the roof of the net past his best man Bartram to ignite pandemonium in the stands.

“This little lad, who was bawling his eyes out earlier, I threw the kid up in the air and forgot to catch him with the excitement and go nuts. Saw the kid hobbling after the game, bless,” remembers Zin ‘messiah’ Zimmer. The Gallagher brothers, captured crestfallen by Sky earlier, were now animatedly joining in with the goonage as despair was swiftly turned into hope like water into wine. Some City supporters sprinted back to the ground thanks to the jubilant sound of coach drivers pummelling their horns while some ticketless supporters saw extra-time proceedings unfold. Having trudged out of London pubs early to rendezvous with their mates at the stadium, stewards were loath to checking the validity of dozens of supporters’ tickets, so they entered the huddle.

Destiny was the victor as City subsequently overcome Gillingham 3-1 on penalties, with the Kent outfit missing three spot-kicks that embodied a chronic state of mental-disintegration. Nicky Weaver began a euphoric lap of honour before he was caught up by jubilant colleagues and a flood of joyous tears were shed by supporters who on this dismal day saw some light at the end of a foreboding tunnel. Halsey himself joined in with the merriment when he drank with City supporters amidst post-match festivities at a London hotel and City suddenly had momentum behind them and a buzz about a club long referred to as a ‘laughing stock’.

City may now be disgustingly rich and pioneers of the increasingly-rapacious climate football has become, but the fondness for the comeback in ’99 and their earthy supporters’ nostalgia for a time when Manchester City were more Manchester Sh*tty serves as a reminder to the Dubai hierarchy that when making history, you mustn’t forget it either.

The City starting XI:

Goalkeeper: Nicky Weaver

His elated celebratory jig remains a memorable image from the final, yet Weaver struggled in City’s 2000/01 return to the Premier League and injuries blighted his career at the club until his departure in 2007. Presently at Sheffield Wednesday, he signed a new two-year deal last week.

Right-back: Lee Crooks

Left City in 2001 and having played for Barnsley, Bradford City and Rochdale amongst others, he concentrated on training for an attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support in June 2008. In February this year and at 33 years of age, he completed his seven months of RAF Regiment basic training, passing out as a Leading Aircraftman and will be deployed to the frontline in the War in Afghanistan in early 2012.

Left-back: Richard Edghill

The man whose penalty proved to be the clincher at Wembley and a City debutant at 19, Edghill endured the deflation of three relegations with his boyhood club before leaving for Wigan in 2002. Played for Macclesfield Town during the 2007/08 season after his ex-City teammate Ian Brightwell signed him and retired thereafter.

Centre-back: Gerard Wiekens

Versatile in defence or midfield, Wiekens played 182 times for City and was a starter during the memorable 3-1 rout of United at the last Maine Road derby in 2002. He is currently assistant manager at second-tier Dutch club BV Veendam and in March was mooted as a possible starter due to a defensive injury crisis, yet didn’t manage an outing.

Centre-back: Andy Morrison

Lauded by Joe Royle as the ‘catalyst’ for City’s rise up the Football League ladder, City’s Inverness-born captain has a cult status amongst the club’s supporters yet was another victim to injuries and retired in 2001. In 2006 he pleaded guilty to four charges of fraud concerning income support, jobseeker’s allowance, and council tax benefits yet is now assistant manager at Northwich Victoria.

Midfield: Terry Cooke

Signed from city neighbours United after a fruitful loan spell, Cooke has been plying his trade around the continents since he signed with Colorado Rapids in 2005, and is now being coached by Tony Adams at Azerbaijani club Gabala FC.

Midfield: Kevin Horlock

A rejected West Ham United trainee, the Kent-born Northern Ireland international amassed a respectable 32 caps in a career dominated by his Wembley heroics. He returned to the Boleyn Ground for a season in 2003 but is now coaching at Ryman League club Needham Market where he has been tasked with overseeing the club’s recently inaugurated apprenticeship scheme.

Midfield: Michael Brown

The tenacious midfielder was the star man of Neil Warnock’s domestic double semi-finalists Sheffield United in 2002/03, yet following a transfer to Tottenham Hostspur he was exposed as a thuggish hatchet-man and rarely exhibited the quality he graced Bramall Lane with. He’s now a bystander with Portsmouth, since he has reached the stage where if he played another game he would be entitled to a new contract with increased wages, which Pompey cannot afford.

Midfield: Jeff Whitley

While brother and ex-City academy graduate Jim has been tripping the light fantastic as Sammy Davis Jr. in Rat Pack stage shows, Jeff sadly succumbed to years of alcohol and drug abuse which left him praying for death and coughing up blood with crippling pains in his kidneys. Mick McCarthy nurtured him back to health at Wolves in 2008 and had a brief stint at Northwich Victoria last season.

Striker: Paul Dickov

The Wembley saviour, Dickov was loved by whoever he was pugnaciously playing for, and hated passionately by opposing supporters for his bruising nuisance style of play. Nicknamed “The Wasp” by Royle, he is the sole survivor from City’s XI that day to be managing in the Football League following a player-manager agreement with Oldham Athletic last summer. The Boundary Park club currently lie fifteenth in League One.

Striker: Shaun Goater

“Feed the Goat and he will score” the Kippax used to cry. Assured of legendary status at City thanks to his brace against United in the 3-1 derby, Goater also scored at Old Trafford that season to salvage a draw for the blues. He released an autobiography in 2006 with his terrace chant as the title, and has since returned to his birthplace to coach Bermudan side North Village Community Club Rams.

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