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We’ve had false dawns at Man City…but this doesn’t feel like one

Roberto-ManciniIt’s something of a sad affair when you’re a 22 year-old male and you can be considered an expert on something that isn’t picking your nose or scratching. But I, and I daresay most other City fans of a similar age and demographic, am widely knowledgeable about a subject that could be described, at best, as irritating and, at worst, downright infuriating.

That the recently postponed Carling Cup semi-final tie against Manchester United is the furthest City have got in a cup competition in my lifetime says a lot. If I’m honest, it does make me laugh the horror and shock experienced by Arsenal fans that they – get this – haven’t won anything since 2005. How can any team anywhere have no success for four years? It must be so difficult for them.

I have friends who support Bradford and Wolves. Imagine how they feel.

My earliest memory of a City match is being drenched to the bone wearing a black bin bag in the Platt Lane Stand of Maine Road as Mark Robbins scored a late winner for Leicester in the early-1990s. To be honest, since then, despite often seeing signs to the contrary, it hasn’t quite been the success story that this 5 year old had hoped for.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been good times. I’ll never forget the promotion season under Kevin Keegan, the five added minutes at Wembley in 1999, the derby day victories – especially the one at Old Trafford, the end of season pushes for Europe, last season’s European campaign… But despite the success signs being present at the start of four of City’s recent managerial reigns (ignoring Mancini, for the moment), City have fallen at several hurdles more often than a horse with three legs running the national. And even then that always seems to be the horse I get in the sweepstake, which is probably some sort of ironic gesture by my friends because of the football team that I support.

Though City’s problems started long before I can remember, I think the club’s first relegation from the Premier League in 1996 sums up the club better than any long winded metaphor I can conceive. The image of Steve Lomas holding the ball next to the corner flag to preserve a 2-2 draw that would be enough to see the club safely down into Division One was gazumped only by that of the substituted Niall Quinn bursting from the dugout to inform his team-mate that a point wasn’t enough to save the club and that he should endeavour to change the outcome of the game by searching for another goal, preferably as quickly as was humanely possible.

That goal, obviously, didn’t come and it was the start of a rollercoaster seven years where City blew every other yo-yo club out of the water and chose to yo-yo between three divisions, instead of the more conventional two. In fact, I got my first season ticket in the 1997/98 season and – just to give you some perspective, here – I didn’t watch City play in the same division in consecutive seasons until 2003/04.

Skip forward to April 1997. City had two games left of the season and were battling against relegation to the Second Division. Their games couldn’t have been better – they were playing two teams also fighting to avoid the drop – QPR at home and Stoke City away. Two victories would keep the team in the division.

And it was going well, when Gio Kinkladze gave City the lead against QPR. But, as always, it went disastrously wrong when first Mike Sheron levelled and then Jamie Pollock wrote himself in QPR folklore, scoring the own goal that put City’s opposition ahead. Credit where credit’s due, though, it was a bloody good own goal.

City rescued a draw, but that meant that, on the final day of the season, they would have to beat Stoke and hope that one of QPR, Portsmouth or Port Vale lost. And, in a turn of events that could only conspire against City, all three of those teams won, while City thumped Stoke 2-5. Nothing changed in the league and City were a goner.

Then, at the end of December 1998, I was sitting in the back of a blue Peugeot 405, at the tender age of 11, listening to Andrew Dawson slot the ball past Nicky Weaver and condemn City to a 2-1 defeat at York. At the time, I probably didn’t realise how much of an important moment in City’s history it would be, but that defeat left the club in their lowest ever league position – I suppose it’s times like this that remind me just how lucky I am that it didn’t all spiral on downwards from there, really.

City changed as a club at that point. That season, before that game, City were prone to losing matches they shouldn’t, prone to dominating home games but coming away with a 0-0 and prone to handing points out like they were handing out sweets at a child’s birthday party. But come the new year, City put a run of results together, got their backsides in gear and dragged themselves up to third position, just missing out on an automatic promotion spot.

The ironic thing is that, in this darkest time in the club’s history, the worse the football got, the more people turned up to watch it. So much so, that I believe there were plans in place to rebuild the Main and Platt Lane stands at Maine Road should City have been relegated to Division Three, just to cope with the extra demand.

When Joe Royle applied the brakes to City’s downward slide that December, he was able to shuffle things about to get the club out of reverse and put them into first gear. By the time the playoffs came along, City had gotten up into second and climbed out of the league at the first attempt, albeit with a cough and a splutter.

With a squad that was largely unchanged from the season before, City finished the next season in fifth gear and flew into second place, guaranteeing automatic promotion to the Premier League. Though, needing just a point to ensure second place at Ewood Park on the final day of the season, the club didn’t half do it the hard way: they were a goal down at half time thanks to Matt Jansen and Blackburn had hit the woodwork four times, while a David Johnson goal at Portman Road meant Ipswich were leading, putting them into second place and City in third.

But goals from Shaun Goater, Mark Kennedy and Paul Dickov, as well as an own goal from Christian Dailly, saw City promoted and the City fans were confident once again. The confidence was buoyed by summer signings of Paulo Wanchope, Alf Inge Haaland, Steve Howey and, notably, the former World Player of the Year, George Weah. Even the manager himself was talking about the possibility of getting into Europe.

Of course, City were relegated.

In came a new manager, namely Kevin Keegan, and with him some new and exciting players – the gem of the 2001/02 season being a free transfer by the name of Ali Benarbia. But it wasn’t a one man team by any stretch of the imagination; Eyal Berkovic played with him in the middle. Stuart Pearce joined to shore up the defence, while, despite later admitting he didn’t get on with the manager, Shaun Goater hit the form of his life, becoming the first City player since Francis Lee to score over 30 goals in one season.

With the Division One league title under their belt and some excellent football played, City moved on to the next level and finished ninth in the Premier League the following season, qualifying for the UEFA Cup thanks to the Fair Play League. The run of form saw City beat United in Maine Road’s final derby game. Added to that, the signings of Nicolas Anelka and Robbie Fowler gave the club a bright outlook.

And that meant it was no surprise to any football fan anywhere that the club was nearly relegated the following season. Aside from another impressive derby day victory and one of the best comebacks in football history at Tottenham in the FA Cup, there wasn’t much for City fans to cheer about. The club was knocked out of the UEFA Cup earlier than expected to the Polish side Groclin. In fact, had it not been for David James’s penalty saves to preserve draws against Wolves and Leicester, and Leeds’s catastrophic goal difference, City could have been in a lot more trouble than they actually were.

Despite starting well, Keegan’s tenure at City ended with a whimper. He resigned just after a 0-1 home defeat to Bolton, allowing Stuart Pearce to take charge for the end of the 2004/05 season, where City fans would be presented with yet another false dawn.

It all started well for ‘Psycho’. Apart from defeat at Tottenham in his first game, City finished the season with an unlikely leap towards the last UEFA Cup spot. Going into the final day of the season, Middlesbrough sat in eighth spot (which would have been enough to qualify for Europe) and, typically, it was City against Middlesbrough at Eastlands that would decide both clubs’ fates. City needed to win. For Middlesbrough, a draw would have been enough.

So, at 1-1 with five minutes of the game left, Pearce made his first managerial “last-roll-of-the-dice” decision. With an extra forward on the bench, he opted against putting Jon Macken on in place of Claudio Reyna, choosing instead to play Nicky Weaver and stick David James up front for his height. Then City won a penalty… A goal would leave Middlesbrough less than a minute to find an equaliser and City seconds away from another European campaign.

And, of course, Robbie Fowler missed it.

City were gunning well under Pearce, until a series of injuries and suspensions saw the club win only one of their last ten games of 2005/06 and an utterly awful season of struggle, not helped by a total lack of funds, followed in 2006/07, encompassed by the club’s inability to score at home after New Year’s Day.

‘Psycho’ moved on and he was replaced by the former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson. The club was taken over by Thaksin Shinawatra and anticipation spread when news broke that millions of pounds worth of new and exciting players had joined the club. City got their first derby win at Old Trafford in 34 years and enjoyed a first derby double in even longer.

And, at Christmas, it was all looking good and City were in fourth – confidence of a top four finish was at an all time high amongst City fans. But a disastrous second half of the season, culminating in an 8-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, saw the team finish ninth. A European place was gained through the Fair Play League… again.

City’s fans, despite having seen it all before, were then treated to another false dawn. Without even asking for one! This time, after Mark Hughes had been appointed as manager, City suddenly announced a takeover from Abu Dhabi and were – from nowhere – the richest football club in the world. Robinho joined. And, despite a scare in Denmark, City were through to the group stages of the UEFA Cup.

So it was only natural they would win 2 away games all season, finish lower than they head the season before, lose to both Brighton and Nottingham Forest in the two domestic cups and spend Christmas in the bottom three. How else could it have gone?

And now, we have another opportunity. Another new manager and another attempt to get City as a force in the Premier League. But, and this is a key difference to any situation we have been in that I can remember, Mancini has taken over a team that is a one-game-in-hand victory from being in fourth place halfway through the season.

One criticism that was often directed at both Hughes and Eriksson was their inability to change a game. Eriksson, in January 2008, told the press he felt City’s system had been “found out”, but he persisted with it until the end of the season. Hughes’s substitutions were, more often than not, like for like.

But in the three games Mancini has managed at City, it looks like he is willing to try and change a game. He’s spotted, in each of them, weak areas of the team, tactics or formation, and made substitutions to alter it… That’s in addition to a much more secure defence and the three clean sheets he’s delivered.

Something tells me, this could be the one. Something tells me this dawn isn’t a false one. Something tells me City could do this – we have the best shot at a trophy we’ve had in my lifetime, we’ve got the best shot at a top four place we’ve had in my lifetime and we’ve got perhaps the best squad we’ve had in my lifetime.

If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see how City can screw this one up.

Written By David Mooney

Article title: We’ve had false dawns at Man City…but this doesn’t feel like one

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