In London and Paris, in Brussels and Helsinki and – should Sergio Aguero’s injury provide insufficient deterrent to Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella – even in Buenos Aires, Manchester City will be heavily represented during the upcoming international fixtures. Their global presence over the week is testimony to the Abu Dhabi-based riches invested in the club and the relative wisdom with which it has been spent. Manchester City is a club, this international break infers, headily enjoying the
14 years ago, the fate of globe-trotting stars integral to title aspirations was the sole concern of their neighbours. Alex Ferguson – the ‘Sir’ prefix a mere twinkle in Her Majesty’s eye – was about to embark on the most successful season in his tenure as Manchester United manager. His international breaks were spent attempting to mollycoddle a squad of debonair, swashbuckling future European champions. For him, the epoch-defining Treble was in its embryonic phase. Across the city, by contrast, thoughts were turning to the threats posed by Bournemouth and, in four days time, Macclesfield.
For the first time in the club’s history, third division football beckoned. Even by City’s famously shambolic standards, the preceding decade had been tumultuous. Peter Swales, a man approximately as popular as famine in the blue half of Manchester, clung bitterly on to his position as the club’s owner before Francis Lee’s eventual takeover.
Any optimism that may have been allowed to generate was naturally – this being Manchester City, after all – quelled by the appointment of a series of dismal managerial failures. Despite being immortalised in the Kippax’s terrace reworking of Oasis’ Wonderwall, Alan Ball presided over the most tragicomic of relegations, insisting that, with City drawing, Steve Lomas kept the ball by the corner flag on the final day of the season. The problem? Only a win would do.
How very unsurprising to discover that his subsequent three-year plan to restore City to the ‘Big Time’ would unravel in weeks. Asa Hartford, Steve Coppel, Phil Neal and Frank Clark entered and vacated Maine Road in about the time it took Grandpa Abe Simpson to do the same at the Burlesque House which employed his grandson Bart. The ignominy of being the first manager to drag City into the third tier landed on Joe Royle. It could, one sensed, have been quite literally anyone.
Even at this juncture, City had merely reached the precipice. By September 1998 they had flung themselves from it. City had entered a staring contest with death’s implacable maw. City would defeat Bournemouth on September 8 by two goals to one. Four days later, they faced perhaps the most embarrassing trip in the club’s history; Moss Rose, home of Macclesfield, the destination. Shaun Goater’s solitary goal ensured that City’s last vestige of dignity would remain intact.
The season’s conclusion, in terms of heart-palpitating drama a match for 2011-12’s Roy of the Rovers denouement, saw the club promoted back to the second tier at the first attempt. Paul Dickov immortalised himself with a last-minute stab of the right boot to score the most implausible of play-off final equalisers against Gillingham, whilst Nicky Weaver’s shamanistic post-penalties celebratory charge earned him legendary status too.
So when Roberto Mancini quarrels with international managers worldwide and prays for the injury-free return of his players, think for a minute about the task which faced Royle on the equivalent weekend in 1998. Make no mistake, City have travelled a long way in the intervening years.
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