There are few opportunities in life to create history. Real history.
For the Manchester City class of 2010/11, the players were offered the chance to end 35 years of hurt for a supporter base often called the most loyal in English football.
Of course, many clubs will claim to have been just as loyal, but few turned up in the numbers City fans did when the chips were well and truly down and fewer had to watch their biggest rivals sweep up every trophy in sight for more than three decades while their trophy cabinet lay empty.
But the tide was changing.
A surge of optimism had swept over the Club when Sheikh Mansour took the reins in 2008 and Roberto Mancini had been installed to build on the good work of Mark Hughes before him and take City to the next level.
But though there had been progress in the first two seasons, the wait for a trophy had continued.
Everyone knew it was now a matter of when rather than if, but until it did, that famous banner at Old Trafford counting the years since City had won anything continued to tick on.
It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. It needed to come down and the only way to do that was by winning a cup.
The league felt slightly out of reach, but the League Cup or FA Cup were achievable.
West Brom had put paid to the League Cup aspirations at the first hurdle, but after eliminating Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester in the FA Cup 3rd round after a replay, City had salvaged another draw at League One strugglers Notts County when Edin Dzeko levelled on 80 minutes.
If City were going to end the long wait for silverware they were doing it the hard way.
County were swept aside 5-0 in the replay at the Etihad and when Villa were dispatched 3-0 in the fifth round, there was a chance of progressing further in the competition – particularly when City pulled Championship side Reading out of the hat.
Prior to kick-off, the draw for the semi-finals was announced with City faced with a potential semi-final against Premier League leaders Manchester United in a Wembley showdown.
The Reds had seen off Arsenal the day before, while Bolton had seen off Birmingham City.
It’s fair to say there were mixed feelings about the draw, but first, Reading had to be seen off at the Etihad – and it would take a Micah Richards header on 74 minutes to see off the Royals.
Stoke beat West Ham United in the remaining quarter-final to set up a second semi-final with Bolton Wanderers… but star billing went to a first ever meeting between the Manchester giants at Wembley.
Yaya Toure sent City fans into dreamland with the only goal of the game against the Reds, who would end with 10 men after Paul Scholes’ high challenge on Pablo Zabaleta.
It felt like a huge victory, but psychologically, it was pivotal for what was to follow.
The noisy neighbours had ended United’s hopes of another treble and as the City fans rejoiced in the aisles, the significance of the victory suggested this was more than just a Manchester derby win on one of the world’s biggest stages.
City were in the FA Cup final for the first time in 30 years with the chance of winning a first trophy since 1976.
Standing in the way were Stoke City, who had thrashed Bolton 5-0 in the second semi-final – and the Potters had their own agenda to follow having not won a trophy for 39 years.
City were strong favourites going into the match, with the weight of hope rather than expectation sitting heavily on their shoulders.
“I don’t remember much before the game,” recalled Joleon Lescott. “I just remember feeling good – not over-confident but just believing we were going to do it. We didn’t want to get carried away in the moment but we wanted to enjoy it.
“I remember seeing a 34/35-year banner at Old Trafford around that time so the FA Cup semi-final was huge for us because we knew we were genuine contenders and what we were capable of achieving , but it made everyone else aware that we were more than just noisy neighbours – we were serious guys who wanted to win and be successful.
“We were well aware of the hopes of our fans and once we’d beaten United, we weren’t bothered who we played in the final because we weren’t a team that could only play one style – we could mix it up and we enjoyed it.
“In fact, we used to love teams who wanted to mix it up against because we were like, ‘alright, bring it on!’ That’s how most of us had grown up and it was just we were playing with better forward players now; it was just getting the right balance. So whether it was Bolton or Stoke, we were ready.”
For City keeper Joe Hart, reaching the final was the highlight of his career.
Having spent the previous season on loan at Birmingham City, he’d reclaimed the No.1 jersey under Mancini and excelled throughout the 2010/11 campaign.
“We were just desperate as a group to win something after so long,” said Hart. “It was probably the most exciting time of my career for me, to get that first trophy and knowing what it meant to everyone.
“Beating Man United in the semis was huge and we were just all really excited. We had a strong connection with the fans and it felt like something special was happening and we were all really proud to be part of it." -
“We were at the business end of the season and had the final to look forward to and had almost sealed a first Champions League qualification for the Club.
“It was the pressure part of the season but we were firing on all cylinders and all the big players were playing well. It didn’t matter which team we put out because everyone was on the top of their game.”
Patrick Vieira had been signed on a free transfer exactly for moments like this and the former Arsenal legend was the voice that the players listened intently to.
So much so, that he asked to be alone for a few minutes with the players to get his point across.
“I just remember Patrick’s presence in the semi-final and the final and the way we all looked up to him,” said Lescott. “He could control the mood and the atmosphere better than anyone and for the majority of the players, he was our hero.
“Before the final– he asked all the staff to leave the Wembley dressing room and then spoke to the players directly. He explained the importance of the game, what was expected and he did it as a captain and as a leader.
“Vinnie turned out to be a great leader, but the Vinnie at the start of his time with City wasn’t the Vinnie at the end. We had Gareth Barry, Joe Hart, Carlos Tevez, Pat Vieira, David Silva and Nigel de Jong and these boys had won things, so Vinnie didn’t need to be that guy because five or six of them already.
“He would grow into that role as time went on, but we just had others how had that aura about them at that time.”
Hart also recalled Vieira’s calming influence ahead of the game.
“Pat was very jokey and he had a presence about him but he didn’t throw it in people’s faces. He put his Premier League-winning head on and everyone just sort of gravitated towards him. "
“As much as we had leaders in the team, you need people who have been there and done it and just emphasise that it is just another game and he really helped us realise that.”
Lescott was keen to make the most of the game if City won – he’d been at Wembley before and regretted not taking some personal footage of the celebrations that followed…
“I’d been in the play-offs with Wolves and I remember thinking that I wished I’d been able to capture the moment – it wasn’t arrogance, I just wanted to be ready if I had the chance,” he said.
“It was before camera phones so I had a little flip phone ready for after the game if we won. I didn’t telly anyone to bring it out on to the pitch but it was fully charged and ready to go so I was kind of prepared so I could savour the moment if it happened.
“Stoke were a well-drilled and organised and we knew it would be difficult, but we’d already played them that season and we knew what they were about.
It was more of just a feeling of excitement, but not one that was talking about the celebrations afterwards – we had a job to do first.
“I think Vinnie and I knew we were playing because Kolo was suspended. That season, Kolo was our lynchpin and to begin with, it was me that was his partner until I picked up an injury. Then Vinnie slotted in so when Kolo was out of the reckoning for the final, it was me and Vinnie as a partnership for pretty much the first time.”
So, with regular captain Kolo Toure was suspended for the final, so Mancini selected Carlos Tevez to take the armband – and though the Argentine was quietly spoken and not the Vieira type of skipper, Lescott says he led through actions rather than words.
“Carlos was quiet, but you just knew what he expected,” he said. “You didn’t want to let him down because you knew he was going to give 110% every time he pulled on the shirt. He knew what you were capable of and we knew what he was capable of and as long as you were giving maximum effort, you were fine. That’s all he wanted.
“We knew if we were at our best, we wouldn’t lose the game and in our minds, there was never any fear or doubt that it wouldn’t happen - we were built to win games 1-0. As long as we did our job at the back, we knew that Carlos, Mario, David Silva, or Yaya would step up. We knew we were resilient and Carlos carried us on his back for a long time.
“Yaya wasn’t a big game player – he was an every game player. His contribution to Manchester City can never be questioned. He was unplayable, that lad. When he played well, we could not lose. It was crazy. David was the best footballer I played with, but Yaya… he was horrible to play against. I still don’t think he gets the credit he deserves and if he was doing what he did then now, he would be winning the Ballon d’Or.
“David, Sergio, and Yaya were not just ‘other’ players.”
The game began and City dominated the majority of the game but had to wait until the 74th-minute when Yaya Toure drilled a low shot home to send more than 30,000 City fans behind the goal into raptures.
It would prove to be the only goal scored that day. City had ended the wait and 35 years of frustration was wiped away in one fell swoop.
“I only had one serious save to make from Kenwyne Jones at 0-0, but even if that had gone in, I still think we’d have gone on to win – it would have just made it a bit more difficult,” said Hart. “We were smashing them that day and I thought Thomas Sorensen kept them in the game with some magnificent saves on the day.
“I had a fantastic view of our fans doing the Poznan at the other end of Wembley. I loved it. It was really powerful and it was fun, as well because one of the main things about being a Manchester City fans is that you need to be able to laugh and enjoy things – we were a different club and it’s changed a bit now, but that’s just because of how the Club has grown.
"I really enjoyed being part of a team that gave so many people that first cup – and there were probably quite a few who had seen us win the last one in 1976 so it was emotional for them, too.
“It was huge – it was really joyous and everyone was absolutely buzzing. We had a genuine connection with the fans at that time and it was just fun and a really happy time.
“Did feel it was the start of something. There was a moment in the 93rd minute of the game against QPR a year later when I thought we’d ruined everything and if we hadn’t won it then, I think it would have been a huge problem for us.
“I knew good things would happen, but maybe not quite as grand as things have been for City in such a short space of time during which the Club has become so established.
I’d say winning the FA Cup is right up there alongside the title win if not slightly above it – just being part of winning that first trophy for 35 years felt like a real achievement for us.
“We were so close as a squad – we went out together, partied together and did a lot because we enjoyed each other’s company.
"The one thing I love is that we really enjoyed doing well – that might sound obvious, but it’s actually not. Sometimes you can take things for granted, but we definitely didn’t.
“I always wanted to win trophies and play in the Premier League at the start of my career but I never actually thought I’d do it, so it was definitely a ‘drink in’ moment.”
Lescott added: “It was the first time I could remember that the FA Cup final wasn’t held on the final Saturday of the season and we had to play Stoke again in the Premier League four days later so we couldn’t go wild afterwards. We enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but it had to be controlled with an important game coming up so quickly.
“It’s funny. I’ve never actually thought about it that it was the first trophy that many City fans had ever seen the Club win – that’s mad when you think about it and hearing it today, makes it even more special.”
As the players celebrated with the supporters on the pitch, the giant Wembley screens played a clock in reverse starting at 35 and spinning to zero.
And the flag at Old Trafford? It's never been seen since…