When Manchester City lock horns with Atletico Madrid in our Champions League quarter-final it will, remarkably, be the first-ever competitive meeting between the two sides, writes NEIL LEIGH.

However, it will not be the first time we have encountered each other.

Just over 27 years ago, City and Atletico took part in a friendly encounter played out in Cartegena on the southern Spanish coast near the resort of La Manga, the two sides contesting an entertaining 1-1 draw.

It’s a game that, with the subsequent passage of time, has somehow all but slipped off the radar.

There was next to nothing in terms of coverage here in England, even at the time, though some brief highlights, adorned with Spanish commentary, do remain.

But it’s a match that still carries some reverberating echoes ahead of our eagerly-awaited Champions League assignment with the Spanish champions, not least for the fact that charismatic Atletico manager Diego Simeone was strutting his imperious stuff in midfield for Madrid that day.

“The game came about through an agent. We’d spoken about playing a match to give some of our fringe players a run.”

Though imbued with the same humble virtues and values that epitomise the Club today, it’s fair to say the City side of 1995 was a very different beast to the stellar squad assembled by Pep Guardiola.

Brian Horton, our manager at the time, had adroitly assembled a squad mixing a number of supremely skilful, experienced professionals, alongside a number of promising young talent recruited from the lower echelons of the English football tiers.

One thing though that did unite Horton’s side with our modern-day counterparts was a commitment to a brand of expressive, attacking football, with many City fans of a certain vintage still fondly remembering the exciting team he assembled.

And with City having a convenient 10-day gap in our Premier League schedule in between away trips to Wimbledon and Crystal Palace, the squad were afforded the opportunity to fly out to La Manga in late March 1995.

It was a break that combined rest and relaxation as well as that eye-catching match-up with an Atletico side on the cusp of becoming a major La Liga powerhouse.

“The game came about through an agent. We’d spoken about playing a match to give some of our fringe players a run,” Horton reveals.

“So, it just came about that we could fly out to La Manga and play Atletico Madrid in warm weather.

“I remember the chairman Francis Lee and his son Gary came out with us and we were able to stay over there for a few days which was lovely.

“Some of the guys were able to play some golf on their days off and relax and it was just a nice trip for all the lads against good opposition.

“So, it was a good workout and great for team spirt and bonding.

“I think it was the same for Atletico, it was a good game. Of course, Diego Simeone was there in the centre of things for them, and a 1-1 draw was creditable.”

For former City and Jamaica midfielder Fitzroy Simpson, who started that day against Atletico, the chance to lock horns against such technically gifted opposition was a challenge to savour.

Though he admits the playing surface at the Estadio Cartagonova, Cartagena that was part mud-track, left much to be desired. A state of affairs hardly helped by the pitchside manoeuvres of a hefty Spanish ceremonial band prior to kick-off.

“It was a really enjoyable break that we were on and the boys were gelling,” Simpson recalls.

“We had a lot of young lads in there like John Foster, Rae Ingram and David Brightwell, while I had been in and out of the team, so I was really happy to get out and to be able to play.

“It was a great experience but, I tell you what, the pitch was a real leveller!

“When I showed my sons those video highlights, I said I didn’t think any insurance policy would allow today’s crop of players to go out on that pitch.

“You just couldn’t do it!

“It wasn’t as great as Atletico wanted it -though it was fine for us!”

Speak to Keith Curle, our inspirational City skipper of that era and the very forerunner of the elegant, ball-playing centre-halves of today, and he describes it as also providing a priceless education for the squad.

“The fact that it was a friendly with no points or qualification at stake meant that there were no great expectations on you,” Keith points out.

“You could go out there and express and enjoy yourself a little bit more.

“So, I think it was a really great experience; especially for some of the younger guys that we had at the time.

“I’m not sure how many times Carl Griffiths started for us, and we also had guys like John Foster and Rae Ingram playing that day - again talented young players and it was a superb opportunity and experience for them too.

“They may not have made too many Premier League appearances. But to be able to look back and say that they played for Manchester City against Atletico Madrid would have been excellent for them.

“It was always good when you were able to go away. Plus, the beauty of it back then was that no-one had mobile phones!”

As Curle amusingly alludes, the game took place in the very infancy of the modern digital age.

The days of wall-to-wall European TV coverage were still some years away which meant there was an air of mystery for both sides about quite what they were to come up against.

As regards City, such was the confusion for the Spanish TV broadcasters, they somehow managed to credit Horton as Brian Hortrop on their team sheet graphics while substitute Ian Brightwell morphed into Ian Brichtcoell!

While City used the game to blood some of our raw talent alongside more experienced figures such as Curle, Uwe Rosler, Michel Vonk, Maurizio Gaudino, Nicky Summerbee and goalkeeper John Burridge, we were pitted against a formidable and star-studded Atletico side featuring a number of experienced top tier talent.

With Simeone as their focal point, the Atletico side also featured Spanish internationals including Manolo, Toni and goalkeeper Abel to name but a few.

“I didn’t really know the size of the Club and we didn’t have as much access to international footage that we are used to now, so it was a bit of step into the unknown,” Simpson admits.

“It was a top La Liga team and being in the Premier League, we knew every game was a new challenge.

“So, it was great to go and test ourselves against such top opposition.”

In regard to Atletico, of course, there is one resounding constant which does remain 27 years on.

That man Simeone.

Now the charismatic and inspirational Atletico manager and talismanic focal point for the entire club, back then, the Argentine enforcer was on his way to establishing a reputation for being one of the game’s pre-eminent box-to-box midfielders.

Within a year of that City friendly, Simeone – later to famously lock horns with England’s David Beckham at the 1998 World Cup – would help inspire Atletico to the league and cup double in Spain.

And for Keith Curle, Simone’s myriad qualities were crystal clear that night in La Manga.

“Simeone was probably the player who epitomised their game understanding. It was on the next level,” the former City skipper reflects.

“He knew where threats were coming in, he knew where his forward passes had to go, he knew where players needed to be and that shows the understanding of a very good player.

“A lot of times when you go back to when I played, you were able to give centre-forwards two or three kicks if you like before you got booked.

“But Simeone was one of those players that you just couldn’t get near to kick him!

“He knew where you were, he knew where you were coming from, and he knew where he was going!”

For a young and eager Fitzroy Simpson, it would prove the first of two memorable occasions where he would go toe to toe with the Argentine icon.

“We obviously weren’t playing in European football at the time so it’s always good to come up against a different style of play and they were very technical,” recalled the former Jamaican international

“That was epitomised by Simeone, and I really enjoyed playing against him – it was a special experience.

“The two times I have come up against Simeone were first in that City friendly and then playing with Jamaica against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup finals.

“Technically, he and all the Atletico boys were very astute players… we knew that and he went on to have a great career obviously.

“In that Jamaica game, it was like chasing shadows as were a man down so it wasn’t great.

“But for me I was young, fit and full of energy so it didn’t really bother me who I came up against!”

The assorted ingredients all gelled to provide an enticing recipe for what was a hugely entertaining spectacle with the uneven surface only adding to the thrills and occasional spills.

Chances came and went at both ends before Atletico managed to break the deadlock midway through the second half.

Left back Alejandro found space on the left edge of the box as he latched onto Simeone’s (who else) deft assist before drilling a low, angled shot past Burridge.

City, though, demonstrated that we could marry grit alongside guile as we summoned up an instant response.

Straight from the restart we roared back at Atletico with Carl Griffiths illustrating the poacher’s instinct for goal that had persuaded Horton to sign him from Shrewsbury in 1993.

Latching onto a cute Gaudino through ball, Griffiths’ initial instinctive shot was saved by Atletico’s replacement keeper Diego, who had come on at the break.

But the City striker showed tremendous presence of mind by gathering the rebound on the by-line and cutting back inside before fizzing a low shot home to deservedly level affairs.

“Carl was a good player. I had seen him a lot playing for Shrewsbury, and it wasn’t a great deal of money to bring him in, so we took a gamble on him and he did OK,” Horton adds.

“He got a bad injury when we beat Everton 4-0 which put him out for quite a while, but Carl always had the ability to score goals.

“All the younger lads performed very well,” Horton adds.

“John Foster had made his debut for us at Newcastle and was a good player.

“Rae Ingram could play left-back or left centre-back, while David Kerr, who was one of our substitutes, was a talented winger.

“It was great for all of them. To be able to play with Keith Curle, Uwe, Maurizio and the other senior players was huge.

“And they were great with the young lads. They looked after them so well – it was special time for me that trip and great to manage a Club the size of Man City."

“I’m not really one that looks back – in saying that most of my games were on Betamax!” Curle quips.

“But the first thing I noticed watching the highlights was how deep we played. In league games we wouldn’t have played that deep.

“But because you knew of Atletico’s technical ability and that they dominated possession with the ball, when the ball is moving you have got players that are moving, trying to run into pockets and to get on your shoulder.

“You have to defend deep as in a split second, a player would make a run and the ball would be delivered, so we had to give ourselves more time and depth to see the bigger picture.

“The technical term for it now is creating a low block – you defend deep and put players in holes and pockets to stop the opposition playing where they want to play.”

One other thing is abundantly crystal-clear reflecting back on the two line-ups.

From the assorted cast list assembled at La Manga, Simeone and co are unlikely to have ever encountered - before or after - a character quite as unique as John Burridge, who was between the sticks for City that night at the ripe old age of 43.

Over the course of a remarkable playing career, Burridge – or ‘Budgie’ as he was affectionately and universally known – played for an incredible 29 different clubs with his time in the game spanning four eventful decades

Along the way, Budgie racked up a reputation both as a formidable ‘keeper and for being one of the great characters of English football thanks to some eye-catching antics both on and off the pitch.

On-field somersaults, handstands, sitting on top of a crossbar, wearing a Superman outfit underneath his kit… it was all in a day’s work for Burridge who was also to prove well ahead of the curve in terms of his appliance of football science.

Three weeks after the Atletico friendly, Budgie would go on to carve his name in City folklore when summoned from the bench to play against Newcastle at Maine Road as a half-time replacement.

It saw him become the oldest player to appear in Premier League history at 43 years, five months and 11 days old – a record that still stands today.

Speak to Horton, Curle and Simpson today and to a man they all vouchsafe for the quality and character of the ultimate professional.

“I’ve got the utmost respect for John Burridge. He was a senior man at the time, yet his energy was incredible,” Simpson recalls.

“If you ever felt tired you just looked at Budgie and he would give you an energy boost. In every training session, every time he pulled on a jersey, he was high energy.

“He was a fantastic example for all of us. Every single pro at City would see that Budgie was first in and last out at training, preparing and thinking about the game four or five days out.

“He was intense, a real ball of energy and an absolute diamond.

“Budgie was 100mph about everything. I had the privilege of spending some time with him at the Copthorne Hotel and just listening to him and his prep and how he dedicated his life, he was inspiring, and I genuinely love him to bits.”

For Horton, who had made the shrewd decision to bring Burridge to Maine Road in the winter of 1994, the decision was a win-win.

"Budgie was a huge character and that’s what you want when you go on trips like that one to Spain."

The City boss knew he was acquiring the keeper’s vast armoury of know-how – but also a larger than life figure who brought even more vim and vigour to an already vibrant City dressing room.

“Budgie was a huge character and that’s what you want when you go on trips like that one to Spain,” Horton recalls.

“The senior players are going to have a laugh and joke at the right times. Budgie was like that, as was Tony Coton… they were just fantastic lads to have in the dressing room.

“He was a fitness fanatic. He trained every day like it was a matchday. I was the same as a player and that’s what I wanted my players to be like.”

“When you talk about someone with a passion for their sport, Budgie epitomised that,” Keith Curle remembers.

“It’s no wonder that he played for as long as he did – the lad had ability, but he wanted to make himself better even at the age of 40 plus. He still wanted to improve.”

Reflecting back 27 years on from that Atletico match-up, there is nothing but pride and happy memories from such a special if fleeting moment in City’s storied history.

Yet there is also a tinge of regret too. About what could have been – and what Horton and his players were aspiring to achieve.

And despite the subsequent passage of time, the thrill of being able to represent the Club only resonates ever deeper with Horton, Curle and Simpson.

“I could feel it and everyone else could, that we were on the rise and it felt like we were building something,” Simpson asserts.

“We were fearless and tight as a group. It was such a wrench leaving City.

“Even now I think to myself ‘Why?, why?’ That group, we still speak regularly, and I think we all knew were on the edge of something and I don’t know why it didn’t happen.

“We had age on our side, we had experience – I had played 150 league games by the time I arrived at City.

“I could believe it was building and one thing is for sure: the fans were ALWAYS with us. Always with us - they never forgot, and we were connected with them. We owed them.

“Playing for Manchester City was one of the greatest honours I have had and playing in front of those fans – we were part of them.”

“When I first came to City, I wanted us to play an attacking brand of football,” Horton points out.

“I knew from the Club’s DNA that the fans loved attacking football, so I set my stall out to play with two wingers and two attacking midfielders and it was a great side to manage.

“The fans were brilliant to me, and I still do a lot of work with City and the Supporters Clubs, and it was a fantastic time for me.

“It’s just a shame we couldn’t kick on but that’s another story.”

“To play a part and be City captain for five years and help a little in our history was phenomenal,” Curle recalls.

“My first experience at Maine Road walking out as captain to face the Kippax with Blue Moon belting out was unbelievable. It really was. You never forget moments like that.”