Kings of the Hill
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of City’s
return to the Premiership with that barmy,
bizarre, brilliant day at Blackburn
By Caroline Oatway
Kings of the Hill
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of City’s return to the Premiership with that barmy, bizarre, brilliant day at Blackburn...
By Caroline Oatway
"There’s something strange going on here. It’s like someone decided these fans and the Club has had enough."
Manchester City. Est. 1894. 126 years of history – ups and downs, dreams and despair, trophies and torment.
A rollercoaster ride of emotion and a million memories – breath-taking highs and shattering lows; even the loftiest of peaks so often attained from the brink of devastation.
Once described as the ‘ultimate soap opera Club’ during our perilous tumble down the divisions, City’s reputation of enduring the hardships (often the self-inflicted hardships at that) became synonymous with the Club. Quite simply: everything had to be done the hard way.
Following our relegation to Division Two in 1997/98, Joe Royle – appointed for the final 12 games of that ill-fated campaign – was tasked with the challenge of hauling City out of the third tier and back to the top-flight.
Task one, he completed at the first attempt – yet not without difficulty. Naturally, City would clamber back up to Division One in the most laborious, physically and emotionally draining way possible – on the most threadbare of ropes, salvaging a draw in the dying minutes of our Division Two Play-Off Final at Wembley, battling back from 2-0 down against Gillingham before triumphing in the lottery of the penalty shoot-out, to fittingly complete a terrifyingly topsy-turvy campaign.
As a result, celebrations over the summer had been somewhat subdued: relief the overriding emotion, attenuating any raucous revelries.
“It was funny,” Royle (affectionately nicknamed ‘Sir Joe’ remembers. “I don’t remember the coach journey home (from Wembley), although I know there was a phonecall from the Lord Mayor, who wanted an open-top bus parade the day after.
“It wasn’t wild and crazy. We all knew we’d had a great escape!”
A great escape it was… and via a route seemingly only City could follow. Ultimately achieving the goal… but in the most difficult way possible. A theme which still runs strong to this day.
Having ticked off part one of the quest, beginning our ascent back up the leagues, the next assignment: a return to the promised land of the Premier League.
A tall order at the first attempt perhaps (acknowledged with no demand of urgency) but after a false start, City stormed back into Division One: soon rekindling the form which had almost snatched an automatic promotion spot the previous season.
As Wembley wonder Nicky Weaver recalls, the league’s new boys suffered defeat on the opening day at home to Wolves, leaving many doubtful of City’s hopes of a second successive elevation.
“I remember we started off and we lost 1-0 at home to Wolves – I think Robbie Keane scored – and I thought: ‘It’s going to be a tough season,'” the shot-stopper remembers.
“We just thought: mid-table, steady the ship a bit and then kick-on the season after.”
Kevin Horlock, who played such a pivotal role in City’s promotion the previous May – scoring the first goal at Wembley in the Play-Off Final – agrees: “Would we say we were going to go up the following season? Probably not…
“We were full of confidence after the Play-Offs, going into a new season. We kept the bulk of the squad together; Joe added a few. We would probably look to sustain ourselves in the league above initially but the end goal was to go up because of the size of the Club and the fanbase needed to be in the Premiership. It was our aim.”
However, riding on the crest of the wave, others were more optimistic…
“Well, I was,” Shaun Goater declares. “I think, deep down, the players were expecting it because again, we were the team to be at the next level. It felt like a natural progression to keep the momentum going. I think, as players, we didn’t enter the season thinking it was going to be easy.
“We actually approached it from learning from the previous season that every team was going to be up for the game so we'd have to be right at it for every game.”
Following the Wolves defeat, City locked horns with a familiar foe in Fulham, playing out a goalless draw at the home of the Division Two Champions in a curious contest of which the most entertaining action was Andy Morrison’s red card for what Royle explained at the time as: “sticking his tongue down another player’s throat.” A tasty start to life in the second tier.
Unleashing our frustrations on Burnley in the League Cup over two legs, City soon regained our rhythm and the fans were treated to a superb performance from the new £1million capture: the lethal, left-footed Mark Kennedy.
With two fine goals against the Clarets, the Republic of Ireland winger made a key contribution – the first of many, which would quickly endear him to the Blue faithful and his new teammates. Morrison – an impactful recruit the previous year – described the midfielder as “an incredible signing.”
Goater echoes: “We started to invest in quality players – Mark Kennedy being one of those players and with him being a winger and the way we played in those days, you got the ball to wide players and they delivered.
“I don’t think I knew anyone who kicked the ball as hard as Mark Kennedy. What I realised with him was that I had to make my run before he delivered because he struck the ball so hard, the ball would flash across the goal and you’d be nowhere near it!”
The Republic of Ireland winger was scintillatingly sharp when Sheffield United visited Maine Road at the end of August. The Yorkshire outfit were thrashed 6-0 – quite literally ‘handing’ the hosts the win with defender Shaun Murphy gifting a penalty by punching the ball out of the area to set up Horlock’s opener.
Royle’s men were rampant and, most importantly, up and running with our first victory back in Division One – Kennedy, Horlock, Goater, Paul Dickov, Gareth Taylor and Terry Cooke all having opened their goalscoring accounts pleasingly early.
The Blues blistered to five league wins on the bounce with Kennedy and Goater starring, unfolding a beautiful and fruitful partnership of pace and pinpoint accuracy which would continue throughout the campaign.
September defeats to Ipswich Town and Norwich – a controversial setback at Carrow Road with two City strikes ruled out for offside – only briefly halted the City train in a week which also saw Royle’s men unfortunate not to progress in the League Cup. Facing Premiership Southampton, the Division One side were agonisingly eliminated in extra-time, after impressively fighting back from 3-1 down at the Dell.
A 2-1 win over Port Vale, in which fans’ favourite Ian Bishop netted his first goals of his second spell at the Club, sparked a terrific ten-game unbeaten run with eight victories, including a crucial 1-0 triumph at top-two challengers Charlton.
An October victory at home to Ipswich Town would prove another stand-out memory: not only for its significance in determining the final standings but for a truly wonderful individual performance from England hopeful Weaver: one of the best goalkeeping displays of recent memory.
“I had some decent games and poor ones as well…” he smiles, “but what stands out for me was Ipswich at home. Whenever we played Ipswich, I was always in one goal and Richard Wright was in the other and we were battling it out for the England Under-21 spot at the time.
“Wrighty was just a little bit older than me so he had the edge. It was always put down to me and Wrighty. Fortunately, that night I had a good game. We won 1-0 but they’d put the pressure on big time late on in the game and I managed to make a couple of decent saves in the end.
"It was probably my best game in a City shirt.”
A team knitted with the perfect blend of quality, togetherness and determination, Royle’s men were flying, staking a real claim for a promotion spot after all, steaming along with the momentum powered by the heroics of the previous season.
“We were confident,” Horlock asserts. “I’ve said it many times: we were a team. We had each other’s backs.
"We felt we were unbeatable at times – not in an arrogant way; not because we thought we were world-beaters in terms of football but we knew if we were going to get beat, whoever beat us would have to work harder than us and we worked hard.”
Cooke adds: “Momentum helps – having success the season before – but we started that season on fire and I think we were actually in the top three for the majority and then that continued for the whole campaign that year.
“We were a blue-collared team. We were a hard-working team. There were no graces, no superstars in that locker room. Everyone came from different backgrounds with different stories. We played some good stuff, some decent football and we fought tooth and nail for each other.
“Playing in the lower leagues is a totally different ball game – you have to have players with flair but who can also manage the dirty side. We had a team in which everyone complemented each other one way or another.”
A frosty start to December saw City suffer three consecutive defeats, including a heavy loss against Wolves at Molineux and a humiliating 2-1 home defeat to neighbours Stockport County, but the blip proved short-lived as City hit back with another hot streak.
Boxing Day glory at West Bromwich Albion moved Royle’s men top of the league and an injury-time Horlock rocket marched City on into the New Year, as belief and dreams of Premiership football grew more vivid.
An FA Cup Round Four clash against high-flying Leeds United tested our top-flight credentials and though the Lilywhites ultimately progressed, a spirited first half showing had provided cause for optimism.
The defeat did little to dampen spirits. With Goater’s goals, Horlock’s hits and Kennedy’s creativity, plus the collective contributions of the rest of the squad and the capture of the robust Robert Taylor from Play-Off foes Gillingham, City looked unstoppable… but, as so often happens, the team encountered a tricky spell.
A seven-game winless streak marked cause for concern. As had been the case the season before, a string of frustrating draws threatened to sabotage our chances and with the stoic Morrison sidelined through injury, Royle took decisive action, recruiting Spencer Prior on 22 March to solidify the City defence, "adding extra height and pace at the back."
The severity of Morrison's absence was yet to be discovered and sadly, would prove worse than first feared: the fiery Scot's City career never fully recovered.
“Joe Royle said in the matchday programme that I was just having a bit of an MOT or a 100,000-mile service but just 14 games into the campaign, my season was over," Morrison disclosed in his book The Good, The Mad and The Ugly.
"The club brought in Spencer Prior from Derby and he did well in my absence and Richard Jobson had also come in and was playing really well alongside him and we continued to win games.
"Jobbo was a fantastic player and brave with it – he was a real warrior in his own way. He wasn’t in your face like me but nothing fazed him and, but for injuries, I think he could have been one of the best centre-halves of his generation.”
Similarly to Morrison's arrival the previous year, Prior ignited an immediate impact in changing our fortunes – even chipping in with some crucial goals - and the towering centre-back would never be on the losing side in the chase for promotion.
"This Club is going to be in the Premier League soon. It just depends on when. Everything is Premier League bar the football. We just have to keep working as we are and, hopefully, we'll get the reward we deserve."
City returned to winning ways in dramatic fashion with a stoppage-time victory over West Brom, sending Maine Road into raptures and kick-starting our charge in the nick of time. Four wins and two draws in our next six games meant victory in our penultimate game against Birmingham on 28 April – a Friday night assignment just to add to the atmosphere and anticipation – would put City on the brink of back-to-back promotions...
A tense, nerve-shredding encounter would unfold at Maine Road – needless to say, in front of a packed house. Three more points and promotion would be within touching distance, three points closer to achieving the ultimate dream…
In an amusing twist, those three precious points would be clinched courtesy of the man who almost prevented our promotion the previous year: Mr Robert Taylor reacted quickest to smash home a half-volley, sparking scenes of delirium. We were almost there.
The tension was almost unbearable in the closing minutes but City hung on. As the referee blew his whistle for full-time, the Maine Road fans – overcome with emotion – poured onto the pitch in celebration. After so many years of hurt and humiliation, pain and despair, the Club stood on the verge of a return to the top-flight for the first time since 1996.
While the festivities may well have proven premature, few could blame the City faithful for their outpouring of emotion – having endured so much, they were entitled to savour every second of such an enjoyable season, which had, for some, already exceeded expectations.
The players, however, still had a job to do…
“We almost celebrated too early,” Weaver admits. “We beat Birmingham but there were still a couple of games left. Ipswich ironically had to go to Charlton and win and we didn’t think they would… but they did. We didn’t think it would go down to the last game but it did.
“We’d gone from strength to strength and rode on a crest of a wave and before we knew it, we get to the last game at Blackburn needing a point to go up.”
One single point was all that separated City from the Premiership. A draw against Blackburn, who had nothing to play for, would secure a second-place finish and secure our ticket to the top division. Needless to say, the demand for tickets was phenomenal and tens of thousands of City fans made the trip to Lancashire in the hope of finding a way into Ewood Park: even in the home section!
Those who could not buy a ticket sought alternative viewing spots – most strikingly, on the hills overlooking the ground – conveniently placed behind an open corner, allowing a fine view of the goal in front of the Blackburn End. Any vantage point would do.
“There were more City fans than Blackburn! That’s typical of City, you know – die hard Man City fans. When you have these occasions, they go to these games and they get the seats of the opposition if they’re not taking them. There were so many City fans!”
“I actually remember the Blackburn game more than the Play-Off Final,” Horlock concedes. “I remember it being a really hot day. I remember Man City fans being on the hill. I remember Man City fans being in the Blackburn end and the pressure was on.
“It was a different pressure to the year before – it wasn’t ‘do or die’ but it was something that we needed to achieve. The lads were nervous. I think you see it in the performance. I’ve watched bits of that game back and we didn’t really turn up – certainly in the first half.”
True enough, City were not at the races in the opening 45 and we could most definitely count ourselves lucky to head into half-time trailing by just a solitary goal. Despite a lack of personal incentive, Blackburn lay siege to the City goal, striking the woodwork twice before Matt Jansen broke the deadlock with a well-taken volley to stun Royle’s men.
Panic rose when Ipswich then took the lead at home to Walsall, lifting themselves into second place and demoting City into the play-off spots but a sensational turn of events as Blackburn pressed for a second left many wondering whether luck was on City’s side after all!
Royle recollects: “Anyone who says they don’t suffer from nerves is kidding themselves! We went in 1-0 behind at half-time and we sat down. We didn’t have a big row – I just sat down with the players and said:
‘Listen, this isn’t us and the golden rule is: no matter how bad we play at times, we always score.’
“I think they hit the post again and it bounced back into Nicky Weaver’s arms and I turned around to our coach Asa Hartford and said: ‘There’s something strange going on here. It’s like someone decided these fans and the Club has had enough.’”
Hartford concurs: “You just turn and you think: ‘We’re going to win here.’ You know when things just turn for you…”
Turn they would. Blackburn would, in fact, strike the post yet again – hitting the woodwork four times in total – before City netted the all-important equaliser: of course, through the golden boots of Goater.
“They’d hit the post, crossbar… it was bizarre and again: was it fate for this Club to be back where it is now? I’d like to think so but we could have been dead and buried,” Horlock declares. “Then Goats shanks one in at the back post on his shin…”
Shanks one in? That’s not how the Goat remembers it…
“Blackburn had had all these shots – hit the crossbar, Nicky saved one or two… and I’m up the other end thinking: ‘I want just one chance.'
"And it’s come from Kevin Horlock – that left foot – at the far post.
“I’m keeping myself onside. It’s that situation: if you slash at it, you can miss it and it was a guided pass into the goal because you can see that coming as a striker. If you’re not experienced and go for power, you therefore miss it.”
Credited for his cross, Horlock laughs: “Oh, I won’t be so cruel then: Goats obviously smashed it in at the back post! He was phenomenal for us – he scored goals and I love him to death. He’s an unbelievable character.”
One-one. Cue: absolute ecstasy… in all corners of the ground.
Thousands of City fans in the away end, thousands in the home end, hundreds on the hill outside – all jubilant. The goal which could seal our promotion to the Premier League. All we needed to do was hang on… but instead, the floodgates opened!
An incredibly odd own-goal from Christian Dailly (who had conceded a penalty in the reverse fixture at Maine Road) turned the crazy game on its head before Kennedy – such an influential figure throughout the campaign – pounced to make it three and all-but secure the win.
Delighted, he raced over to the euphoric Royle and jumped into his manager’s arms, before punching the air towards the ecstatic City fans. We were almost there and the Ewood Park atmosphere – charged with emotion – was electric…
“My celebration with Joe was really my way of saying: ‘Thank you, I owe you. From the heart, that’s for you,’” Kennedy reveals. “He played such an important part in my career, although it was only for a short period.
“When the third goal went in, we put the game to bed really. As soon as I turned, I could see him and I went over to him. You remember lots of things in your career but that’s one of the things I remember as if it was yesterday.”
“When Mark turned, I knew he was coming!” Royle grins. “He had a big smile on his face and he was a good guy. He was a rascal but I don’t mind that. He was on his way. By the way, it was a brilliant finish! He just tucked it away with that wonderful left foot he had.”
City 3-1 to the good… It was party time! Conga lines, champagne and Weaver cartwheels. City were going up!
“I think that game was the most enjoyable last 15 minutes I’ve ever had on a pitch. There were City fans all over the stadium – it was like a carnival atmosphere! Blackburn didn’t want to be there. They had nothing to play for – they had the flip flops on; they wanted to get on their holidays!”
Fittingly, the final word would fall to Dickov – the hero at Wembley 12 months prior. The diminutive Scotland striker added the Blue icing to the celebration cake, curling home our fourth of the afternoon to cap an incredible triumph and a truly fantastic season.
“It just opened up – the goals started coming,” Goater gushes. “Dicky was getting on the scoresheet; I saw a conga line happening on the side. Normally, I don’t see all that but at that point, we were a few goals up and there was very little time left. City fans were enjoying themselves and I was thinking: ‘Yes, this is good!’”
Not everyone enjoyed the show though, as Royle reveals: namely, his Blackburn counterpart.
“4-1… you just couldn’t believe it!” he remarks. “Poor Graeme Souness was fuming afterwards – he was trying to be civil in the coaches’ room and talk to us as nicely as he could but in the previous week, he had just seen someone else promoted in Blackburn – Charlton – and he was not a happy chappy!”
The full-time whistle set off another pitch invasion – on Blackburn’s turf! The thousands of City fans inside Ewood Park raced onto the green in elation! Poignantly, after a short time, even those who had remained outside the ground were invited in to join the festivities as the travelling army almost covered the pitch entirely!
This time for the City squad, there were to be no limitations on the celebrations – deserved reward for a job well done: for this and the previous campaign. As for the fans, after years of agony, they rightly savoured every second of the joy of the Club’s return to the top-flight. They’d earned it too.
“4-1 flattered us massively but we didn’t care – the Club was back!” Horlock hails. “It was a great night… we went back to the Midland Hotel. That was a good night!”
Morrison enlightens: “A great reward again – not just for the players but for the fans. If anyone deserved to get back to the Premier League, it was the City fans and that carries on today with the rewards they’re getting for that loyalty.
“It’s thoroughly deserved. You have to get through adversity and that creates the strength that this Club has and the fanbase, and I think this gets lost a lot of the time. People don’t understand what they’ve actually been through – they’ve stuck with the Club and the rewards now are what we’re seeing season on season which is quite incredible.”
For Bishop, the successive triumphs justified his decision to return to Maine Road and he couldn’t have been happier.
“It was everything,” he grins. “I left the Premier League to come back and now I was going to get another chance. I’ve got a great picture of me and Jeff Whitley running off the field and the City fans invading the pitch. I think there were fifteen thousand outside as well as the ten thousand in there.
“It goes back to when we went down. I’ve come back and I’m seeing fans that were there from my time before. They’re going: ‘I’ve had enough. I’m never coming back.’ Then, the first season back against Blackpool (in Division Two), it was a full house at Maine Road.
“It’s in the City fans, the Blackburn thing… I do remember being in the stands afterwards and popping the champagne. Two consecutive promotions… it doesn’t happen that often.”
A rare, remarkable and highly-regarded achievement. Back in the big time – back where we belong.
Climbing the hill to the top before eventually reaching the summit…
What a journey it was.
Savour every second of the promotion-clinching games against Birmingham and Blackburn on Friday 8 May and Saturday 9 May (both 3pm UK time) with CITY+ Watch Together...