"I am confident we will stay up, because we have prepared well and we are ready." - Alan Ball
That City went into the final day of the 1995/96 season with a chance of surviving the drop was a minor miracle in itself.
Alan Ball’s tenure at the Club had started in the worst way imaginable, with just two points from a possible 33 rooting City to the foot of the Premier League 11 games in to the campaign.
For most managers, that would mean almost certain dismissal, but Chairman Francis Lee believed his old friend Ball, who had only been in the hot-seat a few months, could still turn the Club’s fortunes around and though the pressure on Lee was immense to sack Ball, he stuck by him.
From August to October, City had looked like relegation certainties and in the space of four days towards the end of that period, had gone to Anfield in the League and League Cup and returned up the East Lancs Road with 4-0 and 6-0 thrashings – the latter defeat the final straw for many supporters.
Yet November saw a dire situation turn around. In fact, City won four and drew one of the next five games, conceding just one goal in the process.
Ball was awarded the Premier League Manager of the Month and new signing Georgi Kinkladze was starting to thrill supporters with his virtuoso displays.
From despair to delight, City suddenly had a chance of survival and though the form thereafter was patch and largely disappointing, points were accumulated here and there and successive wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa meant that there was genuine hope that, somehow, the campaign could be salvaged on the final day of the season .
With QPR and Bolton already relegated, City, Southampton and Coventry were all level on 37 points going into Matchday 38.
Saints hosted Wimbledon (with the Dons not 100% safe but with a much better goal difference than City); Coventry were hosting fellow strugglers Leeds United and City were at home to Liverpool.
The Reds had guaranteed third spot in the table and couldn’t finish any higher or lower – plus they had the FA Cup final to look forward to the following weekend.
In many ways, they were the perfect opposition, but the two October thrashings at Anfield had left scars and a vast majority of the capacity 31,436 inside Maine Road on that sunny afternoon knew that Liverpool usually enjoyed playing in M14 where they had habitually dished out thrashings over the previous 20 years or so.
Uwe Rosler had worked his way back into the team after a very public fall-out with Ball and had memorably climbed off the bench to equalise against United just a few weeks earlier. before making it very clear he wasn’t happy with being left out of the starting line-up with an emotional and provocative celebration.
Afterwards, Rosler was asked by reporters if there was an issue between him and Ball and, believing he wouldn’t be selected again while Ball was manager, he said: “Yes, there is a massive problem between me and the manager. I’m not playing for him, I’m playing for this football club, my team-mates and our supporters - but not for Alan Ball.”
Rosler was understandably surprised when there was no fine or suspension after his outburst and when nothing was said by Ball - and he was put back in the team to face fellow strugglers Wimbledon just two days later on Easter Monday - the feud seemed to have ended.
City, however, were soundly beaten 3-0 by the Dons and in dire trouble with three games remaining.
Rosler takes up the story…
“We’d pretty much gone from as good as being down after Wimbledon to having a real chance of staying up on the final day after winning our next two games against Sheffield Wednesday and Villa,” he said.
“All we needed to do was better either Coventry or Southampton’s result and we’d stay up. We all went into the final match on 37 points but our goal difference was seven worse off than both sides above us.
“Coventry were at home to Leeds and Southampton were at home to Wimbledon – both very winnable games against lower mid-table sides, whereas we had Liverpool who couldn’t finish any higher or lower than third place.
“A win wouldn’t guarantee us survival, but it would give us a great chance of staying up and Liverpool, in theory, had nothing to play for other than pride. The build up to the game was huge, with various permutations and scenarios mulled over in the Press, but we still felt confident that we could pull off what would be, considering the awful start we’d made to the season, the great escape.”
Just a week earlier, Maine Road had hosted two sell-out Oasis concerts and there was a noticeable compression where the stage had been at the Platt Lane End – the end that Liverpool would score two (some might say ) lucky goals in the first half.
The tension inside Maine Road seemed to drift down to the players as the game began and it was immediately clear that City were in trouble.
Rosler continues: “The game began and we were extremely edgy, making mistakes and unforced errors. I had two good chances, one hit the post and the other went wide and by half-time, we found ourselves 2-0.
“Steve Lomas put through his own goal and Ian Rush tapped home another after a deflection off Keith Curle. At the break, the manager blamed me for us being behind but I’d heard it all before, so we exchanged words and I walked out of the dressing room.
“I felt I was certain to be substituted so when the lads came down the tunnel I asked Kit Symons if I was still involved and he said I was. The other teams were both drawing 0-0 so it wasn’t over yet and on 71 minutes, Georgi Kinkladze was brought down in the box and the ref awarded a penalty.
“Nobody was going to take the ball away from me and though the pressure was intense, I scored to make it 1-2. Eight minutes later Symons made it 2-2 so with 11 minutes remaining, we were back in with a chance.
“The atmosphere was electric as we poured forward looking for a third. Niall Quinn had taken a knock and was watching the game from the physio room so he knew the situation was that Coventry and Southampton were still drawing 0-0.
“We needed a third, but with a few minutes remaining, we got an instruction from the bench to hold the ball in the corner and waste time as they’d heard Wimbledon had taken the lead at Southampton.”
Lomas, skipper at the time, remembered: "Alan Ball called me over and said: 'We're up, kill this game off, just do whatever you can.'
Of course, the players took that info as being gospel and, with the clock ticking into the last five minutes, acted accordingly.
“Lomas and I both headed towards the corner of the pitch over the next few moments trying to run the clock down,” said Rosler. “That’s when Quinny raced from the physio room and up the touchline and yelled at us that we needed another goal, but we’d already wasted a few valuable moments.”
Quinn recalled: "I had gone off after about an hour and was watching it on TV, so I knew what the situation was. I had to run up the tunnel and get the message on that we needed another."
The City fans wondered if they were missing out on something as Lomas kept the ball by the corner flag wasting precious minutes against a Liverpool defence who weren’t that bothered about getting the ball back.
However, those clutching radios knew and an air of panic spread around the stands around Maine Road – the players clearly hadn’t been given the correct information and Quinn’s dash onto the side of the pitch had confirmed as much.
“By the time we knew a draw wasn’t enough, it was already too late and the referee blew for full-time before we could do anything about it,” said Rosler.
“It summed up our season and while we may well have not scored even if we’d been given the correct information, we’d have given it a good go and who knows what might have happened?
"Instead, we’d been relegated and while the table doesn’t lie, we should have been well away from the bottom three with the squad we had."
"This is the greatest disappointment of my career," said Ball after the match who survived the axe as Francis Lee continued to stand by his manager going into the new season in the second tier.
As for Rosler, he felt his time at the Club was probably over…
“We were completely gutted and left the pitch, got changed and all went home emotionally and physically drained,” he said. “Everyone was devastated and we were all guilty, myself included, of not being good enough that season. There was no finger pointing, nothing. I wanted to get away as quickly as possible and after the player of the year awards the following day, I did just that.
“I’d scored 13 goals in total and I felt I’d played my last game for City because of what had gone on in the past 12 months and I thought playing under Alan Ball again would be difficult after everything that had happened. So while leaving was the last thing I wanted to do, I accepted there may be no other option.”
Rosler didn't have to make a decision whether to stay or not and Francis Lee even managed to convince the mercurial talent that was Georgi Kinkladze to stay another season with the hope that if several key players remained, a quick return to the Premier League could be achieved.
However, a poor start to the 1996/97 and, with just three games played, Ball’s time at City was finally over with supporters demanding he go after a 2-1 loss away to Stoke.
It would be another four seasons before City returned to the top flight and another decade after that before the Club were once again seriously challenging for silverware.
Premier League, May 5, 1996
Manchester City 2-2 Liverpool
City: Eike Immel, Nicky Summerbee, Michael Brown, Keith Curle, Kit Symons, Ian Brightwell, Nigel Clough (Kavelashvili 68), Niall Quinn (Phillips 59), Uwe Rosler, Steve Lomas, Georgi Kinkladze