The Entertainers of Division One

“Kevin used to say: ‘Go out and entertain.’ His philosophy was: ‘If they score two, we will score three. If they score three, we score four.’ I said this to the lads: ‘If you are part of this, fasten in... because it is going to be some journey.’”
Steve Howey

No matter the generation of City fandom from which you hail, one thing is for sure: supporting City has never been boring... From the sublime to the ridiculous, we've had it all.

Twenty years ago, the 2001/02 campaign - fondly remembered to this day - proved one of the most thrilling of all, as promotion-chasing City lit up Division One with a glorious, all-out attacking approach, complete with thumping triumphs, seven-goal thrillers and the odd 4-0 defeat. It was quite simply: bonkers but brilliant.

It’s safe to say our fans had become accustomed to riding the Blue rollercoaster – the ups and downs, the twists and turns of the 1990s – and the previous six years had proven the most erratic of all with four managers, three relegations and two promotions: from our infamous drop to the third tier to the heights of the Premiership and back down the ladder.

Our return to the top-flight had lasted just one season – Joe Royle’s side finishing a disappointing third bottom in the 2000/01 term with just eight league wins. The setback marked the end of Royle’s unforgettable tenure, closing a remarkable chapter of City history and making way for a new era.

With renewed optimism ahead of the new Division One term, the hunt for a new manager began and the charismatic Kevin Keegan was installed at the helm with the task of regaining our Premiership status at the first attempt with hopes of further progression in the following years. Steve Howey, a millennium signing from Newcastle, was delighted.

“Obviously, I had seen the amazing side of Kevin and there are other sides that people don’t see,” he explains. “On the vast majority of days, he comes in and he’s so bubbly, so infectious. He has got this personality about him that rubs off on you.

“I was sad to see Joe (Royle) go but it was understandable. I was in San Francisco when I got a phone call to say that Kevin had took over so all the lads were ringing me and texting me asking: ‘What is he like?’ It was a case of: ‘Look, if you do well by him, he is a great manager but he, without a shadow of a doubt, will change things’ and that would start straight away.

“He was a believer in: ‘If where you train is half-decent, then the training sessions can be decent as well.’ I knew what his training sessions would be like and the first thing he did when he came in was to start to revamp the Carrington training ground.

“Kevin wanted to play attacking, attractive football that the fans would enjoy. He’s got that personality and the name that can attract big players. Yes, we would possibly concede goals but thinking about the flair that we had going forward, you always felt you had enough to score more. That was his philosophy: ‘If they score two, we will score three, if they score three, we score four.’”

For centre-back Richard Dunne, who would go on to be named the Club's Player of the Year for four successive years, it was a major coup.

“For a Championship team to get a manager of that standard - and with all of the razzmatazz he brings with him - was amazing. As a player, you're starting to think: Well, the way he plays football is really exciting, it's good and it's going to be really good fun.
Richard Dunne

“There was a hangover - it was obviously a huge disappointment about the relegation. I think the way the Club had progressed in the two seasons previously to get into the Premier League, it doesn't happen very often, and it was probably really too quick to come up two divisions and not have your squad fully formulated.

“We’d got a really good bottom end Premier League or top of the Championship squad together and we just needed a couple more important pieces putting together to really make us a side that should win the Championship but that were also capable of performing when we got to the Premier League.

“The way that we did it that season, you could sense it from the day that Keegan came in that he wanted something special from the players that we had, and I think we did. It cheers you up straight away and makes you feel more confident going into games and that sort of disappointment from the relegation games is instantly removed just because the belief is reinstalled for you.”

Though no-one knew it at the time, Keegan would instill a brand of football that would mark a sign of things to come for the long-suffering City fans: a free-flowing style dazzling with flair, and although you never quite knew what to expect from each game, it was enthralling to watch, as we carved a name as the league’s ‘Entertainers.’

While many of the heroes of Division Two and Blackburn 2000 fame retained their place in Keegan’s squad list – Shaun Goater, Paul Dickov, Kevin Horlock and Nicky Weaver to name a few – the new boss bolstered the squad with experienced names in the form of Nottingham Forest legend Stuart Pearce and Israeli playmaker Eyal Berkovic, and later on Ali Benarbia...

Dunne remembers it well: “As soon as he came in, he had that positive feeling about him - he wanted everyone to play on the front foot, he wanted people to be happy, and then he started to bring in players who could make the difference, people like Eyal Berkovic, like Ali Bernabia... People who wanted to create.

“Once you see that and you see what Keegan was about in terms of how we wanted the team to play, you bought into straight away and I think that’s the biggest thing for a new manager coming in - it’s that the players believe you and want to be part of it. Straight away, he had us all hooked.”

Pearce and Berkovic made an instant impact. City’s opening game of the campaign welcomed Watford to Maine Road with an electric atmosphere of an expectant crowd, and both Pearce and the mercurial Berkovic were on the scoresheet in dream debuts, after Goater had ignited our charge with his first of the season. The promotion hopefuls were up and running and the Goat had whet his appetite.

“For me, at every Club I played at, I always got out of the blocks early,” he reviews. “I knew it was important in the first half-dozen games to be out there scoring goals. Confidence is high and you're looking to the next game: 'Who are we playing next?' and it helps with your consistency.

“We saw it as a huge calling card, getting Kevin Keegan - a big, global name and an exciting manager who wanted us to play expansive football. Because of how he was as a player, playing at the highest level, and with him having managed England, I was really excited to listen and learn.

“He wanted us to ask questions of defences and if they scored two, he'd say: ‘Can we score three?’ I felt encouraged as a player that he wanted us to score more goals and he also wanted other players to be more creative so as an attacking player, you knew you would get chances.”

The City train would endure a stuttering start on our journey however, suffering a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Norwich in our second game - a fixture mainly remembered for a Paulo Wanchope red card and several injuries to the squad - and though we survived a scare at home to Crewe in our next outing, winning 5-2, the wheels needed greasing somewhat.

Burney proved the next assignment with previous meetings having proven fruitful for City with successive 6-0 and 5-0 wins in our Division Two adventure. That six-goal haul had proven particularly memorable for Goater, who bagged a hat-trick, and he would repeat the feat this time out as once again, City brushed off another opposition fightback to triumph at Turf Moor.

Defender Howey recalls the game fondly, highlighting Goater's prowess as a key component of the campaign.

“At times it was like a footballing lesson that night at their place, he recalls. “It was a 4-2 win but it was more emphatic than that. At times it was like a passing session, they couldn’t get near us. I remember coming off and hearing their players saying: ‘It’s ridiculous how good you are.’

“The Goat got a hat-trick for us that night. He was a top finisher. He was underrated by some people. He scored goals. In all fairness, he wasn’t the type of guy who would beat two or three players and stick it in the top bin but he had that knack as goalscorers do of being in the right place at the right time.

“Sometimes it would come off his thigh or his knee but it would go in! If the Goat got chances, he would score. He was so prolific and so laidback and such a lovely fella - just a brilliant lad to have.”
Steve Howey

Yet, the joy was short-lived. City succumbed to a harrowing 4-0 defeat away to West Brom in September - a below-par performance which sparked Keegan into decisive action. With his side having won three and lost two of our first five games, the new boss sought new blood and the free capture of an Algerian attacking midfielder by the name of Ali Benarbia proved to be one of the turning points of the season.

Little had been known of City's new number 44 before his arrival in Manchester but by the end of his debut against Birmingham, there was a new hero in the Maine Road stands, rousing chants of Ali, Ali, Ali - a tribute to the great Mohammed Ali - and bows from all corners of the pitch. Howey however had been well aware of his exceptional talent.

“It was funny because we were training and we got upstairs for a bite to eat and I recognised him because I had played against him in the Champions League,” he remembers. “He was at Monaco. I’d seen him and I thought: ‘What is Ali Benarbia doing here?’ 
Steve Howey

“Apparently, what had happened was - and it was a stroke of luck that we had signed him - the agent, he brought Ali up because he was possibly signing for Sunderland and he had popped in to see Kevin, who'd asked: ‘Who have you got?’ He replied: ‘Ali Benarbia’ and Kevin was like: ‘What?! Ali Benarbia?!’ 

“He said: ‘He can play anywhere, him’ and said: ‘Ask him what he wants’ and we signed him. He and Eyal were tremendous but obviously when we didn’t have Ali or Eyal, we had Kevin Horlock to come in - he had a wand of a left foot - and Danny Tiatto as well, or even Gerard Wiekens to go in there. Top, top quality. Ali was on the world stage and Eyal wasn’t far behind.

“With the midfield we had then, we would just stand back and watch them in awe and I said to Dunney: ‘You have no idea how lucky you are because this doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t happen in people’s lifetimes where you have got that much quality in front of you.’ You trust them implicitly with the ball to give them in a place where you don’t normally give someone the ball but you think: ‘I haven’t got a problem giving them the ball here and then they would just do what they would do.’ 

“Sometimes I would look at Dunney and think: ‘We should be clapping these two’ because it was just ridiculous. Having the other two lads on either wing in Wrighty and Darren Huckerby... Wow, what a devastating player he was to have along with Wrighty.”

Benarbia - who allegedly had arrived to the game on a late plane from Paris - had an immediate impact, pulling the strings with a truly mesmeric performance in which he inspired City to a 3-0 win and earned a standing ovation.

Just four days later, he'd scored his first goal and claimed an assist in another topsy-turvy 4-3 defeat at Coventry, as the beating heart of our best attacking moves. Another goal and two assists at in a memorable 6-2 triumph at Sheffield Wednesday enamoured him to the fans even further and the opener in a win over Walsall ensured his first four games in sky blue ended with three goals and three assists.

For the strikers in the team, the exceptional vision, touch and passing ability of both Benarbia and Berkovic was a dream, as Goater laughs:.

“As a centre-forward, I was sleeping like a baby, knowing I was getting that level of service every game! Before games, I'd ask Ali: 'Are you okay? Do you want a cup of tea? Eyal, are you okay?
Shaun Goater

“These players were short players but they had control of the game, like a lot of what we see today - how they control the game. Normally, the game had been: we have it and the opposition have it but these guys came in and we started having more short passes; then killer passes.

“They were really good at finding me with those clever little passes and I did what I did. It was a joy because you knew you'd get chances. Those players elevated my game and I realised: the better quality player I played with, the better I played.”

Darren Huckerby was another of the forwards to profit from the playmakers' creative genius. “We had great attacking players,” he says. “Ali Benarbia, Eyal Berkovic, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Shaun Goater, Paulo Wanchope, me... It was a special time.

“We were probably stronger than anyone else in the league attacking-wise and that’s what we did - we just attacked, attacked, attacked. When you bring in Berkovic and Benarbia, as a forward player, you know you’re going to get chances and you couldn’t have asked for two better players playing in attacking midfield. We were very lucky to have those players. If you can’t score goals playing with them, then you shouldn’t be in the team!”

Another 4-0 thrashing - this time at the hands of Wimbledon at Maine Road - halted City in our tracks and prompted Keegan to bolster our defensive options with the signing of Lucien Mettomo. While our attacking prowess had caught the eye, Dunne asserts it was equally enjoyable to have contributed at the other end in Keegan's system.

“It was good because he wanted us to play higher than we normally would so he didn't want us to be sitting deep and defending,” the former City skipper explains. “You were working on defending from the front rather than as a back three or four.

“He wanted to be able to play out from the back, which wasn't something that we’d done at City previously and it was the start of how football is now - everyone wants to play from the back, and he wanted us to do that and put us in positions and formations that suited that style of play.
Richard Dunne

“I think it's easy to label him as not being a defensive coach and someone who conceded goals but we won games and we played on the front foot, and it was good. We took risks, which is what he wanted. So much now is tactical, defensive, blocking people, blocking runs... He wanted to go and win games and it was enjoyable to play in.”

A third-round Worthington Cup tie provided a welcome break from league action and special night for Huckerby, who scored a superb four goals in a 6-0 rout, as the pacey forward staked a claim for a starting berth.

“You get into a little bit of a run,” he declares. “I knew that if I had a run in the team, especially with the players around me, that I would score goals. For me it was just about getting into the team, Paulo Wanchope started off quite well, then he was in and out, so I was just happy to be there and ready when needed. To be fair, my game was never just about scoring goals, I enjoyed creating them just as much as I did scoring them.”

A four-game winless run in the league and a mere five points from four successive home games sparked cause for concern but a comfortable win over Grimsby Town, in which Huckerby bagged a brace in a run of 12 goals in 12 appearances, saw Keegan's men reignite our promotion push, winning 25 of our remaining 33 games.

“I think it did take a bit of time to adapt,” Huckerby admits. “The first quarter of the season, we probably didn’t play as well as we should have done but then it just clicked and then from there, it was full-on attack. For a fan watching, it must have been a great experience...”

It certainly was - and not just for the City faithful. With the launch of ITV Sport, Division One action was broadcast across the country with Keegan's men topping the bill most weekends, piquing interest and raising eyebrows with our all-out attacking play and barmy unpredictability. Quite simply and as it ever was, you just never knew what you were going to get with City.

At times, it really was a case of ‘the sublime to the ridiculous’ with bizarre moments at both ends of the pitch - Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Darren Ward literally rolling the ball into Goater's path, Christian Negouai's ‘Hand of God’ goal against Rotherham and Jon Macken's remarkable long-range looping effort for Preston North End against City particularly noteworthy.

One of the turning points of City's season saw the promotion hopefuls endure another rollercoaster ride at Millwall - the third of four successive away fixtures. With no away fans at the Den and with the hosts looking to leapfrog the visitors in the table, the odds were stacked against us but the squad produced a gritty display to edge another five-goal thriller on a night to remember for Academy graduate Shaun Wright-Phillips, who bagged his first goal for the Club - and an assist - to announce his arrival into senior stardom.

“I thought if the team could come out of that, winning a game that I think Manchester City in the past might well not have won, that really did encourage me and I think Kevin felt the same way.”
David Bernstein, Chairman 2002

The only downside to that victory was that City's unwaveringly loyal supporters were unable to witness it due to a reciprocal agreement between the two Clubs based on past hostility. Huckerby ensured the Blue faithful knew just how much they were missed though, applauding the empty away end in celebration for his goal and our second of the night.

A 2-1 reverse at the hands of Crystal Palace marked the first of two league defeats City would suffer at Selhurst Park with the Eagles sharing their stadium with Wimbledon, but between those trips to Croydon, Keegan and co. embarked on an eight-game unbeaten run, winning seven, which began with a narrow but significant victory over Wolves at Maine Road.

Kevin Horlock proved the match-winner with an arrowing free-kick to clinch a crucial three points against the league leaders, in a game which saw future City defender Joleon Lescott sent off for a reckless challenge on Benarbia. It was a statement win - one of several during a fruitful festive run-in.

Our final game of 2001 saw City once again welcome the side at the top of the table, as Burnley visited with a four-point advantage and left with a 5-1 drubbing, as the home side turned on the style - Paulo Wanchope hitting a first-half hat-trick to stun the Clarets, who had also been denied a leveller with Glen Little's penalty saved by Carlo Nash.

Howey reflects: “We blew Burnley away both home and away that season.

“That was a team that were vying to get promotion along with us but we were just on a different level. They were like: ‘All we can hope for is to finish second because we are not beating this side.’
Steve Howey

“When we performed, there was nobody who was going to beat us. It was as simple as that. When we played in away grounds, they would be packed. Ordinarily, they could get a few in but the City fans went in their droves - they were unbelievable, the fans. They would always sell all their tickets and then the hometown team would want to see all the attractive players and the big names we had at the Club.”

Victory over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane lifted City top of the table on New Year's Day - the perfect way to kick-off 2002 - and the league leaders began to mount a serious charge, showcasing multiple aspects to our game: a battling determination to accompany our attacking flair, which was perhaps most evident when Norwich came to Maine Road in mid-January.

A controversial sending-off for Danny Tiatto - one of an astonishing ten red cards City would receive throughout the campaign - meant the home side would have to play the remaining 79(!) minutes with ten men, but inspired by the brilliant Berkovic, the league leaders would battle to a 3-1 win. The Israeli bagged a brace, sandwiching Wanchope's penalty with two stunning strikes - the second a superb solo effort to clinch the points, with his mum proudly watching on in the stands.

The playmaker would star again in the FA Cup as City produced another eye-catching display to thrash Ipswich Town 4-1 at Portman Road. With the game shown live on BBC One, the triumph - in particular the manner of it - turned heads across the country.

Division One City handed a footballing lesson to the Premiership side - Berkovic opening the scoring with a sensational volley from the edge of the area. The second-tier leaders would also impress in the next round away at Newcastle United, as Magpies hero Keegan made an emotional return to St James' Park, but our adventure would ultimately come to an end with a 1-0 defeat.

With 11 wins of our opening 13 league games in 2002, City hit top form and continued to delight fans with our impressive attacking exploits, as players from all over the pitch chipping in at the sharp end, contributing with glorious goals; the build-up glittering with flicks, tricks, flair and pace as Keegan's men carved through opposition defences like a hot knife through butter.

The signings of lifelong Blue Macken from Preston, Sun Jihai and Niclas Jensen further strengthened the squad, while City legend Paul Dickov bade a fond farewell for pastures new in search of more regular minutes.

Such was our outstanding creativity, a 2-1 triumph at Birmingham marked the 150th goal in City games of the 2001/02 campaign, as well as our 100th - and March was only five days old! After Macken had realised his boyhood dream of scoring for his beloved Club, Goater netted his 30th of the season, becoming the first Blue to hit 30 since Francis Lee in 1972.

“I realised once I scored that goal, I was the first player to have done it since Francis Lee,” Goater grins. “I realised what an achievement it was: ‘Not a bad season, Shaun!’

“In my overall career, it was my best season return as a centre-forward. It was amazing. It would be easy for me to say it's because of how good I was but it was the quality of passes from Eyal and Ali, and playing with Huckerby and the midfield we had serving us, we really hit it off.

“Huckerby was always one of the first in training, doing extras, making sure his body was in top condition in terms of what he ate. I learned a lot from watching him and how he was.”

As the records continued to tumble, Keegan's men were well on our way to a record-breaking season and Huckerby loved it.

“It was good but it was also intense. You get to the top of the league and then you’ve got to fight everyone off. When you do get to the top it’s about winning the league and if you can win it with record goals and stuff like that, it makes it even better.
Darren Huckerby

“Kevin Keegan sorted out the shape and then just let the players play to be honest. We had good players and he trusted them to go and do a job. The training sessions for forwards were brilliant, the finishing sessions were excellent. Being a forward himself, I think that certainly did help.”

Two games without a win in March - the first a last-gasp defeat at the hands of bogey side, local rivals Stockport County - brought another eight-game unbeaten run to an end but a Huckerby hat-trick refuelled the promotion push, setting up a mouth-watering clash with fellow title contenders Wolves on the opening day of April.

City headed into the clash five points ahead of the Molineux outfit and finished it with an eight-point advantage, thanks to a delightful Wright-Phillips double to send the travelling fans into raptures. An immediate return to the Premiership beckoned.

We were almost there... and promotion would in fact arrive earlier than anticipated, as Wolves fell to another defeat at the hands of Millwall the following Friday. The result at the Den meant Keegan's side could not be caught and without playing, our place in the top-flight was secured.

As a result, it was party time at Maine Road for the visit of Barnsley. In another dazzling display, another Huckerby treble and a Macken brace powered the league leaders to a 5-1 win, our 100th league goal of the season and most importantly, the Division One title.

The forward would continue his purple patch to score his 20th goal of the campaign in another enjoyable victory against Gillingham - a game in which City crafted one of the goals of the season and a strike which is still talked about today: Goater's sweetly-struck volley from Benarbia's exquisite chipped backheel. Such was the quality of the craftsmanship, it sparked a round of applause from the home fans!

Another three goals put City within touching distance of a record-breaking campaign: four more goals would break our all-time Club tally of 108. One more win would also secure a new highest league points total accumulated in a single season (in which a victory earned three points), plus a highest number of seasonal wins (31) and equal our previous record of home wins (19).

With the final game of a fascinating campaign on home soil, it was all set up for City, especially when Howey opened the scoring inside ten minutes. When Goater doubled the lead, capitalising on Dave Beasant's amusing error, and Macken made it three after Courtney Pitt had halved the deficit with four minutes to go, the Champions were one goal away from rewriting the history books - and we were awarded the chance to do so from the spot, courtesy of a late handball decision...

There was further cause for celebration as the penalty provided the chance for Pearce, playing his final game before retirement, to end an illustrious career with 100 goals. It was a fairytale script and with some fans having placed bets on the stars aligning in such a way, it sparked one of the loudest cheers of the season. And yet...

Even though Pearce told goalkeeper Beasant which way he intended to place the strike, as the stadium held its breath, in Typical City fashion, the defender blazed his effort into the Family Stand!

“A lot of people may think it isn’t a  pressure penalty because everybody wants it to go in but that makes it more of a pressure penalty because they're thinking it will go in!" Goater explains.

“We all knew he would be the one to take it and he's thinking: ‘I want to make sure I score’ so he's hit it firmer, getting low under the ball which causes it to miss the target. We couldn't believe it! We all wanted him to score - it would have been a great achievement."

Thankfully, Pearce saw the funny side, although his teammates and the City faithful (who perhaps should have been used to such mishaps!) could not quite believe it! Howey recalls the moment with a wry smile.

“I was with Dave Beasant at Newcastle and he said to Stuart Pearce: ‘Put it in that corner and I will go the opposite one’ and he still missed! It was Pearce’s last game, it was going to be a record amount of goals and he happened to mess that up.

“I was quite close to Pearcey - I still get on very well with him - and he was mortified that he missed that. He was running back to me, I was shaking my head and I just thought: ‘You absolute idiot!’”
Steve Howey

“I played with Stuart at Newcastle and I knew what he was like -quite quiet but he has a very dry sense of humour - but when you came to the dressing room a good hour before the game, it was a waste of time to talk to him because he was that focused it was ridiculous. Even people on the opposing team if he knew them, in the tunnel they would go to shake his hand and he would blank them, thinking: ‘I’ve got a job to do.’

“The goal would have topped it off. It was a slight disappointment but ultimately, to have a packed house that day, to finish it off and to finish it off in style to get the trophy was absolutely brilliant. Man City for me was just a brilliant experience, full-stop.”

As the defender says, it could not dampen what had been a truly sensational season for City. We would end the season as Champions, having earned promotion back to the Premiership at the first attempt - and the days of division-hopping were over. The Club have remained in the top flight ever since and a decade later, lifted the English title for the first time since 1968.

Another rollercoaster ride - this one however remembered for its breath-taking highs, as the start of our ascendency...

Written by: Caroline Oatway
Interviews: Neil Leigh, David Clayton, George Kelsey