“I wish I had a pound for every time somebody has stopped me and told me that was the best game they’d ever seen!”
Brian Horton can’t resist a wry smile as his mind drifts back 26 years to one of the most remarkable matches ever staged at Maine Road.
The encounter the former City manager is reminiscing about took place 26 years ago today at our iconic former home – on October 22, 1994 – and saw his swashbuckling Blues side blow away a star-studded Tottenham Hotspur 5-2.
It’s a game that legendary BBC broadcaster John Motson described as being amongst the finest he ever commentated on.
Not surprisingly, it’s a spectacle too that, to this day, still holds a special place in the hearts of legions of City fans
And 26 years on, to those central to the drama that unfolded that afternoon at a wet and wild Maine Road, the memories burn just as brightly.
Spurs, under the leadership of Ossie Ardiles, had broken the previously conservative mould of English football by assembling a cosmopolitan, star-studded side featuring a clutch of burgeoning domestic talent such as Teddy Sheringham, Nicky Barmby, Darren Anderton and a young Sol Campbell.
And in the summer of 1994, his Spurs squad had been supplemented by the shock arrival of German 1990 World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann alongside Ilie Dumitrescu and Gheorge Popescu, who had both just helped guide Romania to the World Cup quarter-finals.
With Tottenham subsequently deploying a famed reverse Christmas tree formation, with effectively five players utilised on the front foot, thrills – and spills – were all but guaranteed whenever Ardiles’ side played.
City boss Horton meanwhile had fashioned his own skilful, hugely entertaining squad – and one that in stark contrast to Spurs was almost exclusively home-grown save for German striker Uwe Rosler, who was unavailable for the Tottenham clash, and Michel Vonk.
Over the course of his first year in charge, the City boss had moulded together youthful vigour in the shape of effervescent midfielders Steve Lomas, Garry Flitcroft and flying winger Nicky Summerbee, players in the prime of their career such as skipper Keith Curle, full-back Terry Phelan and wide man Peter Beagrie, together with experienced know-how in the shape of strikers Niall Quinn and Paul Walsh which he blended into a potent City cocktail.
Deploying an adventurous 4-2-4 system with Beagrie and Summerbee flying down either flank feeding Walsh, Quinn and/or Rosler, in full flow City were a formidable force of their own.
It meant the portents for an epic encounter were in place – and to a man, all 22 players helped serve up a footballing feast for the eyes.
The weather too played a hand. Maine Road was – just for a change – subject to a late Autumn downpour which added an extra sheen to an already slick playing surface.
With the Kippax in the midst of being redeveloped into an all-seater stand, only the bottom tier had been completed which led to a vastly reduced attendance of just over 25,000 – and saw those seated in the truncated Kippax forced to don cagoules to try and shield themselves from the elements.
Those lucky enough to attend were treated to what was a match for the ages. It was illuminated by memorable goals, non-stop action at both ends and a virtuoso display from City striker Paul Walsh who capped a five-star performance with two thunderous strikes of his own.
With his flowing hair and non-stop running, Walsh was a veritable whirling dervish, mixing boundless energy with superb skill and insight.
The combination proved virtually unplayable.
After opening the scoring with an exquisite 15th minute strike from Lomas’s crossfield pass, it was Walsh’s parried header from Summerbee’s teasing cross that led to City’s 41st minute second goal through Niall Quinn after Dumitrescu’s 29th minute penalty had levelled affairs.
Walsh then brilliantly struck again on the stroke of half-time when Spurs keeper Ian Walker could only partially block his snapshot before he watched helplessly as it span back over the line after more sumptuous wing play from Beagrie.
There was to be no let-up in the pulsating action after the break.
Dumitrescu narrowed the deficit with a deflected shot a minute into the second half but City were not to be denied.
More wing wizardry from Beagrie saw Lomas get in on the scoring act with a 56th minute header before that man Walsh capped an virtuoso display by utterly bamboozling Campbell and then drilling a pin-point pass to the unmarked Flitcroft who gleefully applied the finish.
It represented a true team triumph but there was no doubt as to who was the City catalyst.
“Paul on the day was just sensational,” Steve Lomas recalls. “When he first turned up at the Club, he was 5ft 4ins with long, scraggy hair and I thought: ‘How is this geezer going to help the team?’
“But he was immense for us and that day he gave Sol Campbell an absolute terrorising. He twisted him inside out three or four times for the last goal alone!
“When Walshy came to City he was 31 and it was probably his last chance to show what he was about. By his own admission he would say at Liverpool and Spurs maybe there were times he didn’t apply himself right.
“So, we got a player who was motivated and superbly talented. But I didn’t realise just how good he was until I played with him. He was incredible and thankfully for a year or so the City fans saw just what a talented boy he was.”
For his part, Horton had no doubts about the talent he was bringing in when he paid Portsmouth £750,000 to acquire Walsh’s services in March 1994.
Despite a near 15-year long career that had seen Walsh thrive with Charlton, Luton, Liverpool, Spurs and Pompey as well as represent England, Horton was adamant he was bringing in a quality reinforcement armed with no lack of desire.
“I’d played alongside Walshy at Luton Town, so I knew all about him,” Horton recalls. “And coming up against his former side in Spurs, Walshy wanted to prove a point.”
From his own perspective as he looks back 25 years to that epic encounter, Walsh admits the chance to get one over on his former team-mates armed him with an extra sense of motivation.
And he says his time in Manchester still stands as among the happiest spells of his illustrious career.
“That game did have a little bit of an edge to it as Tottenham were a previous club of mine and, in my opinion, I hadn’t done myself justice there,” reflects Walsh – now a hugely respected member of Sky Sports’ football team.
“I was enjoying myself so much at City and loving it, so I just wanted it to continue. The Spurs game was another great opportunity to carry that on.
“Any time you played one of the so-called bigger clubs back then you wanted to put in a big performance, and it had that extra bit of spice for me as it was one of my old teams.
“My only disappointment that day was that I didn’t score a hat-trick because I missed a sitter of a header which led to Quinny’s goal!
“My whole stay at City was a massive bonus as far as I was concerned and, for me, a massive achievement because when I joined City, I don’t think I was many of the fans’ favourite choice.
“I felt that pressure a little bit plus I was 31/32 so everyone thought I was too old, washed up and all the rest of it!
“So, to go there and make an impact and have games like that Spurs match... I am massively proud of that.”
Horton is adamant that the way his side set about Spurs – with all-out attacking flair, relentless energy and no fear - was the personification of his guiding philosophy during an eventful two years at the Maine Road helm.
And he believes they are also the core principles that the Club’s fans still hold dear to – and a key factor as to why that Spurs triumph still resonates so strongly to this day.
“When I first came to City, I’d set out to play that way because I knew what the DNA of Man City was with the Club’s history of attacking wingers,” Horton adds.
“So, no matter how long I was staying… if I was going to go out I wanted to go out all guns blazing basically and play the best football I could because I knew the City fans love their football, they love their wingers. They love their attacking football and I was determined to go that way and not go five at the back or 4-5-1 or whatever.
“The side was full of attacking players – great crossers in Nicky Summerbee and Peter Beagrie - and as a manager when you’ve had a game like that, you’re just full of pride because it was such a wonderful spectacle.
“Being such a world class player I knew Ossie Ardiles’s team was always going to play open football and the players he’d got in that side, when you see that list – Barmby, Klinsmann, Sheringham, Petrescu, Dumitrescu – that’s a fantastic attacking side when you look at it.
“Mind you – we weren’t a bad team either!”
While the goals were flying in for City – Horton’s rearguard were also being tested to the limit – especially in a demanding first 20 minutes when the visitors held the upper hand.
Skipper Keith Curle expertly marshalled City’s backline which also featured a young Richard Edghill and Terry Phelan with Ian Brightwell deployed alongside Curle in central defence and Andy Dibble in goal.
And Curle - who provided magnificent service to the Club during his five years at Maine Road – said seeking to nullify the threat of Klinsmann and Sheringham was the type of ultimate professional test that he prided himself on.
“Jurgen and Teddy were the sort of strikers whom you couldn’t give half a yard because of their ability,” recalled Curle, who is now carving out a fine reputation as manager of Northampton Town.
“Both of them needed different sorts of maintenance. Jurgen was quick and had such good movement, Teddy could play differently - either as a target man or off the target man. He wanted to play on the shoulders as he had a yard and a half of pace in his brain.
“Playing against Klinsmann and Sheringham you had to be totally on your A game as both needed different attention.”
The redevelopment of Maine Road may have restricted the number of those lucky enough to see the match live. Fortunately, however, the encounter was televised and was that night’s feature game on Match of the Day.
And for iconic commentator John Motson - a veteran of more than 2,000 matches over the course of his long, distinguished 40-year broadcasting career with the BBC – he still recalls that day with crystal clear clarity and a glint in his eye.
“That game brings back so many memories,” Motty recalled. “I remember the rain and the number of people in the Kippax who were wearing those protective raincoats to cover them up because it was so wet with the redevelopment going on.
“By that time, Ossie Ardiles had got Spurs attacking on all fronts and taking risks all over the place.
“Those were the days where I don’t think there was quite the tactical expertise you would expect now but I remember the game being so exciting and the fans in the Kippax responding to everything that happened.
“It was 5-2 and end to end and it could have been any score. It was a real ding-dong affair.
“I was great friends with the late Bernard Halford who the City club secretary at the time and I always enjoyed my games at Maine Road but that one really stood out.
“The commentary position with the cameras at the ground was really good. You were quite close to the players and, as a commentator, it meant you could get involved in the excitement from where you were sitting.
“Matches in those days seemed to throw up so much excitement but that game will always stick in my mind and the mind of City supporters.”
For Ardiles and Spurs, the ramifications of the Maine Road mauling were both profound and almost instantaneous.
Already under intense pressure, the result all but sealed the Argentinean’s fate and a 3-0 loss away at Notts County in the League Cup four days later all-but confirmed the end of his White Hart Lane tenure.
Rather fittingly, he was sacked on Halloween and the midfield maestro was to never manage in English football again.
Looking back, Ardiles is philosophical but unrepentant.
“I wanted to play football in the way I always thought it was meant to be played,” Ardiles insists. “I was prepared to take risks. At the same time, I accept the criticism that my team was unbalanced. I paid the price and I have to accept that.”
For Horton and City, meanwhile, the footballing fates was also to play a hand in their subsequent fortunes.
The Spurs result was to prove the highpoint of what was to be a frustrating campaign.
Though City recorded several other notable scalps – not least a superb 3-2 win away at eventual champions Blackburn - inconsistency and injuries to several key individuals conspired to leave the Blues scrambling at the wrong end of the table and we eventually finished the season in 17th position
With Francis Lee having assumed control of the club earlier in 1994 from long-standing former chairman Peter Swales, by the end of the campaign, he decided it was time for a change in direction at the top.
Horton was dismissed in May of 1995 with Alan Ball subsequently brought in as his replacement.
Despite a distinguished subsequent managerial career that later took in spells with Huddersfield, Brighton, Port Vale and Macclesfield, Brian was also never to manage in the Premier League again.
However, looking back with the benefit of 26 years hindsight, Horton says there is no rancour at the way his City reign ended – just regret at what potentially could have been.
“I really do think that team was a couple of additions away from going places,” Horton reflects. “But obviously I didn’t have the time. Yeah, you look back and think: “If I’d had a bit more time there or whatever but I enjoyed myself and I go to City as much as I can these days to watch them play. It’s a club that’s absolutely different class with both me and my wife.
“Sometimes when you get the sack from a club you think: 'I don’t want to go back there… I don’t want them to do well.' But it’s totally different with City - I don’t feel that way at all.
“And, without a doubt, those 20 months in charge were the best days of my managerial career. I mean it was the pinnacle to go and manage in the Premier League.”
Walsh, Lomas and Curle all echo their former manager’s musings about what could have been.
“Football is full of twists and turns,” Walsh admitted. “Francis came in and then was probably was thinking about a change with Alan Ball.
“Those extra players that Brian talks about would have elevated us to the next level but he didn’t get the opportunity which was disappointing for me and for him no doubt.”
Lomas – who knows all about the vagaries of management from his own time in charge at St Johnstone and Millwall - also looks back with a hint of regret.
“I think Brian was a little bit unlucky when he lost his job as he was building a nice blend between the young players, guys in their prime and the senior ones like Walshy,” the former Northern Ireland international added.
“Who knows what would have happened if he had been given a bit more time and money? It’s small margins, we got a few injuries and suddenly we had a relegation fight on our hands. Francis had come in and wanted to bring in his own man.”
“There was a turning point in the Club. Rather than buying top end they went to get value for money from lower division players,” is Curle’s assessment.
“In my opinion we weren’t far away but we went down the wrong route.”
What-ifs aside, however, a game that conspired to showcase City and Spurs in particular and the Premier League in general in glorious technicolour still elicits a warm glow to all involved more than a quarter of a century on.
“People never stop talking to me about that game,” Horton added.
“It’s extraordinary that that one game is talked about so much and I’m delighted that the fans still recognise it as one of the best matches they’ve ever seen.
“I watched the game again recently and, bloomin’ heck, there were some good goals weren’t there. Maine Road was absolutely rocking. It was fantastic.”
For Walsh – an England international, who won the league title with Liverpool and FA Cup with Spurs - 26 years on, that day at Maine Road still resonates as one of his all-time professional highpoints.
And he still regards his time at City as one of the most rewarding and memorable spells in his career.
“It was one of those days in my footballing life that I will never forget,” Walsh declared.
“I can’t properly express how much I loved playing for the Club for those 18-20 months. It was just a fantastic period in my career and that Spurs game was such a great occasion and a special moment for all of us.”
Lomas concurs, ruefully adding: “If you look back at one-off games, there are a lot you don’t remember and a lot you don’t want to remember!
“But that game I look back on with great fondness. It was all about attacking and scoring not sitting back with 10 behind the ball. It was ‘Let’s go out and see who’s the best attacking side.’
“It was a great day. You wish you had more like that for sure.”
Captain Curle also speaks with huge pride when he recalls the events of that afternoon.
“It was one of the highlights of my time at the Club,” the former England international recalls. “It was the prefect footballing day and one of those games where everything came together.”
Fittingly however, the last word goes to Motson who reveals that rip-roaring spectacle still holds an extra special place in his vast memory bank.
“City and Spurs had a bit of history, of course,” Motty reminisces. “They had played each other in the 1981 FA Cup final which were a cracking couple of games and with it being North v South, I always thought when I had a game to cover between those two that almost anything could happen.
“Well it certainly did that day. It was truly, truly memorable, and I would have it in the top five of all the games I ever covered in the top division.”
City XI: Dibble, Edghill, Curle, Brightwell, Phelan, Summerbee, Flitcroft, Lomas, Beagrie, Walsh, Quinn
Subs: Margetson, Hill, Mike
Goals: Walsh 15,44, Quinn 41, Lomas 52, Flitcroft 79
Spurs XI: Walker, Edinburgh, Campbell, Kerslake, Dozzell, Scott, Barmby, Popescu, Dumitrescu, Klinsmann, Sheringham
Subs: Calderwood, Thorstvedt, Hazard
Goals: Dumitrescu 29 (pen), 46