We look back to a pivotal game from the 1998/99 campaign, through the eyes of the players who took part…

Manchester City were in freefall...

Joe Royle’s stuttering side had slipped to twelfth in the Division Two table, some 56 places below cross-city rivals Manchester United and the gap between Blues and Reds had never been greater.

To illustrate the fall from grace, City had taken just three points from the previous five games, losing to Wycombe and York, while drawing with Bristol Rovers, Gillingham, and Luton.

Severe weather warnings had been issued for the west of the UK, with gale force winds and heavy rain predicted in many areas of the north west.

So, a trip to face a Wrexham side who had already held City to a 0-0 draw at Maine Road the previous August and had won three of their last four matches, was probably the last place Royle wanted to take his team to next.

It was Boxing Day 1998 and there had been little festive cheer for City fans, but as ever, the away section was sold out and the laser blue juggernaut rolled into North Wales looking to spark the campaign and somehow find a way out of a division that had been a graveyard for so many big clubs over the years.

For Wrexham, it was a chance to claim another notable scalp, just as they had done several times in cup competitions over the years at the Racecourse Ground.

A victory for The Red Dragons would put them within a couple of points of City, who would set a new club record low with another defeat.

Wrexham, a hard-working and industrious side managed by Brian Flynn, were very much up for the challenge that blustery day…

“We’d drawn 0-0 at Maine Road – imagine!” recalled Wrexham boss Flynn.

“It was history-making for us. Wrexham holding Manchester City in the league on their own soil.

“City were struggling, but I very rarely used the form of the opposition to motivate my team - I concentrated on what our own strengths were, while highlighting any weaknesses we felt the team we were playing had.

“It’s difficult to describe the levels of confidence in a footballer – obviously City were at a really low ebb, but you can’t rely on that giving you the advantage because you can’t predict what’s going to happen.

“I know our keeper, Mark Cartwright played exceptionally well at Maine Road, and we needed him to play at the same level again in this game.”


But while few would disagree City should have won the first encounter back in August comfortably, Wrexham were a different proposition at the Racecourse and midfielder Gareth Owen – who would play more than 300 games over 12 years for the club - says his team definitely fancied their chances that day.

“We were used to playing teams who had dropped down and were bouncing back up such as Stoke and Birmingham, but Manchester City being there was a one-off at that level,” says Owen.

“We’d had some great cup results in the years around that period, beating West Ham United, Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town and there was a lack of fear when we were taking on teams that were maybe expecting to beat us.

“We had a good mix of youth and older pros but playing Manchester City was a big thing for us and anything we could take out of that game would have been a bonus. I was about 27 and I was alongside lads who had been together a long time such as Karl Connolly, Phil Hardy, Dave Brammer amongst others, but that doesn’t stand you in good stead for a game against a side like Man City.

“I remember our 0-0 draw at Maine Road well, but our keeper was fantastic that day and we rode our luck and came away with a point. Playing City was like a final, because they were a huge club who had dropped out of the top flight so quickly and gone from playing Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United to taking on Lincoln, York, and Macclesfield Town. It was probably a shock to the system.

“Wrexham are having a similar experience in the National League now, playing sides like Dorking and Dover who want to beat you because of who you are. We were used to the teams in Division Two and knew what was required. At Maine Road, we’d enjoyed being the underdogs because we were team-mates on the pitch but good friends off it, and the same would have applied for the return at the Racecourse.

“We always fancied ourselves to get something because of our cup pedigree so we went into the Boxing Day clash with City thinking we could definitely get something. The away end was full with maybe 3,000 City fans and we were up against a team that had a lot of quality in it – Michael Brown, Ian Bishop, Kevin Horlock, Gerard Wiekens – these were experienced campaigners who knew what was needed.”

Nick Weaver had been plucked from relative obscurity at Mansfield Town the previous season and had been given the chance to establish himself as the Blues No.1.

He’d made a solid start to the campaign having only made one senior appearance prior to the move and at 19, he was literally in the eye of the storm going into the game

“It was a horrendous day, weather-wise if memory serves,” says Weaver.

“It was windy, throwing it down with rain and the pitch wasn’t great. I went out for the warm-up and the area was mega slippy - it wasn’t a great day to be a goalkeeper."


“It was an old ground, and the City fans were there in their numbers as always and they must have gone there after the York defeat fearing the worst. I came in Monday morning after losing at York and we knew we’d slipped to our lowest ever league position, so the atmosphere wasn’t good. I don’t recall any clear-the-air meetings because I think Joe would have wanted to keep things as a normal as possible - there was enough pressure on us already.

“I guess because I was young and it was my first season as City’s No.1, I didn’t get affected by the noise surrounding the club maybe as much as others. The fans were always really good to me, so while the situation wasn’t great, I was just buzzing to be playing for Manchester City at the time.

“They had Ian Rush playing for them it was like, ‘Wow, I’m playing against Ian Rush!’ He’d been like Harry Kane when I was a kid, so it was a big deal. He was in his twilight years, but as a kid I never dreamed I’d have been playing against him one day.”

Gareth Taylor was another player who hadn’t absorbed the external pressures that were closing in on City.

A new signing from Sheffield United, he was just finding his feet at Maine Road and hadn’t really had the time to be affected by the poor run his new team had been on.

“I’d made my debut away to Luton Town a few weeks earlier where we drew 1-1 with Andy Morrison scoring that day, then we drew 0-0 with Bristol Rovers so it had been a tricky start,” said Taylor, today, of course, manager of City’s women’s team.

“I don’t recall much of the York defeat, but the Wrexham match came just a few days before I scored my first City goal against Stoke at Maine Road.”


“There was a good crowd at the Racecourse that day. I’d come down a league from Sheffield United, but I remember being blown away by the size of Manchester City as a club and the passion of the supporters. I recall a lot of away games felt like home matches because of the numbers we took with us in that division. It was incredible.

“We must have had maybe a third of the attendance, but there was a feeling we had to get out of that league by hook or by crook. There was a lot of pressure on Joe, his staff and the players and going into the Wrexham game, it didn’t look good because we were mid-table and half the season had already gone.”

Brian Flynn sent his troops out to battle, intending on using the poor playing surface and stormy weather to Wrexham’s advantage.

“The Third Division - as it was back then - was a totally different animal to all the other leagues and for 99% of the teams in that division, going to Maine Road on that perfect pitch with 30,000 fans or more was like a cup final – and when they visited your place, the sold out signs would be out, and the fans would be up for it on the day.

“Everyone relished it and there’s no doubt that in each game, City would take on a side who had raised their game because it really was like a cup final of sorts.

“Kevin Reeves was my assistant at the time and as a former City player, he was desperate for us to win at the Racecourse having taken a point at Maine Road. I think we went into the game five points behind City at the halfway point of the season, which shows how tight that division was that season.

“I saw Joe Royle who I’d known for many years and is a good friend and picked his brains as I usually did! I’d played alongside Willie Donachie at Burnley as well, so I was up against people I knew and liked very much.

“My office was an open door at the time, but you had to bring your own wine back then!”


Any doubts that City were in for a tough afternoon were banished in the opening few minutes as Wrexham peppered the Blues’ goal, looking to take full advantage of the conditions and the brittle confidence – if any – that Royle’s side arrived with.

“ We also had Ian Rush in midfield, which is crazy! He was obviously coming to the end of his playing career, and he was struggling to score goals, but we’d signed him for the aura that he brought with him and for the younger lads to learn from him."


“We had Terry Cooke on loan from United on the right wing and I think Joe Royle signed him for City on the basis of his performance in this game,” recalled Gareth Owen, a level 3 UEFA B Licence Coach Education Manager for Football Association Wales for the past 15 years.

“We also had Ian Rush in midfield, which is crazy! He was obviously coming to the end of his playing career, and he was struggling to score goals, but we’d signed him for the aura that he brought with him and for the younger lads to learn from him.”

The hosts were on top throughout the first half, with only Nicky Weaver’s brilliance keeping the scores level.

“I remember the pitch being like a bog in places, because I had a chance and toe-poked it towards the net and it got stuck on the goal-line!” said Taylor.

“Ian Rush was a big hero of mine and I’d played up front with him briefly at Sheffield United which was a bit of a dream for me, because he was someone I had looked up to when I was younger. Wrexham had a decent, hard-working team with plenty of experience and some really good players.

“We’d get a lot of stick from the fans of the teams we were playing and some of it was quite hostile, because we were the biggest show in town, and everyone wanted to beat us. The bottom line was that we were the players tasked with getting us back up and every single one of us were determined to make that happen.”

Weaver continued to defy Wrexham with a series of superb saves, while Michael Brown and Gerard Wiekens were towering influences throughout. To reach half-time with score 0-0 was an achievement in itself for City, but it at least gave Royle a platform to build on.

He knew if his team could head back across the English border with something, it might just be the kickstart needed with high-flying Stoke due at Maine Road a couple of days later.

The second-half was just 11 minutes old when City finally got the break they were looking for as Kevin Horlock’s deep corner found the head of Gerard Wiekens who powered a header past Mak Cartwright to make it 1-0.

“I recall we were struggling with set-pieces that year and were desperate to avoid giving anything silly away like a free-kick around the box or needless corners,” said former boss Flynn.

“We’d worked hard to eradicate it, but of course it was from a corner that Gerard Wiekens ended up scoring from.”

Despite Wrexham’s best efforts, that would prove to be the only goal of the game, with Flynn’s side playing much better than their league position suggested and without doubt, only a magnificent performance from Weaver protected that narrow lead to the final whistle.

“I think we played really well that day and were unlucky to lose,” says Owen.

“I remember Joe Royle being very complimentary about us and saying he thought City had been fortunate to take all three points. But after that, City went from strength to strength and ended up getting promoted via the play-offs, of course. I think that win at the Racecourse sort of ignited City’s season – it was a kind of a catalyst, and I don’t think the club looked back again.

“You have to dig deep to go to places like the Racecourse and grind out a 1-0 win, but I think City had the right players at the right time to get out of that division and the story since then has been an inspiration to any club looking to be successful.”

Flynn adds: “We held our own in the second half of the season and stayed up but obviously, things took off after that for City. It’s funny that the two clubs have hardly ever met, because that meeting is still the only league clash between the clubs at the Racecourse there has ever been. We never really meet in cup competitions and Wrexham have only ever climbed as high as the second tier and that was only for four years.”

Gareth Taylor would score the winning goal in the next game against Stoke and, with two wins in the space of three days, the blue touch paper had finally been lit.

“I think if you told our fans before the Wrexham game that within 18 months, we’d be back in the Premier League they’d have asked what we’d been drinking!”


“But we did it and it just goes to show that the difference between a set of fans who are with you or against you is huge. There were a lot of dark days at that time, but winning that day gave us something to build on and it’s amazing how quickly things can turnaround in football. We could see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and we had something to hang on to. From there, we went from strength to strength.”

Nick Weaver, now goalkeeping coach for the Sheffield Wednesday U18a and U23s, remembers that day in North Wales as “a hard-fought 1-0 win”, adding that he thinks he made “a few decent saves that day.”

It was much more than that and he was almost certainly the difference between winning and losing that day, perhaps changing the Blues’ destiny in the process.

Now, he hopes Wrexham can find their way back into league football where he feels they deserve to be.

“It’s a good story what’s going on at Wrexham and I’ve watched a documentary on the new ownership, and they seem to have the club’s best interests at heart,” he said.

“It’s nice to see money being invested in a club quite far down the football pyramid rather than the bigger clubs in the top divisions and I hope they do well.”

Brian Flynn, now semi-retired but still scouting and keeping his hand in the game, believes his old club are very much on the right track under the ownership of Ryan Reynolds and Robert McElhenney.

“If Wrexham go up, they’ll have momentum and I think that will be matched with finance which is just as important – you have to have both, but they will need a new stadium,” Flynn opined.

“They can’t plan for the Premier League with an old stadium that holds 15,000 so that’s something that is needed. It would need to be built on the same site so it’s still the Racecourse Ground, but I think the owners are fantastic and I think they’re in for the long haul, I really do. With the right planning, it is achievable, it really is.”

Gareth Owen agrees:With Wrexham, what’s happening at the moment is a bit mind-blowing. The identity of the club and the way we played against Coventry City and Sheffield United was fantastic. We have a working class town and a fan base who expect nothing less than their team to go out and give 100% every time.

“We hope that we can look back ourselves in a few years and maybe say beating Coventry 4-3 away was the turning point for our club. It feels like we’ve got our club back and as an ex-player and a Wrexham fan, you can’t ask for much more.

“You can see that the owners have Wrexham’s best interests at heart and not just the club, they’re promoting North Wales, the language, and the culture. If we can achieve a quarter of what Manchester City have had done, I think we’d all be delighted because what an inspirational story that has been.”

David Clayton

Thanks to Brian Flynn, Gareth Owen and Wrexham FC press officer Colin Henrys for all the help given, plus Nick Harrison from the Wrexham Leader. Thanks also to Nick Weaver and Gareth Taylor.