Today, we look back at an exhilarating period under the one, and only, Kevin Keegan. This feature was first published in February 2021...

When Joe Royle was sacked shortly after City’s relegation to the Championship, there was an element of sadness among the City supporters and players.

Joe had guided City from the third tier back to the Premier League in successive seasons and he would always be affectionately thought of.

The 2000/01 campaign had probably been a stretch too far for a side that had sunk to its lowest ebb against York City a few years before.

Relieving Joe of his duties had been hard for the Club’s board, but within a few days, City unveiled a new manager, and when Kevin Keegan was announced as the man to replace Royle, the excitement around the Club was palpable.

Keegan’s teams were renowned for playing entertaining football and City fans were excited at the prospect of a thrilling season and, hopefully, an immediate return to the top flight.

Skipper Andy Morrison was one of the first players to get a call from the new boss.

“I had a knee operation at the end of the previous season and I got a phone call from Kevin Keegan when I was recuperating, which was pleasant,” recalled Morrison. “He said he was looking forward to working with me and he heard a lot about me and was mindful that I was having an operation. For me then it was about trying to get fit, but sadly, I never really recovered from that knee injury and that was the sad thing. I never got a chance to be in the changing room with him.

“Obviously, he was a huge name at the time and you had seen the period at Newcastle and how he changed that club around. For me there wasn’t any phone calls around the squad like ‘wow’. Others may have thought that way, but I certainly didn’t. It was different for me because I was injured and couldn’t join in early on. You speak to the players around you and it was like ‘Kevin Keegan’s in, we’ve got to crack on and raise the bar.’”

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In truth, it was an amazing coup by the City board and one that had been warmly received by the fans. Here was a man who had done it all as a player and was respected throughout the world as one of England’s best-ever players. Emotional, honest and his heart very firmly on his sleeve – that was the man now in charge of City.

The gloom of relegation was replaced by expectancy and optimism and the 2001/02 campaign began with new signings Eyal Berkovic and former England skipper Stuart Pearce in the team for the opening fixture, a Saturday early evening home match with Watford that fairly crackled with electricity and expectation. Some called it the ‘KK factor’ – whatever it was Maine Road was alive again and the manner in which City dispatched Watford 3-0 suggested happy days were ahead. Indeed, they were.

Keegan’s attacking philosophy certainly saw City occasionally ship a few goals, but more often than not, the Blues scored more than they conceded. The arrival of Algerian maestro Ali Benarbia on a free transfer a few months into the campaign proved to be the coup de grace for City – the final piece of the jigsaw - and gave the Blues – along with Berkovic – a creative midfield supply many Premier League sides could not match, let alone other Division One sides. Shaun Goater and Paulo Wanchope linked well in attack and were feasting on goals and there were several breath-taking performances as City rose to the summit, notably 4-2 at Burnley and particularly the 6-2 victory away to Sheffield Wednesday.

With Pearce as captain, the midfielders unplayable and the strikers on banging in the goals, City coasted to the Division One championship with Club records falling along the way as some 108 goals were scored during one of the most enjoyable seasons many City fans could remember.

Morrison recalled: “I was around the club for a good few months whilst he was rebuilding and implementing his thoughts on how the game should be played. He was a very charismatic character and people liked him. Players were really fond of him because he was a warm character. He looked after his players and he did things right. I never had the chance to get onto the pitch and show him what I was about, but at the start of the season he told me I was in his plans and part of the squad, which was nice.

“My relationship would basically be based on being an injured player, who he spoke to through the physios and whenever I came across him in the Club we would stop and have a chat and he would ask where I was up to.  The Club had moved on. They had bought in many good players that season and I never got back.

“He was great, he made me feel part of things early on and when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be there he looked after me and did things right. He was always very pro player. He always looked after them and did what was best for them. He always rewarded players who did well and worked hard for him. That was something that stood out for me.”

Midfielder Kevin Horlock, another crowd favourite who had been at the Club for four years, played an integral part in promotion that season and says it was a campaign he will never forget.

“Apparently I scored the 100th goal of the 2001/02 season away at Birmingham! I remember there was a slight deflection on it. What a season, it was probably my favourite season in my whole career, we were the entertainers that year. The Goat was scoring, he was absolutely relentless.

“It was just an unbelievable season. I don’t think you actually realise when you look back now, I’ve watched this season review back and it was unbelievable,” he said. “Some of the games, some of the goals… we were the entertainers. We went out with that bit of arrogance where we thought we were going to win and that brought the momentum of an incredible season for us.”

For a goal-poacher like Shaun Goater, Keegan’s brand of football was manna from heaven.

He would go on become the first City player in 30 years to score 30 goals in a campaign in 2001/02 – the Goat was getting well and truly fed.

“Keegan just wanted us to go out there an attack and if we won a game 3-2 or 5-4, brilliant, it was just how we played,” recalled Goater. “I have to give a mention to Darren Huckerby, he was regularly there scoring. He’d run in from the line, beat five players and just as he was about to pull his foot back to score, I was there just tapping it in! Well done Hucks, brilliant play! But as I say this is how Keegan wanted us to play, open, aggressive, on the front foot. We didn’t play out the back like this team now, but we were certainly looking to be more offensive as a team.”

With the title secured and Premier League football to look forward to, the promotion party left one or two sore heads the next day…

“The first thing I remember is the club putting something on at the Midland Hotel and I’m someone who doesn’t usually drink so I don’t remember anything!” said Goater.

Horlock has clearer memories…

“I remember going to the Midland Hotel and I got in a bit of trouble,” he said. “I opened the fire exit because to let some City fans in because I thought: this is their time, come and join us. I bought a round of drinks – I don’t know how many fans I let in it was a quite a few – and then when the bill came over I ate the receipt, so I do apologise! I’ll probably pop in on the way home!”

Sadly, skipper Andy Morrison was resigned to his playing career being over.

A huge crowd favourite, his place in the Club’s history is assured, but it was time to call it a day.

He said: “Those final moments of the contract being paid up and the relationship with the manager and the club, it was done as good as those I could have ever wanted it to be. It was very respectful and understanding of the part I’d played at the club. He knew my relationship with the fans and how they felt about me. It was as pleasant as I could have imagined it would be. It was done right and I’m always grateful for that. “

Horlock and a few other City players were both excited and nervous as to what the future held.

Would there be a rebuild with a raft of new players coming in? And if so, what did that mean for him and several others?

Said Horlock: “At this point I was buzzing to get back to the Premier League, but I questioned myself was I going to be good enough when Keegan came in because he was a big name who could bring in lots of talent. I just thought, ‘I’m going to have to prove myself again.’”

New blood was indeed brought in. City were about to start their sixth season in a row in a different division – could Keegan ensure that yo-yo sequence would finally end? He made it clear he wasn’t interested in plodding along as a Premier League also-ran and demanded the board back him in the transfer market. And back him they did.

Keegan wasted no time adding players who had already proved themselves at the top with Nicolas Anelka, Sylvain Distin, Robbie Fowler, Marc Vivien Foe and Peter Schmeichel all joining over the summer. This would also be City’s final season at our home of 80 years, Maine Road. The Moss Side base was outdated, and development would have been difficult and expensive. Previous Chairman Francis Lee had brokered a deal for City to move into the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium in East Manchester once the event had finished. Work would go on throughout the 2002/03 campaign and would increase the capacity at home games from 34,000 to 47,000, providing much-needed additional revenue.

The penultimate home game of the 2002/03 campaign was against Sunderland and it saw Marc Vivien Foe complete the scoring in a 3-0 win – and though nobody knew at the time, it was the last goal scored at Maine Road by a City player and, given the events that lay ahead, a fitting tribute for Foe who would tragically die of a heart-attack just two months later.

In ‘Typical City’ fashion, Keegan’s side would lose the final home game at Maine Road – a 1-0 defeat to Southampton – but finished a highly creditable ninth and though the Saints win leapfrogged us into eighth and automatic UEFA Cup qualification, City would later be awarded a place in the UEFA Cup by virtue of the Fair Play League standings.

City were back in Europe for the first time in 24 years and the upward trajectory under Keegan continued.

Europe, a new home, good football and plenty of star names – everything was moving in the right direction under Keegan.

The first game at City’s new home was a showpiece friendly against Barcelona, watched by 36,000 fans – the maximum allowed while the third tier’s safety certificate was signed off.

City won 2-1 and a few days later, Trevor Sinclair scored the first official goal at the City of Manchester Stadium. The boyhood City fan scored after 14 minutes as City beat Welsh minnows Total Network Solutions 5-0 in the first leg of a UEFA Cup Qualifying Round. Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jihai Sun, David Sommeil and Nicolas Anelka were also on target. In the first Premier League match against Portsmouth, David Sommeil scored our first goal at the City of Manchester Stadium as he headed home a 90th-minute equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw. The milestones were being posted thick and fast.

But the first season in the new home wouldn’t be easy. City would go 14 games without a home or away win from November to mid-February and for a while, it seemed as though the first campaign in East Manchester could end in relegation, and even after thrashing Manchester United 4-1 in the first Eastlands derby, seven winless games followed

That nightmare scenario wouldn’t happen, however. A crucial 1-0 win over Newcastle three games from the end of the season proved decisive and all-but assured Premier League survival.

Worryingly, the so-called 'Keegan Factor 'seemed to have run its course, with the manager finding it difficult to motivate his team the way he had when he had first arrived, and two thirds through another patchy campaign in 2003/04, Keegan quit his post, leaving assistant manager Stuart Pearce to take the reins.

As expected, it had been a roller-coaster journey under Keegan but as had happened throughout his managerial career, all the emotion, energy and passion had fizzled out.

There were some lows, but there were many more highs – some were unforgettable - as he helped the Club establish itself in the Premier League, where we have remained ever since.

Happy 73rd, King Kev… your time at City won’t be forgotten.

'The Keegan Years'

Written by David Clayton

With thanks to John Edwards, Josh Lees, Graham Belshaw and Simon Thorley

Pictures: Getty Images