Wembley '99

Fighting 'til the end

‘We’re Man City, we’ll fight ‘til the end!’

The motto of Manchester City Football Club. A phrase first coined in the famous 2011/12 Premier League title-winning season (in which Roberto Mancini’s spirited side pipped rivals Manchester United to the title in such dramatic, implausible circumstances) epitomises the never-say-die attitude, which has guided City to unprecedented, record-smashing success.

However, while we celebrate the conclusion of another remarkable campaign - one which has yielded more sparkling trophy success and an historic first appearance in the Champions League Final - that rousing phrase has perhaps never rang more true than it did for the events which took place twenty-two years ago to the day: the events that many believe shaped this Club’s future.

While many understandably dub that famed ‘Aguerooooooooooooo’ moment as the most important goal in City history, those of a certain age (and as a result, a certain mindset!) recall another iconic moment, in which City clawed victory from the jaws of defeat, bitter disappointment and perhaps worse…

On 30 May 1999, Joe Royle’s Manchester City graced the Old Wembley turf in the Division Two (now League One) Play-Off Final, to face Gillingham. Manchester City – former Champions of England, FA Cup winners, League Cup winners, European Cup Winners’ Cup victors – fighting for promotion from the third tier of English football – our lowest ever position and a plight which many believed should never have happened.

Yet, such was the case. Two relegations in three seasons had plummeted City to Division Two, confirmed on the final day of a torrid 1997/98 campaign, despite a 5-2 win at Stoke. These were dark days.

Former player and fans’ favourite Royle was at the helm, having been installed with 12 games remaining to try and stave off relegation. That task proved too much an ask in the end but the manager’s impact had instilled cause for optimism, despite the Club’s dire off-field situation.

“The whole Club was a disaster,” Royle admitted. “There were rumours from one week to the next about new owners – who was going to take over – and the prospect of bankruptcy. There were more than 50 professionals on the books, who time had forgotten and weren’t going to take us anywhere.

“The first board meeting was about getting players out – on frees, on loan… When we were relegated, I’d wondered what the Board would do but they seemed quite pleased with what they had seen over the 12 games. We’d got it to the last game and we needed one other team to lose but they all won. That’s when ‘City-itis’ came into play – just when you think: ‘It can’t get any worse’, it usually did!

“When we went down, there was a continuation of the clear-out and we started the next season with Nick Fenton, the Whitleys, Gary Mason, Lee Crooks and a young Nicky Weaver and that’s how it had to be. Uwe Rosler had gone; Georgi Kinkladze had gone… We had to get on with things and ensure the Club survived.”

With Royle in charge, many expected City to restore Division One status at the first attempt with the relative ease of automatic promotion. How wrong they were.

City struggled to adapt to life in the third tier, picking up just seven wins before Boxing Day, which included humiliating defeats to Lincoln, Wycombe and most famously, York. If Royle’s men were to mount a serious promotion push, something needed to change quickly.

“I wasn’t a manager for shouting or throwing cups or any of that nonsense,” Royle stated. “The one time I was determined that we had to have a showdown was when we lost to Wycombe and all the players came in with their heads down. I had the staff behind me and I slammed the door and it fell off! I thought: ‘God, we can’t even have a scrum down in private!’ so the players were nodding and keeping their smiles under wraps. Asa [Hartford] was giggling next to me, and I said: ‘I’ll see you tomorrow!’”

“The first half of the season was really tough,” Kevin Horlock admitted. “We were a massive club with a massive fan base and what it felt like as a player was that we were everyone’s Cup Final.

“We were going to quite small grounds where it was often sold out – often more Man City fans than home fans – and we were the big fish in a little pond, so we found it hard to adapt.”

Enter Andy Morrison. Amusingly described as ‘built like a flat back four all in one’, the Scotsman – signed on loan from Huddersfield in October – had slotted straight into the City defence and made an instant impact, scoring in his first two games.

“I was captain at Huddersfield Town,” Morrison explained. “We were second in the Championship but you never know what’s around the corner in football. I’d had a disagreement with the manager at Huddersfield and if a player and a manager have a disagreement, it’s normally going to be the player that moves on pretty quick and I did. The disagreement took place on Monday and by the Wednesday, I’m across at City and I’m playing in my first game on a Saturday afternoon against Colchester. It changes very quickly in football. I was fortunate enough to score on my debut, which was the winner. It was a fantastic opportunity for me and one I made sure I made the most of. A lot of people are given that opportunity but whether they take it or not is different, and I definitely took the opportunity to make a mark here and eventually on the Club, which I was incredibly proud to do.”

Upon making his move permanent, the City juggernaut kicked into gear. Further bolstered by the additional signings of Terry Cooke and Gareth Taylor, Royle’s side embarked on a 12-game unbeaten run, following that infamous York defeat, forcing our way into promotion contention.

Although he arrived from the red side of Manchester, Cooke was thrilled to be part of the adventure.

“I came on loan originally from Man United but prior to that, I was out of the game for a long time and I was told I’d never play again because of a serious knee injury,” the winger explained.

“Times have changed regarding the way players come back from rehab. I’d been out for 12 months so I went out on loan and got back on my feet at Wrexham. I spent a good month there and did okay. My best game was on Boxing Day against City, although we got beat 1-0, and the gaffer Joe Royle must have found out my loan period was coming to an end. At the time, City didn’t have an out-and-out right winger and I just think I was the missing piece in a way.

"They enquired to bring me to Maine Road on loan and with the gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson, it was always down to you as a player to go out on loan – it was never forced. I had to do it – I was a young kid and I wanted to play football – and City were playing to a full house of thirty plus thousand every week in the third division.

"I think the fans took to me because I was a hard worker, which had always been installed in me as a young lad. I was an old-fashioned winger – up and down – and I did both sides of the game. I think they appreciated that. When I signed, it started to come out in the local paper that I was the third player in history to move directly from United to City (the first two being Denis Law and Brian Kidd) so I was in good company there, but I wasn’t there as a Red – just a kid who wanted to play football.”

Riding on the crest of the wave, City would lose just two more games all season, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion but securing a play-off spot.

“You talk about pressure… When you’re in League One and you play for Man City and there’s up to 28,000 average gate, that’s pressure,” stated Michael Brown. “You know what’s expected and up until November, I think we were 11th in the league so we hadn’t coped well. We got to grips with it from then on and we were almost unbeaten until we went on into the play-offs, which was some achievement.”

Upon making his move permanent, the City juggernaut kicked into gear. Further bolstered by the additional signings of Terry Cooke and Gareth Taylor, Royle’s side embarked on a 12-game unbeaten run, following that infamous York defeat, forcing our way into promotion contention.

Although he arrived from the red side of Manchester, Cooke was thrilled to be part of the adventure.

“I came on loan originally from Man United but prior to that, I was out of the game for a long time and I was told I’d never play again because of a serious knee injury,” the winger explained. “Times have changed regarding the way players come back from rehab. I’d been out for 12 months so I went out on loan and got back on my feet at Wrexham. I spent a good month there and did okay. My best game was on Boxing Day against City, although we got beat 1-0, and the gaffer Joe Royle must have found out my loan period was coming to an end. At the time, City didn’t have an out-and-out right winger and I just think I was the missing piece in a way. They enquired to bring me to Maine Road on loan and with the gaffer Sir Alex Ferguson, it was always down to you as a player to go out on loan – it was never forced. I had to do it – I was a young kid and I wanted to play football – and City were playing to a full house of thirty plus thousand every week in the third division. I think the fans took to me because I was a hard worker, which had always been installed in me as a young lad. I was an old-fashioned winger – up and down – and I did both sides of the game. I think they appreciated that. When I signed, it started to come out in the local paper that I was the third player in history to move directly from United to City (the first two being Denis Law and Brian Kidd) so I was in good company there, but I wasn’t there as a Red – just a kid who wanted to play football.”

Riding on the crest of the wave, City would lose just two more games all season, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion but securing a play-off spot.

“You talk about pressure… When you’re in League One and you play for Man City and there’s up to 28,000 average gate, that’s pressure,” stated Michael Brown. “You know what’s expected and up until November, I think we were 11th in the league so we hadn’t coped well. We got to grips with it from then on and we were almost unbeaten until we went on into the play-offs, which was some achievement.”

A third-place finish set up a two-legged semi-final against Wigan Athletic, which (of course!) turned out to be an action-packed, controversial, topsy-turvy preview of the Wembley drama which would follow.

‘Typically,’ it could not have started in worse fashion. From kick-off, the ball was kicked into touch for a throw-in, from which a mix-up between Gerard Wiekens and Nicky Weaver allowed Stuart Barlow to nip in and open the scoring for the hosts – gracing Springfield Park for the final time – inside 20 seconds.

Lee Crooks recalled: “Those games were big, big games. It was a bit of a local derby going to Wigan and you can see how the stadium was set up there; it was a tough place to go. I knew quite a few of their lads – good players, good team. Going 1-0 down after less than a minute – I’d not even kicked the ball – I was like: ‘Here we go again, it’s just typical City! You get to certain periods and it’s just up and down.’ That’s probably why I’m grey now!”

Spurned chance after chance would follow, but – just as it started to look as though fate was against City – Paul Dickov steered home a glorious leveller, ensuring the two sides would face off at Maine Road on level terms, with a place at Wembley up for grabs.

Needless to say, Maine Road was packed out. A crescendo of noise urged City on, as the crowd – unwavering in their support all season – prayed for the victory that would see their Blue heroes grace the Wembley turf for the first time since 1981.

Of course, the winner would arrive in controversial circumstances with Terry Cooke’s trademark delivery whipped into the far post, where Shaun Goater waited to pounce. So close to the goalline was he, any contact would break the deadlock and the Bermudan thrust his body forward, connecting to the cross with his shoulder. Wigan claimed handball but the goal stood. A nerve-wrangling battle would ensue, but City held on and Royle’s men were at Wembley. Cue a mass pitch invasion!

“Funnily enough, although I vividly remember the moment of scoring the goal, the scariest moment was at the end,” Goater explained, “because you’re so tired but the fans run on with all of that joy – and they’re hugging you, grabbing you, wanting photos with you, trying to take off your jersey and your boots; their hands are all over you. I’ve never been so scared because I couldn’t breathe! It was a special moment in terms of achievement but also a very scary moment. As for the goal, because the delivery of the cross wasn’t too low, I could just stoop my chest. I was only a few yards away and I knew that once I chested it, it would go across the line because the cross itself had beaten the goalkeeper. So, for all you Wigan fans, it was off the chest!”

Wembley awaited, and it would be Gillingham who would lock horns with City for a place in Division One, having overcome Preston North End in the semi-finals. Of course, demand for tickets for the showpiece final was huge.

“We were well aware of the turn out,” Morrison said. “We could have sold out the stadium itself – fans were that desperate to get down there. For me, whether there be ten thousand there or forty thousand, it wouldn’t have made any difference. It’s only in the days after the game you appreciate how many people were there and the emotions around the day but at that time, you’re in a football bubble, which we all were.”

Although every member of the squad had played their part over the course of the season, only 16 could earn a place in the squad – and the players did all they could to ensure they were involved, especially Ian Bishop (on his second spell with the Club).

“I was injured in the last game of the season,” ‘Bish’ explained. “I pulled my hamstring against York at home – and that made me miss the two semi-finals. For the away game at Wigan, I watched it with the fans on the big screen! I think a week before the final, I decided I was going to join in training and coax my way through it and try and convince the gaffer I could go on the bus. It took me a while to convince him – I sat in his office saying: ‘Joe, I got through training.’ I hid a bit and kept myself safe. He said: ‘I can’t take the gamble – I can’t have you on the bench then put you on. What if you break down and I’m down a man and it goes into extra-time?’ I said: ‘Joe, I’m honestly fine. You’ve got to take me; I can’t miss this’ and he agreed that I would be on the bench.”

Such was the expectation, the importance of victory and the run of form which led City to the national stadium, nobody had given Gillingham – making their Wembley debut – a chance. City simply had to win – and yet, in ‘Typical City’ fashion, how close we came to failure…

Lining up in an unconventional yellow and navy striped kit, fondly admired for its impressive unbeaten record and now idolised in City folklore, the players soaked up the atmosphere and thrust the pressure into the back of their minds, as best they could.

“I have vivid memories of the build-up,” said Jeff Whitley. “I remember that for some reason, me and Kevin were stood outside and although it was belting it down, we wouldn’t go in. We kept telling each other to go first and just stood there for ages, while it was bucketing down. Don’t ask why! Eventually, we ended up walking in together. While you’re getting ready, you try not to constantly think about the game because it’s a long day and it can make you more anxious than you need to be. Having a bit of banter with the boys takes your mind off it a little until the nitty gritty when you’re walking on the pitch, looking around, and then you get in the dressing room and start to really focus on the game and what you need to be doing for the team.”

The team talk focused on positivity, as Michael Brown enlightened – inspired by Assistant Manager and former Blue Willie Donachie.

“All Willie wanted to have was positivity around the place,” Brown said. “He always said: ‘Never give up’ and that’s one key thing I took from Willie: ‘Keep going to the end.’ He was so positive and used lots of psychology techniques, which back then were new, but what he said was true.”

Shaun Goater agreed: “Willie Donachie would have us warming up; then we would stop and be panting after 15 minutes and he'd say: ‘Right, now look at the grass; now look at one blade of grass and listen to the sounds’ and that sort of stuff. I engaged in that. It’s little tools like that, that helped me with my game and from that point, that’s where I went on scoring goals, being able to block out crowds even when things were going great and just focus on the game. Joe Royle and Willie Donachie were absolutely superb.”

As it happened, despite the build-up, eighty minutes of relatively uneventful action unfolded, thickening the tension in the air. Then, came the sucker-punch. Carl Asaba struck the opener for Gillingham, poking the ball into the roof of the net with just nine minutes left on the clock. Panic stations? Not quite yet…

“I remember thinking: ‘Oh, deary me!’ or words to that effect!” joked Horlock. “Although because it was only 1-0, I think I always backed us with the players we had on the pitch. We had Goats and Dicky so we had goals in the team. 1-0 wasn’t really a concern. I still knew what we had – a group of players who would fight all the way.”

So often during the latter stage of the campaign, City had salvaged points from losing positions. It was time to do so again; only, this time, the stakes could not have been higher. Royle introduced attack-minded substitutions and initiated tactical shifts, as City pressed for a leveller.

Instead, disaster struck at the other end. Robert Taylor, who would join City the following season and go on to play an important part of the Club’s successive promotion, collected Asaba’s clever back-heel and drilled beyond Nicky Weaver to give Gillingham a two-goal lead with minutes remaining, and move the Kent outfit within touching distance of Division One.

Gareth Taylor – a late substitute at Wembley and now City’s Under-18s manager – recalled: “When I entered the pitch, we were 1-0 down and within five seconds, they scored the second goal. ‘Wow!’ The clock was running out and then it was a case of: get the ball forward quickly. We had three strikers on the pitch.”

Weaver – unflappable all season, despite his tender age – added: “I must admit, I should have done better with that second goal. I was out of position – I was too far advanced and he put it down my near side – but no-one’s really mentioned that to me! At 2-0 with almost no time left, you’re dead and buried.”

While the black and royal blue Gillingham end sparked into wild celebrations, the City fans stood motionless – the silence broken only by tears of sheer agony. ‘Game over!’, co-commentator Brian Horton (who?) cried. Another season in the third tier of English football beckoned. Trips to York, Lincoln, Colchester and Macclesfield – our only local derby – and all while neighbours United had won an historic treble. Dreams shattered; hearts broken… for some, it was too much to bear and they sadly headed for the exit.

Then, came a lifeline. A long, hopeful punt upfield found its way to top scorer Shaun Goater… but a last-ditch sliding tackle dispossessed him. Yet, it fell kindly for Horlock, onto his trusty left foot. Naturally, he executed a controlled finish into the back of the net to ignite a glimmer of hope.

“To be honest, I don’t remember much about my goal!” Horlock conceded. “I do remember I’d missed a header early on from a great ball in by Terry Cooke – I’d got good contact but it didn’t go in and I must admit, it played on my mind for the rest of the game. Obviously, my goal came really late on. Did I still believe? I was still going to give it everything to get back into the game but in all honesty, I probably thought it was consolation like most other people, I suppose. The bit of luck on that day is that it fell on my left foot and not my right because it could have been totally different! I just thought in a selfish way: ‘I’ve scored at Wembley’ – something to tell the grandkids when I’m older!’”

As Horlock admitted, there were few who truly believed. The Gillingham bench had already begun high-fiving and readying themselves for a party. That is, until the Fourth Official held the board aloft, signalling that five additional minutes would be played at Wembley, as per referee Mark Halsey’s instruction. Gillingham faces dropped, while City were uplifted.

“Once you get that first goal, you have that sense because you only need a glance at their faces,” Jeff Whitley stated. “Have a look at the bench; you see them – all of a sudden, it’s panic stations for them. They’ve only got a few minutes left. They only need to hold on for a few minutes and they’ve won, but a lot can happen in a few minutes. The ref put up five minutes of added time. It gave us enough time to get on top. The belief that the players had was fantastic. We had a togetherness in that squad that was quite amazing. I think that came through in a lot of the games that we played and came through to win really. The squad kept on fighting. It didn’t just happen in that game; it had happened in games before where we fought until the end.”

The emotion in the air had certainly shifted. Suddenly, the Gillingham fans were frozen with fear, while the City faithful were ignited, urging their side on for one more chance.

That final chance would arrive in the fifth minute of injury time. Once again, a punt upfield, headed on by Taylor to Horlock. Again, it reached Goater; again he was tackled; only this time, the ball fell to the feet of Dickov. Time stood still and Wembley Stadium held its breath as he adjusted his feet before curling the ball past Gillingham goalkeeper Vince Bartram and into the top corner. Scenes of sheer jubilation erupted. The City fans were sent into raptures; the players and staff into ecstasy, while the Gillingham players dropped to the floor. Our hopes of promotion had been salvaged in the most dramatic of circumstances and Dickov’s iconic celebration – the knee slide which fittingly depicts every drop of the emotion from that moment – is now cemented in City history.

“People have asked me whether it was planned or whether I could do it again,” Dickov laughed. “I just think that every emotion that could have happened in one football match just came out. From the excitement and the nerves of playing at Wembley to the devastation of being 2-0 down, to the tipping point of Kevin’s goal and then the equaliser… I get goosebumps talking about it! For me to have scored the goal – not just for what it meant for me, although everyone knew it was a dream of mine to play at Wembley as a Scot – but for what it meant to everyone was amazing. I think the celebration epitomises that. To be honest, I can’t remember the goal itself or the celebration or anything that went with it. It was just instinctive and I have to give Joe Royle a lot of credit because the gaffer used to stay with me after training, working on my first touch and hitting the target. There’s a picture of me after I’ve taken the shot and I’m looking and can only see the ball. It seemed like slow motion as it went in the top corner and then it was just mayhem – every possible emotion came out in the celebration!”

In yet another intriguing sub-plot, Dickov had been the best man at Bartram’s wedding, and vice versa.

“Me and Vince were mates for a time at Arsenal,” Dickov explained. “I was best man at his wedding and myself and my wife are godparents to his kids and vice versa so there’s a bit of a story there. Not long before in the game, from a similar position from where I scored my goal, Vince had made a really good save. You tend to think: ‘Was that the one chance?’ but thankfully for me, it wasn’t. Bizarrely enough, when we’d got together before Christmas time, our two families were talking: ‘Imagine if it went to Wembley and it went to penalties and I’m up against Vince!’ and then five months later, scarily that was the scenario that happened!”

After 95 minutes of exhausting action – mentally and physically – not everyone could join in the celebrations, however, as Horlock recalls: “Me and Dicky laugh about it now. I was on the other side of the pitch and my ankle was in bits! It was really swollen and I was struggling so I got to Dicky’s celebration really late. People will think it was my lack of speed but it was my ankle – as well as my lack of speed! When I got there, it was all coming to an end but I remember that once the lads had got off him, Dicky turned to the City fans and went to punch the air and slipped and fell on his face! I’ve never seen a picture or video of that though…”

Bishop added: “I feel a little bit for Kev because his goal gets overshadowed! I’ve always said to Dicky: that goal when it went in and the timing of it and the slide after it, the picture that captured him… I’m jealous for life just at that picture. Like I say, Kev got us back into it and you’ve seen then the intensity of the players – ‘Get back!’ – you could see after Kev scored, we believed something was going to happen. I remember Joe actually saying after the game: ‘Bish, you changed the game’ and I said: ‘Yeah Joe, I came on at 0-0 and we went 2-0 down… I definitely changed the game!’”

So, extra-time beckoned. Those who had left were clambering and scrambling to return to their seats, while others had simply given up hope and were already on their way home. Tales emerged afterwards of people climbing over barriers, pleading with stewards and even pulling the emergency cord on the Tube to return to their seats.

Everyone has their own story. City fan Ena Parkinson recalled: “At 2-0 down, me and my son James were both incredibly upset. I just looked at him and asked: ‘Do you want to leave?’ He said: ‘Yes’, so we got up and left our seats but as we were walking down the stairs, City pulled a goal back. I asked him if he wanted to go back but he said: ‘No, it’s too late.’ So, we left, as had hundreds of other people. My car was very close to Wembley so by the time we’d got in and turned the radio on, we’d equalised. We looked at each other and agreed to head back up Wembley Way, telling those who had left that we’d scored! I remember clearly there was one guy with a little boy, who was crying so much and I bent down and said to him: ‘Stop crying. Get your dad to take you back because we’re going to win it now! We got to the bottom of the stairs and the policeman was so confused as to why everyone wanted to come back in, but when we explained, we were allowed to return to our seats, where we received loads of stick from the people we knew around us… and the rest, as they say, is history!”

With City elated and Gillingham deflated, the psychological shift was visible. Royle’s men had narrowly avoided what would have been a truly damaging defeat, while the Gills had been seconds away from securing a shock promotion. As Gareth Taylor noted, there was a real belief (amongst both sides) that there would only be one winner from that moment.

“I was convinced it was our day when the referee blew the whistle for full-time before we went into extra-time,” he declared. “I wasn’t the most experienced player – I think I was 26 at that point in my career – but I’d had experience of play-off finals and I just had such a feeling (and I’m sure the other guys did) of: ‘We’re going to win this – we haven’t done this now to then go on and lose. No way! Whether it’s by winning it in extra-time or whether we win it on penalties, we’re going to do it lads!’”

When the scenes had calmed, half an hour of extra-time followed: a non-event in comparison. City perhaps shaded the chances, but the players were running on empty and crucially, Gillingham had withdrawn their two main strikers in normal time at 2-0 up, and so, to add to the drama, the ‘lottery’ of a penalty shoot-out would be required to determine the winner. The cruellest way to lose and for City, there was so much to lose…

The coin toss would determine that the shoot-out would take place in front of the City fans, who were buoyant, having already endured an emotional rollercoaster – throughout the season; not just the 120 minutes prior – and desperate to cheer their side onto glory.

The air crackled with electricity – the buzz from the City end, contrasting with the nerves of the Gillingham fans, whose euphoria had been so dramatically snatched away in the worst possible fashion. The psychological advantage had swung very much in City’s favour – but could Royle’s men hold their nerve to clinch victory, having already given so much to the cause and with such pressure on their shoulders?

Royle asked for volunteers, while 20-year-old Weaver prepared to face the spot-kicks. Call it youthful exuberance but he wasn’t fazed in the slightest!

“I was just excited to be there,” Weaver reflected. “It was the end of my first season, so I was only 20 and I didn’t really know what it was all about! I could only go in there with positive thoughts. Later on in my career, I’d have been a lot more nervous. I never contemplated losing the game beforehand – although I did when we were 2-0 down! – but the overriding emotion before the game was just excitement. I was a young lad at 20, playing at Wembley! I’d only been out of school for four or five years!

“I’ll always be grateful to Joe Royle for putting me in that season. I came into pre-season thinking I wasn’t going to play. Luckily, it paid off I suppose. I loved playing for Joe. I probably had the best spell of my career under him. He’s my favourite manager I’ve ever played for – a great guy and just what I needed. I can’t speak highly enough of him and what he did for me.

“In the lead-up to the game, we’d practiced penalties but there was no research – it wasn’t what you did then. Nowadays, there are iPads out and you can see the last penalties for the last few years but there was none of that – just go with the gut instinct. The net must have got a bit smaller and I a bit bigger for the Gillingham players when the penalties were at the City end. I fancied my chances of maybe saving one but there’s no real pressure on the goalkeepers.”

This was it. The penalty shoot-out – hit or miss. A time for heroes. Unsurprisingly, City’s appointed spot-kick specialist, Horlock stepped up first and coolly converted into the bottom corner to hand Royle’s men the perfect start.

“Was it an advantage having the penalties at the City end? If you win, yeah, but I think it added pressure a little bit.” Horlock admitted. “I can see it: Joe asking who wanted to take a penalty. I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll go first’ and watching it back today, I can see the fear in my face. I can tell I was scared. I’m man enough to own up and admit it. I knew what it meant – I knew the repercussions if we didn’t win and I didn’t want to let the lads, Joe, the staff and the fans down. They’d been through everything – the rollercoaster of being involved in this club and supporting this Club is massive. I changed my mind loads of times, but one thing was for certain: I was going to take it with my left foot!”

Gillingham’s turn and the chance of Paul Smith to level the score and rekindle hope for the Kent side. The City faithful played their part, creating a wall of noise to off-put the midfielder, who struck a low effort goalward, which hit Weaver’s legs and ricocheted out. He’d saved it. Advantage City.

Next up, Dickov – the man who had rescued City from the brink. He’d made his decision – to go for the corner – but in yet another remarkable twist, his spot-kick struck the right-hand post, rolled agonisingly along the goalline, hit the other post and bounced out. He’d missed, to everyone’s shock; not least his teammates’.

“We’d practiced penalties at Maine Road the day before,” Tony Vaughan explained, “and the one person you’d have put your mortgage on to score was Dicky. So for him to hit both posts and miss was incredible. We’d had Nicky Weaver in 5-a-side goals and Dicky was smashing them left, right and centre past him so that was a real surprise!”

Gillingham had hope – but again, it proved short-lived. Adrian Pennock stepped up to level but skewed his penalty well wide of the post, swinging the pendulum once more in City’s favour.

Cooke – a crucial component in City’s promotion push – was the next volunteer.

“I remember Joe Royle going around, asking people to take penalties. I said yes straight away and as soon as I said it, I remember thinking: ‘What have I done?’ I was a cocky, young lad but confident in my ability and it was in my nature that I’m always willing to help. I never really say no to anything. I had no doubts I would have taken one. I remember slowly walking up and when the ball was handed to me, the last thing I wanted to do was look at the ‘keeper. At the Old Wembley, the stands were right behind the goal and it just felt like the goal shrunk to a 5-a-side net! The ‘keeper looked huge. I put the ball on the spot, turned my back on the goal and thought: ‘I’m hitting this hard and low’. I had a side to go to, which was my left – the ‘keeper’s right – and as soon as the whistle blew, I turned back to the goal, head down and just hit it. Luckily, I hit it quite well into the bottom corner and relief just came over me. To score a goal at Wembley – even in a penalty shoot-out – was a big deal for me and something I’ll never forget for sure.”

Two down without reply, Gillingham simply had to score their next spot-kick. Substitute John Hodge took responsibility and sent Weaver the wrong way to keep his side in the game.

Next up for City, Richard Edghill – a local lad and City fan, who’d progressed through the youth ranks – and now stood within a kick of moving his boyhood Club to within touching distance of promotion. An unlikely choice too – the right-back had never scored a senior goal. How would he fare on this stage?

“I’ll openly say it: ‘I was nervous for Edgy,’” remarked Horlock. “A defender, he was unbelievable. I considered him a really good friend and still do. He was special to me while I was at the Club and I knew how much City meant to him, but he was a defender that didn’t score many goals. So, for him to actually step up and take one was so brave – and it was probably the best penalty we had (he struck it in off the crossbar). Whether it was more luck than judgement, I don’t know. I’m partial with him because he’s my mate. I say he shanked it, which means he mis-hit it, but it was an unbelievable penalty. He left no room for error so I was buzzing for him, and you saw by his celebration how much it meant. He kissed the badge, which he got stick for, but I understood.”

With City successful in three of our four penalties and Gillingham having registered just one positive spot-kick, it all came down to this moment – the toil of an entire, rollercoaster season rested on a single penalty. Weaver confirmed the scenario with the linesman before taking his place in goal, and looked up to face Guy Butters. Save this and it’s over; save this and we win. The noise was deafening as Butters ran up, but he fired his penalty straight at the diving Weaver and City were up. Manchester City would play Division One football once more and the sky blue half of Wembley erupted into ecstasy – an outpouring of emotion for a season of ups and downs; highs and lows had concluded with achieving the pivotal target of promotion, in the most amazing circumstances.

The resulting celebrations portrayed the accomplishment perfectly – Weaver beckoned his teammates to join him as he embarked on a lung-busting run around the pitch to celebrate with the fans, who were crying tears of joy, relief and both physical and mental exhaustion. It was exhilarating and emotionally-draining all at once.

“It was the final penalty and I remember saying to the linesman: ‘If I save this, is that it?’ and he said yes, and I said: ‘Are you sure?’ and he said yes again and I thought: ‘I’d better save it then!’ I remember getting into the goal and a left-footed player taking it and I just thought: ‘I’ll dive to my left.’ He hit it well but he didn’t put it right into the corner and gave me a chance to save it. I saved it and then I pulled a face I’ve never pulled before or since and I waved the lads over who started coming. As they got closer, I had this feeling rushing through my body of adrenaline and energy and just didn’t want it to end so I thought I’ll go for a little run and hopped over the advertising hoardings and ran on the gravel track and back over onto the pitch! I started to run out of steam at this point and Andy Morrison was the only one who stopped me. The last thing I wanted was a 20-man pile on and I’m not going to say what I said to Andy at the bottom but with 20 men on top of me, I couldn’t get enough oxygen! The feeling was just… I can’t explain it. As a single moment for a goalkeeper, that’s about good as it gets.”

Morrison remembers the moment fondly.

“When he saves the last one and he’s gone, everyone around us just had this burst of emotions and energy!” he smiled. “Football can create that – you can’t recreate that in a plastic way; it has to be authentic; it has to be real. You see the pure emotions of a human being and I’m fortunate enough to have experienced that as a player and as a fan here with my son in 2012. I’ve seen what football can do and that’s why the game is loved the way it is. You’d go a whole season without being paid to feel those emotions the way you do at the end of the season. You can’t put a price on it. It’s quite remarkable and it stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Whitley echoed: “These moments are moments that as footballers you can’t replace when you leave football. They are moments where you can obviously watch them over and over again. They are things that you dream about when you are a kid and you want to play football and you want to play in big games and play at certain stadiums or you want to win in a certain way. The emotions that you go through are just unbelievable. I came through the system – I’d been a ball boy at City, stood in the tunnels as a ball boy, seeing all these players walk past you and you’re thinking one day you might get the opportunity to play on that grass at Maine Road. For me to have been able to put on the shirt, go out and play for the club that you’ve grown up with is special. It was brilliant, really brilliant.”

Incredibly, a second promotion would follow a year later, as City clinched a top-two finish to secure a return to the Premier League – again, typically, with final day drama. Our stay in the top tier under Royle would last only a year, but under the leadership of Kevin Keegan, City bounced back into the top-flight in sensational style in the 2001/02 campaign. Since then, we have not only cemented our Premier League status, we have stormed it, now standing proudly as the division's Champions for the fifth time, having broken record after record during an unforgettable period in the Club's history.

Naturally, upon these momentous anniversaries, minds wander. What if…?

What if City had not won at Wembley that day? What would have become of the Club? Would we have dusted ourselves off and achieved promotion the following year, or languished in Division Two? Who would have left? Who would have stayed? Would we have gone on to move into the Etihad Stadium or the City Football Academy? Would we have returned to the Premier League – if so, when? Would we have been an attractive proposition for investors? Would we have eventually become Premier League Champions?

Given City’s current stature, it is difficult to imagine the plight of the Club in 1999. During the two decades since, City have blossomed – and not just on the pitch, or even in this country. Such has been the phenomenal rise in recent years – from the darkest days of lower league football; the playground teasing for City fans tormented by the success of our cross-town rivals, the unwanted records, the blooper moments, the relegations – now, fans are pinching themselves.

In truth (until the invention of time-travel), no-one will ever discover what the future would have held for City, had Royle’s men simply thrown in the towel that day, resigned to another season of struggle. Whether you opine it to be ‘the turning point’ in the Club’s trajectory or not, there is no doubting its significance as one of the most important moments of our decorated history.

How fitting that our first Premier League title success, achieved 13 years later, would be won in such bizarrely similar fashion, netting two goals in injury time. Ever humble though, Dickov does not begrudge Sergio Aguero his own magic moment.

“Late goals are a thing with City fans,” he laughed. “and ‘we’ll fight to the end!’ Sergio stole my thunder a little bit on that one but I’ll give him that! To see the Club in the Premier League now from where we were back then is just phenomenal. This is a special club.”

Whitley is equally delighted to see smiles on the faces of the fans once more.

“For those fans who came to watch us at Maine Road, they deserve to see what’s come on here now. They deserve to see the success and the kind of football that’s getting played at this Club because for us, we’ve always known it’s an amazing Club to play for. For those fans to actually see them winning big titles and big cups, they deserve that.”

As for Horlock and his ‘forgotten goal’, the Northern Irishman took it in good sport as ever.

“Look, let’s not kid ourselves. If you asked me: ‘Would I rather swap with Dicky and be the one that got us back in it?’ Of course, any lad would say yes, but I’m thankful I played a small part in getting this football club back up to where we see today. Dicky’s a great lad and he worked his socks off for us whenever he played, and the fans took to him. He gave everything and he deserves that goal. Am I jealous? No. Yes, my goal is the ‘forgotten goal’ (Edin Dzeko, I know how you feel!) but Dickov (and Aguero) are both heroes from where I’m sitting.

“I’ll tell you what though, I touched the ball in the build-up to Dicky’s goal (the little lay-off to Goater) so I’ll settle for that! I’m happy being the bridesmaid, scoring ‘the forgotten goal’ and having a touch in Dicky’s goal. People say: was ‘99 the pivotal moment for the Club? I think we can look back now and probably say yes. At the time, we didn’t understand it fully in terms of where the Club might have gone, what might have happened. Who knows? The fans hold that day in high regard and say it is the turning point. I’m just thankful that it happened. I was lucky enough and privileged enough to have been a part of it and the Club and fans deserve all the success they get now.”