Perhaps bizarrely, it’s a period fondly remembered by all City fans of a certain age.
Relegation, successive promotions (both gained with incredible final day drama) and another relegation… There was certainly no shortage of entertainment!
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Throughout City’s ups and downs of those crazy years between 1998 and 2001, one aspect of City fandom steadily maintained: the supporters’ good humour.
As former manager Joe Royle (celebrating his birthday today) proudly remembers, he coined the phrase ‘City-itis’ – the notion that just when you thought a situation could not possibly worsen for the Club, it usually did!
The 71-year-old took the helm with 12 games remaining of the fateful 1997/98 campaign and despite a valiant effort, could not prevent the Club from falling to the third tier of English football.
City were relegated in spite of a 5-2 triumph at Stoke (of course!) and to try to make the best of a bad situation, the travelling fans turned to our trademark coping mechanism: gallows humour, belting out renditions of: ‘Are you watching Macclesfield?’
Thankfully, Royle would steer the Club back to the promised land of the Premier League with a remarkable feat of consecutive promotions (naturally, in the most difficult way imaginable with that sensational Division Two Play-Off Final and the incredible day at Blackburn in 2000!) before suffering a second drop back to Division One in his final year in charge.
His departure marked the only occasion he would be sacked in his managerial career but Royle still holds a strong affection for the Club, particularly the stoical fanbase.
“I never stopped smiling at the City fans,” he recalled. “I still smile now when I’m watching telly or at a game and the crowd goes up, singing: ‘We’re not really here’ which was probably the best chant of all time.
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“I think I coined the phrase ‘City-itis’: just when you think nothing can get worse or better, something usually does. We got it to last game of the season and won 5-2 at Stoke but everyone else – one of whom needed to lose – won.
“The gallows humour... I don’t know where it started. Was it York, Port Vale or Wycombe?
“It was certainly in the outposts of football and whenever I see City fans, they tell me they loved that season – that they really enjoyed it.
“I’m not sure they did at York that night!
“From the lower division to Blackburn and promotion and sacked in two seasons! It’s still the only time I’ve been sacked in my career!”
With one appearance shy of 100 in his playing days at Maine Road, Royle spearheaded a star-studded City line-up in the 1970s, helping Tony Book’s side to League Cup success in 1976.
Proud to play a part in helping the Club rekindle the glory days as a manager, Royle asserts he always knew City were destined to achieve greatness again.
“I never needed telling how big the Club was; I played in a top side at Maine Road,” he stated.
“Colin Bell, Asa Hartford, Peter Barnes, Gary Owen, Mike Doyle, Dave Watson, Willie Donachie, my friend Big Joe Corrigan in goal and others… Anyone I’ve forgotten, I’m sorry!
“We were a top side who finished runners-up to Liverpool by one point and we all felt that the problem was that we had to replace Colin Bell after that horrendous injury.
“(When I took charge), I came in for the last 12 games and the whole Club was a disaster. There was a rumour from one week to the next about new owners – who was going to take over next, whether we’d go bankrupt…
“There were around 54 professional players that time had forgotten that weren’t going to take us anywhere. In the first board meeting on deadline day, we sat in the boardroom, getting players out on frees or on loan. I think we got 12 out.
“One day, at the training ground at Platt Lane, I was gently asked by the groundsman: ‘Would you mind not using the pitch today as we have to prepare it for a Community Final on Sunday?’ That was the state of the Club. We were skint!
“It was a state of play we didn’t want, being in the third tier of English football but we had to deal with it.
“The fans stuck with us. The question was: if we didn’t go up straight away, would the fans start feeling it? 28,000 at Maine Road is a staggering record.
“There were the defeats to York away, Wycombe away... awful! We came with a gallop at the end and went into the game at Wembley in form – just short of natural promotion but that wouldn’t have been City!
“Now, the Club has taken on a more successful time. I still see supporters and they say they loved that time in that division.
“It was wonderful but I wouldn’t want to do it again!”