There have been numerous Sliding Doors moments throughout English football history. What if Azerbaijani linesman Tofiq Bahramov had signalled ‘no goal’ in ‘66? What would have happened if Stuart Pearce had chipped a Panenka penalty past Bodo Illgner at Italia ‘90? What if Mark Robins hadn’t scored against Nottingham Forest in 1990 and Manchester United had sacked Alex Ferguson?
All of these scenarios would have led to a very different sporting world, as unknowable butterfly effects unfolded. However, few moments can have made a bigger difference to our game’s overall narrative than the one at Wembley on May 30, 1999.
With 94 minutes on the clock and Manchester City trailing 2-1 to Gillingham in the Second Division Play-off Final, the ball, pumped long and flicked forward, fell to Paul Dickov. The Scottish scrapper – nicknamed ‘the Crocus’ by his manager Joe Royle after a late-season flowering of form – belted it home emphatically. A deflated Gills side collapsed during the penalty shootout.
But what if he’d missed?
“Manchester City were in a mess,” Royle tells FourFourTwo. “I really don’t know what would have happened to the club if we hadn’t got out of that division immediately. I’m not convinced there would even have been a next year.”
Goalkeeper Nicky Weaver, who saved two penalties in the shootout, agrees. “Who knows where we’d have ended up if Dicky hadn’t got that equaliser,” he tells FFT. “Just look at what happened to Leeds. It definitely wouldn’t have got any easier. City were a soap opera club, and every game was a cup final for our opponents.”
And Christie McDonald, a fan of many blue moons, thinks it would have been curtains.
“People say, ‘Oh, if City hadn’t gone up that year, we’d have just done it the following season’,” he explains. “But I don’t agree. I don’t think things would have been OK if Dickov’s goal hadn’t gone in. It wouldn’t have happened the year after. People were at the end of their tethers – 2-0 down at Wembley heading into injury time, many were saying, ‘That’s it, I’m finished with City’. I’m sure that the move to the Commonwealth Stadium wouldn’t have happened, and Maine Road was a real mess. The supporters had been fantastic that season, but it wouldn’t have carried on.”
In other words: no late Dickov equaliser or Weaver penalty saves? Possibly administration, and no Manchester City. But almost certainly no speedy revival, no Sheikh Mansour, no “AGUEROOOOOO!”, and no record-breaking Premier League triumph last term.
“People look back on those days with rose-tinted specs and say, ‘It was a laugh, wasn’t it?’” adds McDonald. “But no. No it wasn’t. It was horrible. It was awful. It was s**t. The running of the football club was laughable, the relationship between fans and players was poisonous, and the atmosphere was horrendous. I hated it.”
This is how City escaped through the door that led to glory.
The Blues’ apex and nadir lie exactly, and somehow satisfyingly, two decades apart. In April 2018, City, now the most financially powerful club in the sport, led by its most-admired manager and packed with some of the globe’s top stars, clinched the title in style. Spool back to April 1998, however, and the club were at a shambolic low.
In the penultimate match of the Division One season, against QPR at Maine Road, Jamie Pollock scored one of the most gut-wrenching own goals of all time (a looped header over his keeper). It ended 2-2, with that point enough to keep the Rs up. Their supporters hijacked an online poll to name Pollock the most influential human being of the last millennium. “I beat Jesus into second place,” he remembers.
City won 5-2 at Stoke in the last game, but it wasn’t enough. Falling into the third tier for the first time in their history was humiliating, and chairman Francis Lee resigned during the dreadful run-in.
Defender Richard Edghill had lived through years of chopping and changing. “We had so many managers, and each played a different style and brought in their own players,” he says. “I think by the time Joe Royle arrived, there were 54 professionals. That’s not ideal when you can only put 11 on the pitch – you can’t keep 54 people happy.”
Royle, who took over halfway through 1997/98, had a big job on his hands. “The survival rate of a boss seemed to be months rather than years,” he says. “Players that had been forgotten were somehow still knocking around. I remember deadline day – I was in the boardroom with the chairman and we were getting players out on loan all over the place and off the wage bill. We needed a fresh start.”
Among those to move on were Uwe Rosler and terrace idol Georgi Kinkladze. The Georgian playmaker left with a jibe at Royle, claiming if he’d been picked more, demotion from the second tier could have been avoided. Royle responded robustly. “His parting shot was like all his others – delivered from a long way out and hopelessly wide of the mark. I selected him for three matches – in two he was anonymous, in the other one he was abysmal.”
Reflecting now, Royle is a little less harsh. “Geo had amazing talent, but I remember him standing on a muddy pitch in a thunderstorm at Port Vale and you could tell he didn’t fancy it. He was our highest-paid player and he had to go. The third tier wasn’t for him.”
The ‘foreign player not fancying a wet Tuesday night at Stoke’ cliche having been invoked, Kinkladze packed his bags for Ajax. Also out the door were Paul Beesley, David Morley, Martin Phillips, Scott Hiley, Ian Brightwell, Kit Symons and Nigel Clough. Arriving were Danny Tiatto, Ian Bishop and youngster Danny Allsopp. Royle was left with a team packed full of workhorses that he believed could do a job at this level.
The opening day suggested he was right. More than 30,000 people packed into Maine Road – the highest third-tier attendance for over 20 years – to see City breeze past Blackpool 3-0. Young keeper Weaver, in particular, looked like a future star.
“Royle cleared the decks, and luckily he saw something in me,” remembers Weaver. “I was only 19, so playing in the Second Division was fine by me. The mood in the dressing room was bad when we got relegated, but it was OK that year – a good blend of youth and experience.”
But City soon stuttered. Draws with Wrexham, Notts County (who they’d battered 7-1 in the League Cup a few days earlier), Chesterfield, Northampton, Millwall and Burnley were followed by a 1-0 defeat at home to Preston. “It took us a while to get going,” admits Royle. “We needed to settle down, but whenever you’re relegated there’s always a hangover. It’s hard to get going when you’ve had disappointments. We weren’t that bad, but there were a lot of draws.
“We were also a big-name scalp for everyone and it caught us out. Teams were coming to play at this huge ground, and they were often bringing more supporters to Maine Road than they got at home. The opposition fans were enjoying every moment of being in Manchester, like staying overnight and going to a show! And then their team were playing well. It was a strange phenomenon.”