Thursday, February 22, 2024

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Manchester City-Pre-Pep Talk

Kevin Keegan at Manchester City

Now that Manchester City have sealed their treble, the league, FA Cup and Champions League trophies nestling in a trophy cabinet that must be a little unsteady by now, it seems almost unthinkable that there was a time pre- Sheikh Mansour when it threatened to do little more than gather dust!

 

Having been founder members of the Premier League in 1992 and finished ninth in its first season before three seasons of struggle led to relegation, the decline in retrospect seems swift in comparison to what would now seem unthinkable. But even that grew swiftly worse after two seasons in the First Division, as they then fell into the Second...

 

The remarkable play- off win over Gillingham, to cap off the 1998/99 season, is probably rightly remembered as the first sign the good times could be back, before an incredible second successive promotion found them back in a league for which they now arguably bear the standard. The appointment of Kevin Keegan as manager proved something of a salve as he led City to the title and set about smashing club records for both points gained and goals scored- all without Erling Haaland and an apparently blank chequebook.

 

Which isn't to say there weren't a few marquee signings, the likes of Stuart Pearce and Eyal Berkovic were drafted in to play a part in at least laying the foundations pre- riches from Abu Dhabi!

 

And step up they did as 99 points and 108 goals rattled in to give them the first of what would become many virtually unassailable leads, a full ten points separating them from West Brom in second. Berkovic and Pearce opened their accounts on début at home to Watford to add to Shaun Goater's opener. Defeat at Carrow Road the following weekend proved to be the first of just eight all season, with a few cricket score wins of the sort the crowds at the Etihad must now routinely expect into the bargain!

 

Of course back then they weren't as routine as they seem now, but regardless a 5-2 home walloping of Crewe in just the third game of the season wasn't a bad statement of intent from the man who'd previously propelled Newcastle to the heights playing a brand of football which often showed off attack all too often at the expense of any semblance of defence.

 

Indeed, it wouldn't truly be football without a few heart in mouth moments and King Kev gave the blue hordes a few in keeping with his reputation. Sheffield Wednesday were seen off 6-2 at Hillsborough in what was possibly the highlight of such crushings, 5-1 wins over both Burnley and Barnsley being other additions to the highlights reel, positive proof they could walk the walk before even registering on Pep Guardiola's radar...

 

A 3-1 win over Portsmouth to end the campaign meant the last glugs of champagne could finally be taken after the bottle had been liberally swigged from, such was the mood of celebration! And in a pattern which has presumably become a bit old hat for those following the Mancunian answer to the galacticos, little time was wasted in securing the signature of Nicolas Anelka in time to be back as noisy neighbours to United down the road- a clamour which shows little sign of being silenced on current evidence!

 

Ironically enough The Sky Blues secured Peter Schmeichel between their posts, having arrived after a season with Aston Villa for what would be his final campaign as a player. His record of never being on the losing side in the Manchester derby was amazingly kept intact with a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on February 9th topped by a 3-1 win at Maine Road the previous November, as Gary Neville's snubbing of a handshake with the man he'd so often played in front of got the best possible response.

 

A ninth place finish wasn't a bad topper, despite the departure of chairman David Bernstein- the man who had done much to ensure financial stability during their rise up the Football League- as a result of a dispute with Keegan over signing Robbie Fowler in January. The manager getting his man despite Bernstein's concerns over his fitness, an initial £3 million handed over to Leeds, though the money bought just two goals in the remainder of the 2002/03 season. Following a début away at West Brom on February 1st, his maiden strike came on March 16th to see off Birmingham at home, Maine Road entering its dotage before what was then the City of Manchester Stadium loomed on the post- Commonwealth Games horizon.

 

Something of a slump followed the ground move, the sudden death of former loanee Marc- Vivien Foe while on international duty with Cameroon hardly contributing to a feel -good atmosphere. He had been the one to score the last goal by a City player on their former hallowed turf, a second of two for him in a 3-1 win over Sunderland.

 

Little wonder then that sixteenth felt like an anti- climax in 2003/04. UEFA Cup football did little to provide much of a balm as City only got to the second round, exiting to Groclin of Poland on the away goals rule after having beaten Lokeren of Belgium and Welshmen TNS in the first round proper and a qualifying tie respectively. The league season had started smoothly with an away win at Charlton, before a run of draws and defeats following a 6-2 away spanking of Bolton did quite some damage- eight losses and six draws between 25th October and 21st February, when Wanderers were again losers.

 

Within just two weeks it was Manchester derby time again, United making the short trip over and shipping four goals as City avenged a December humbling at Old Trafford- Fowler continuing his record of popping up to thwart them with the first prior to Jon Macken, Trevor Sinclair and Shaun Wright-Phillips completing the rout. This represented something of a last stand for Keegan as the entertainer in chief prior to his eventual exit stage left on 11th March 2005. He was replaced by the more pragmatic Stuart Pearce pre- Thakshin “Frank” Shinawatra's ownership and the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson as the club's first foreign manager.

 

 

A dress rehearsal for Mansour and Pep perhaps, though smaller in scale than the behemoth that now dwarfs the rest of the previously undreamed of City Football Group. The seed planted in the depths now rising ever higher with no discernible sign of stopping, the story of this season written and next promising to be similarly fruitful.

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