Ahead of Sunday's decisive encounter for both clubs, a Manchester City fan recounts their famous collapse against QPR in 1998 that saw the club relegated to the third division.
I’m a completely incurable Manchester City fan. The extreme fatherly influence I was subjected to on this point could have been repelled by rebellion, but an improbable trip to the Cup Final at an impressionable age took care of that. The decline that followed locked in my affections through a mixture of support for the downtrodden underdog, a gut feeling supported by focusing on Mark E Smith and Ian Curtis and ignoring Bernard Manning and Eddie Large that we were cooler than the other lot, and a more rational assessment that I didn’t want to sell my emotional shares at the bottom of the market.
And those shares fell in value. I’ve always been good at thinking on my feet and if not arguing my way out of an impossible situation, being able to bring a deeply unpromising starting point to some sort of stalemate that allows me to fight another day. I learned this vital life skill in the junior school playground when asked to explain how it was possible to lose to Halifax Town in the FA Cup.
But a freak defeat like that was a day of wine and roses in comparison with what followed. I was present to see City lose at home to Port Vale, Bury, Oxford United (twice) and an away game at Wycombe Wanderers that I attended at staggering logistical inconvenience. On Christmas Day 1998, City were 12th in what they call League One but every City fan – with searing honesty – calls the Third Division. I’d like to congratulate Tranmere Rovers (how can I forget losing at home to them too) on achieving the same position this season.
On Christmas Day 1998, City were 12th in what they call League One but every City fan – with searing honesty – calls the Third Division.
So this week, it’s time to recline with a cigar and a glass of something decent and wait for the inevitable next Sunday. Our home record is stellar, QPR’s is awful, if Aguero, Tevez and Silva don’t do the business then everyone knows the substitution that will be made, Yaya will move up the pitch and that will be that.
No. Not at all.
In April 1998 (in the interests of accuracy, this was the last but one time City played QPR in the league at home), the two teams met very late in the season in what was billed as one of the most important matches in our history. City even scored in the first couple of minutes. Then this happened.
As the commenters on this clip correctly point out, this is an own goal that has echoes of Gazza against Scotland in Euro 96 and a very famous goal scored by Matt Le Tissier. It is that good.
Sir Alex Ferguson is losing his mind games touch. Forget about this Mark Hughes revenge angle. The City crowd will smother him in kindness. He’s quite a good Premier League manager who did his absolute best for us – he’s just not as good as Mancini, and Sheikh Mansour ruthlessly and correctly decided City needed an upgrade two and a half years ago.
Ferguson needs to summon the ghost of Jamie Pollock, the man who chose a relegation dogfight of enormous importance to score one of the greatest own goals of all time against the visitors City must vanquish (and possibly relegate) to win the league.
City’s manager that day was Joe Royle, a man who did a sterling job turning the supertanker round in the end but was unable to act quickly enough to prevent the QPR calamity and the ensuing relegation to the third division that was confirmed a week later at Stoke. He famously diagnosed “Cityitis”, the club’s innate talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. With the club in intensive care in the late 90s, Royle deserves his place in City’s history for treating the sick patient with great skill on a daily, sometimes hourly basis and he can point to two dramatic victories - the third division play off against Gillingham and the improbable win at Blackburn Rovers 12 months later that secured a second successive promotion – secured under his watch that got the club off its knees.
He famously diagnosed “Cityitis”, the club’s innate talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
But Royle, by his own admission, only contained the infection – he didn’t cure it. Kevin Keegan, Stuart Pearce, Sven Goran Eriksson and Hughes all made progress of sorts but Cityitis still hung over the club when Mancini arrived.
And this is what will define this nervous, exciting week. Mancini has shown an iron will and impeccable judgement from the bench since the Arsenal game (when he made a big mistake not hooking Balotelli at half time and getting Tevez on). Just like 12 months ago, he has saved his best for the last month of the season. His players are disconnected from this recent part of City’s history – the club prefers to tell them about Lee, Bell, Summerbee and Trautmann - they are used to winning things elsewhere and have displayed a mental fortitude a lot of people didn’t think some of them had.
After the Arsenal debacle, City had to win six games out of six to have any chance and hope that United believed their own hype. The latter has happened. As for the former, we are, as the Americans say, 5 and oh. The six matches included two of middling difficulty (Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion), two huge challenges (the two Uniteds) and two they would expect to win (Wolves and QPR). Cityitis would dictate that QPR presents the moment of maximum danger and while the players and management are, I am sure, blissfully unaware of Jamie Pollock, the fans remember him in HD – and will do so in the middle of the night on at least a couple of occasions this week.
While the players and management are, I am sure, blissfully unaware of Jamie Pollock, the fans remember him in HD
Therefore the crowd at Eastlands on Sunday knows the role it has to play. The Abu Dhabi marketing effort has yet to harvest many glory hunters. A substantial proportion of the crowd will also have been present for Jamie Pollock’s defining moment. It has to set a tone between over-confidence and bravado on one side and fatalism on the other. We have to travel in hope and expectation, with measured optimism but clear that there is more work to do, freed from the history we apparently don’t have.
But if the 2012 City, oblivious to the ghost of Jamie Pollock, can calmly put the game to sleep next Sunday and prepare the way for the sort of celebration I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime, then Joe Royle will be able to pronounce Cityitis finally and totally eradicated. We can throw out the psychiatrist’s couch and build a trophy cabinet in its place.
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