Manchester City's dramatic comeback in the 1999 Division 2 Play-Off Final didn't just salvage their season: it directly led to the present-day living of a dream. Without it, hell they could now be Leeds.
With the huge amounts of cash invested into Manchester City over the last few years it’s hard to believe that just over 11 years ago they were one minute away from oblivion. However that’s where they found themselves after suffering two relegations in three seasons through a disastrous combination of inept owners, bad managers and even worse players. Threatened with the prospect of financial ruin it was vital for the future of the club that Joe Royle’s team bounced back from the third tier of English football at the first time of asking.
After enduring a traumatic 1998/99 league campaign, which included humbling beatings at the hands of footballing minnows York City and Wycombe Wanderers, City finally managed to hit form at the right time to secure a place in the play off final, giving them the opportunity to claw their way out of the then Division Two and pass their tag of ‘the laughing stock of football’ onto somebody more deserving. Little did anybody know just how dramatic the next 120 minutes were to be and how much of a hero Paul Dickov would become. Whilst possessing an iffy strike rate for a lower league striker Dickov was previously characterized by his scampering chases after rattled opposing defenders tirelessly giving his all to what seemed like a hopeless cause. The perception of the wee Scot around Manchester changed in one beautiful swing of his right boot.
Kevin Horlock’s crisp left footed drive as the clock ticked onto 90 only served to further rub salt into devastated City fan's emotional wounds.
The stage was set; Wembley was unsurprisingly packed to the rafters with its biggest crowd ever for a Division Two final. Manchester City were finally going to awake from their 23 year slumber and finally win on the national teams hallowed turf once more, just somebody forgot to inform their opponents Gillingham of this. The game was a desperately dour affair for 80 minutes with both teams playing tentatively, not wanting to give anything away, then it happened, the unthinkable… Gillingham scored. An inevitable feeling of desperation and fear spread across the blue half of Manchester. Five minutes later that fear turned into unimaginable pain and misery as with four minutes of normal times remaining big fat Bobby Taylor raced through and scored again, this was not in the script, this was not meant to happen. Some City fans had seen enough and headed for the exits. There seemed to be no way back and Kevin Horlock’s crisp left footed drive as the clock ticked onto 90 only served to further rub salt into devastated City fans emotional wounds, cruelly giving them a taste of what could have been.
Inexplicably an olive branch was extended to the distressed Blues, referee Mark Halsey had bewilderingly instructed that FIVE additional minutes were to be added on, as the fourth official hauled up the board to confirm this, a deafening roar of hope erupted from the Blues who remained inside the famous old stadium willing their side to make one final push for an unlikely equalizer. The next four minutes elapsed rapidly, with one Gillingham body after another hitting the deck in a vain attempt to eat away the remaining seconds.
Who knows where The Blue’s might have been without Dickov’s intervention that day? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Then it happened, gangly City keeper Nicky Weaver scurried around to quickly retrieve the ball in order for Ian Bishop to take the last throw in of the game, the last throw of the dice, here it was. Stalwart defender Gerard Wiekens collected the throw and proceeding to pump the ball long into the Gillingham half, Gareth Taylor flicked it on allowing Horlock to feed the Goat, his shot was frustratingly blocked but the rebound ended up at Dickovs feet, a player that encapsulated the workmanlike spirit engrained into his players by Big Joe, his never say die attitude enabled him to muster enough energy to power his shot into the roof of the net when everybody else was spent. Wembley went wild and despite Weaver heroically saving the penalties to gain the club promotion, in typical City fashion Dickov went on to miss his penalty in shoot out with the ball agonizingly hitting both posts before rolling out, but it mattered precious little as the diminutive Scot had already made a far more telling contribution on the rollercoaster afternoon that was, Sunday the 30th May 1999, cementing his place in Manchester City folklore forever.
Who knows where The Blue’s might have been without Dickov’s intervention that day, it doesn’t bear thinking about, I have watched THAT goal countless times over the last ten years and to this day it still makes every single hair on the back of my neck stand up, my stomach still tingles with anticipation and hope that he will somehow find the top corner which he of course he always does, no matter what heights the club goes onto reach in the forthcoming years there will never be a goal more important than Dickov’s, it really is the gift that keeps on giving.
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