Manchester City’s 2018-19 season concluded with players celebrating on the Wembley turf last weekend, just like it did 20 years previously.
The parallels end there.
While Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering domestic treble winners spent the campaign pushing to higher levels of excellence, their counterparts from two decades ago often threatened to chart new depths of farce – or “Cityitis”, as then manager Joe Royle termed it.
Treble fever also hit Manchester in 1999, but for United and Alex Ferguson, who famously added a last-gasp injury-time triumph in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich to Premier League and FA Cup glory.
Meanwhile, City were grappling with life in Division Two – the third tier of English football – for the first time in their history.
“It is unthinkable now but it was only 20 years ago, a generation ago,” said Nicky Weaver, the former England Under-21 goalkeeper who would end his breakthrough campaign in 1998-99 as City’s saviour. “They’re at Wembley every other week now.”
“It was my first season playing, so for me it was just a thrill to be involved in it all. The fans probably didn’t think so, going to places like York and Colchester and Lincoln and Macclesfield and places like that.
“It took us four or five months to get into our stride. I think everyone thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was.”
— Manchester City (@ManCity) 18 February 2015
City had been in the Premier League as recently as 1996 but two relegations in three seasons sapped morale at their tired former home of Maine Road.
A 3-0 win over Blackpool on the opening day of the season proved a false dawn as a bloated and ill-equipped squad slogged away with mixed results. Across town, United were heading for the footballing stratosphere.
A December loss at York City left Royle’s pre-season promotion favourites 12th in the table and in danger of slipping into oblivion. However, no-nonsense captain Andy Morrison came in to add some steel to the backline and the corner was turned in the nick of time.
“I remember going to Wrexham on Boxing Day,” Weaver said, of a game when Dutch defender Gerard Wiekens scored the only goal for City. “Ian Rush was playing for Wrexham. That was a big thing for me at the time, playing against someone like Ian Rush.
“We won 1-0 and then we beat Stoke at Maine Road and went on a really good run.”
Regular goals from Shaun Goater, wing wizardry from United loanee Terry Cooke and Weaver’s increasingly sharp keeping were all factors as Royle’s men stormed up to third.
Automatic promotion proved out of their reach but, after a tense semi-final against Wigan Athletic was negotiated 2-1 on aggregate, Wembley – of the twin towers vintage – awaited.
Tony Pulis’ Gillingham were betting outsiders but ‘Cityitis’ struck again as Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor beat Weaver with late goals. It was 2-0 heading into the final minute of the 90 and many of the Manchester contingent were heading for the exits when Kevin Horlock lashed in an apparent consolation.
Then came some hope from the touchline.
“I always thought the biggest thing was the five minutes of injury time. That was a little bit dubious,” Weaver chuckled.
“Mark Halsey [referee] is a very popular man in these parts! I’ve got images of Tony Pulis going mad on the bench.”
If Pulis was going mad there was full-scale pandemonium in the City end shortly afterwards when Paul Dickov steered a finish past a familiar face in Vince Bartram, best man at the City striker’s wedding, in the Gillingham goal – an ‘Aguero moment’ before such a thing existed.
Extra time passed without incident before Weaver took the virtue of inexperience into the penalty shoot-out.
“I don’t think I’d even been in one in a school tournament,” he said. “Nowadays, you look at where the last few penalties have been, you have all the information and statistics.
“There was none of that then. I just thought, ‘make yourself look as big as you can, pick a way and go that way’.
“I was a lucky little boy to score that goal”
— EFL (@EFL) 24 May 2019
The method worked as Weaver thwarted Paul Smith, while Adrian Pennock blazed high and wide. Successes from Horlock, Cooke and – despite not having a senior goal to his name – Richard Edghill meant Guy Butters had to beat Weaver, or City were up and out of the abyss.
“He hit it well enough. It wasn’t right in the corner but he got plenty of power on it,” the goalkeeper recalled.
“Fortunately, I managed to get two hands on it. I waved the lads over and sort of pulled a face. I don’t know where that came from.”
Weaver’s delirious celebration – halted only by a typically robust intervention from Morrison – is still fondly remembered by City supporters to this day, despite their vastly altered reality.
“If City had just been a mediocre Premier League club now, no-one would talk about it as much as they do, but the fact of where they are and where they have come from, it just makes the story so much bigger and so much better,” Weaver said.
“If we hadn’t done it, who knows what would have happened? It certainly wouldn’t have been any easier.
“The new stadium followed a few years later, and then obviously the big investment came after that. If the stadium hadn’t come, the investment might not have come and we might not have been sat here.”
For all that Guardiola’s unprecedented success is rooted in meticulous attention to detail, it owes a significant debt to the guess work of an unassuming terrace hero.
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