Manchester City: From Second Division to Second Coming

Andy Morrison was an unheralded footballer. Photo: PA

On 20th February 1999 Manchester City beat Macclesfield Town 2-0 at Maine Road in the Second Division, 15 years later they’ll be facing Barcelona in the Champions League knockout phases.

The defeat of their rivals from Cheshire was the ninth game unbeaten in a run of 12 for Joe Royle’s side, thanks to strikes from Shaun Goater and Gareth Taylor, as the club progressed towards a play-off spot and eventually made it to the famous win over Gillingham at Wembley, but no one could have envisaged where they would be in 2014, at that point.

In the intervening period the club has made a meteoric rise, becoming FA Cup winners and Premier League champions. Admittedly, it has taken a lot of money, firstly aided by the false dawn of Thai owner Thaksin Shinawatra and now the finances from the Middle East.

One thing that hasn’t changed from that February day at Maine Road is the constant support the fans have offered - over 31,000 people attending a third tier game against a team destined for relegation, is commitment by anyone’s standards

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Man City fans, what are your memories of the club 15 years ago? #mcfc

Shaun Goater went up the leagues with City. Credit: PA
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@itvfootball Thinking Terry Cooke was the best thing since sliced bread #MCFC

The personnel available for Manuel Pellegrini are a world away from Royle’s side, who included the likes of ex-Bristol City striker Goater and skipper Andy Morrison, two players who had enjoyed unspectacular careers before becoming legends in East Manchester.

Morrison, who arrived from Huddersfield for just £80,000, has great memories of being at the heart of the club’s revival in 1999. “You speak to fans now and they’ll talk about the camaraderie and coming together of the fans and the club into one to try and get out of the mess we were in,” Morrison explained. “A lot of fans talk fondly of that time, not necessarily of the football, but of the actual resurgence of the club.”

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@itvfootball great times despite the lack of quality on the pitch. Still plenty cult heros from that era; goater, dickov, Morrison

Man City fans invaded the pitch after making it to the 1999 play-off final. Credit: PA

Maine Road’s replacement, the Etihad, will be packed on Tuesday when the Catalans come to town for the tie of the round, filled with fans who have seen City come up the leagues, watch them lose to the likes of Stockport, who now play in the Conference North and witnessed the unimaginable ecstasy felt when the side won the Premier League in the most dramatic circumstances in 2012.

Members of the Second Division play-off final went on to represent the club in the Premier League, as Goater, Kevin Horlock and Nicky Weaver continued to have their stock rise through the years. Those reliable names will be forever remembered at the club, but the current incumbents, who cost hundreds of millions could take the biggest scalp in the club’s existence when they face Barcelona.

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@itvfootball @quagmireisablue Being eternally grateful of my Brother's rule - no matter how bad it got we would never leave a game early

The 1999 play-off final won was a catalyst for City. Credit: PA

Owner Sheikh Mansour purchased the club from former Thai Prime Minister Shinawatra, who was forced to sell City as funds ran low, amid a legal battle in his homeland. “It has been a bit of a soap opera until the Abu Dhabi family came in. Now there’s stability, longevity and without a doubt a vision that these people have,” Morrison believes. “So much have been given back by the club to the people of Manchester, I think people will start believing how big the football ckub is going to be.”

Despite all the changes, the fans are still the focal point of a club that is trying to maintain a community spirit in East Manchester, as they look to expand the Etihad and are in the progress of building a new training complex just a stone’s throw from the stadium. “I see your Leeds, Forest and Sheffield Wednesday struggle in recent years and none of them have got near the crowds City had week-in. week-out in those lower leagues. I think the fans are now getting exactly what they deserve for all those arduous times,” says Morrison.

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@itvfootball Buzzing at going to grounds i'd never visited before, singing till my throat was sore in a FULL maine rd, contrary to belief...

City now have a multitude of stars to call upon. Credit: PA
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@itvfootball my first game at Maine Road and losing against Derby County in the League Cup. We were League 1, they were Premier League

One man who has seen the progress made by the club is television presenter and City season ticket holder John Stapleton. He travelled home and away through the toughest times the club have faced. “My lowest point was losing away at York City, we were 12th in the division at the time. It’s astonishing to think we only got promoted after extra-time and penalties in a play-off final against Gillingham and here we are playing Barcelona,” Stapleton told ITV.com.

The prospect of one of the world’s best teams coming to face City in the Champions League knockout stages is enough to get anyone of the blue persuasion excited. “It’s unprecedented this game on Tuesday, I’ll never have experienced a game like this, this is what everyone has dreamed of, big European nights, playing Barcelona,” former City skipper Morrison explained. Stapleton cannot wait for the tie to begin, he said: “It’s a complete shock, who in their wildest dreams would have envisaged we are where we are even ten years ago?”

From the basis of a hardworking midfield consisting Horlock and Jeff Whitley back in 1999, City are now playing some of the finest quality football on the continent, something that has left the faithful at the Etihad almost immune to recognising the supremacy they now see from the Premier League’s top scorers. “I’ve not become blasé, I rejoice in it, some of the football is like ballet, it’s been absolutely fantastic. Goals, goals, goals, give me as many as you like,” Stapleton proudly states.

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@The_Paris_Angel @itvfootball Haha. Are we talking Goater and Dickov days? Everyone loved City then.

Alexis Sanchez, Leo Messi and Neymar are a world away from what City faced 15 years ago. Credit: PA

Instead of facing a team made up of the George Abbeys and John Askeys of the world, City will come up against Lionel Messi and Neymar on Tuesday night, something those closest to the club still find hard to believe. “I’m so looking forward to the game, along with the rest of the football world. I want us to give a good account of ourselves and to make sure by the time we go to Barcelona, we’re in with a chance of a progressing, as this football team will score goals. Every Manchester City will be very proud on the night, knowing where exactly they have come from,” Morrison said.

When 22 men take to the pitch on Tuesday night, many will be wrapped up in the occasion, but those in the stands will still keep in the back of their mind those days 15 years ago when the passion was the same, but the light at the end of the tunnel was barely a flickering flame, considering the inferno City have since created.

Whether City manage to get the better of their illustrious opponents or not, this will be a tie to revel in by all those in the blue half of Manchester, especially in the knowledge there’s almost certainly even better to come in future years.