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When Stoke City play Manchester City on Saturday, it won’t be the first time that the two sides have met at the end of the season. David Mayor reports on two very different sets of emotions.

When my team, Manchester City, face Stoke City at Wembley this Saturday, it will, many of my nearest and dearest would say, be the biggest City game I’ve been to. The major opponent for the title of biggest City game I’ve been to was, in my opinion, also a game against Stoke. Many of you may already have correctly assumed that I am referring to the last match of the 1997/98 season in Division One (now The Championship, formerly Division Two, etc) between the two sides which resulted in relegation to the third tier for both. But which is the “bigger” game? And what makes it so?

Lots of games get described as ‘big.’ Games against championship, promotion or relegation rivals are described as so, as are derby and grudge matches or, indeed, any that Sky Sports decide to show. A couple of years ago I was at Hearts v Falkirk for a mid-table SPL fixture where I overheard a bloke in the pub beforehand claim what a big game it was with regards making the top/bottom six split. It didn’t feel like what I think of a big game to be but then again I’m sure I’ve referred to Stalybridge v Hyde in the same way in the past, which I imagine he wouldn’t.

In the majority of cases it seems that one of two factors is required to make it so. The first being the profile of the clash. If it’s based entirely on the column inches and TV audience it generates it’s hard to argue that a second tier game that leads to a team’s (or both teams) relegation is comparable with the final of The Most Famous Cup Competition In The World™. My gut feeling, however, is that the second factor, the ramifications or potential ramifications of the game, is the predominant factor in how its importance should be judged.

It is this which provides weight for arguing the overwhelming significance of this match for supporters of my club. At the time, it felt like relegation to a level at which, for the first time in our history, could lead to a terminal decline whereby we would never return to the top division again. However, that I’m even writing about an FA Cup Final between the two could be used to shoot that theory down. The fortunes of both clubs have dramatically improved since 1998, so relegation wasn’t the death-knell many felt it would be at the time. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the huge game I’ve often thought it was.

But would a loss on Saturday drastically affect the future for either of these two clubs in the way that day could have? On the basis of the last couple of seasons, I’d still expect Stoke City to be a comfortable Premier League club for the next few years or so and for Manchester City to provide a realistic title challenge in the forseeable future. On top of this, both clubs will play in Europe next season regardless of who wins on Saturday, on account of events earler this week. But – and this is a big but – should Manchester City win, I can safely say it will be the single happiest day of my life and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that the same outcome would have the same effect on Stoke’s supporters, perhaps in particular for those that were at The Britannia Stadium on that day in May 1998.

Whilst we won on that day, results elsewhere meant we were still relegated to what is now known as League One. Had Bradford City or Huddersfield Town put up more of a fight against Portsmouth and Port Vale that would’ve saved us, would that day have provided the same joy as a potential win at Wembley will? No chance. Relief? Yes, but the unbridled happiness a cup final win (I imagine) induces seems highly unlikely. On the other hand, while it would upset me if we get beat on Saturday (far more than it undoubtedly should for a man in his early thirties), it obviously wouldn’t provide the genuine worry about the future of their club that the relegation did. I can’t imagine there’s many on either side, should they get beat on Saturday, will say “they’ve had enough”, “not bothering/can’t take anymore” as I remember many saying that day.

Obviously, the question is entirely subjective and no definitive answer can ever be reached. As with many such terms, size is a relative matter and the word ‘big’ is branded about lazily in football, where there are other adjectives that could far more accurately describe a situation. Looking again to Saturday, I do think that, regardless of the result, it will be a far more enjoyable experience for all concerned than that trouble-filled, angst-ridden afternoon in Staffordshire thirteen years ago. I hope so. It’s our cup final, after all.

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