As Bad As Things Got: Manchester City, 3rd May 1998

by | May 31, 2020

Current legal issues with UEFA notwithstanding, the ongoing efforts of the Abu Dhabi United sovereign wealth fund to build an Empire of the Sun around Manchester City aren’t going too badly, despite Liverpool’s recent successes. They won’t win the Premier League this season, but they did so last time around in a record-winning manner and it is widely expected that becoming the champions of Europe is a matter of “when” rather than “if.” At present, their Champions League match against Real Madrid is in stasis following a 2-1 City win in the first leg in Madrid. With little appetite for voiding of this year’s competition, it’s entirely possible that Manchester City might end this heavily asterisked season as the champions of the continent.

Longer-term supporters will reflect that all this success remains most out of character for a club with a lengthy history of trips, pratfalls, and otherwise dragging defeats from the jaws of victory. For many years, Manchester City were an ongoing soap opera, overseen by an owner of the old-fashioned archetype and managed by a revolving door of managers who were attracted by the scale and history of the club but were often spat out again by how dysfunctional the entire club had become as a result of years of decline so gradual as to be almost imperceptible from the outside. For every high, there had to be an equivalent or greater low. “Cityitis” became something of a measure of footballing slapstick.

When Manchester City won the First Division Championship in 1937, they were relegated the following season and the outbreak of war would meant that it would be a decade before First Division football returned to Maine Road. When City won the title again in 1968, they slumped to thirteenth in the table the following season, and four years later lost the league title from a commanding winning position following the team-disrupting season signature of Rodney Marsh. They finished as runners-up to Liverpool in 1977 and were relegated from the First Division again six years later.

Much of this was overseen by Peter Swales, who acted as the chairman of the club for twenty years from 1973 until 1993. Swales had first come to prominence during the 1950s through the White and Swales rental chain, which formed in 1955 with Noel White. The televising of the Queen’s coronation in 1953 and the arrival of commercial television two years had established huge demand for television sets, which were both hugely expensive and famously temperamental. For ordinary working people, buying a television set was out of reach, and even for those who could it didn’t make much sense to buy one when the renting one came with the cost of repairs included. The company, which started out selling sheet music, soon moved into white goods as well, ending up with fifteen stores in the Cheshire and Manchester area.

Swales and White’s first foray into football came in the non-league game at Altrincham at the start of the 1960s, but Swales was tempted away in 1967 by a directorship at Manchester City, with a majority shareholding in the club becoming available six years later. White & Swales was sold to the Thorn group for £500,000 in 1968. The appeal to Swales at that time was obvious. Swales had two over-riding ambitions at the time, to eclipse Manchester United as the city’s football powerhouse, and to leverage this new influence by building up a power base within the Football Association itself. On the latter of these he was successful. Swales end up as chairman of the FA’s International Committee, the body that controlled the England management set-up.

On the former, however, his record was substantially more mixed. In 1973, eclipsing Manchester United must have seemed achievable. United, still in the grip of their post-Busby depression, ended Swales’ first season at Maine Road by getting relegated into the Second Division, and whilst in 1976 City won the League Cup and the following season finished just a point behind Liverpool at the top of the First Division. This proved, however, to be another false dawn. A chaotic period during which former manager Malcolm Allison was invited back to the club as manager only for the club to waste vast amounts of money on unsuccessful signings led to relegation again in 1983, and the club’s return to the First Division two years later only lasted for two seasons before they were relegated back again.

By the end of the 1980s, though, Manchester City were showing signs of life again. Promoted back to the First Division again in 1989, a 5-1 win against Manchester United at Maine Road seemed to hint that better times were returning again, and City finished in fifth place in the table in both 1990 and 1991. Having been taken back into the First Division by Mel Machin, City had consolidated there under Howard Kendall before Kendall returned to Goodison Park in November 1990, and it was the relative rookie Peter Reid who took the club to those fifth placed finishes. With the club sliding back towards the lower mid-table, however, Reid was sacked two games into the 1993/94 season.

This time, though, Swales’ luck was running out as well. Peter Swales had lived his time at Maine Road by the sword, and came to die by it as well. The club’s decline had led t increasingly vituperative protests at Maine Road, and with former City legend Francis Lee waiting in the wings to take the club over Swales’ time in charge of the club came to an end in 1993. Swales, it has been said, was left shattered by the boardroom coup. He died from a heart attack at the age of 63 on the 2nd May 1996. Manchester City were relegated from the Premier League, their third relegation from the top flight in the previous thirteen years, three days later. Brian Horton had replaced Peter Reid, but he was replaced at the end of the 1994/95 season after City could only finish in fourteenth place in the Premier League. Alan Ball, Horton’s replacement, took them down at the end of his first season in charge of the club.

Alan Ball’s appointment at Maine Road hadn’t been without controversy, with some feeling that Brian Horton hadn’t deserved the sack in the first place, and with a growing belief that Ball was appointed for his name and friendship with the chairman rather than his credentials as a coach. Lee kept faith with Ball after relegation, but Ball resigned three games into the new season, a win at home against Ipswich Town which had been followed by away defeats at Barnsley and Stoke City.

And then the wheels really fell off the wagon. It took the club six weeks to make a decision to replace Ball, during which time they were caretaker-managed by Asa Hartford, and when they finally did find a replacement, Steve Coppell, he only lasted 33 days in the post before quitting himself, openly admitting that he couldn’t take the pressure of the job. This time it was Coppell’s former assistant, Phil Neal, who took charge of the club while another new search was undertaken. By the time Manchester City appointed Frank Clarke on the 29th of December, City had won 8 out of 24 under these previous three managers. It was 9 out of 26, including Alan Ball. Under Clarke, they limped to 14th place in the First Division table.

With the club back in a state of something approaching open warfare, some felt that it was to Clarke’s credit that he got Manchester City as high as 14th that season, but it only proved to be a temporary period of respite for the club. An already pallid looking team was torn to bits by injuries throughout the first half of the season. Lee Bradbury, Uwe Rösler and Georgi Kinkladze all suffered injuries, and by the end of November City were in the relegation places, with just three league wins all season.

Things didn’t improve very much over the winter months and eventually action had to be taken, but the manner in which it happened spoke volumes about the way that the club was being managed at the time. On the evening of Tuesday 17th February 1998, Clarke took a call from Francis Lee, the City chairman, while en route to watch Sunderland. Lee wanted to see him so Clark, who had reached Leeds, offered to turn round. No, it can wait, he was told. The following morning Clark woke up, turned on the radio, and found out that he had been sacked.

It wasn’t that Clarke hadn’t hadn’t been given money. Merely keeping hold of Kinkladze was an act of Premier League grandeur, alone, but the transfer policy had been muddled. Getting rid of Paul Walsh and £500,000 to bring in Gerry Creaney from Portsmouth, an expensive failure that a club suddenly cut off from Premier League television money could ill-afford, for example. But the benefit of hindsight seems to indicate that the entire club was unmanageable by this point. Unchecked damp rot had spread throughout it.

City were one place off the bottom of the First Division by the time Clarke left the club. This time, however, there were no six week waits before announcing his replacement. Joe Royle, who’d managed Everton to the FA Cup in 1995, became Manchester City’s new manager the following day. Royle arrived with a bang. The day after his arrival City beat Swindon Town by three goals to one away from home, their first league win since the 10th of January. They lost Royle’s second match in charge, but followed this up with two straight wins against West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town.

But then the team fell to pieces again. They won one of their next eight matches in the league. Francis Lee left the club in the middle of April, and on the penultimate weekend of the season, they had a home game against Queens Park Rangers, who were a point above City in 21st place in the table. A win would lift City out of the relegation places, going into the last weekend of the season. A capacity crowd of 32,000 packed Maine Road out for the match, and everything started perfectly with a first minute goal from Georgi Kinkladze. The excitement, however, only lasted for seven minutes, before Mike Sheron equalised for QPR.

And then it came. After 21 minutes, defender had a routine bit of defending to do, facing his own goal. Anywhere but there. As goalkeeper Martyn Margetson came rushing out, Pollock took one touch to control the ball and lobbed it over him and in. It’s a goal beloved of “football gaffes” videos, but its context isn’t always mentioned. The goal effectively relegated Manchester City into the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history. Lee Bradbury drew City level three minutes into the second half, but this wasn’t enough. Without a win, Manchester City would go into their last day of the season needing to win at Stoke City (who also needed a positive result to avoid relegation), whilst also needing both Portsmouth and Port Vale to lose, if they were to stay up.

The atmosphere at The Britannia Stadium on the 3rd of May 1998 was, putting it kindly, skittish. Stoke’s imperilled position meant that this was a critical match for them, as well. They’d started their season moving into their new stadium under disastrous circumstances, following the departure of Lou Macari towards the end of the previous season. This was never fully explained, but Macari did later sue the club for wrongful dismissal.

The quest to replace Macari was similarly badly-managed. Many supporters felt that a delay in announcing the new manager was a way of boosting season ticket sales, with rumours circulating that it would be Sammy McIlroy taking over, before eventually making the underwhelming announcement that it would be Chic Bates instead. Even opening the Britannia Stadium was bungled, with transport problems, ticket problems and a terrible opening ceremony. Bates had been replaced earlier in the season by his former assistant, Alan Durban. They went into this match having won just four times in the league since the 8th November.

The atmosphere inside the ground was at best chaotic and at worst toxic. Inside the first ten minutes, Manchester City fans with tickets in the the home end had to leave  after being identified by angry Stoke supporters. When several ran across the pitch in an attempt to join fellow supporters in the south stand, bringing the game to a halt. Three hundred away fans were ejected from The Britannia Stadium, the first after just 90 seconds. In total, there were 15 arrests – two before the game, 10 during, three after the final whistle. On the pitch, matters were being rendered irrelevant by news from elsewhere. Both Portsmouth and Port Vale were winning, and comfortably. Manchester City raced into a two goal lead and ended up winning by 5 goals to 2, but it was all in vain. For the first time in their history, Manchester City would be playing third tier football the following season. Their hosts on the last day of the season, Stoke City, would be joining them.

The directors of the club chose to keep faith with Joe Royle, and were rewarded at the end of the following season, when late goals and a penalty shoot-out brought a play-off final win against Giillingham and promotion back to Division One. The year after this, they won promotion back to the Premier League, finishing as runners-up behind Charlton Athletic. After relegation back in 2001, Royle lost his job, but the transformation of Manchester City was by this point well under way. Kevin Keegan took them back as champions the following year, and in 2003 they left Maine Road for The City of Manchester Stadium.

Manchester City’s mid-1990s implosion was too great and took place over too broad a passage of time to really be able to pin on one person. The club’s decline over the twenty years of Peter Swales’ chairmanship is clear, but he had already been gone for a couple of years before things finally started to spin out of control. Francis Lee and his consortium had a mess to clear up but didn’t demonstrate that they had the ability to run a club of this size, though at least Lee had the sense to get out before he completely ran it into the ground. So many managers passed through the club’s doors – the club had ten, including caretakers, between 1990 and 2000 – that it’s impossible to blame any one of them in particular. 

A fish rots from the head down, and perhaps the answer to the question of who took Manchester City from the top five in England to the third tier in six years is… just about everybody who came into contact with it. Manchester City were ultimately rotten as an institution for much of the decade, mismanaged by people who did care about the club but who were also stricken by an apparent inability to make good and careful decisions when it was necessary for them to do so. The move to Eastlands began the club’s regeneration and its acquisition by the United Arab Emirates completed it, but even much of the middle of this period in the club’s history – not least the decision to sell it to Thaksin Shinawatra, which came damn close to killing it altogether – seemed to be run by a club in some of self-destruct mode. Many accusations have been levelled at the Abu Dhabi United group since it took control of Manchester City in September 2008. At least, we might reflect, they are competent, which is more than be said for many of those that have previously sat around the Manchester City boardroom table.