This is how it feels to be City: The 30 years of hurt and the 15 years that followed

Sixteen years ago, FFT ran a piece charting Manchester City's sorry 30-year decline from the summit of the old First Division to the depths of the third tier. Fifteen years on from the famous Division Two play-off final win over Gillingham that started to reverse the slump, City fan Simon Curtis explains how the fans haven't changed, even if everything else has...

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Around the end of the last century, you could read a surprising amount about Manchester City. I kept the cuttings just for the sheer, abysmal masochism of it all. It was less a time of false dawn and more one of Apocalypse Now.

Bill Borrows had been commissioned to write a piece for Loaded, which carried the simple title “The Fall and Rise of Manchester City”; In Arena magazine Paul Morley had penned a wonderfully satanic piece called “City of Lost Souls”, while FourFourTwo carried a five-page Robert Jeffrey splash on “30 years of Hurt” - the opening spread is pictured above.

To complete the set, GQ magazine (disaster and turmoil brings you a wide range of interested parties) carried an article entitled “It’s Been Emotional”, with a spread of pictures showing players, fans and administrators in a state of considerable flux. They were all in tears, every last one of them; from Gio Kinkladze to that chubby kid on the terraces at Stoke the day City went down to the third tier. The rest of us were not far behind. In tears, in turmoil, in denial.

Georgi Kinkladze took City's 1996 relegation to Division One as badly as the fans.

Georgi Kinkladze took City's 1996 relegation to Division One as badly as the fans.

As Manchester United marched to the European crown with that never-to-be-forgotten night in Barcelona that still makes Clive Tyldesley get up in the night for a cup of water and a sheet or two of toilet paper, City were heading for Rotherham and Bury and preparing for a blizzard of insults and a gale of laughter wherever they went. To top the lot, The Times had Mark Hodkinson trail behind us through those third division grounds, writing a weekly column that later appeared as a book, “Down Among The Dead Men With Manchester City”. The wonderful imagery of Manchester City and its bedraggled fans traipsing into the Racecourse Ground and asking the way to Bootham Crescent was a story not to be missed.

Heather, toasters and bananas

From the Glory Days of Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer, to the beginnings of a concert hall joke with Eddie Large on the subtitute’s bench, we had never seen anything like this. An idiosyncratic club to be sure. Helen Turner, a flower seller outside Manchester Royal Infirmary, would sit in the front rows of the North Stand and offer Joe Corrigan a sprig of lucky heather before every game and then thunder her bell every time City won a corner. In 1978 the club bought Kaziu Deyna, the Polish World Cup captain, for a consignment of toasters and fridges, a deal arranged by electircal goods magnate and megalomaniac chairman Peter Swales. Someone stumbled onto the away terrace at West Brom with an inflatable banana and, within weeks, there were thousands of the things, joined by paddling pools, crocodiles and fried eggs, cramming every City game. It was a club with a heart and a sense of humour, which was often turned on itself for good measure.

But, by 1998, we didn't need the self-deprecating jokes and stories - everyone else had learned to do it better. Manchester City, English League Champions in 1968, proud European trophy winners in 1970, were in the third division and staring at a triple-X fixture list, whose first few weeks offered us the delights of Wrexham, Chesterfield and Northampton.

Tens of thousands of fans greeted City upon their arrival in the third tier, Blackpool their first visitors.

Tens of thousands of fans greeted City upon their arrival in the third tier, Blackpool their first visitors.

Cup defeats to the likes of Shrewsbury and Halifax in the good old days had raised a laugh and helped cement City’s professional profile as a maverick, drop-dead-funny club, but this was different. This was cry-your-eyes-out sad. It felt a little like death creeping near and raking its nails down your back. The money had been frittered away. The best players had been sold. The ground looked tired and delapidated. The fans, morose and sick to the back teeth of incompetent adminstrators and awful players, were flat on the floor.

Then a strange thing happened.

As the new season’s fixtures crept closer, an upswell of bugger-them-all support began to flood around the old precincts. By the time City took to the field for serious third division combat, season ticket sales had gone past the previous year’s figure in Division Two. As the City players walked out on a bright and sunny Saturday 8th August 1998, 32,134 cheering fans were waiting to greet them.

It would prove to be just enough, as City – refusing to pull up any trees even in these desperate circumstances – averaged more than 28,000 throughout a season, which would end at Wembley for an unforgettable climax infront of 40,000 Blues fans against Tony Pulis’s Gillingham. It seems strange to think that this all happened relatively recently. We flocked in our thousands to Wycombe and Walsall, To Bristol Rovers and Colchester, to cheer on the likes of Craig Russell, the flimsy Gary Mason (later to star for Dunfermline) and the even-then heavy-legged Jamie Pollock. These threadbare offerings were all we had, but it was our City and we weren’t going to give up a habit of a lifetime, just because they were absolutely rubbish.