When Manchester City were rubbish: how the 1998/99 season changed a football club’s destiny
Sinking to 12th at Christmas, the fans despaired. “We were so bad that it looked like we might go down again,” says Christie McDonald. “There was a match at Wrexham on Boxing Day that was especially grim. It was pissing down, not fit to play a game. It should have been called off, but the police bottled it because there was loads of Blues in town and it was going off left, right and centre.
“We’d go to these places, get off the train and find loads of Begbie characters who’d just wandered out of the Conservative Club looking for a fight. Whole towns were emptying for a scrap. You’d be thinking, ‘For God’s sake, we don’t need this’.
“I remember an FA Cup second round tie, on a Friday night against Darlington, and the relationship between fans and management had never been worse. It was 90 minutes of abusing Royle and [first-team coach] Willie Donachie. Willie actually ended up writing an article in the Manchester Evening News insisting, ‘This isn’t helping anybody’. But our attitude was just ‘f**k off’.”
Donachie said he was “feeling sick”, admitting, “I can honestly say it left me wondering why I bother.” Four days after drawing 1-1 with Darlington, City exited the Auto Windscreens Trophy to Mansfield in front of Maine Road’s lowest ever attendance: 3,007. The squad even stopped warming up on the pitch, preparing on nearby playing fields instead of running the gamut of hate from their own fans.
Royle had 99 problems, and the pitch was one. “We had Platt Lane as our training ground, although we couldn’t always use it because it was community owned,” he recalls. “One day the groundsman shyly asked me if we could find somewhere else to practise, because there was a non-league final coming up.
“We ended up in Oldham, on a surface that some joker christened ‘Little Wembley’. We even trained at some local schools. We had to smile through it, but then we lost at York. That was a low.”
Royle realised his squad needed a rethink. Lee Bradbury was shipped out, while Michael Branch arrived on loan from Everton. But it was the signings of Andy Morrison from Huddersfield and Terry Cooke, on loan from Manchester United, that turned the season around.
Morrison was exactly what City needed. “Andy changed our season, even though he had poor knees,” says Royle. “We desperately needed a leader. He got hold of the dressing room.”
Weaver agrees: “Morrison was a huge signing for us. Joe made him captain straight away. He was an intimidating figure for the opposition and he could be intimidating as a team-mate as well. I’d stand behind him in the tunnel and he’d be beating his chest, ready for battle. The other team would be thinking, ‘I don’t fancy tangling with him today’. But to be fair to Andy, he wasn’t just a brute and growling pitbull. He had a great touch, too.”
The jinky Cooke injected more creativity, midfielder Bishop provided consistency, and Weaver now looked unbeatable between the posts. Up front, meanwhile, the partnership between Paul Dickov and Shaun Goater was blossoming.
“When I signed Shaun, I got letters saying he would never be a City player,” says Royle. “But he was our top scorer that season [1998/99], then our leading scorer for the next two seasons. He even did well in the Premier League, and I still received letters saying he wasn’t good enough! But disgruntled supporters were part of the package. It must have been hard, especially with Fergie’s crew down the road winning everything. But Dickov and Goater were as honest as they come. They got in the box and knew where the goal was.”
After the 2-1 defeat at York, with City 11 points above the relegation zone, things finally began to change. “The turning point was the home game against league leaders Stoke in late December,” says Ric Turner, editor of City fanzine Blue Moon. “We were 1-0 down at half-time, but turned things around in the second half to win 2-1. You could sense something changed. The fans seemed to lift the players that day, and confidence grew. We went on an 11-game unbeaten run after that.”
Royle deserved credit, says Edghill. “He and Donachie really coached the team well. They were positive, they created a decent atmosphere, and the team responded. They did a great job, getting us to work for each other, tactically and in terms of motivation. There was a sense of humour and real spirit.”
Terry Cooke ran riot as Fulham were overrun 3-0. Stoke, Millwall and Macclesfield were also dispatched before Burnley were thrashed 6-0 at Turf Moor thanks to a 16-minute Goater hat-trick. Momentum was building all the while.
“We got the blend right,” says Royle. “The new guys and the senior players clicked, and we became one of the best sides in the division.
“I remember saying to coach Asa Hartford, ‘Something very strange is going on here.’ It’s around that time I coined the phrase ‘City-itis’. When you think things can’t get any worse, they do, and when you think they can’t get any better, they do.”
City beat York 4-0 in the last league game of the season to secure third place and book a play-off semi-final against Wigan. Again, Lady Luck played a role. “We were 1-0 down within a minute at Springfield Park due to a complete cock-up,” recalls Christie McDonald. “But we got it back to 1-1. At Maine Road, though, we were very fortunate – Wigan should have had a penalty, and Goater scored with a handball.”
City-itis was about to go critical: the Blues were off to Wembley.