When Manchester City were rubbish: how the 1998/99 season changed a football club’s destiny

Manchester City Gillingham 1999
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“My first thought? ‘You w**ker’”

Four days after United endured their ‘Football, bloody hell’ moment in Barcelona (“I remember fans singing, ‘You can stick your f**king Treble up your arse,’” says Ric Turner), City took part in what’s still recognised as one of the greatest English play-off dramas.

“We were confident – we’d finished well and won 2-0 at Gillingham during the run-in,” says Royle. “But one or two of the young lads didn’t show up on the day. I think the occasion got to them.”

Carl Asaba’s 81st-minute effort and a Rob Taylor drive five minutes later seemed to have won it for the Gills. City were staring at another season in the third tier, and – possibly – real trouble. “I’m not a ranter from the crazy crew, but I did turn to Willie Donachie and say, ‘It looks like we’re at Scunthorpe next year, if there is a next year,’” says Royle.  

The fans also saw optimism morph into agony. “I thought it would be OK, because instinct was telling me if City were going to ruin their season, we’d have already done it by now,” laughs Christie McDonald. “But it was horrible. At 2-0, many hardened blokes were crying. I was slumped. When Kevin Horlock scored on 90 minutes, I was actually a bit angry. I thought, ‘Why give us that bit of hope?’”

Ric Turner was similarly disconsolate: “I couldn’t believe that, when it really mattered the most, the club had let us down once again.”

But then the fourth official revealed there were five minutes of injury time. “I can still picture Gillingham boss Tony Pulis doing his nut,” says Weaver. “Dickov had missed a few chances and Vince Bartram made some good saves in the Gillingham goal. But then Dicky struck gold.”

It’s a moment City fans will never forget. “I was just waiting for the final whistle to go,” says McDonald. “Dickov was awful, and my first thought as he hit the shot was, ‘You w**ker’. He couldn’t finish. Then it was like slow motion. When it went in, the raw emotion was even greater than Sergio Aguero’s title-winner. If I was drowning, and my life flashed before me, that goal would be one of the things I’d see.”

As extra-time progressed, victory seemed “in the stars”, says Weaver. “They’d already taken their forwards off and put defensive players on. Extra-time came and went. The biggest thing was the penalties being at the City end. None of us were internationals, or really used to a big stage, so it helped. I think I looked big in that goal.”

Forgotten men

Weaver repelled Gillingham’s first penalty from Paul Smith. “It was a good start, although people forget that Dickov missed his. It makes me feel sorry for Kevin Horlock, because he scored a vital goal and his penalty, but everyone talks about Dickov as the hero.”

As Edghill stepped up, City fans drew their breath. He’d never scored a goal for City. “We thought, ‘What on earth is he doing taking one?’” says McDonald. “I wouldn’t have put money on him,” admits Weaver.

But his effort was near perfection, clipping the underside of the bar. “I know from talking to fans that people were thinking, ‘Oh my God’, but I was actually pretty confident,” recalls Edghill. “Once we were in the play-offs I started practising – I took loads of penalties every day and it was an incredible feeling when it went in.”

Guy Butters had to beat Weaver to keep the Gills alive. “I remember asking the linesman, ‘If I save this, is that it?’” reveals the keeper. “He said, ‘Yes’ and I replied, ‘Are you sure?’

“It wasn’t a great penalty and I got decent hands on it. Then I pulled a face I’ve never pulled before or since. I didn’t want the feeling to end so I leapt over the advertising boards. Only big Andy Morrison stopped me. The last thing I needed was a 20 man pile-on, but I got it.”

Weaver turned up at the post-match press conference with a can of lager. Royle was royally relieved. “Ian Bishop coming on as substitute oddly turned us around, even though we went 2-0 down after he did,” he laughs. “His passing and moving got us going. But what happened at the end was crazy. Gillingham will always feel hard done by.”

The rest is history. City were promoted to the Premier League a year later; then demoted and re-promoted, where they would remain until reaching their current zenith.

“I suppose we did play a part in getting City where they are today,” reflects Weaver. “It was early in my career and I didn’t really take in how big that day was. But whenever I go to Manchester now, it’s still all anyone wants to talk about. And my shirt from Wembley is at my mum and dad’s house, at the top of the stairs. When I’m there, I think about that match.”

Royal concurs. “Looking at the club now, it’s unbelievable. I still have a great rapport with the fans, and I think they all know just how vital that moment was. You can probably say City-itis has been well and truly banished.”

Well, for now at least.

This feature originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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