Football: Black humour prevails in City's latest demotion

Phil Shaw looks at the muddled thinking behind a Mancunian institution' s unprecedented fall
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The Independent Online
IN THE media suite at Stoke's Britannia Stadium on Sunday, a former Manchester City player delved into Maine Road's thick anthology of black humour as he reflected on their relegation to the third grade of English football.

Ruefully he recalled a joke from when City lurched between the old First and Second Divisions in the 1980s. Peter Swales, then the chairman, has a black-out and is taken to the Northern Hospital. "Where are we?" he asks on coming round. "The Northern," replies the nurse. "Bloody hell," says Swales, "what happened to the Third and Fourth and Vauxhall Conference?''

Neither Swales, who has since died, nor the fans who called so vociferously for his head could have imagined that City would soon be a division below Crewe, Bury and Stockport. Or that derby day would see them stepping out at Macclesfield or Wigan rather than Old Trafford.

This, after all, is a club who, within the past three decades, have won the League championship, FA Cup and League Cup, as well as the European Cup-Winners' Cup. A Mancunian institution so deeply entrenched in the people's affections that when they clinched promotion from the old Second Division in 1985, the gates were shut with 48,000 inside.

Locating exactly how and when the decline started is almost as difficult as establishing where it will all end. Some argue that the rot set in a quarter of a century ago, when the Reds went down and the Blues wasted the chance to become the city's top team.

The weakness of such logic is that it defines City, whose appeal is traditional and parochial, purely in relation to the nationally and globally popular United. While the fact that City last won a trophy in 1976 appears to pinpoint the beginning of their slide, the theory overlooks the extent to which the club later reasserted their place among the elite.

In both 1991 and '92, City finished a respectable fifth in the top flight. A year later, when United ended 26 years of hurt by winning the inaugural Premier League, City came ninth (one place above Arsenal). Yet it was within that period of relative success that the seeds of Sunday's sorrows were probably sown.

The first major blow was the defection of Howard Kendall, a manager then at the peak of his powers, back to Everton in 1990. The second was Swales' panic decision to sack Peter Reid, who had built promisingly on Kendall's legacy, after City gained only one point from three matches at the start of 1993-94.

Reid's exit unleashed frustrations among supporters which Francis Lee exploited. He finally became chairman at the start of 1994, but the "Forward with Franny Campaign" now looks like a bitterly ironic title.

If things were bad then - City lay 20th in the Premier League though they still had players like Quinn, Curle, Lomas, McMahon and Coton - Lee's reign makes Swales' 20 years resemble a golden age. A member of City's championship class of '68, he never had the financial muscle needed to keep pace with United et al.

Lee's judgement was often poor. His appointment of his friend Alan Ball, a manager who promptly lived up to his reputation for taking teams down, was bad enough. But one tragi-comic episode was invariably superseded by another; although Frank Clark initially made progress last season after becoming City's fifth manager in four months, he spent badly.

Joe Royle, brought in before Lee's resignation in February, could not keep them up despite a 5-2 win at Stoke. He has already hinted at a summer of upheaval. "There will be some soul-searching and big decisions made... about the staff, future planning and the players who'll be here next season - and those who won't.''

Sadly, the latter category includes the Ajax-bound Georgi Kinkladze, around whose mercurial talents a succession of managers have tried to build a team. With a staggering 54 professionals on the books - many on fat Premiership wages - the Georgian is the least of Royle's problems. One high earner, Nigel Clough, has spent the entire season in the Pontins League.

Yesterday, as the Maine Road 30,000 faced up to the reality that City will be joining the local non-League hopefuls in the first round of the FA Cup, not to mention playing in the Auto Windscreens Shield, Lee's successor David Bernstein offered them a "clear and unequivocal" apology.

In a message to supporters, he said: "For the best part of two decades you have had to put up with a total lack of success, culminating in two relegations in three years. Failure over such a period is inexcusable and can not be explained by bad luck or chance, particularly by a club with our support and resources. The club have constantly reacted to events and have not been helped by frequent changes in personnel.''

City now had a "hands-on, high-quality board", determined to reverse the culture of calamity. "We ask for your continued support," Bernstein concluded, no doubt with an eye on season-ticket sales. Yet with a manager bent on a clear-out and a chairman promising stability, things may get worse before they get better.