IF NERVES of steel are required to be a Manchester City supporter, the players of that most unpredictable club also need a tungsten touch, and the present group may at last be developing it. Two-nil down with a couple of minutes to play at Wembley last May, even their manager, Joe Royle, was contemplating another season of trips to Chesterfield, Colchester and Wycombe. Famously, the referee found five minutes of added time, City found two goals from nowhere, and six months on they are on top of the First Division.
Nerves were stretched again on Saturday at the Valley, where Charlton, seeking the victory that would have brought with it the league leadership, outplayed Royle's weakened team at the start and finish, but gained nothing more than bruised pride and limbs as they bounced off the Thames Barrier erected by Richard Jobson and Gerard Wiekens.
"We defended really well," Royle said. "Richard Jobson must have a big red spot on his head, because he's headed every ball in the area today." Not for almost 80 minutes was the barrier breached; then Nicky Weaver got his finger-nails to Mark Kinsella's drive and as the ball came back off the bar, Martin Pringle hoicked it into the stand. In the final minute, Weaver confirmed his potential by somehow turning aside Andy Hunt's header.
So City were able to hang on to Shaun Goater's headed goal two minutes into the second half on his return from injury. Royle believes the Bermudian international, although yet to win over many City followers, will score 20 goals this season, but he is still pursuing Gillingham's striker Robert Taylor in what he calls "the most protracted transfer in the history of transfers".
BSkyB's recent pounds 9m injection should ensure that Taylor, if he ever arrives, is not the last to do so this season, which will give City a further edge over over some of their rivals in what is proving to be a less formidable division than was generally expected.
Charlton, unusually flush with cash, have so far made good use of their parachute payments following relegation and the extravagant pounds 4.5m received from Leeds for the full-back, Danny Mills. Dean Kiely in goal and the right-back Greg Shields, though not at his best on Saturday, have been excellent value and Andy Todd, a versatile defender, has been recruited from Bolton for pounds 750,000.
The difficult judgment now for Alan Curbishley is whether Hunt, Pringle and Clive Mendonca are going to score enough goals to bring just reward for all the impressive football played between the two penalty areas. Last season they did not, and matches just like Saturday's ended in similar fashion and cost a heavy price.
Mendonca's form may be the key; the scorer of 28 goals in the previous promotion campaign, including a stunning Wembley hat-trick, he has now scored once in open play since early September and on Saturday, his bad back battered by City's men of steel, he never came close.
Great expectations, the bane of so many City managers, also apply now to Charlton. They have a renewed opportunity to live up to them this week, with games against Swindon and Port Vale, while the Royle family are at home to upwardly mobile visitors in Barnsley and Huddersfield.
Goal: Goater (46) 0-1.
Charlton (4-4-2): Kiely; Shields (Pringle, 75), Rufus, Brown, Powell; Stuart (Salako, h-t), Kinsella, Jones, Robinson; Mendonca, Hunt. Substitutes not used: Barness, Ilic (gk), Todd.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Edghill, Wiekins, Johnson, Granville; Whitley, Pollock, Horlock, Toiatto (Cooke, 69); Goater, Taylor. Substitutes not used: Crooks, Wright (gk), Wright, Phillips, Kennedy.
Referee: R Furnandiz (Doncaster).
Bookings: Charlton: Robinson. Manchester City: Horlock.
Man of the match: Kinsella.