Football: City slip back to mediocrity

Manchester City 0 Northampton 0

THERE ARE headlines guaranteed to shock but nothing is more likely to have spoons dropped in cornflakes than "Manchester City bobbing along nicely, thank you". Catastrophe, calamity, unlucky, yes, but things going swimmingly at Maine Road? Come on.

But as the cock-up club entered this game there was the real prospect of good news. They were unbeaten in 10 league games and even automatic promotion from the Second Division seemed a possibility. Ninety minutes later and we were back in familiar territory.

Two points had been dropped at home against a club up to their necks in the relegation mire, the ninth City player had been sent off this season and anxiety that even the divisional play-offs could be missed was running rampantly round Maine Road's huge stands. The prodigal sons had returned to the disordered home.

There to greet them was City's manager Joe Royle who, if nothing else, has done a masterly job in buck-passing ever since he was appointed just over a year ago. Last season relegation was the fault of the previous manager, which neatly ignored that genial Joe was in charge for a third of it, while this time around we are constantly told the flame is fractions from the blue paper and just wait until contact is made.

On Saturday it was the referee who got it in the neck. Royle was furious that Kevin Horlock had been sent off and went on an extensive tour of previous miscarriages of justices. "We're going to end up playing in tutus," he grumbled and for the first of the two bookings that added up to a red card he had a point as the Northampton players generously acknowledged afterwards. However, no amount of Mr Messias-bashing could disguise that the official could have multiplied his mistakes by the power of 10 and still been lapped comfortably by the players.

City versus the Cobblers is an apt description of events over the last 20 years at Maine Road so perhaps we should not have been surprised at the poverty of what was being passed off as entertainment. It took a full 44 minutes for the first shot, a volley from Steve Howard that did not properly reward a perfect pass from Chris Freestone, by which time one press box wag had asked: "Why do they need a Junior Blues pantomime when they can watch this every week?"

To be fair, City improved enough for Royle to be able to assert correctly: "We dominated with 10 men so with 11 who knows?" and Billy Turley had to make two splendid saves from Michael Brown and Gareth Taylor. Nevertheless, the impression left was of a team over-conscious of the consequences of failure.

Which is unnecessary because the script was written in many minds this season even before a ball was kicked. The climax involves City being 1- 0 ahead with five minutes to go in the promotion play-off final at Wembley only to concede an own goal and lose on penalties. The hero of the opposition, the scorer of the winning kick, will, of course, be a former City player.

Ahhhhh, normality. It should be safe to return to that breakfast now.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks, Wiekens, Morrison, Edghill; Cooke, Brown, Bishop, Horlock; Goater (Dickov, 62), Taylor. Substitutes not used: Tiatto, Vaughan.

Northampton Town (3-5-2): Turley; Sampson, Howey, Hope; Gibb (Warner, 79), Savaga, Hunter, Parrish, Frain; Howard, Freestone (Corazzin, 72). Substitute not used: Hill.

Referee: M Messias (York).

Sending off: Manchester City: Horlock (30). Bookings: Manchester City: Morrison; Northampton: Sampson, Howey, Warner.

Man of the match: Gibb.

Attendance: 27,999.

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