Football: City's Maine Road to nowhere

Football: Another season of slumming among the League's lower orders already faces Royle's retinue
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The Independent Online
THE MANCHESTER City fans turned to the away support and chorused: "Who the **** are you?" Standard terrace banter, except they genuinely did not know who Gillingham, their visitors on Saturday, were. As a Gills fan said afterwards: "They kept asking us: "Where is Gillingham? They had no idea."

This, then, is the cold reality of Manchester City's descent. While Manchester United leave today for a Champions' League tie in Barcelona, their neighbours are now playing teams they have barely heard of. And to make it worse, they cannot beat them.

Gillingham, who are actually two places above City in the Nationwide League's Second Division, gained a goalless draw on their Maine Road League debut and, though they needed a little fortune at times, just deserved it.

The result left City in seventh place, on the fringe of the play-off places but 11 points behind the runaway leaders Fulham and Stoke, who occupy the automatic promotion spots. A second season of slumming beckons already.

This is not what their supporters envisaged when they were relegated in a blaze of defiance last May. The final-day 5-2 win at Stoke was supposed to presage a glorious tour of football's lower division outposts, with the likes of Gillingham being swept away. Instead City have won just four homes games out of 10 and have lost at Wycombe and Lincoln, the bottom two clubs.

"I see two teams at every club," Joe Royle, the City manager, said.

"Whenever I go to see future opponents play I don't see much to trouble me, but then they come to Maine Road and are galvanised. Or we go there and it's the biggest gate of the season and they're galvanised. Everyone plays better against us. They're used to playing in front of three or four thousand then they come here with 26,000, it's like all their holidays have come at once."

Tony Pulis, the Gillingham manager, confirmed that the away dressing- room had been buzzing before the game with a nervous energy rarely experienced in the provincial repertory of the Nationwide. "Their problem is every match they play is a cup final," he added of City.

That is just one of City's problems. Another is that they do not possess the resources to match their profile. "The big spenders in this division are Fulham and Wigan," Royle said. "That sounds strange from a Man City manager but our spending's been minimal, about pounds 380,000 this season."

Fulham are backed by the Harrods' owner Mohamed Al Fayed, Wigan by the millionaire proprietor of the JJB sports shop chain, Dave Whelan. City, however, have been unable to attract similar support, their latest chairman, David Bernstein, informed the recent AGM. Having spent pounds 31m on players in the past five years, there is nothing left.

The club still generates a huge income by the standards of the division, helped by the gates which still top 26,000, but have had expenses to match.

When Royle arrived in February there were 53 players on the staff, many earning wages agreed when the club was still in the Premiership. It cost pounds 250,000, for example, to pay off Nigel Clough.

The situation is unlikely to be helped by the unexpected resignation yesterday of Mike Turner, the chief executive, after just 18 months at Maine Road. Not that clubs like Gillingham, who narrowly survived both bankruptcy and relegation to the Conference four years ago, are likely to be sympathetic.

Fortunately for City, Royle has experience of working successfully on a tight budget from his days at Oldham.

In nine months, Royle has moved 28 players out and brought seven in, a sum he hopes to add to this week with the purchase of either Aberdeen's Craig Hignett, Everton's Michael Branch, or both. With a new formation being developed as well consistency is, naturally, hard to achieve.

"You don't turn from a losing team to a winning team overnight," Royle said, "but that's what we have to do. Though I'd like to bring in a couple more [players] to nail it down, what we now have is good enough for this division and I expect us to get stronger as the season goes on. When I first came here I thought we had dishonest players but they are an honest team now with good characters."

There was certainly no lack of endeavour but it needed guile as well as sweat to beat a Gillingham side which was equally committed. A crowd still pining for Gheorghi Kinkladze had to settle for Craig Russell's wing-play which, though enterprising, merely played into the heads of Gillingham's big central defence.

At times City played well with Gary Mason, rescued from the depths of third-team football by Royle, frequently involved. The busy Shaun Goater could have scored twice in the opening 15 minutes, hitting the post after rounding Jim Stannard then seeing the goalkeeper make a brilliant reaction save to his point-blank header. After the break Andy Morrison had a thumping header cleared off the line by Nicky Southall while Russell and Mason missed good chances. But there were boos from the crowd at the end of both halves, the crowd jeered the persevering Tony Vaughan, and after- match comment on the local radio phone-in ended with the description "abysmal".

That was harsh on City but the support is not yet ready to be consider a club such as Gillingham - which although an experienced, well-organised team, has never been out of the lower divisions and won its sole honour, the Fourth Division championship, 35 years ago - as an equal. Nor, in truth, did the men of Kent feel as such. They sang: "You're not famous any more." But the presence of 2,700 travelling fans, half the average home gate, underlined City's attraction.

The only other time these teams met, in the FA Cup in 1908, Gillingham were called New Brompton and in the Southern League; City were headed for third place in the old First Division. Ancient history but, as the stadium emptied on Saturday, City's fifth place in the top flight six years ago seemed just as distant.