Football: Royle's Blues rival United

Gillingham 2 Manchester City 2 (aet; Manchester City win 3-1 on penalties)
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The Independent Online
FAIRY-TALES HAVE been rich in abundance in football over the past week, but just when it seemed as if Manchester United had proved their monopoly on such things by winning the European Cup last Wednesday in improbable circumstances, the blue half of the city attempted to outdo their more glamorous rivals as they seized the final promotion spot from the Second Division in as unthinkable a manner.

United had scored twice in injury time to beat Bayern Munich in Barcelona. Here, at Wembley, after going two behind, City scored twice late on, including getting their second goal four minutes into stoppage time. Extra time was a mere blur, before City carried their late momentum through with them into the penalty shoot-out, when their goalkeeper, Nicky Weaver, saved two spot-kicks, including the final, decisive one from Gillingham's unfortunate defender, Guy Butters.

Gillingham themselves were looking to create their own piece of club history, by reaching the second flight of English football for the first time in their 106-year history and had appeared to secure their place with Fulham and Walsall as the other promoted teams from the Second Division. However, the fates conspired to deny the Kent side their finest hour, despite their being 2-0 up with only three minutes remaining. Tony Pulis' men scarcely deserved such an incredible turn of events on what was their first-ever Wembley appearance and which was heading towards an auspicious outcome after 87 minutes. For it was by then that the Gills had gone two ahead, Manchester City fans were leaving the stadium in droves and City appeared destined to suffer another season in the Second Division.

With 81 minutes gone, the game had promised little of the drama to come but the longer it went on, the more stretched it became and Gillingham were the first to profit. With nine minutes left, Carl Asaba worked a neat one-two with Paul Smith, ran on to the return pass unchecked and, from 12 yards, drove the ball past Weaver. City countered immediately, but when Paul Dickov stabbed his foot out at the ball, Vince Bartram produced a reflex save and it seemed City's hopes had disappeared. That feeling was compounded when Robert Taylor scored Gillingham's second with three minutes left, as Asaba flicked a back-heel into his path and he shot home from 10 yards out.

City's manager, Joe Royle, had not wanted to talk about United's achivements before this game but he had clearly drummed into his players teh need to keep playing to the final whistle and they showed what Manchester United can do, they can equal. With a minute of normal time remaining, Kevin Horlock pulled one back as the ball fell to him kindly and he shot home from the edge of the box. Yet that appeared to be nothing more than a consolation until five minutes into stoppage time, when City threw everything forward and an unmarked Dickov created pandemonium as he buried his shot from inside the penalty box and forced extra time. As City showed their greater stamina, Dickov went close to getting City's third in extra time, but sent a header too close to Bartram.

Despite Manchester City's greater Wembley pedigree, it was the Kent side who had appeared more at ease with the occasion early on and they went close through Mick Galloway, who saw Weaver dive to keep out his close- range effort.

City had beaten Gillingham in the last League meeting between these two sides but it took 26 minutes for them to stretch the Gills' defence, let alone hint at the victory to come. Terry Cooke, a former United player, had a subdued first half but he got to the byline and whipped in a cross that found Horlock unmarked in the six-yard box but his header was saved by Bartram, who gathered at the second attempt.

While they were giving nothing away at the back, Gillingham continued to threaten and with 20 minutes of the second half gone, Nicky Southall sent in a cross that the substitute Mark Saunders could only flick wide and soon after Asaba was only denied a shot from close range by Ian Bishop's saving tackle. Gillingham went even closer after 70 minutes, as Paul Smith sent in a fierce low shot that Weaver did well to hold.

Yet City reacted and with 15 minutes left, another Cooke cross this time found Goater, whose shot beat Bartram but hit the post, leaving City fans to fear this was not to be their day. As it turned out, it was far too soon for a team from Manchester to score a goal.

Once they had levelled and penalties were an option, extra-time barely saw a chance and buoyed by their remarkable comeback, City finished off the job they had started so late in the day. It may only be a brief moment, but right now Manchester is a city united in football.

City's proud manager, Royle, said: "My team never gives up, never. Manchester United did the same in Barcelona and now we have shown that there's another team in Manchester that just won't give in. Just like United, we were not at our best. But bringing on Ian Bishop and Gareth Taylor changed it for us.

"I feel sorry for Tony Pulis and his team. They're a terrific side, strong and hard to play against and they'll back in the hunt next season. But I still think the play-offs are a joke. You play 46 games then a cup competition."

Gillingham's Tony Pulis praised his shattered team and criticised the referee, Mark Halsey, over the five minutes of injury time at the end of the 90 minutes. "We're gutted," groaned Pulis, "and I can't imagine where the referee got five minutes of injury time from at the end of 90 minutes."

Gillingham (5-3-2): Bartram; Patterson (Hodge, 105), Ashby, Pennock, Butters, Southall; Smith, Hessenthaler, Galloway (Saunders, 57); R Taylor, Asaba (Carr, 87). Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks (G Taylor, 86), Edghill, Morrison (Bishop, 63), Wiekens; Brown (Vaughan, 63), Whitley, Horlock, Cooke, Dickov, Goater.

Referee: M Halsey (Welwyn Garden City) Bookings: Gillingham: Pennock, R Taylor, Carr. Manchester City: G Taylor, Wiekens.

Man of the Match: Dickov

Attendance: 76,935.