Football: Royle's fanfare for City faithful

`The fans are flying. My problem is not controlling the team but controlling the supporters'
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JOE ROYLE is a happy man. No, no, nothing to do with that Wembley play-off miracle. The Manchester City manager was delighted on Friday that he had got hold of the last half-dozen tickets for today's home match with Wolves.

"It's a Sky game, people could watch it on TV at home, yet we are still a 33,000 sell-out," Royle said, fresh from a session with his squad at the Platt Lane training ground. "I have just bought the last half-dozen tickets this morning, obscured views, for my sons who want them for friends."

Sharing a metropolis with the world's richest and most successful club, City attracted an average of 28,400 to their Second Division games last season. This year they have sold 21,000 season tickets. "There won't be half a dozen Premier clubs who have done that," said Royle. What would happen if City went up again hardly bears thinking about, though the club's enterprising new directors have permitted themselves to do just that.

By 2003 City will be installed in a new 50,000 capacity stadium, positioned for what their followers believe will be a serious challenge to their neighbours. "Right now, that's secondary," Royle said. "We are not a problem to them at the moment, we are not in the same division. They have gone away, not only from us but the rest of the Premiership too, but this club can follow because the infrastructure is there. We never mention Man U here. I hope we do soon, when we are playing them, but right now it doesn't matter. Say Manchester United dissolved next week, we still couldn't get any of their supporters in our ground.

"Our support defies logic because it has become a crusade. When we went down the fans could have said they couldn't take any more but they decided to stick with us. You can only marvel at their loyalty."

So the 50-year-old Royle is embarking on his 35th season in professional football on what might conservatively be termed a tidal wave of expectation. "The fans are flying," Royle grinned. "My problem is not controlling the team, it is controlling the supporters. They are the world's greatest optimists. We beat Liverpool 2-1 in a friendly last Tuesday. There were nearly 21,000 there, our best for a match like that in 20 years, and afterwards they were talking about being back in Europe soon. They deserve it."

City also deserved a decent spin of the coin and got it in that Wembley promotion play-off against Gillingham. Two down with four minutes to play, victory on penalties. It was enough to rival United's European Cup final as a point of civic pride in Manchester. Royle admits he has watched a video of that incredible occasion many times since "just to make sure it did happen".

"Getting back into the First Division is massive," he said, "but you wonder if anything can ever match that day at Wembley. It only hit me three or four days later. I was quite serene at the time, I think exhausted as much as serene. Then the enormity of the whole thing came home. We had a fans' forum the other night and they still haven't recovered. More to the point, they don't want to recover. This club has had so much bad luck over the years, so perhaps we were due a kiss from Lady Luck and there is no doubt about it, we got it."

Royle plumps for that occasion as the biggest of his managerial career, more important than winning the FA Cup with Everton in 1995. "Beating Man U wasn't the greatest thing that happened to us that year, it was staying up."

After 12 years in charge at Oldham and three at Goodison, the Liverpool- born Royle says he feels most at home at Maine Road, where he once wore the shirt. "I have enjoyed wherever I have played and worked," he said. "But this is personal as well, no doubt about it."

Royle took over in March 1998, too late to stave off relegation, so his double task last season was to restore balance and chase promotion. "We have had all the cliches," he said. "Swing doors, even keels, done all that. The place is very stable now." Of the 53 professionals Royle inherited, 40 were seniors and 32 departed in the book-balancing months. Now he has 40 professionals, 14 of them youngsters. Joe splashed out once in the summer, paying Wimbledon pounds 1m for the Republic of Ireland left-sided player Mark Kennedy. "I am looking realistically for us to go up but it isn't going to be easy. I don't think anyone is going to do what Sunderland did last season. I can see a dozen sides. The three who came down, Blackburn, Charlton and Forest, will be thereabouts. Birmingham, Ipswich and Bolton have stayed the course before, there's six for a start. Then you add Fulham, ourselves, Wolves and Barnsley, and there will be a surprise as well, there always is.

"Our first six games are heavy. Wolves, then Fulham away, Bolton, Sheffield United, Forest and Norwich. So in a month we will have a pretty good idea if we can go on in this division with our squad. But we want to do more than just survive, we want to get out of it. People are talking about finding our feet, but we haven't got time."

Royle insists his line-up, boosted by Danny Granville's move on loan from Leeds and the tenacious midfielder Jeff Whitley ("I call him the Little Ratter") is better than the one which came up and says there is cash available. "I have an agreement with the chairman [David Bernstein] that if I find somebody who will improve us dramatically I will go to him. Up to now they have backed me on every one."

Royle remains proud that he was a member of the last City side to win anything, the 1976 League Cup. "It was our last achievement of substance. I'm not going to get carried away with a Division Two play-off as being a major trophy, and we treated it that way. Didn't have a banquet after, we came straight back, sandwiches and a few beers on the coach. It was treated as a normal match... I know we have bigger things to come.

"To call us a sleeping giant would be kind, we have been comatose for 20 years. So if we go up again this year, then we'll celebrate, believe me."