Football: Sleeping giant grabs at crumbs

Second Division play-off final: Desperate Manchester City face newly ambitious Gillingham at Wembley tomorrow; Unlikely battle of little and large

YOU DO not have to travel backwards for long to survey Sky Blue decline. Eight years ago England's top division read Manchester City fifth, with the team immediately below them a ramshackle outfit from down the road. What ever happened to Manchester United?

If the Bayern Munich players felt Wednesday's injury- time goals were like daggers to the heart, they ought to be City fans whose claims to parity with Manchester's red monolith sound like taxi drivers hoping to gain cachet from their fares. For "I had Joan Collins in my cab once" read "we're just as big as them".

And they were. In the Seventies it was United who were making fools of themselves in the league's back streets while City were strutting with the elite. Now Old Trafford's trophy room needs an extension to fit in the European, Premiership and FA Cups while Maine Road chases glory of a kind that would have been an insult not so long ago.

Yet after eight years of calamity any crumb will do and when City reached the Second Division play-off final 10 days ago Moss Side erupted into championship-like joy. Now Gillingham's shape stands silhouetted at the end of a dark and unhappy tunnel.

As the flags, horns and parade of cars illustrated after City's play- off semi-final win over Wigan, it is not always easy to maintain proportion, but the City manager, Joe Royle, is too cute for that. He knows the club's stricken position is ludicrous and is not too proud to voice it. "I wouldn't class this as winning something even if we do," he said. "If it goes well, it will just be the start and nothing more. A club of this size with a fan base and an arena like we have shouldn't be in what is the Third Division."

For the first half of the season another year two rungs down from the Premiership seemed likely for City, but Royle's savage cleaving of the staff began to work at Christmas and they arrive at Wembley with two defeats in their last 26 League matches. They should be confident but anyone who has followed City will be aware of their ability to locate pitfalls, including two relegations in three years, the latter last May under Royle's management.

Royle says there was an apathy about City that was apparent as soon as he arrived in February 1998 and contends he should have pruned before he did. "There were just too many players here who weren't involved, internationals who weren't even guaranteed a reserve game," he said. "There were too many people to choose from and while you suspect they might not be what you want you're tempted to use them. If I look back on last season I might have been too fair to one or two players. The changes had to come."

Progress has been made, but it has been set against the backcloth of the treble. Royle is anxious to sever any link with what is happening at Old Trafford, but it is City's tragedy that their supporters and football in general cannot.

"This is about Sunday and us. Comparisons are inappropriate," Royle said earnestly. "What is happening over the park has nothing to do with the expectancy at this club, which has been majoring in disappointments and underachievement for a long time. We're not a problem to Manchester United because we're not in the same division as them. We will be."

No one yearns for that more than Richard Edghill, who joined the club as a schoolboy 12 years ago and shudders at the present circumstances. "This is the most important game in the club's history," he said, which sounds absurd for an outfit who have won championships and the European Cup-Winners' Cup until you are confronted by the desperation for success. Any success.

An intelligent footballer, even Edghill cannot properly verbalise the sense of despair that has swept through Maine Road. "It was a double shock because we'd been relegated from the Premier League so recently. It was difficult to understand it all. I don't know what went wrong. It just went wishy-washy."

As for United, he has the distaste that every City fan understands. "I watched the European Cup final but I didn't take too much interest," he said. "After Bayern hit the woodwork twice I had that feeling they'd come back because they've been stuffy [lucky] before this season.

"The comparisons with United and City are only difficult if you let it affect your life and I don't. They do what they do and we're totally different." Do you mix socially? "I wouldn't dream of it."

City expect to be mixing with United on the field soon but it is going to take two promotions to do it. Tomorrow's match will take them half- way to fulfilment or the full trip to anger and despair.

"Important as it is, it's a Second Division play-off game and we'll treat it as our 49th League game of the season," Royle said. "We're going down the night before, we're not going to a hotel in Berkshire or anywhere. We want everything to be normal."

No you don't Joe. You want everything to be abnormal. You want something to go right for City.

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