THE cover of the Stoke fanzine neatly encapsulated what was at stake: who gets to visit Macclesfield next season?" The answer, after an almost surreal afternoon littered with goals, gaffes and grim scenes of crowd violence, was that both Stoke and Manchester City will be contesting Second Division derbies in the cramped confines of the Moss Rose.
In many ways, it was an archetypal City performance. Perhaps only they could score five times away from home and still end up being relegated to English football's third tier for the first time in their 111-year history. As if to deepen an irony that needed no embellishing, Alan Ball, who had previously taken both clubs down, steered Portsmouth to survival at their expense.
Thirty years ago next week, thousands of City followers laid siege to Newcastle to see the team of Bell, Lee and Summerbee beat Manchester United to the League championship with a 4-3 win on the final day. This time a similar exodus again witnessed seven goals, though in a starkly contrasting atmosphere and with a diametrically different outcome.
Fears that as many as 3,000 Mancunians might have acquired tickets for Stoke sections of the Britannia Stadium, proved unfounded. Only small pockets had infiltrated the home areas, but their presence provoked at least four outbreaks of fisticuffs in the stands.
Police later reported that there had been 30 ejections and 15 arrests. The violence continued after the match when rival fans, hurling bricks and bottles, became engaged in a pitched battle outside the ground. Ambulance officers reported 20 casualties, two with fractured cheekbones.
The match had not reached the 10-minute mark before it was held up as visiting supporters sprinted across the pitch to join their fellow fans. From Stoke's point of view, the sadness was that their team had no such stomach for the fray.
Joe Royle had sent out a positive City line-up, featuring three strikers, and Stoke were already struggling to contain their eager raiding by the time the first goal went in shortly after the half-hour.
A long, hopeful ball from the left-back position by Kevin Horlock badly exposed a square defence. Shaun Goater, Royle's deadline-day signing from Bristol City, easily lobbed Neville Southall.
Peter Thorne briefly threatened to restore parity, but Southall remained by far the busier keeper. He turned back the clock to defy Richard Edghill and Lee Bradbury before City doubled their advantage early in the second half.
Horlock's corner found Goater rising unchallenged. Southall did well to parry the Bermudan's header only for Paul Dickov to volley in the loose ball.
A rare Stoke corner led to their reducing the deficit through Thorne, though by now news of Port Vale and Portsmouth's leads was filtering through. Undaunted, within 30 seconds Bradbury restored City's two-goal cushion with another free header, while Goater outpaced Steven Tweed to put the result beyond doubt.
Another of Stoke's spasmodic attacks led to Thorne heading his second goal. By then, however, the game had the air of a testimonial match, and thousands of Stoke fans had left before Horlock swept in the final goal.
At the end Stoke slunk away to ponder their second demotion to the Second Division in seven years, and the search for yet another new manager. Alan Durban, who took the helm on a caretaker basis following the brief reign of Chris Kamara, said: "My job was to try to shore things up, but I think we'd already hit the iceberg. It was a fairly bizarre match in terms of the stoppage early on."
City's players looked almost sheepish as they took the rapturous acclaim of their followers. Georgi Kinkladze, who had flown in overnight from Georgia's match in Tunisia and appeared as substitute, threw his boots into their midst and reciprocated the bowing of his devotees.
Kinkladze will not be around when City start life among the Lincolns and Wigans - he is now expected to join Ajax - and Royle warned that other "big decisions" would be taken about personnel over the next week.
"That seemed to sum up our season," City's manager of 15 games sighed. "It was probably our best performance of the season. We got five goals and could have had more but for Neville. But we're not going down because of one match or one year. It's been a succession of things."
Royle went on to praise the "truly amazing" loyalty of the City faithful. "We've just gone down and they're cheering us off," he said. As he spoke, several of their number, were embroiled in the fighting outside the ground. Long after the broken bones have mended, there will still be broken hearts to heal.
Goals: Goater (32) 0-1; Dickov (49) 0-2; Thorne (63) 1-2; Bradbury (64) 1-3; Goater (70) 1-4; Thorne (86) 2-4; Horlock (90) 2-5.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Southall; Pickering, Sigurdsson, Tweed, Heath; Keen, Kavanagh, Wallace, Forsyth; Lightbourne (Taaffe, 57), Thorne. Substitutes not used: Whittle, Holsgrove.
Manchester City (3-4-3): Margetson; Symons, Wiekens, Vaughan; Edghill, Pollock, Jim Whitley (Brannan, ht), Horlock; Goater (Kinkladze, 73), Bradbury, Dickov (Jeff Whitley, 90).
Referee: M. Bailey (Cambridge)
Bookings: Stoke: Wallace, Thorne. Man City: Edghill.
Man of the match: Goater.
Attendance: 28,000.Reuse content