The eyes of the football world will be on Manchester City on Tuesday night when they host Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16, looking to take a significant step forward in their £1bn push for the summit of European football. Whatever happens in the clubs’ first competitive encounter, it will be a far cry from the first time City first got the better of Barcelona back in August 1986 – when their only reward was a silver sailing ship.
That meeting 28 years ago came in the semi-final of a pre-season tournament in Spain and although Barcelona were a big scalp – Terry Venables’ side had been the European Cup runners-up three months earlier – City’s victory can hardly be described as memorable. Not when Perry Suckling, their goalkeeper that day, had to be reminded by The Independent that he had saved one of the spot-kicks in their 4-3 shoot-out success after a 1-1 draw. “I wasn’t too bad at saving penalties,” laughs Suckling, now academy goalkeeping coach at Tottenham. “Football has grown so much in the last 30 years and become a massive business,” he explains. “It was still a showpiece match for ourselves to play against Barcelona, but once it finished, you moved on and no one remembered it.”
In fairness, the match took place far from the hallowed turf of the Nou Camp in the distinctly unglamorous Andalusian port of Huelva. “It was in a stadium with a stand on only one side and the rest was standing,” recalls the then City striker Gordon Davies. “There was no atmosphere.”
City had lost three previous friendlies against Barcelona in the 1950s and 1970s, yet the match programme for their First Division opener against Wimbledon a week later had no photographic evidence of their success, just words of praise from manager Billy McNeill. “Not only did we compete against Barcelona in their country, but we were the better side – a view endorsed by the Spanish newspapers,” he wrote. A contemporary report in the Seville newspaper ABC supports that claim, noting that Barcelona struggled without Bernd Schuster and the newly signed Gary Lineker. Future City manager Mark Hughes, another Venables recruit that summer, “did not do enough to trouble the British defence” according to ABC and City “had complete control of the game in the second half.”
It was early in the second period that left-back Clive Wilson cancelled out a first-half chip by Roberto. “I remember Mick McCarthy played really well, he was a colossus at the back,” adds Suckling.
The following day City played home side Recreativo in the final, losing in another shoot-out after a 2-2 draw. For Davies, who scored both City goals, the clearest memory is of the difficulty they faced transporting their runners-up prize home. “We were presented with a silver Spanish galleon,” he recalls. “It must have been 3ft long by about 2ft high. They never gave us a box so when we got on the plane to fly back, Mick McCarthy just put it on a seat and put a seat belt around it.”
Unfortunately, City were to end up sunk that season. McNeill quit two months later and under Jimmy Frizzell a winless run of 14 games from January sent them down.
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