After treating their supporters to a season of rollercoaster thrills they will not forget in a long time, it was only fitting that Manchester City should clinch the First Division title with a clutch of goals at Maine Road yesterday. Hampered by a swirling wind, Kevin Keegan's side were not at their fluent best but their commitment to attack brought a handsome reward in any case.
It also brought a promise from Keegan that there would be no compromise on style when City attempt to succeed where Joe Royle's side failed last season and make sure their place in the Premiership is for keeps. "We've scored more than 100 goals to win this title and conceded 50 and I guess you could say that's my style," Keegan said. "But we will take that style into the Premiership because that is me. It is just the way we like to play football."
A hat-trick from Darren Huckerby – his second in consecutive home games – and two goals from Jon Macken on his full home debut put enough daylight between City and Barnsley, who face a fight to stay in the First Division, for a 33,000 crowd to be in party mood well before the close. And this with Paulo Wanchope, Shaun Goater and Eyal Berkovic all unavailable, although the visitors had enough on their plate trying – unsuccessfully – to contain the brilliant playmaking skills of Ali Benarbia.
Keegan, tasting promotion for the third time after his successes with Newcastle and Fulham, said this triumph was the most satisfying of them all, although he denied there was any sense of rehabilitation after the pain of his stint as England coach.
"Despite all that happened I actually enjoyed being England coach and learned from it, although I have no wish to look back on that time now," he said.
"But comparing this with Newcastle, with all respect to them, I've probably enjoyed this more because in some ways it was a bigger challenge, at a club I had no affinity with where people were wondering why I'd come.
"And maybe success at Newcastle came too soon in my management career for me to appreciate it properly. Perhaps I felt it was too easy." Looking ahead to next season, he declined to make rash promises of success but reiterated his intention to aim higher than consolidation, although he conceded that he would have to reinforce his squad to compete.
"We'll need two or three players because we have quite a small squad with a lot of young and unproven players," he said. "But they will have to be top-notch players because I don't believe the ones I have already will have a problem coping."
Keegan led the team on a lap around the field at full-time, although the atmosphere at the start had been more subdued. Already sure of promotion after Millwall's win over Wolves on Friday evening, the players themselves were slow to warm to the mood. Nonetheless, after Huckerby had opened the scoring in the 12th minute after the first moment of Benarbia magic, allowed to shoot past Andy Marriott from 10 yards despite a poor first touch, City seemed always to have something in hand. Once the second goal went in after 35 minutes, Benarbia setting up Huckerby again from similar range, it appeared the script had already been written.
Barnsley responded well before half-time with a goal well taken by Bruce Dyer, who drilled the ball hard and low inside Carlo Nash's near post after Kevin Betsy's flick had sent him clear. Indeed, had wing back Paul Gibbs not missed an acceptable chance to equalise early in the second half, perhaps City might have been made to work harder.
But Gibbs, picked out by Dyer's cross to the far post, slammed the ball into the side-netting, and soon afterwards City were celebrating again as Niclas Jensen set up Macken, Keegan's £5 million signing from Preston, to slide home his first at Maine Road and his team's 100th League goal of the season.
With the Championship now all but guaranteed, it was time for City – or at least Benarbia – to turn on the party style. On 65 minutes, after Shaun Wright-Phillips had lost and then won back possession just outside City's penalty area, the Algerian back-heeled the ball into Huckerby's path, collected the return pass and instantly sent his team-mate into open space on the right, where Huckerby had the composure to draw Marriott towards him before rolling the ball inside the far post.
It was enough to start the celebrations in earnest, although Benarbia had not quite finished. With a brilliant through ball, the 33-year-old former French player of the year released Wright-Phillips, who unselfishly squared a pass for Macken to bury his second.
Manchester City 5 Barnsley 1 Huckerby 12, 36, 63 Dyer 43, Macken 53, 70
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 33,628Reuse content