Maine Road's magic moments live in the memory

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The Independent Football

After 80 years, Manchester City retreated from Maine Road yesterday in defeat and disarray. But then some die harder than others.

After 80 years, Manchester City retreated from Maine Road yesterday in defeat and disarray. But then some die harder than others.

The point – and the glory – of this day at this ramshackle old ground was never going to be about any expectancy of success.

City had some wonderful moments here in Moss Side and the best of them were recreated poignantly when Nora Mercer, widow of Joe, Colin Bell and Malcolm Allison took the salute of a capacity crowd of 34,957, who had reassembled from various points of the world, including 10 young women from China who called themselves the Beijing Belles. Another wore a large lampshade over his head with the request that the last one out should turn off the lights. For him and his fellow fans a 1-0 defeat by Southampton was not so much a disaster as a final pinprick for bruised but still resilient souls.

Yes, of course, they will reappear in even greater numbers at the City of Manchester Stadium. They will come again with all their wounds and all those hopes which, you could see again yesterday, will never die.

Nora looked as spry as ever as she went with Bell and Allison to shake the hands of the teams before kick-off. She reminded you of the ferocious protection she provided for her husband in his first days at Maine Road in the mid-1960s when he arrived from Aston Villa still frail from the stroke which seemed such a poor reward for his magnificent playing career with Everton and Arsenal.

But before Mercer and his brilliantly innovative lieutenant, Allison, had City reaching out for the stars, there were certain defensive deficiencies which provoked one critic to suggest that, as Allison sought to make big Joe Corrigan into a great goalkeeper, the only chance of achieving a clean sheet was to fill the goal with concrete. When the critic called the Mercer home, Nora passed the phone to Joe and said: "It's Mr Ready Mix.''

There was always humour in those greatest of Maine Road days and when the old manager's widow and Allison and Bell walked out on to the field yesterday it was easy to remember how it was when it had been turned into a pot of gold.

Big Mal, who lives in a Cheshire nursing home now and has some better days than others, was halting in his steps and had to be hurried along through the presentation, but there was a moment when the years rolled away and Maine Road was at one with its tremulously engaging past.

Allison raised his fists to a grey sky and the cheering surged. With it, the memory of Bell surging down field, and Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee so sharp and intuitive and, when it came to disputing possession, as hard as nails. It was the triumvirate which briefly but unforgettably made Manchester City the envy of fans of every other club in England.

Now, 35 years precisely to the day when they won the First Division title with a brave victory at Newcastle, the total of their achievements did not seem so great – especially when you measure them against the juggernaut of United rolling on at Goodison Park. The City of Mercer and Allison won one title, one FA Cup, one European Cup-Winners' Cup and one League Cup.

But it was not so much how or what they won but how they did it and now, as Allison conjured those old memories, the impact of his team was alive again to the point where they might have been playing yesterday.

Of all the monuments to his work, the big pitch on which he now stood is perhaps the greatest. He enlarged it because, as he explained at the time: "I want a big field for the team with the biggest hearts in this football. I want those extra yards for Belly, Summerbee and Lee to do their work. I want to run teams into the ground.'' But, of course, City were City. The day after that title win in 1968, Allison declared: "Next stop Mars.'' In fact, it was a European Cup tie in Istanbul, which City lost.

When Allison left the field yesterday the current manager, Kevin Keegan, performed a kind of curtsy, and certainly on a bad day for the former Liverpool player it needed to be noted that he too is a believer in a big pitch and big aspirations.

Unfortunately yesterday provided only fleeting examples of Keegan's investment in the highest class with a touch or two of brilliance from Nicolas Anelka. But then the season had produced evidence enough that City's dreaming has reason to continue.

Yesterday was a time for the warmth of good memories, that are not just the Mercer-Allison empire, but the sublime skill of Peter Doherty and the hopes once engendered by the Revie plan, which brought an FA Cup success in 1956.

Maybe things will be different at the new stadium. For one thing there will be no gypsy curses. But you have to suspect that this will always be a club without regrets. It is one that lives day by day and asks not for guarantees but just a periodic run at the glory.