Horton, who seems to have spent his entire 17-month tenure as City manager on the brink of being sacked, is one of those people who are easily liked. "A fierce competitor on the field but a decent guy off it," said David Pleat, the Luton manager, of his former captain.
Living in the shadow of the sack is an unedifying experience and hardly one calculated to soothe the soul. Thus the unnerving wild-eyed and bushy spectacle Horton creates as he is regularly - almost unfairly - caught by Grandstand immediately after a Saturday match. After the FA Cup defeat of Aston Villa last month he was even asked to repeat an off-camera comment that went "this should give me another week". That he complied illustrated his decent nature. That he said it in the first place indicated the pressure he is under.
The players know it. After that Villa match Maurizio Gaudino, Horton's new German signing, made the point of waiting for him and lifting his manager's fist to the heavens like a boxing referee with the victor. The crowd responded with cheers. A few weeks earlier Uwe Rsler, in a similar gesture of affection and support, dedicated his four goals against Notts County to his manager. But in-between those FA Cup ties City had lost at home in the Premiership to Leicester and some of the crowd had turned against Horton.
Their changing moods reflected not just the differing performances, but also the general feeling about Horton. He is neither flash, nor famous, and thus there is a doubt among some City fans - and much of the popular press - that he is not the right stuff for a club that regards itself as glamorous. This, after all, is a team that once hired John Bond as much for his style as his substance and sacked Mel Machin because he lacked a "repartee" (sic) with the fans.
"You can't stop the media hype," Horton said this week. "We will never stop that. I think the supporters have been happy with the football they have seen. We are all not happy with the results, but I just have to carry on doing what I do. I can't worry about wearing gold bracelets and studs in my ear. I just try to be a football man and do the job to the best of my ability.
"Howard Wilkinson [the manager of Leeds] does not wear gold necklaces and chains. He came from Boston United, so did Jim Smith. They are not all big names to start with, they have to learn somewhere. Most of them have learned the trade down the bottom, like I did, and have worked their way up. It is not a problem. Where did Bill Shankly start [Carlisle, Grimsby and Workington]? Where did Alex Ferguson start [East Stirling and St Mirren]?
"I think every manager in the Premiership is under threat. When the chairman tells me I have two games left I will listen. There was some stuff in the paper this morning about Steve Coppell going to Man City - I can't stop that. If I take any notice of that I will be suicidal.
"Phil Neal is having a bit of it, George Graham is having a lot of it - it's who's next, isn't it? Jim Smith got the sack last week and I still can't believe that. Jim is a good friend of mine and I think that is the worst one of the lot. So nothing would surprise me. But I have a good relationship with the chairman. Football is about results and we are not getting results at the moment. We have had a couple of good wins in the Cup. We won at Newcastle, we drew with them in the League. We beat Villa, who are the form team, might have beat Southampton, should have beaten Leicester. That is how football goes. As far as my job being on the line, I can't let that affect me. I don't."
Coppell was the latest name in a list of suggested replacements that seem to have included everyone from Ron Atkinson to Ronald McDonald.
This is partly because Horton, unlike most managers, did not even have a honeymoon period. His appointment was almost the final act of Peter Swales' dying regime. The former chairman hired 12 managers in 20 years and sacked most of them. By the time he sacked Peter Reid - after four games last season - and brought in Horton, the supporters had turned against Swales and, after a five-month campaign, Lee ousted him.
Lee, a former terrace hero who went on to make a fortune with a paper recycling business, was expected to replace Horton immediately. A year on, he has not. Perhaps he recognises that further instability is the last thing City need. Perhaps he recognises a kindred spirit, the self- made millionaire and the self-made football man.
Horton, having been freed by Walsall without playing a game, was playing for Hednesford Town and running his own building business when Lee was winning and scoring penalties for City's last great side of the late Sixties. Picked up by Gordon Lee at Port Vale, Horton went on to lead Alan Mullery's Brighton into the old First Division and help Pleat's Luton stay there. He then took Hull into the Second Division as player-manager and kept Oxford afloat through the post-Maxwell traumas.
The City side has been considerably reshaped, with Horton displaying a sure touch in the transfer market. Paul Walsh, Peter Beagrie and Rsler have proved excellent signings, and even the purchase of Alan Kernaghan is looking less questionable of late. Horton's approach, fostered under Mullery and Pleat, has been positive, with City at one stage this season playing a five-man forward line
But poor results - and better tactics by opposing sides - have weakened confidence and, with flair players that can be doubly destructive, because they stop playing to their instincts. Horton himself has had to temper his approach, notably at Southampton last week, though they still drew 2-2, and at Newcastle.
"I hated it when we went to Southampton and Le Tissier gave us stick for being defensive," he said, "just because we man-marked him and he did not get a kick. At times you have to do that but I don't like it, I like us to be attacking. I could not play Maurizio, so I chose to go there and not get beat which you have to do sometimes. The top sides in Europe do it every other week and don't get criticised. I might try and do that at Newcastle and bring them back here."
The latest Newcastle match is a week tomorrow, in the fifth round of the FA Cup. It is, said Horton, probably bigger than today's match. Outside his office in City's new administration block near Maine Road that is not immediately obvious. Under fading pennants of long-gone European days and by signed photographs of Mike Summerbee, phones ring incessantly as supporters seek tickets.
It is 27 years since City's last Championship, 16 since they last qualified for Europe. In the 19 seasons since they won one trophy (the 1976 League Cup); United have won 10, including the last two championships. So complete is United's derby day dominance (City's 5-1 success in September 1989 is their only win in 20 matches and 15 years) that United fans now regard Leeds and Liverpool as more appropriate rivals.
In November United beat City 5-0 at Old Trafford. "They murdered us," said Horton. "That was possibly the lowest night in my football career, close to getting a free when I was a kid. We owe it to the supporters after that. It is probably fair to say we are the city's club, United have supporters from all over the country. But you can't knock it. They get 43,000. They are the side to beat. If Blackburn win the title it will be an achievement because United have the best squad. Results and trophies tell you that.
"But on our day we can beat them. We could have won two of the derbies. We were 2-0 in one and lost 3-2. In the other we were on top when Cantona scored a goal the referee has since admitted to me was offside."
Such misfortunes tend to harden players' beliefs that they are destined not to beat some teams but Horton said: "I think it enters players' minds but I am not a believer in it. Newcastle can't beat us at the moment, just as we can't beat United. But that changes.
"When I was at Brighton we had a spell when we could not beat Palace. They used to murder us for fun. Then we beat them and it changed - they could not beat us. We have to break the spell, and hope Newcastle don't."Reuse content