What's the story (behind City's lack of glory)?

While other clubs have good and bad seasons, Manchester City's fallow period has lasted 20 years. Glenn Moore reports

They are dusting down the banners on Moss Side, the ones that read: "Forward with Franny - Lee in". A quick dab of paint and they are ready: "Backwards with Franny - Lee out".

It is less than three years since Francis Lee was acclaimed as the people's champion in the bitter takeover with Peter Swales. Now the people are deserting their chairman in their thousands. Barring an unexpected revival by against Birmingham City at Maine Road this afternoon, there will be protests on the Kippax.

City are the club nobody wants to manage - except Tommy Docherty, the former United manager, who provided his own comic touch to Manchester's longest-running farce yesterday, when he offered City "his services" yesterday.

So far George Graham, Steve McMahon, Howard Kendall and, most damagingly of all, Dave Bassett, have turned down what was once one of the plum jobs. Even the caretaker manager, Asa Hartford, does not want to know. When Lee intimated Hartford was a contender the caretaker was quick to deny any interest whatsoever.

The Bassett deal had been done and dusted on Wednesday night, right down to the names of the backroom staff, potential signings and the "no interference" clauses. Then Bassett woke up on Thursday morning and changed his mind.

Perhaps he had a nightmare in which he saw his predecessors, 11 in the past 18 years, passing through an ever-quickening turnstile while their names were chalked on and off the manager's door. Or perhaps he remembered last Saturday when his team, Crystal Palace, overran an awful City one.

In fact it was a bit of both, leading to a gut feeling that this was the right job, but the wrong time. His wife had advised him to go, as had his solicitor. So too, had he asked him, would his bank manager, for Lee was prepared to double his salary. However, other people, more closely connected with City, had warned him not to accept the post. The upshot, said Bassett to Lee, was that he felt "bad vibes".

The news was the culmination of a desperate two weeks for City. Saturday's defeat was followed three days later by a humiliating 4-1 loss at Lincoln in the Coca-Cola Cup. Even the team's celebrity supporters, the troubled Gallagher brothers from the rock band Oasis, look in need of good management.

Lee must now wish he had never become involved with the club; it may only be personal pride that is keeping him from quitting in the face of mounting opposition from supporters without and fellow board members and investors within.

It all seemed so different when he took over in January 1994. Lee promised an end to 20 years of predominantly poor management, football and fiscal, which had left the club burdened by debt, expectation and instability. He also promised to win something in three years - or leave.

Lee was a legend, a player from the days when City matched United. When United won the European Cup in 1968, City won the title. Under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, City followed up with the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup, all won, with style, in the next two seasons. For the next 10 years they usually finished higher than United.

Then Swales, who was seen as a promising and ambitious chairman, made his first big mistake: he brought back Allison and gave him an open cheque book. The subsequent signings - such as the uncapped Steve Daley for a then-British record pounds 1.4m - are the stuff of comic legend.

After 15 months, Allison was gone. A succession of managers have followed, none lasting four years. Alex Ferguson, who completes a decade across Manchester at United later this year, has seen off six of them.

As City have stuttered the Old Trafford empire has grown, swallowing up trophies and supporters. Even the school playgrounds of Manchester, so long a source of City support, are beginning to look towards United. You need a thick skin to support City these days.

Yet City still command impressive support. Despite poor results and the haphazard, expensive reconstruction of Maine Road - which has left a 31,257 capacity in a ground which once held 84,569 - gates average 27,000-plus.

It is this bedrock, aided by the extension of City's Platt Lane training complex into an impressive community centre used by 200,000 people, which forms City's potential. It is why Bassett was tempted. There is also the long-term possibility of moving to a new national stadium.

The short-term, however, future is less bright. The promised injection of capital has not happened. Lee, who made his fortune in paper products, has invested little, and the other investors have grown weary of his allegedly autocratic style.

He inherited Brian Horton as manager and was expected to sack him immediately. He did not, but neither did he make life easy for him. Lee would appear in the dressing-room before matches, a quiet but - given his playing background - intimidating presence. He also added Mike Summerbee to his staff: Summerbee's son, Nicky, is a player at City, one whose place is sometimes in doubt.

Horton was finally sacked at the end of an undistinguished, but ultimately comfortable season. In his place came Alan Ball, a childhood friend of Lee's, who as a manager has steered numerous clubs down a division.

City were duly relegated. A disappointing opening to this season followed, coupled with further tales of dressing-room and boardroom dissent. Ball's time was up. Such was the level of discontent from other investors it was him - or Lee.

Then came the search for a manager, and the subsequent rebuffs. The latest is the most cruel. Lee did not even want Bassett initially but was prevailed upon by board members who had first sounded Bassett out. And then Bassett said no, leaving Lee "devastated".

For some City fans, Bruce Rioch's decision yesterday to join Queen's Park Rangers as Stewart Houston's No 2 represents a further humiliation. With his consistent success in the First Division, knowledge of North- west football and apparent availability, many regarded him as the ideal No 1 at Maine Road.

Nearly three weeks ago, just after Ball was sacked, Bassett considered City's potential, and problems. They were, he felt, one of only three clubs in the First Division with "anywhere near" the gates and financial clout to "make a go" of the Premiership. And City, he added, "are on shifting sands".

"As a football club, City is a political hotbed. I'm not surprised Bally went. He knew when he took over that he was going into a cauldron. The club needs rebuilding, hardly the easiest task when the fans and directors are screaming out for an immediate return to the Premiership. The next man in will need all the support - and luck - he can lay his hands on."

Bassett decided he would not be that man. City, a team who once played on Donkey Common, were made asses of again.

Now there is enormous pressure for a quick appointment, but City have to get it right this time. Have they the nerve to wait?

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