Great Football League Teams 2: Manchester City 1988-9
Great? Probably not in the conventional sense of the term, but Manchester City’s promoted side of 1988-89 deserve the label for their sheer likeability. City trailed Champions Chelsea by 17 points at season end, and were roundly humiliated by the Blues in the run in, a match that saw the Graham Roberts inspired Londoners canter to a 3-0 lead before stepping off the gas at Maine Road. They had also started the season with a defeat at Hull and a 4-1 embarrassment at home to neighbours Oldham, been knocked out of the FA Cup at Brentford and lost 4-0 at Blackburn. So why the acclaim?
Manchester in the summer of 1988 had seen the establishment of the Hacienda nightclub’s Hot night, New Order had returned from Ibiza with the rollicking rave anthem Fine Time and the Stone Roses were to achieve resurrection after their early days as indie runts. “Youth culture” thrived and City’s young side seemed every inch a part of that, as did the mood on the terraces: the Moss side club’s support pioneered the inflatable banana trend of the age.
Paying £3.50 on the day at an inner city stadium located near enough to my student digs to get home afterwards for Sports Report gave me the chance to witness a felicitous flowering of young talent. If one recent City message boarder feels that the side was nothing without Paul Lake, he might have a case worth arguing, and for sure, Lake was in his prime then, oblivious that his career would be destined to end so early. A midfielder whose versatility recalled one of City’s greatest ever players, Colin Bell, the Denton youngster did provide much of the impetus but he certainly wasn’t alone.
Andy Hinchcliffe, a buccaneering left back and David White, a direct whippet-like winger were both destined to go on to play for their country, Steve Redmond’s solidity at centre half belied his years and Ian Brightwell was a bundle of energy in the defensive screening role. Up front, Pauls Simpson and Moulden were young tyros, the latter confirming a season in youth football that had seen him net 340 times for Bolton Lads Club and going some way to making up for the Summer departure to Spurs of Paul Stewart. Manager Mel Machin, took a low key role in nurturing the kids, but was cute enough to know that a wise old dog like Neil McNabb would provide the perfect foil to their eagerness.
After that dreadful beginning, City had easily the best of a 1-1 draw at Leeds and then won 3-1 at the Bridge. This was the second of a run of five successive wins that was to establish them near the top of the table. That autumn was heady, with opponents such as Portsmouth and Watford swept away in front of highly vocal Kippax crowds.
After Chelsea’s revenge mission, the results were icky in the Spring, but the Citizens still had enough in the way of points going into the penultimate afternoon to clinch promotion. Coasting at 3-0 against a talented Bournemouth side, the jitters shook them and the midfield promptings of future Maine Roader Ian Bishop and wily finishing of Luther Blissett, back from Milan, saw the Cherries inexplicably tie the match; the result an anguish I have rarely seen equalled. But, a week later, Trevor Morley, the calmer headed alternative to Moulden and Simpson, was the hero as a 1-1 draw at Bradford was enough to signal a Division One ticket.
If the local roots were the main factor, it was also the vulnerability of this young side that was so toothsome, and if they were to follow it all up with their greatest day of all the following September, thumping those Reds from across the City borders 5-1, the eventual arrival of Howard Kendall announced a new realpolitikand a severe lessening of attacking verve. City would never be so bewitching again.