As Manchester City’s supporters head into the summer still celebrating this season’s historic treble, few may care much for Sunday’s League One play-off final.
After all, having swept to Premier League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup glory, the battle for promotion to the Championship between Charlton and Sunderland at Wembley is likely to seem a minor skirmish.
Yet just 20 years ago on 30 May 1999, the feeling was markedly different. Then it was City who were anxious to escape the third tier, having sunk to their lowest ebb with relegation to then Division Two in 1998.
It seems remarkable now, but City spent the 1998-99 campaign battling clubs such as Wrexham, Macclesfield, Lincoln and York. It proved an ordeal too, with a difficult season only coming good with a dramatic play-off final victory over Gillingham.
Their hopes looked over as Tony Pulis’ Gills struck twice late on but City hit back with two of their own in the dying moments. They eventually prevailed on penalties.
“It was just an amazing season,” said goalkeeper Nicky Weaver. “I think the fans still sing about it now.
“They probably couldn’t believe they were going to those places. It was difficult because everybody raised their game. It was everybody’s cup final when City were in town and we found it difficult in the early part of the season.
“Around Christmas time we found some really good form went on a run and towards the end of the season we looked like the team we thought we were going to be at the beginning.”
Weaver, who was then 20 and enjoying his first season as a first-team regular, etched his name into City folklore with two saves in the shoot-out.
He said: “As a goalkeeper there’s not really any pressure on you. You fancy yourself to save at least one out of five and I think the fact I saved the first one put us on the front foot.
“Nowadays you look at where the last few penalties have been, you have all the information, statistics – there was none of that then. I just thought, ‘Make yourself look as big as you can, pick a way and go that way’. You sort of guess.”
Weaver sparked jubilant celebrations when guessed right to deny Guy Butters. The keeper beckoned his team-mates to join him but as they approached he hurdled the advertising hoardings and set off on a wild charge around the stadium. When he was eventually caught the whole squad piled on top of him.
He said: “As they were coming over this adrenaline was running through me and I didn’t want it to end.
“I’ve no idea where it came from. It happened, and that it happened so early in my career that people always remember me for that. They did throughout my career.”
Yet it had almost been so different. Kevin Horlock did not pull City’s first goal back until the 89th minute and Paul Dickov’s famous equaliser came deep into five minutes of injury time.
Had the comeback not occurred, City may never have had the means to move to what is now the Etihad Stadium. And on the back of that, the financial injection that has propelled them to the top of the English game may not have happened either.
Weaver said: “If we hadn’t done it who knows what would have happened? If the stadium hadn’t come, the investment might not have come.
“You don’t really know what would have happened but certainly at the time we felt we had to get out of that division at the first attempt and luckily we did.”
- Press Association