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Looking back to the future

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Richard Farley

Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FOXSoccer.com.

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Shaun Goater (left) and Lee Bradbury celebrate after Goater scores Manchester City's first third division goal. (Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Allsport/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Manchester City fans will experience one of the most exciting points in their club's recent history. Captain Vincent Kompany will lead table-topping and FA Cup-holding City out of the tunnel, onto the ground Bobby Charlton dubbed the Theatre of Dreams. With over 75,000 watching the arch rivals vie for the Premier League's pole position, the scene could represent the apex of a rise that started 13 years ago when City sat at their lowest point in club history.

On August 8, 1998, a recently-relegated City welcomed Blackpool to Maine Road. It was the Citizens' first match since the early May end of their Division One season. Then, Manchester City rolled to a meaningless 5-2 win at Stoke City as wins by Port Vale and Portsmouth sent the Sky Blues crashing into Division Two. It was the first time in the club's 118-year history that they'd fallen below England's second tier.

Twenty-six minutes into their only third division season, Manchester City was already on its way back up, with Shaun Goater sparking a 3-0 victory. Nine months later, Paul Dickov scored the final goal of the campaign: a stoppage time tally during the generous five extra minutes granted by Mark Halsey, a goal that equalized Terry Pulis's Gillingham in the Division Two playoff final. The Gills missed three kicks in the ensuing shootout, sending City back to the second tier.

"Of course there will be a blue party tonight," manager Joe Royle said after he'd returned the Sky Blues to Division One, "but it won't be that big.

"We have to keep everything in perspective and remember that a club this size should never be in this division."

Royle's assessment now seems like an ironic understatement, given how much City has grown in the 13 years that have followed. Even then, the Citizens didn't look like a third-tier team. The club had been relegated under remarkable circumstances a year earlier, giving up only one more goal than they'd allowed in the 1997-98 campaign. Neither their 56 scored nor 57 conceded stood out, yet the distribution of those goals saw City win only 12 of 46 matches. With players like Dickov and Goater complemented by the return of midfielder Ian Bishop from West Ham and a cast of seemingly promising young talent, City never should have gone down. Their May 2 relegation began what is now referred to as the club's dark days.

Regrettable fan violence followed the Stoke match, a symptom of the disbelief that a club of City's stature was dropping another level. While, in 1998, it had been 22 years since City had won a domestic honor, they were still a two-time first division champion. They'd won four FA Cups and made the final on another four occasions. They'd won two league cups, three Charity Shields and in 1970 City claimed the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. It's not the resume of a European titan, but it's a trophy case that would be the envy of most. Combine those achievements with having never fallen below the second tier and shock becomes the right word to describe City's demotion.

When and Where

This season's first Manchester Derby will air live Sunday, at 8:00 a.m. Eastern time on FOX Soccer, with replays of the match available Monday on demand at FOXSoccer.tv.

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And things could have been much worse. Half way through their third tier sojourn, City showed signs of a team that could swoon to lower levels. The Citizens had but nine wins in 24 league matches by the end of December. Losses at eventually relegated Lincoln (2-1, October 20) and York (2-1, December 19) made sense of the previous year's relegation. While Royle claimed City never should have descended to the third division's depths, when the calendar turned to 1999, City had a better case for the fourth division than second. The Citizens did eventually turned that around, losing only twice between December and season's end, but for much of the 1998-99 campaign, the big club looked very well placed in the third tier.

As histories of big clubs go - particularly clubs with Champions League aspirations - 1998 was not so long ago. Chelsea, for some time Europe's symbol of nouveau riche, have been in the first division since 1989 - 22 consecutive years. Manchester United's run is at 36 years; Liverpool's is 49; while Arsenal has been in the top tier since 1915. Amongst Europe's major players (which City has since become), only Juventus has seen time in the second division more recently than Manchester City, sent there for reasons much darker than mere on-field problems. For a team that could become the fifth different club to win the Premier League, 1998 is a shockingly near point for City to be dwelling in the third division.

By 2000, City was back in the Premiership, having earned back-to-back promotions. But for a club still recovering from their shocking dive, the quick ascension proved too much. Manchester City had been expected to battle relegation during the 1999-2000 season, so when they finished a surprising second and won promotion, a team that had yet to get its legs in Division One was thrown to the Premier League wolves. City was relegated at the end of the 2000-01 season, demoted to the second tier as Manchester United was winning their third straight Premiership.

In the summer of 2002, after a 32-goal season from Goater, Manchester City earned their last promotion, proceeding to finish in the top half upon their return to the first division. The formula employed that year will sound familiar to those used to City's current practices: A high profile manager (Kevin Keegan) coming off his first full season with the club (replacing Royle in May 2001) used an infusion of new talent (Peter Schmeichel, Marc-Vivien Foe, and £13 million Nicolas Anelka) to reach new heights.

After City spent two consecutive seasons in the bottom half between 2005 and 2007, the formula was repeated. In the summer of 2007, Sven-Goran Eriksson was hired, the Swede hastily signing seven players just before the season began. Eriksson would take six points from Manchester United, move the team into ninth, and be given his walking papers at the end of the campaign - a sign of changing times for a club that had allowed Royle to stay after relegation from Division One.

Though the club is barely recognizable from the Eriksson era (let alone Keegan's), Royle's allusion to City's stature is still important. City's place in the English game has allowed discussions of propriety to fade quickly. Not only was that a debate waged when Roman Abramovich fueled Chelsea's rise, it's a discussion that's gained new context as cash infusions have brought new ethos to Malaga (Spain), Anzhi Makhachkala (Russia) and Paris Saint-Germain (France).

Cash didn't make Manchester City. It restored it to a level not seen since the days of Malcolm Allison - days that have not been forgotten.

The speed of that restoration is part of Sunday's grandeur. The era of Shaun Goater leading City back up the league ladder is not long gone, but it seems such a distant part of the past - a stark contrast to Sunday.

When Kompany leads his side into the Theatre of Dreams, City will co-star in what could be the most important match of the season - a level they've never achieved in the Premier League era, one that was so far out of reach only 13 years ago.
 

Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FOXSoccer.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @richardfarley.

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