Manchester City arrive at the Amex on Sunday hoping to clinch the title, taking them two-thirds of the way to an unprecedented domestic treble. Their totals of 100 points and 106 goals last season, both Premier League records, suggest that they are the most formidable attacking force that England’s top division has ever seen.
But as the Albion attempt to finish the season on a high note, it might be encouraging to remember that it was not always this way.
As recently as the 1990s, City were synonymous with footballing misadventure. Francis Lee, their former forward and later chairman, famously said: 'If cups were awarded for cock-ups then you would not be able to move in City's boardroom.'
If you want to know the details, look no further than Caught Beneath The Landslide, written by former Daily Telegraph and Independent football reporter Tim Rich and published earlier this year.
The book is a superbly-researched and entertaining chronicle of City’s descent from the Premier League to League One under Alan Ball and Frank Clark and the misadventures of a host of other managers, including former Albion boss Steve Coppell – who lasted 33 days – and ex-Seagulls captain Brian Horton.
“It was written at a time when City were galloping to the league title last season,” Tim says. “There seemed to be a feeling in some quarters that, just as football began with the formation of the Premier League in 1992, City had really only started operations in 2008 when they were taken over by the government of Abu Dhabi.
“But when you go to games at The Etihad, you still see the odd inflatable banana, or replica shirt with SAAB or Brother sponsors’ logos and the traditional old light blue scarves with the white and burgundy bars, those links to the past. There must be about 10,000 season ticket holders who went to Maine Road and they remember the 1990s all too well.
“Then it was a Manchester club for working-class Manchester people. It is a completely different club now: you have The Tunnel Club at the Etihad Stadium where you can watch the players warm up as you enjoy your five-course meal and a member of Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff will come in and give you a tactical briefing about how they expect the game to unfold.
“There is a new demographic in addition to that 10,000, who are attracted by success. I’m not a Manchester United supporter but my family are, and we live five minutes from Old Trafford. And my son will say: ‘You can see Manchester City shirts in Trafford now!’”
For those who don’t remember those days of the mid-1990s when ITV Digital forced City to play third-tier games at Colchester on Sunday evenings, what went wrong?
“The story of City in the 1990s was the complete collapse of a football club, one of the great implosions in modern British sporting history,” Tim says. “There are very few parallels. They spent vast sums of money, they employed high-profile managers – four in one year -and they were led by people like Francis Lee and Dennis Tueart who had been idols of the club. But they still managed to make a mess of it.
“There are two moments that sum it up. One was the team playing out time at 2-2 at home to Liverpool on the last day of the 1995-6 season. They took the ball to the corner flag under instructions from Alan Ball in the belief that they’d be safe from relegation with a point when in fact they had to win.
“Ball’s reputation never recovered. It wasn’t just relegation, it was the farcical circumstances in which it happened, although as I say in the book, it wasn’t entirely his fault. There was a guy in the directors’ box listening to a transistor radio who had given out the wrong scores and Francis Lee had shouted the wrong information down to the dugout.
“The other was Jamie Pollock’s balletic own goal in the penultimate home game of the 97-98 season, a 2-2 draw with QPR that effectively relegated City to the third tier for the first time in their history. He flicked the ball over a QPR player in a brilliant interception that seemed to have snuffed out a dangerous moment but then nodded it over his own goalkeeper.
“What was especially remarkable is that he had been given a DVD of own goals and gaffes as a Christmas present but never opened it out of superstition. And for some reason he decided to get it out and watch it the night before a vital game. His wife had come in and asked him what fates he was trying to tempt! Those two incidents absolutely sum up what Lee was talking about in that ‘cups for cock-ups’ remark.”
Nobody seemed willing or able to call a halt or pause for breath as the club spiralled out of control until Joe Royle steadied the ship and led City back to the Premier League. And even he needed a Wembley play-off victory over Gillingham on penalties in 1999 to escape the third division.
“At one point they had a squad of nearly 50,” Tim says. “They had three dressing rooms, including one for players who weren’t in the squad but were still on Premier League money – people like Nigel Clough, who had been signed by Alan Ball for £1.5m but fell out of favour after Ball was sacked. After that he went to non-League with Burton Albion.”
But the book is far from being a collection of comedy blunders at an admittedly accident-prone club. It also covers the abuse suffered by young victims of paedophile youth coach Barry Bennell and other darker sides of football.
“Andy Morrison, the captain, had contemplated killing himself because he couldn’t escape his problems with drink and players like David White carried the whole Barry Bennell burden without telling anyone for ages.
“And even apart from those darker areas, what happened on the field destroyed a lot of careers. Frank Clark had been manager of the year at Nottingham Forest in 1995, was sacked by City in 1998 and never managed again.
“Peter Swales died of a heart attack at 62, essentially hounded to death by supporters wanting him out. Lee Bradbury was an expensive player whose reputation was shredded. Brian Horton did reasonable job but never managed in the top flight after that. A lot of people were hurt.
“Some people now, because of where City have got to, can look back on it fondly and say: ‘Wasn’t it great when we played at Wrexham or lost 2-1 at York?’ But at the time it wasn’t great at all. Fans once tried to storm the press box at Maine Road because a journalist had contrasted a 3,007 crowd against Mansfield [in the Football League Trophy] with the 55,000 that Manchester United got a day later against Bayern Munich.”
Albion folk might relish a ridiculous own goal from a City defender on Sunday or Raheem Sterling taking the ball to the corner flag to preserve a 2-2 draw. But nowadays even City defenders are more renowned for spectacular strikes at the right end.
“The goal scored by Vincent Kompany against Leicester on Monday was astonishing but also poetic because he is the one person who was at City before the takeover and has seen the whole gamut,” Tim says. “He has said that when he first arrived, the club was pretty close to financial collapse.
“People like Kompany, and Pablo Zabaleta when he was there, would go out in Manchester and mix with people and so they understand what City are about. They are not Alexis Sanchez or Bastien Schweinsteiger, who spent his entire United career on the golf course.
“If City do retain the title and go on to win the treble, there is a core of players who will appreciate and understand the achievement.”
And how does he assess Guardiola? “Retaining the title would be something in itself after such an epic title race. Guardiola would be only the seventh manager to retain the title since the war. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Brian Clough never did it, Bill Shankly never did it, Arsene Wenger never did it.”
And he believes that pipping Liverpool to the title would add to the Catalan’s enjoyment. “One characteristic of Guardiola’s is his irritation with the media. He thinks they are very pro-Liverpool, which may be true in a sense.
“We all know, as journalists, that the best story is the fresh story. However good a story City retaining the title would be, Liverpool winning it for the first time since the formation of the Premier League would be a better one.”
And if he wins the treble, what then? “There is a pressure on him in that he hasn’t delivered in Europe. It’s eight years since he won the European Cup with Barcelona. He was brought to Bayern Munich to win it and didn’t. And at City he hasn’t even come especially close to it.
“In the quarter-final first leg at Tottenham he played Fabian Delph and was possibly being too clever in his tactical tinkering, but some of the criticisms are ridiculous, like ‘He can’t win without Messi.’ He won it as a player and twice as a manager, with Messi or not.
“The Qataris at Paris St-Germain are clearly irritated by their lack of impact they are having on the Champions League and although we haven’t reached that stage with Abu Dhabi, if they have won everything possible domestically in a single season, I think the European Cup will become all-important.”
Not unreasonably, Tim expects City to lift the Premier League trophy at The Amex, but is glad that there is no possibility that the wrong result could relegate the Albion.
“I am very pleased that Brighton have stayed up and that Chris Hughton will still be there because I remember seeing him as manager of Norwich lose 7-0 at The Etihad,” he says. “Not only did he deliver a lengthy press conference but he did another session in that corridor off the main media auditorium, talking it through again with the Monday papers.
“No other manager I know would have entertained the idea of going through it all again after being thrashed 7-0. No wonder his reputation among journalists is so extraordinarily high.”
Luckily there is no possibility of a 7-0 today. We hope.
Beneath The Landslide: Manchester City in the 1990s by Tim Rich. Published by deCoubertin Books.
Tim is contemplating writing a book with Brian Horton, a certain future best-seller in BN postcodes.