For our first Season to Remember, we take a trip back to the start of the 1987/88 season and another rollercoaster season on the Manchester City Express.
City were back in the second division. And after suffering relegation from Division One the previous season, the blues were looking for a new manager after Jimmy Frizzell had taken the reigns following Billy McNeill’s resignation on a caretaker/manager basis. They found it in the shape of Norwich assistant manager Mel Machin as the club attempted to regain their top flight status at the first attempt.
In their ranks, City had the combative midfield general Neil McNab, the well travelled Imre Varadi, hotshot striker Paul Stewart and new signing Tony Adcock. Elsewhere in the team, the blues were bringing through some of their youth team players. Paul Lake had emerged along with Andy Hinchcliffe, David White, Ian Scott, Ian Brightwell, Steve Redmond and the ever popular Paul Simpson. Also in the squad was Eric Nixon, ex-United defender John Gidman and veteran Kenny Clements as Machin attempted to mix youth with experience.
City began their campaign at home to Plymouth Argyle, a team the blues would play four times over the next nine months. A crowd of just over 20,000 watched as Plymouth took a 1-0 lead into the half time interval and City fans would have been forgiven for thinking that it was going to be a long, hard season. But with eight minutes left to play, Paul Stewart grabbed an equaliser while almost instantly, Plymouth had a second goal disallowed for offside. In the last minute, Imre Varadi scored to send the crowd wild and give City their first win of the season.
A week later, the blues drew 1-1 at Boundary Park, Oldham before travelling to Birmingham and a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. City’s first defeat was at home to Blackburn Rovers where Ian Scott gave the blues a 1-0 lead within the first few minutes but Blackburn came back to level before Simon Garner gave the visitors all three points with a last minute goal.
A goalless draw at Shrewsbury was followed by two straight wins; 4-0 over Millwall and 3-0 over Stoke, Varadi scoring a hat-trick in front of the Maine Road faithful.
City were in for a shock in the League Cup when fourth division Wolves visited and won the first leg 2-1, after Eric Nixon’s mistake allowed the visitors to take control of the tie. The result meant City had to go to the Black Country and win by two goals, which was a bit of a problem. City’s away form was abysmal. The blues had failed to win any of their away games for the whole of the previous season, scoring just eight goals in the process and the last away win came at White Hart Lane in January 1986.
Their terrible away form was highlighted when they lost 2-0 at Leeds and 3-1 at Hull before the return leg at Molineux. Following his display in the first leg, Eric Nixon had been dropped for the following league games and replaced by Bobby Mimms, on loan from Everton. But Nixon returned for the second leg and full backs John Gidman and Andy Hinchcliffe saved the blues with a goal each as City won 2-0.
Two defeats, at home to Sheffield United (2-3) and Ipswich Town (0-3) brought City down to earth before they embarked on an amazing 13 game unbeaten run starting at Bradford City where the blues claimed their first league away win since the Spurs game with a 4-2 win. A drab 1-1 draw at home to Barnsley was forgotten a few days later as first Division Nottingham Forest visited in the League Cup. Two goals by Varadi and one by Stewart sent City through and Varadi was on target on target again a week later in a 4-3 win at Swindon. Hinchcliffe scored at home to Middlesbrough in a 1-1 draw before the City goal machine roared into action as Huddersfield Town visited Maine Road. 4-0 up at half time, City ran riot in the second half as Stewart, Adcock and White all scored hat-tricks following Neil McNab’s 13th minute opener. Andy May scored the smallest of consolations for the visitors as City ran out 10-1 winners.
Plymouth returned to Maine Road three days later in the Full Members Cup and were hammered 6-2, Adcock helping himself to another hat-trick and Stewart got both goals as City won 2-0 at Reading. First division Watford were taken apart by Paul Lake in the League Cup (3-1) Birmingham hammered 3-0 and Bournemouth beaten 2-0 at Dean Court with a 1-1 draw at West Brom sandwiched in between.
Then it all came crashing down. Leading 1-0 at home to Crystal Palace, Eric Nixon got himself sent off for punching Palace striker Mark Bright. The City keeper, as well as the fans, had grown tired of Bright’s on-field antics and when he saw Bright rushing towards him at full speed after picking up a back pass, Nixon had had enough and lashed out, flooring Bright in the penalty area. Nixon saw red and Palace scored the penalty past stand-in keeper Steve Redmond and eventually won 3-1.
The blues won at Millwall (1-0) a week later but their home form suffered. A defeat to Chelsea in the Full Members Cup (0-2) was followed by two straight home league defeats to Oldham and Leeds (both 1-2). Two goals by Stewart helped secure a 3-1 win at Stoke but at home City lost again, this time Shrewsbury the winners 3-1.
In the FA Cup third round, City were paired with Huddersfield at Leeds Road. The blues took the lead through Ian Brightwell but Huddersfield came back to lead 2-1 and only a last minute Gidman free kick earned the blues a replay, which ended 0-0 and a second replay at Leeds Road, which City won comfortably 3-0.
In between the game at Maine Road and the second replay, City lost three games. A 3-2 defeat at Plymouth was followed by being knocked out of the League Cup at Everton (2-0) while their dismal home for continued as Aston Villa took three points back to the Midlands.
Bloomfield Road, Blackpool was the next stop in the FA Cup and a last minute Paul Lake equaliser again earned the blues a replay. Paul Stewart scored against his former club but missed a penalty as City finally won at Maine Road (2-1) to progress to the fifth round. A 2-1 defeat at Blackburn was followed by a league win on 13th February, which was City’s first home win since November 21st. Bournemouth were beaten 2-0 that day and a week later, Plymouth were beaten 3-1 at Maine Road in the FA Cup and the blues would face their biggest challenge of the season in the next round.
Hull and Ipswich were both beaten at Maine Road (both 2-0) while City won 2-1 at Sheffield United before the FA Cup quarter final. And it couldn’t have been any tougher for City as Liverpool arrived at Maine Road. The reds had been in unstoppable form all season and took a 1-0 lead into the break. There was more than a suspicion of handball as John Barnes turned Gidman and played the perfect cross for Ray Houghton to score.
In the second half, Paul Lake’s brilliant challenge was on Craig Johnson was deemed a penalty by the referee and Liverpool went 2-0 up. Further second half goals saw the Mersey giants through 4-0 and City’s FA Cup dream crushed. A home draw with Swindon (1-1) was followed by a defeat at Barnsley (3-1) and Huddersfield gained some sort of revenge by winning 1-0 at Leeds Road.
Reading visited Maine Road and were beaten 2-0 but City lost 2-1 at Middlesbrough and drew at Home to Bradford (2-2). A blues achieved a Midlands double win at Birmingham (3-0) and at home to West Brom (4-2) before the season ended on a low note with a 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace.
A lot of positives were taken from the season, in particular the emergence of talent such as Paul Lake and the other youngsters blooded by Machin. Paul Stewart had become hot property and in order for City to mount a more sustainable campaign the following season, he was sold to Spurs for £1.7m.
City finished ninth but with money in the bank from the Stewart transfer, City would be ready for the following season.
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