How Manchester City staged their own legendary comeback at Wembley in 1999

Twenty years ago City were seconds from being consigned to another season of Second Division football until Paul Dickov stepped up

Can it only be 20 years since Manchester United were the kings of Europe and their neighbours Manchester City, domestic treble winners this year, were the laughing stock of England?

Old Trafford was dubbed the Theatre of Dreams in those days and it stood as a powerful reminder of United's dominant football empire.

City, meanwhile, had suffered two relegations in three years: the first confirmed when the side played for time against Liverpool on the final day of the 1995-96 Premier League season, wasting minutes under the misapprehension that a draw would be good enough to keep them up. It wasn't.

The second, in 1998, was effectively sealed when club captain Jamie Pollock contrived to score an own goal of epic ineptitude to condemn City to the third tier.

No wonder City’s old ground, Maine Road, was sometimes cruelly dubbed the Theatre of Comedy.

United's inexorable pursuit of a treble in 1999 is now remembered almost entirely through the prism of an unforgettable night in Barcelona.

It was an evening when United somehow seized victory from Bayern Munich through injury time goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to claim the Uefa Champions League crown, adding it to the FA Cup and Premier League titles won earlier in the same month.

City supporters followed that late drama with a mix of awe and horror.

The former because Sir Alex Ferguson's side were so adept at staging late comebacks back then that nothing seemed beyond them, not even when playing poorly at the Camp Nou and trailing to an early goal by Bayern Munich's Mario Basler.

The latter because United’s victory only served to underline how important City’s upcoming match against Gillingham in the Second Division play-off final at Wembley would be.

Win and City would partially arrest many years of historic decline. Lose and the club would likely be condemned to a future filled with swingeing financial cuts and, in all likelihood, one without a move across the city to a new stadium.

That was what was at stake on May 30, 1999.

The game began at a decent tempo. City thought they had won a penalty early on, Gillingham had a goal disallowed. It was parry and riposte for much of the half, with the match surprisingly open.

City’s Shaun Goater and Terry Cooke both went close after the break before Gillingham scored twice in six minutes: first through Carl Asaba in the 81st minute and then from Robert Taylor.

With time running out, City looked to have blown their chance of promotion, living up to the “typical City” tag that had attached itself to the club as a way of describing the calamity that so often beset the club. Many fans shuffled dejectedly out of Wembley.

City’s now fabled turnaround in 1999 began with 15 seconds of normal time remaining, when Kevin Horlock shot through a crowd of players from the edge of the box to pull a goal back.

When the fourth official subsequently indicated there would be five minutes of additional time, some of the massed ranks of City fans in the record crowd of 76,935 restlessly wondered if it might be their day. Most thought the chance had slipped away.

City's equaliser arrived so late in added time that it makes Sergio Aguero's Premier League winning goal for the club in 2012 seem like it was delivered with undue haste.

When Paul Dickov, now a club ambassador, drove the ball into the Gillingham net the clock had ticked on to 94.10.

Speaking to The National last year, Dickov says "every emotion possible" went through his head after scoring the equaliser as he wheeled away in celebration and sank to his knees, fists clenched, eyes closed and his face pointed towards north London's overcast skies.

“To be 2-0 down and thinking we’d blown it and then for Kevin Horlock to score and for me to get the equaliser in the 95th minute was phenomenal.

“I get goosebumps on the back of my neck when I talk about it,” he said. "I am very honoured and humbled by it, although I do remind people there were another 10 players on the pitch that day and it wasn’t just my goal.”

His late equaliser ushered in 30 minutes of extra time and then penalties. In one final twist, Dickov missed his spot-kick, but City came out on top by 3-1.

Two decades on, it’s easy to cast that moment as the tipping point for City, when the ill winds began to be beaten back.

If only it were true: the next three seasons brought two promotions and a relegation and there were many more false starts in the years before the club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.

When the promotion celebrations began in 1999, it didn't feel like the club had decisively turned the corner.There was only relief that City hadn't failed again.

Dickov says that “to see where the club is now is phenomenal”.

“The people I am most pleased for are the fans, because we sunk to the lowest depths in the club’s history and they backed us,” he said.