Micah Richards remembers waking up and checking the time: two o’clock, then four, then six. Nerves meant he could not sleep properly before the FA Cup final.
No wonder. The 2011 meeting with Stoke City marked a turning point in their history: the end of a drought, the start of a golden run, the first of 11 major trophies in a decade. But none of that felt inevitable then.
“When you are a Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal, when you are used to winning things, it all comes it a bit more naturally. But because we had never won anything and were expected to win as we were playing Stoke, there was so much pressure on us,” Richards recalled. “The game wasn’t that great. It was full of tension and little mistakes.”
City’s longest-serving player had been on their books since he was 14. Their previous major trophy, the 1976 League Cup, had come 12 years before his birth. It was only natural he was anxious.
“It was humungous,” Richards recalls. “I remember not sleeping before the game. I couldn’t relax, but when the game kicked off, I was like: ‘What are you worrying about?’”
He had a second concern before the match, however. A constant in City’s progress could have been sidelined. “I played all the rounds but didn’t play the semi-final against United,” he recalls. A hamstring injury ruled him out. David Platt, Roberto Mancini’s assistant, was encouraging: “He said to make sure you are fit for the final. But [Pablo] Zabaleta played an unbelievable game.
"He could have just been buttering me up and then played Zabaleta because he did so well in the semi-final. He was true to his word. It meant that little bit more because I had the manager’s trust.”
He had further motivation, harking back to the final of the junior event five years earlier. “I had missed out on an FA Youth Cup to Liverpool,” he says. “I always said it would be lovely to win the senior one. To see all the fans come down and have their moment and a trophy after 35 years, it was absolutely incredible.”
The most credibility-defying moment for the City supporters came five months later. There is a case for arguing the most significant Manchester derby of the decade was that semi-final win, setting up that long-awaited first trophy. But there is no doubt which is the most dramatic, the game identifiable by its scoreline alone: 6-1.
“It was 1-0 at half time so we were confident but thinking: ‘Don’t let it slip,’” Richards says. “One-nil is not a great scoreline because you are not playing your actual game, you are just trying to hold on to a lead but when Jonny Evans got sent off, we knew we were going to win it comfortably, but 6-1?
“I have been to Old Trafford and was fortunate to win there but to win in the manner we did when Alex Ferguson was there and people were calling us noisy neighbours and saying this team is not good enough to win, it was just incredible.”
It was a result to echo through the ages, Ferguson’s heaviest ever defeat, and, as City went on to win the title on goal difference, one with more than statistical significance.
As Richards thinks back nine years, three men stand out. “They are the best games I have ever seen David Silva, [Mario] Balotelli and James Milner play, everything just came off,” he says.
Silva scored the fifth, though his afternoon is best remembered for the magnificent hooked pass that sent the substitute Edin Dzeko away for the historic sixth; it remains the most famous of his 90 Premier League assists. Balotelli was the catalyst, the scorer of the opener and the man Evans could not contain. He was, literally, the firestarter: setting fireworks off in his bathroom had been part of an unorthodox build-up.
The rather more predictable Milner eschewed such antics but dovetailed well with Richards in a forceful right-sided partnership.
The full-back feels he was City’s unsung hero. “James Milner was absolutely incredible,” Richards says. “He gave me the licence to go forward. I just loved playing with him. He would do a lot of the hard work.
"I was as big as I have ever been. I was so heavy that I couldn’t really get up and down as I wanted to and he would always fill in for me because he was so fit. I remember saying to him afterwards, you are just a joy to play with.”
Fast forward six months and Richards was an agitated spectator. It may bely his reputation to learn that Balotelli was altogether calmer. Wednesday (May 13) marks the eighth anniversary of the most dramatic end to any title race, City’s 3-2 win over QPR. “It was one of my best seasons but I didn’t start the last five games because I pulled my hamstring and Zabaleta played,” he says.
He had been used as a substitute in the previous game at Newcastle United, though, his challenge leading to Yaya Toure’s clinching second goal. He was primed for a similar brief.
“It was one of my best seasons but I didn’t start the last five games because I pulled my hamstring and Zabaleta played,” he says.
He was, though, summoned as a substitute in the penultimate game at Newcastle United, his challenge leading to Yaya Toure’s clinching second goal. He was primed for a similar brief. “This is a memorable game for everyone and you want to be a part of it,” he says. “Had we gone 2-0 up I probably would have come on because Mancini used to go from four to five at the back.” Instead, 10-man, relegation-threatened QPR took a 2-1 lead.
“We had some top players and you think that they are always going to win things, no matter if they went to Man City or somewhere else,” Richards says.
“For people like me who had come through the youth it meant that much more so when I was on the sidelines warming up, Balotelli just put his arm around me and said: ‘Don’t worry, when I come on I am going to change the game.’ He was just 21 back then.”
The Italian was true to his word. He recorded a solitary Premier League assist in his time at City, but it was a question of quality, not quantity. Balotelli teed up Sergio Aguero for the 94th-minute decider.
“I know he gets a lot of bad press but he is genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met and has so much ability,” Richards says. “It was only him who could say that before it happened and it came true.”
Another substitute, he feels, merits more of the credit than he has received. Dzeko got the 92nd-minute leveller. “He doesn’t get enough respect for how good he is,” Richards says.
“It was only because he had [Carlos] Tevez, Balotelli and Aguero in front of him but he was an absolutely unbelievable performer.”
But the Bosnian was destined to be upstaged two minutes later. “When Aguero scored that, it was like all of your hard work, your emotions, the ups and downs, the injuries, everything just come to a halt, it just flashes by.
“It is hard to explain the feeling, it is like everything is in slow motion. Then when the whistle went, it is just tears of joy, an absolutely incredible moment, to be part of that team. That will never happen again in history. To be part of that was just a true blessing.”