Manchester City's meteoric rise from Division Two football even more special for life-long supporters

Current era of dominance a far cry from days of living in the shadows of Manchester neighbours

If 93.20 is a time that holds a special place in the hearts of modern Manchester City fans – it was the moment on the game clock when Sergio Aguero sealed the 2012 English Premier League title – supporters with longer memories, like me, often look back almost as fondly to another stopwatch moment from a generation ago.

On May 30, 1999, Paul Dickov scored an equalising goal for City with 94.08 on the clock in the Division Two playoff final against Gillingham at the old Wembley. The side from Kent had held a two-goal lead less than five minutes earlier. City eventually prevailed on penalties to secure promotion back to the second tier and spark a wild night of celebration.

The fact that this year’s anniversary of that comeback will fall the day after City’s first Champions League final appearance in Portugal on Saturday, is another reminder of how far the club has come since the turn of the century.

The Nineties was the decade when the label "typical City" was liberally applied to the club’s extensive catalogue of onfield disaster, which was made much worse by their neighbours Manchester United being serial winners at the time.

The three years before the playoff final had delivered two relegations upon City. The three seasons after that match would bring two promotions and a relegation. Any step forward was usually followed by a setback.

Author and City fan Colin Shindler published his memoir 'Manchester United Ruined My Life' in 1998, its title accurately articulating how cursed we often felt to follow our club and, indeed, how dominant the Red Devils were back then.

Even after our playoff win, no one thought for a moment that regular appearances at Wembley or European finals would become part of City's future. That they are today is testament to the investment in the club that has arrived since the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008.

The 1999 game is regarded as one of the all-time great playoff final turnarounds, but in truth it wasn’t even the best comeback by a football club from Manchester that week. United did their best to ruin our lives in that moment, too.

Four days before our final, United had conjured two goals in added time to snatch the Champions League trophy away from Bayern Munich on a crazy night in Barcelona.

More than two decades later, City are the main attraction.

City routinely scale absurd heights and do crazy things these days, led by the artistry of Kevin de Bruyne’s passing, Phil Foden’s attacking play, FWA Footballer of the Year Ruben Dias’s defensive acumen and Ederson’s pinpoint distribution from his own box.

They are only four members of a squad full of heroes and artisans. Manager Pep Guardiola has changed his system this season to deal with the complications posed by playing football in a pandemic.

Whereas injuries piled up and luck deserted his team last term, this year he has redesigned the side to cope with absence. No fit strikers, no problem.

Perhaps his greatest trick, however, has been to energise players who had previously looked to be operating on the fringes.

John Stones and Oleksandr Zinchenko both looked to be on their way out of the Etihad last summer, yet they have been integral to City’s turnaround this season.

Joao Cancelo has been fashioned into a player who almost defies definition, moving from fullback to auxiliary frontman and almost everything in between. He played with aplomb throughout the spring.

Ilkay Gundogan, so often the efficient but under-appreciated shadow player in previous seasons, has been given the platform to shine this year. He is the club’s top scorer this term.

Riyad Mahrez has been equally transformed. He delivered when City needed him most, in the quarter-final second leg against Dortmund and in both sem-final ties against Paris Saint Germain. Four goals in his past three Champions League games have powered the side to Porto.

The turnaround has been quite something to watch.

City were in the bottom half of the Premier League in November and had only climbed to eighth by the turn of the year.

Few gave them a chance of progressing through the knockout stages of the Champions League, given they were on the so-called tougher side of the draw, which contained both finalists from 2020.

In the end, the league title was secured with three games to spare, the League Cup was won last month, while their progress to Saturday’s final has been steely.

It shows how strong the progress has been, that the form of other players, such as Bernardo Silva, Fernandinho, Kyle Walker and Rodri, is almost a secondary narrative in this version of City’s 2021 recovery story, yet all four have played central parts in a comeback of giant proportions.

Guardiola deserves huge praise for managing his resources so effectively in this most demanding of all seasons. The match in Porto will be City's 38th game of 2021.

And now he is within touching distance of the Champions League trophy again, 10 years after winning it for the second time with Barcelona.

It has been a special season. It might yet turn out to be extra special.

Updated: May 29, 2021 07:15 AM

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