Support that never wavered for Man City

Coach trips to Macclesfield now replaced by flights to Munich for Manchester City's long suffering and loyal fans who have seen bad times as well as good.

Manchester City fans climb to get a better vantage point at Macclesfield's Moss Rose ground, during a Division Two match in 1998.
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It is a safe assumption that at some stage tonight the Allianz Arena will reverberate to the tune of one of the Manchester City fans' favourite songs. "We're not really here," is a staple of their soundtrack. Rarely, however, will it be more apt. In Bayern Munich's deluxe ground, the venue of the 2012 Champions League final, many could be forgiven for feeling reality has been suspended.

The chant's origin is the subject of stories, real and apocryphal, among City fans. Some trace its genesis back to a match at Millwall they were not allowed to attend in 2000; others to being barred from Luton Town in the 1980s or a trashed hotel on a pre-season tour, but there are those who will say they first heard it at Macclesfield Town in 1998.

And it is then that the thought of Champions League football was at its most surreal. Down in English football's third flight, City's local derby was Macclesfield, not Manchester United; they faced Lincoln City, not Liverpool, Chesterfield, not Chelsea. They ended the season sandwiched by Walsall and Gillingham, having lost home and away to Wycombe Wanderers. It has taken them 13 years to go from Macclesfield to Munich.

"I still stay in touch with a number of fans, and believe me, they are in wonderland," said Joe Royle, City's manager at the time. "It was the anniversary of the Macclesfield game this month. One was telling me that at Macclesfield the seats were so low down he couldn't even see the goal."

City were in a lowly position themselves: in August 1998, a draw with Notts County meant City dropped to 14th place in League One, their lowest ever position, suggesting they were only the 58th finest team in England. This was a very different club, fearing for their footballing and financial future.

"There is no escaping it. That was a low in City's history," Royle added. Having played in the side who finished as runners-up to Liverpool in 1977, he could remember City's happier times. After spells in charge of Oldham Athletic and Everton, he returned and, after relegation, had to extricate the club from the third tier.

"God only knows what would have happened had City stayed down there," he said. "They were in dire straits financially. There is no guarantee the club would have survived. The club was about £13 million [Dh73.4m] in debt. Now if you're £13m in debt in the Premier League it is almost like a pools win, but it was a considerable amount and we had over 50 players accumulated by a number of managers who were never at the club for long enough to get anyone out."

The current Champions League run, in comparison, should produce at least £25m in revenue. Quality has replaced quantity as the ethos in assembling a party of players with the Premier League's 25-man squad rule meaning that, even if he wanted, Roberto Mancini could not have as many footballers at his disposal. The constant is the crowd. City's average attendance in the 1998/99 season was a remarkable 28,261, while their sizeable travelling support were a boost to coffers of clubs all over the division.

"We broke records everywhere we went," Royle recalled. "Clubs welcomed us with open arms and then set about trying to beat us. The City fans are up there with the best in the business; their support for the club through thin and thin has been outstanding."

A large and loyal fan base have always had their idols, but in Division Two, as it was then called, they tended to be cult heroes. Whereas the current forward line has the sleek, speedy Sergio Aguero, then the short striker was the Scottish scrapper, Paul Dickov. Then the target man was the ungainly Shaun Goater; now it is Edin Dzeko, the Premier League's most improved striker. Vincent Kompany captains from the heart of the defence now; 13 years ago, the uncompromising Andy Morrison performed that task.

A side with a dreadful disciplinary record were, to some, a rogues' gallery, but they prospered with commitment and character. Many are cherished for helping in City's revival.

"They were great players for the cause but let's not kid ourselves that they would get in the current team," added Royle. Whereas Aguero cost £35m, Morrison commanded a £35,000 fee.

"The question was 'can we afford him?'" Royle remembered. "But Andy was a great leader. It turned around when we got him."

If it was a season that proved a turning point in City's history, their fortunes reversed dramatically in their final game, the play-off final at Wembley Stadium.

"In the Gillingham game, two minutes from time we were dead and 35 minutes later we were promoted," Royle explained. City, trailing 2-0, scored twice in the final seconds to take the game to extra time, before winning on penalties.

It was a month of dramatic denouements. In the same season, Bayern suffered from another, when Manchester United were 1-0 down in the dying seconds in the Champions League final and emerged with the trophy.

Now, however, they and City meet as equals. The back-to-back promotions Royle earned marked the beginning of their revival. Without the fall, the subsequent rise would have been less rewarding, their journey less dramatic.

While City were surrounded by the minnows and burdened by debt, ambitious plans were on the horizon to relocate to the ground built to host the Commonwealth Games in East Manchester.

And for those who were at the renamed Etihad Stadium to watch City make their Champions League bow against Napoli earlier this month, the point is that many of them really were there, down in the third flight when the team consisted of badly-behaved journeyman, down in the seats that did not afford a view of the goal at Macclesfield and down in the depths of despair when Gillingham led 2-0 at Wembley.

And now they are in Munich. Really.

Then and Now: The players

Nicky Weaver v Joe Hart

When he helped City to successive promotions, Weaver was tipped as a future England goalkeeper. Hart, in comparison, is his country No 1, breaking Weaver’s club record of 26 clean sheets in a season last year. But while Weaver, now at Sheffield Wednesday, never fulfilled his potential, he did make the save that sent City up, denying Gillingham’s Guy Butters in the penalty shoot-out in 1999.

Andy Morrison v Vincent Kompany

Both centre-backs are leaders, but probably not soul mates. Unlike the multilingual Kompany, with his fluent footballing style, Morrison was rather more abrasive. He was named City’s second greatest ever hard man, after Mike Doyle, picked up 13 bookings and one red card in the 1998/99 season and was later convicted of benefit fraud.

Jamie Pollock v Yaya Toure

Two midfielders who caught the eye with their physique, Toure because of his height and Pollock, above, because of his bulk. Both made headlines, too: Toure scored the winners for City in the FA Cup semi-final and final last season while Pollock had been sent off twice by this stage of the 1998/99 season. His career in professional football ended at 28, the age Toure is now.

Paul Dickov v Sergio Aguero

Both are small strikers, but the similarities may end there. The Argentine has scored some great goals, but Dickov managed the strike voted officially the club’s greatest. And while that can be disputed, it may well rank as the most important, his injury-time equaliser against Gillingham at Wembley in 1999 paving the way for City’s promotion.