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09th Sep 2016

How I could have ended the Manchester City revolution before it even began

It all happened on a Friday evening in the December of 1998.


By David Preece

It would be audacious for anyone other than those in power at the Etihad to take any credit for Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City this summer but I’m going to try my best to take a sliver of it anyway.

If there’s a straw to be clutched at, this is my attempt at placing myself as a walk-on part in the film made of the club’s history.

Many would point to Paul Dickov’s desperately late equaliser at Wembley against Gillingham as the exact moment Manchester City’s revival began but I’m telling you it wasn’t. I’m going to stick a pin in your timeline for you and it goes back six months before Nicky Weaver’s penalty save sealed their Wembley win.

Friday December 4, 1998 might not be written in the history books as the genesis of the modern day super-club status it holds today. Still, but for an equalising goal 13 minutes from time by Paul Dickov at Feethams that night, their course may have altered dramatically. ‘Leeds United’ dramatically.

Paul Dickov

The 1998-99 season was my second at as Darlington’s goalkeeper and we had been paired with the biggest club in the draw for the second round of the FA Cup; Manchester City. 

We had already performed a minor miracle in the previous round against Burnley after scoring three times in the last 10 minutes to overturn their two-goal lead, with the game being played at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium because of issues with our home ground surface

City, having suffered relegation the previous season, were finding the going a little tough as the stereotypical big fish of Division Two who everyone wanted to hook.

Losses to Fulham, Preston, Lincoln City, Reading and Wycombe Wanderers had left Joe Royle’s side in eighth position, 14 points behind leaders Stoke City – 52nd place in English football was not where they were supposed to be.

4 Mar 2000: Manchester City manager Joe Royle argues with the linesman during the Nationwide League Division One against Crystal Palace match at Selhurst Park in London. The game ended 1-1. Mandatory Credit: Craig Prentis /Allsport

At the same time, we found ourselves in a similar position in Division Three. Having made a great start to the season, that early season promise was curtailed by the late payment of wages and the threat of further financial problems that had a massively damaging effect on a squad that finished just five points outside the play-off places.

Nevertheless, we had a plan and our manager, David Hodgson, had convinced us this was going to be our night and City were there for the taking. He was right.

They were solid and workman-like, as far away from the flair of today’s City side as any team of theirs has have ever been. We knew the game would be decided on set-pieces and if we held strong at the back we certain we would score at least one goal. How were we so sure we’d score? Well, we practiced one corner routine every training session for that week until we could have done it with our eyes closed.

Under David Hodgson, surfaces permitting, we played some attractive, very un-division-three stuff – but for this game we changed our tact slightly. We kept possession of the ball as usual but our whole game hinged on one set-piece. One that worked so well every time we practiced it, it was just a matter of when we would execute it. 

It’s the kind of set piece that you could only ever use once as the game had been moved to Friday night to be broadcast live on Sky. It proved a master stroke.


On 16 minutes we won a corner and Steve Gaughan jogged over to take it. The signal was given and Marco Gabbiadini raced from the centre of the six yard box looking to take a short corner. As was the plan, Steve refused to pass him the ball which lead to Marco throwing his arms up in the air, complaining theatrically that the routine had been spoiled. Both players relaxed and gave the impression the routine had been aborted. 

By this time, two defenders had been dragged out to shadow Marco and halfway through his rant screaming obscenities at Steve he quickly back-pedalled into the space between the penalty area and the edge of the six-yard box. Steve then lofted the ball over the City players’ heads to Marco, who proceeded to head it over the other advancing defenders who had been drawn to the near post by his sharp movement. 

With the defenders caught in no man’s land, Gabbiadini’s flick-on took them and keeper Weaver out of the equation, allowing 37-year-old Gary Bennett the simple task of nodding him into an empty net as he arrived with the impeccable timing of a Swiss watchmaker. Like. A. Dream.

In retrospect we might have left it a little later in the game before we sprung our trap but it was clear from the large traveling support City had brought with them that there was unrest. Word had got to us that the City fans had been abusing their players before the game so we thought if we could get an early goal, the pressure would mount further on them before they had a chance to get control of the game. 

Shaun Goater and Gareth Taylor were a constant threat from balls pumped into my box and I was busy without being overly exerted. We’d played a 3-5-2 to cope with their physicality but for the most, despite losing Gary Bennett at halftime due to a cracked rib, I was well protected and everything was going to plan. Until the 77th minute, when City got a corner of their own, that is.

The ball was swung in at the near post and only half-cleared. As it bounced to the edge of the box, it broke to Dickov, who instinctively volleyed the ball across to my right. The box was still packed from the initial corner and as ball traveled through the bodies I lost the flight of it momentarily. The next time I caught a glimpse of it was too late, as it flashed past me and inside my right-hand post. 

Devastation for us, a chance at redemption for City and immediate regret from me for not just throwing myself to my right instead of waiting in case it took a deflection on the way.

We were just 13 minutes away from pulling off a cup shock and placing the futures of Joe Royle and his players in the balance. Even in the remaining minutes we were denied a clear penalty as Glenn Naylor was dragged down in the box by Edghilll and Steve Gaughan was subsequently shown a red card for putting hands on the referee in protest.

It’s strange looking back at the post-match interviews at a version of me I no longer recognise. But watching myself and Craig Liddle, you get the impression we didn’t realise what a chance we had spurned or what the consequences could’ve been for all involved. It was a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment for Manchester City, only this time they didn’t catch their other half in bed with a lover, avoiding a lengthy separation from the big time.

The replay at Maine Road eight days later was of a similar pattern but this time City were on maximum alert every time we had a corner or free kick. 

They weren’t going to be fooled a second time and we were beaten deep into extra time as Michael Brown poked the ball past me from close range. Twice they teetered on the edge of obscurity and twice they’d pulled themselves back against a team who had more than matched them. 

The end of our cup aspirations was the beginning of Manchester City’s climb back to a third-place finish and promotion via the play-offs, but it was that goal at Feethams that kickstarted it all.

That was the true starting point of the Manchester City we know today.


It was a turning point in their season but it’s worth questioning the value of that Dickov equaliser.

What if I had saved Dickov’s shot? What if Joe Royle had lost his job? What then?

No promotion. No Keegan. No Thaksin Shinawatra. No Sven. No Sheikh Mansour. No Mancini. No Pellegrini. No Aguero. No Premier League titles. And ultimately no Pep.

That was the goal that saved Manchester City. That was the goal that eventually led them to today.

*Credits roll*

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