Manchester City completed an unprecedented clean sweep of domestic honours in English football this season.

But 20 years ago the club were operating in a very different reality and on the brink of ruin, having dropped down to the third tier for the first time in their history.

Having initially struggled with the status of being overwhelming favourites for the Division Two title, Joe Royle's side managed to scrape into the play-off final at Wembley on May 30, 1999 against Gillingham.

Goals from Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor had Tony Pulis and his underdogs 2-0 to the good as the 90-minute mark approached.

City, whose neighbours Manchester United had completed their own incredible comeback to win the Champions League against Bayern Munich in Barcelona four nights earlier, were staring into the abyss – a planned move to what would become their Etihad Stadium gravely threatened by the prospect of a prolonged stay in the lower divisions.

Without the new stadium, Sheikh Mansour and all that followed would probably never have happened. This is the story of City's journey through England's footballing backwaters and how the likes of Paul Dickov and Nicky Weaver became players revered alongside the club's superstars of today.


Having played as a centre-forward in a celebrated mid-1970s City team, Royle returned as manager in 1998 but was unable to avert relegation to Division Two – what is now League One.

Joe Royle (Manchester City manager 1998-2001):  "There were in excess of 50 professionals on the books. On my first deadline day were just trying to get players out to release the wage bill. There were constant talks about the club going into liquidation. There was certainly no money to spend and, at the time, we were fighting a relegation battle."

Paul Dickov (Manchester City forward 1996-2002, 2006-08): "A club like Manchester City should never have been in that division in the first place, regardless of players, mismanagement off the pitch and everything else. I think the clubs that have stayed down there a long time have maybe a bit of a complex about it and that's why they stay down there. You can say we're a big club and we shouldn't be here but if you take that attitude you're never going to get out of it."


A 3-0 opening day win over Blackpool proved a false dawn. After a December defeat to York City, Royle's men were languishing in 12th

Nicky Weaver (Manchester City goalkeeper 1997-2007): "It was the lowest the club had ever been. It sort of couldn't get any worse. We were a bit of a laughing stock. We needed a leader, Andy Morrison came in, Terry Cooke as well and Gareth Taylor."

Gareth Taylor (Manchester City striker 1998-2001; currently City's U18s coach): "We never warmed up on the pitch at Maine Road before home games, I don't know whether it was because of the fans giving the lads a bit of stick. We used an old primary school at the back of the Kippax Stand. They had an old assembly hall – really small, wooden floors. We'd play head tennis, do little sprints. Sometimes you were stopping yourself from sprinting into the piano or into the curtain."

Royle: "You had the anomaly of sides actually bringing more away fans to Maine Road than they were getting at home sometimes. They were making a big day of it. Coming to the game, theatre of a night, a meal out in Manchester, a couple of nights in a hotel."


Back-to-back wins against Wrexham and Stoke City after Christmas proved a turning point and City stormed up the table to a third-place finish.

Dickov: The Stoke game was huge for us. We were one down at half-time and we managed to turn it around, come back and win 2-1. I'd been lying to you if I said there wasn't a few things said at half time, a few things thrown, a few punches thrown as well."

Taylor: "The fans let us know about it at half-time against Stoke. It was high pressure, a bit of a cauldron. Then I remember Paul setting up a cross inside for me and I managed to get my first goal. We won the game 2-1 and kind of went on from there, really."


After edging through a semi-final 2-1 on aggregate against Wigan Athletic, City faced up to Gillingham, a manager on the rise and their in-form strike duo – one half of which almost missed out on Wembley.

Robert Taylor (Gillingham 1998-99, Manchester City 1999-00): "Tony Pulis was like a dad to the rest of the players, everyone looked up to him. He's such a nice fella but a hard fella – he'd tell you straight but everyone knew where they stood with him. In the build-up to the game we trained at Aston Villa and I turned my ankle. Where they'd taken the goals out of the ground, I went down one of those holes. I was sitting on the sidelines with an ice pack with Gareth Southgate, funnily enough, who was there training for England. He's going, 'Are you going to be fit for Sunday?'. I didn't know if I would be."

Weaver: "We were all excited. We trained at our stadium leading up to it. It must have been the day that tickets were released - I turned up for training and they were queueing around the car park at Maine Road. The buzz about going to Wembley, it was the first time they had been to Wembley for a long, long time. I remember it seeming to take ages to come around."


A cagey contest unfolded until Asaba finished superbly in the 81st minute, before laying on Taylor for a fabulous second.

Robert Taylor: "I played with Carl at Brentford and we were one of those partnerships that just clicked. You look at the goal we scored at Wembley where I flicked it on, spun and he backheeled it back to me. We knew each other, where we were and what we wanted."

Weaver: "Bob Taylor's goal is probably my fault, I was out of position – too advanced, showing him too much of my near post. But no one ever says anything about that so I'm quite happy about it. You're down and out, but I remembered Man United against Bayern Munich a few nights earlier. I was thinking 'if you get one, you never know' and Kev scored."


Kevin Horlock drilled home a loose ball from the edge of the box before a signal for five minutes of injury time sparked fresh hope in the City end. Dickov made them count with an equaliser at the death.

Gareth Taylor: "I don't know where that time came from. I can't remember there being any injuries or anything like that. I managed to win the header, I put it forward to Kevin, Kevin sets it to Shaun Goater, who gets tackled and Dickov scores. Cue pandemonium."

Robert Taylor: "I don't know where five minutes came from, to be honest with you. It's a mystery. Bringing Carl off and leaving me up front on my own let them come forward more. They could put another couple of bodies forward and it landed to the right people."

Weaver: "I remember Tony Pulis was going mad on the touchline about the injury time. At this point he'd taken his strikers off and put more defensive players on."

No one could find a winner in extra-time, meaning City and Gillingham would settle their fate from 12 yards.

Royle: "We'd been practicing penalties all week and Nicky Weaver, exciting young prospect that he was, hadn't been great at saving penalties. There is a knack to saving penalties and he was a bit raw. I did remotely consider bringing Tommy Wright on for the penalty shoot-out."

Weaver: "I think he'd used all his subs… he had! He put Tony Vaughan on for Andy Morrison, Gareth Taylor came on and Ian Bishop. But it may have crossed his mind at some point. We did a lot of penalty practice and Paul Dickov never missed. He was like a tennis ball machine."

Dickov: "Going into penalties we were super confident. I've never been as confident in my life taking a penalty."

Gareth Taylor: "I was keen to take one but Joe Royle didn't look at me and I don't blame him! I was on penalties normally but I missed one in a game against Oldham at Maine Road. I scored in the game but missed the penalty. I don't think he ever forgave me because we lost the game 2-1."


Despite his confidence, Dickov's attempt to beat his former Arsenal team-mate and best man Vince Bartram from 12 yards hit both posts and bounced clear. Weaver was on form, however, saving from Paul Smith as all City's other takers scored. Adrian Pennock also missed for the Gills, meaning Guy Butters had to score their fourth kick.

Weaver: "I said to the linesman, 'If I save this, is that it?' He said, 'Yep'. I said, 'Are you sure?'. There was plenty of power on it but it was one of them where if you guess the right way, you're going to save it. I pulled this face that I've never pulled previously or since, waved the lads over and got this adrenaline running through my body. I hopped over the advertising board, ran around there and back onto the pitch. Only big Andy Morrison stopped me. The last thing I wanted after that was a 20-man pile-on."

Gareth Taylor: "I got married a week afterwards. Nicky Weaver's at my wedding doing the silly like [penalty celebration gesture] every time he sees the camera."

City were promoted back to the Premier League the following season and, although relegation followed and Royle departed, they bounced straight back before taking up residence in the City of Manchester Stadium in 2003. Five years later, they were under the ownership of the Abu Dhabi United Group.

Dickov: "I dread to think what might have happened if we hadn't gone up. If you believe what people were saying, the club would have really struggled. It's probably just as well we didn't realise how important it was as it would have put more pressure on us. I signed in 1996, I was at the parade after this season and you can see the same people are still working here. It would have been easy for the owners to come in and get rid, but they've got wonderful people working here. The stuff they do in the community around east Manchester is amazing. It’s a special club and I don't think they get the credit they deserve for it."

Weaver: "The Wembley thing, it sort of gets bigger every time I go back. People want to talk about it more. I suppose I'll be talking about it for the rest of my life. It's just a fantastic part of the club's history and I'm so proud I was involved."

Royle: "It's nice what they say about our time being a base for what's happened here. Who knows what would have happened with one more season in the lower divisions? The drama the fans have gone through there is amazing. I don't think there's any parallel to what has happened at Manchester City in recent history."