City wake from Reading nightmare in nick of time

Posted by Simon Curtis

It is October 1998. I am getting wet. It is cold. Bitingly cold. I have just watched a game that has stretched my patience, my non-believing eyes and my love for Manchester City football club. Reading, playing in bright red and yellow, have just left the Maine Road pitch having won 1-0. 24,364 others are grumbling their way through the exits into the wind and rain outside on Claremont Road. Christmas is still a way off but I am considering cancelling it anyway.

- Blog: Royals effort all for nothing
- Late Barry header snatches win

Fourteen years later in similarly cold and wet conditions, Reading are about to emerge from a tangle in Manchester with an unexpected point. Then something funny happens involving the unlikely Christmas Figure of Fun and Jollity, Gareth Barry, who launches himself over Nicky Shorey's attempt to block him, connects with the ball and sends it rocketing past Adam Federici for a 92nd minute winner.

The two games in question might have taken place on different planets, so much has changed since then. In 1998 both these teams were playing third-tier football, a kind of slapdash smack and thump that will take me more than 14 years to forget. City were being led out of the wilderness by Joe Royle (who had partially led them into it the season before), a large Man of Football with a wonky hip and a desire to play the beautiful game both quickly and aggressively.

As if to underline just how aggressively City had been attacking their season in the third division, a glance at the team line up reveals Danny Tiatto, Australian red card specialist with a fuse shorter than the one in a roman candle, Murtaz Shelia, a Georgian defender with a nose like Mount St Helens and a sliding tackle like a granite block falling off a lorry, the "livewire" Paul Dickov and the dirty-tackling machine that was Kevin Horlock and you had a team with a backbone made of spikes rather than vertebrae. That they were accompanied by the likes of Jim & Jeff Whitley, Nick Fenton, Lee Crooks, Danny Allsopp and Gary Mason will tell you that this was an era where City were closer to playing non-league football than participating in the gala festival of skills and tricks that is the Champions League.

City were still trying to offload the likes of Lee Bradbury and Ged Brannan, legends in their own bathwater both, to finance the spending drive that might restore the club to the relative splendour of the second tier. How far the club has come since then has been well documented and Reading supporters too will perhaps want to pinch themselves from time to time. Especially, it would seem, today after their team came within a minute and a half of holding League champions City, as we must call the boys in sky blue these days, to a point on their own ground.

The crowd was double what it reached in '98, even the venue is not the same and someone dropping in for a festive game after taking a break from football would have thought they had taken a wrong turning somewhere around the turn of the century. The glittering stars in City's line-up these days make eye-watering reading, the lofty league position right at the pinnacle of English professional football would make Danny Tiatto and his team-mates rub their eyes and smile. Can that really be Manchester City, our Manchester City out there?

Occasionally, just to help the likes of myself and ex-players from the Dark Days appreciate that it is still the same lovable old club, City pull out a performance like this. One where every sporadic break-out by Reading looked like it might result in a freak goal, where every foray forward broke up on a double wall of bright yellow shirts, where the tears of frustration of old threaten to come back and blur the vision once more. But time plays tricks on us all and has done so on the blue half of Manchester more than most. City now head for time added on like United head for it: full of intent, full of belief, full of forward motion. And how often this pays off! We have witnessed Manchester United do this time and again over the years, but, bit by bit, Manchester City are also gaining quite a reputation for hitting the last few seconds with a powerful surge of intent.

Football continues to tease us in the matter that it did way back in those third division days of flat vimto and off-colour tizer, but the Manchester City vintage of 2012-13 bubbles with the latent intent of a Veuve Cliquot with the cork edging towards the exit. Manchester United, two divisions ahead in 1998, stand just three points away at the top. I'll drink to that and so, I'm sure, will Danny Tiatto.

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