On Sunday, Manchester City will expect to overcome Reading and secure a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, once again raising expectations that they will finally be able to end their lengthy wait for a trophy. Their last taste of silverware came with a League Cup win in 1976, with Dennis Tueart scoring an iconic goal, but even then the club was entering a period of decline.
It hangs on the Stretford End, a grim and constant reminder. Its numbers tick over, seemingly inexorably, chronicling 12 more months of bitter disappointment for those across the city. It exercises a morbid grip over rival supporters, players and indeed managers, who are determined to render it obsolete. But as yet, the banner detailing Manchester City's trophy drought remains in place. Thirty-five years and counting. Forget Carlos Tevez and 'Welcome to Manchester' - this is the livery that defines a rivalry.
City's long wait for silverware, in painful contrast to the extreme success enjoyed by United, extends all the way back to a League Cup victory over Newcastle United in 1976 that was secured by a sublime overhead kick from Dennis Tueart. However, the defining performance of the campaign was a 4-0 hammering of Manchester United in a previous round that had seemed to be the mark of a potentially formidable side asserting itself, bursting with the promise of future success.
But, cruelly, contained even within the genesis of that bright promise was the seed of decline. A serious injury suffered by Colin Bell in the win against United deprived City of their outstanding individual, his career truncated by a tackle from Martin Buchan. City's own aspirations had been similarly curtailed, though they could not know it straight away, and certainly not in the wake of their Wembley success. It felt like a beginning, not an end. But it was, and United fans have not let them forget it.
City's most recent trophy win was not achieved in the kind of isolation they currently experience, a rare flicker of success in a dark expanse of disappointment. Rather it came in the wake of the club's golden era, a period in which manager Joe Mercer and renowned assistant Malcolm Allison took City from the Second Division to European glory. Winning promotion in 1966, they were champions inside two years and went on to win the FA Cup in 1969 and both the League Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1970.
Though stalwarts of that side such as Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee had departed by the start of the 1975-76 campaign, gifted England international Bell, known as the 'King of the Kippax', was still influencing proceedings in midfield, while captain Tony Book had turned manager, providing a very visible and influential link between the two City sides. This element of continuity would foster success, but only very briefly.
Having won the League Cup in 1970 when defeating West Bromwich Albion and losing in the final in 1974 to Wolverhampton Wanderers, City had pedigree in the competition approaching the 1975-76 season and, though they required two replays to defeat Norwich in the second round, Nottingham Forest were dispatched 2-1 in the third round to set up a meeting with local rivals Manchester United, who at the time had not won a trophy since their 1968 European Cup final win and were still 18 years away from their next title success.
Indeed, under manager Tommy Docherty, the glory and splendour of the Matt Busby era had been replaced by disappointment and relegation in 1974, even if United had returned to the top-flight and would reach the FA Cup final in 1976, only to lose to Second Division Southampton. This was far from a vintage United side, and they were exposed at Maine Road as Book's team underlined their superiority in the city of Manchester with a resounding 4-0 victory on a famous November night.
The tone was set when Dennis Tueart scored after just 35 seconds and Asa Hartford, Tueart again and Joe Royle added to the scoreline. This was a defining performance. Young winger Peter Barnes was hailed as "probably the most exciting young player to emerge since George Best", while Book described Hartford's immense performance in midfield as "world class", adding: "I don't think there's a team in the country that could have lived with us in that form tonight".
The national press agreed, The Guardian reporting how United "were torn apart by a Manchester City side playing football of classical dimensions - fluent, imaginative, decisive, at times breathtaking ... almost everyone agreed that it was by far their best performance of the season. Others considered it City's finest display for years."
It was a performance that hinted a new golden era could be on City's horizon, but it came at a terrible cost. Early on in the game, the gifted Bell had been brought down by Buchan and had suffered serious knee ligament damage. "I remember his knee swelling up like a balloon," City defender Tommy Booth later said, "but we didn't know how bad it was until much later". Initial reports put his likely period of recuperation at one month, but the real prognosis was far more severe.
Bell, a winner of 48 England caps, had his career effectively ended by the tackle. Though he would make a return after two years, his knee problems had severely diminished him and he was eventually forced to retire in 1979 after continual battles with his fitness. Nicknamed Nijinsky in honour of the great racehorse by Allison when arriving at City from Bury in 1966, Bell's premature retirement was a sad event, and saw the midfielder described by one paper as "the Bobby Charlton of Manchester City ... Bell represented their last link with the glorious era of the late sixties and early seventies".
Though Bell himself was not prone to over-dramatisation - saying simply "there are no recriminations. It's a man's game" - team-mate Tueart was only too aware of what the serious injury meant for Manchester City as a club. "That injury spelt the end of that team," Tueart later said. "He was never replaced as he should have been, and it meant that the team never really realised their potential. After we won the League Cup, we didn't really push on and losing Colin was one of the reasons for that."
Bell's absence was initially glossed over as Mansfield were beaten in the quarter-finals and Middlesbrough beaten 4-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals, and indeed he worked hard in training in order to be available for the final, only to be defeated. As Book admitted: "There is no way I can take a chance with a player of this calibre."
Manchester City's opponents on February 28, Newcastle, had also been weakened by injury with captain Geoff Nulty sidelined with a broken jaw and David Craig receiving treatment for a knee problem. Moreover, manager Gordon Lee had seen his squad afflicted by the 'flu bug, meaning a team including prolific striker Malcolm 'Supermac' Macdonald were distinctly under par approaching the tie at Wembley.
Still, though, an exciting contest was anticipated, with The Guardian believing the game would be a "pleasant diversion ... this afternoon should see one of the better finals. Both Manchester City and Newcastle are capable of playing positive and imaginative football, seeking goals rather than concentrating on their prevention". It would not disappoint.
City were in front as early as the 11th minute. Young winger Barnes, who would go on to be named PFA Young Player of the Year, proved alert at the back post when Mike Doyle headed back across goal from Hartford's free-kick and finished convincingly. In an exciting first half, Newcastle then levelled after 35 minutes when Alan Gowling received a square pass from Macdonald to beat City great Joe Corrigan. However, the best was to come after the break.
Just two minutes into the second half, Tueart produced a stunning overhead kick after Tommy Booth headed back across goal from Willie Donachie's cross, bringing an amazed Wembley to its feet. As David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: "The spectacular execution of Tueart's decisive goal could only be faulted for its timing; coming so soon in the second half it probably caught of number of customers, participating in one of Wembley's oldest traditions, queuing for toilets, on the hop."
It is a goal that has adopted iconic status amongst City supporters. That acrobatic swing of a boot has reverberated through history as the moment that delivered the club's last trophy, though Tueart could not have known as much when describing the goal in prosaic terms. "As soon as I saw the ball coming over from Willie Donachie, I began moving away from Tommy," he said. "Sure enough he got to it, and as the ball dropped I knew roughly where the goal was and had a go. It came off, but I must admit we don't plan the overhead kick."
Inspired by the brilliant Tueart and Barnes in wide positions, City's triumph famously reduced Macdonald to tears. The victors, though, were dreaming of future glories.
"We've only just started," Book said as he became the first man to win the competition as both player and manager. "This present team is at the same period of development as we were in 1966." According to chairman Peter Swales: "It's all still to happen. City are going to go further and do better than in the second half of the '60s under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison."
But with Bell fighting a losing battle against his serious injury, the remainder of the decade was barren, as was the next, and the next, and the next. That 4-0 demolition of United and subsequent win at Wembley had proved to be the last glorious flourish of an era of success at Maine Road, and the beginning of a steep and prolonged decline.
What happened next? Swales replaced Book with Allison in 1979 but as Bell retired, the returning hero made some costly errors, most notably when attempting to replace the midfielder by spending £1.43 million on Steve Daley, who proved an unmitigated disaster, and selling Barnes to West Brom. Tueart left City for New York Cosmos in 1978 but then returned, becoming a director of the club in his later years and helping to recruit managers Joe Royle and Kevin Keegan. His goal was voted the greatest moment in League Cup history, and remains the defining moment of City's last trophy success.