Which of the disasters that wracked City in the last fifth of the 20th Century do you recall the best? Was it the financial meltdown and accompanying descent into Division Four in the early 1980s? How about the relegations and High Court appearances that scarred the 1990s? What about enduring agony in the bottom tier while being malevolently harmed by the Sheffield Stealers?
Let’s look back at the second of those. The 1990s were unremittingly desperate for City, made all the worse because football in general was booming and City were most certainly not a part of that. Yet we didn’t start that decade in a particularly worrying situation. The Tigers finished the 1989/90 season in an unremarkable but unthreatening 14th place, the exact spot in which some good judges consider to be City’s natural position.
But it was to go horribly wrong, for reasons better documented elsewhere. Stan Ternent’s insane spending, lamentable performances by experienced and wholly disinterested players…even though only two teams were to be demoted from the 1990/91 old Second Division, it always seemed likely that City would be one of them.
Yet even in the bleakest season, the clouds can briefly part to allow a few shafts of sunlight through. They took some time to appear – City took nine games to win, after all. However, the faithful that season were treated to a double over Newcastle, a 3-1 home cuffing of Blackburn, victory at eventual champions Oldham…and, on Friday 23rd November 1990, a 5-2 hammering of Leicester at Boothferry Park, as featured on YTV’s Goals On Sunday with narration by the esteemed John Helm and safely stored for posterity on Tigertube.
That match was notable for a few things. The least of those is probably that it was this reminiscer’s first ever City game, arriving courtesy of some free tickets handed by the club to Newland Avenue Primary School and some determined nagging of eggchasing parents.
Perhaps more interestingly for the sake of history, it ended a foul run of four successive defeats (not our worst of the season), and formed part of a mini-revival of three wins in six. Those had City fans thinking that perhaps relegation under Stan Ternent was not inevitable after all – though on that late-autumn night at the Ark, it was more the performance that suggested a recovery was possible.
Clad in classy thin-striped black and amber stripes, the Tigers were unstoppable in attack and took just two minutes to score. A cross from the right wasn’t cut out properly (by Terry Fenwick, of all people) and it presented be-mulleted goalpoacher extraordinaire Andy Payton with a clear sight of goal from about ten yards. Payton quite astonishingly scored 25 goals in that season, a tally that no-one was to better until Stuart Elliott 14 years later, and he whacked the ball past Mike Hooper to open the scoring.
It got better, and rather quickly. Attacking a sadly thin support on Bunkers, the Tigers were two up inside seven minutes. Peter Swan was the scorer, handily controlling a long ball from the back after an aborted offside trap failed to leave him in space, and he smacked a low shot past Hooper at his near post.
That was rather unexpected. With just three wins to date, all by a single goal, leading by two wasn’t really anticipated. The deficit was duly halved later in the first half, with a fine example of the defensive calamities that dogged the whole season. A cross from the right was half-cleared, then two City defenders got in each other way trying to decisively remove the danger – neither did, and it fell instead to Marc North, who chipped the sizeable trackies-sporting City keeper Iain Hesford.
For once, that didn’t spark a City collapse. Instead, the lead was again doubled before the break. Another cross from the right wasn’t dealt with, it fell to Swan at the far-post, who was felled in the act of shooting by Alistair Mauchlen. Nowadays, a red card would probably have accompanied the obvious penalty, but the referee satisfied himself with just a spot-kick. Hooper dived to his right, Leigh Palin’s strike went to his left and City led 3-1, to Leicester boss David Pleat’s presumed annoyance.
Things improved further after the break. A neat reverse pass by Palin found Payton in space on the right hand side of the area, and his well-struck low shot flew past Hooper to make it 4-1 to City.
There was more. Payton dispossessed a dithering Fox just inside the Leicester half, hared towards goal with Swan in support and just one covering defender – he drew him over, switched the ball right to Swan whose cool finish past Hoper make it 5-1 to City.
There was another goal that night. Leicester got it, though sadly the eight year old author of this piece was already on his way home: “got to beat the traffic” said my manifestly bored mother, though, quite how much vehicular mayhem a gate of 5,855 could generate is a mystery. A cross from the left saw some lax City marking present a free header to Gary Mills. Hesford made an athletic save to deny him, but the ball was chipped over to Paul Reid, who made it 5-2.
Of course, we know now that one big win in November 1990 didn’t save the season. It ended in relegation, and even worse, Terry Dolan. But a few personal recollections, if I may. 5,855 is indeed a paltry crowd, but to an awestruck child, it was amazing. Having previously being dragged to the pleb-infested hovel that was the Boulevard to watch the sordid past-time of eggchasing (“no football, too much trouble there”), the difference was incredible. The noise. The shouting. The singing. Men swearing! Excitement on the pitch! It was genuinely astounding. After one game, I was hooked for life. Of course, to those whose first game it wasn’t, it was probably just a rare good night in the middle of a terrible season, a puny crowd, the customarily quietude on the empty terraces and general despairs inside in a decaying stadium at the start of some truly terrible times.
Funny thing, perspective. I wonder what would have happened if we’d have lost?