FAMOUS FIVE: Mind-blowing City signings

For almost all of City’s existence, we’ve rarely been troubled by the showbiz side of football, but just occasionally, a signing would come in that would make City fans brought up on joyless cloggers and limited spannerers sit up and rub their eyes. Some were obviously too good, others deemed too old and an admirably big selection thought too unhinged to be of use. Have five right here…

1: Peter Barnes

He was hardly a veteran when he joined City at the age of 30, but this super-skilled winger who’d featured regularly for England in the 70s and scored in a major cup final at the age of just 19 had unquestionably not fulfilled his potential. From the moment Manchester City sold him (when Malcolm Allison returned to the club and wantonly got rid of the ones who could play football), Barnes never got his mojo back, with West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and even Manchester United unable to get the best from him.

He’d gone back to Maine Road, and his first love, in 1987 but they were a shadow of their former selves and he came to Boothferry Park when Brian Horton agreed to take on the remainder of his contract in March 1988. The buzz around his signing was notable, even though plenty knew that the hip swivelling tormentor of the best full backs in the country had pretty much expired, and a different kind of Barnes was coming. He was, nevertheless, given his favourite role wide on the left and proceeded to put in one of the finest debuts we’ve ever seen as City, in the midst of the slump that would see Horton sacked within weeks, lost 2-1 at home to Barnsley.

Barnes never played like that again, however. He peaked immediately, and while his place was secure for the remainder of the season he never scored (though missed a couple of sitters) and didn’t take on full backs in the same way again. In the last home game of that season, against champions-elect Millwall, he was anonymous, with legendary Lions full back Keith Stevens keeping him in his pocket, never to escape. Barnes was released by a managerless City as soon as the season ended.

2: Neil Franklin

The most notorious of all City signings, even though it would take signing a player out on parole for terrorism offences to attain a 2015 level of horror worthy of that expressed when Franklin arrived at Boothferry Park in 1951. Less than 12 months before, the dominant England defender had left Stoke City after a decade there to go play his football in Colombia, where their league was outlawed by FIFA due to their dubious methods of attracting and paying players. Franklin became an outcast in football, unable to play any more for his country, and found little sympathy when the adventure ended prematurely due to homesickness.

He turned up at City, who had tried to sign him a few years before, but injuries got him and his five years with the Tigers were spent largely on the treatment table. He left in 1956 and drifted around the lower leagues, never to regain the presence held prior to his ill-fated decision, motivated by money, in 1950. It all seems very tame more than 60 years later, but Franklin’s arrival at City caused a national stir unmatched by any arrival since.

3: Andy Hessenthaler

He was 39 and a half and had already been a player-manager with Gillingham when he joined City on loan during the 2004/5 promotion season under his former gaffer Peter Taylor. He featured ten times, tackled a lot, encouraged the younger players, ticked things over nicely and put a runners-up medal round his neck before going back to Kent in the summer. He is on record as City’s oldest debutant.

The only time this signing seemed to be utterly mental was when it was announced; as soon as he stepped on to the park, the reasons for it were obvious. Good player, age immaterial.

4: Terry Curran
Through Panini sticker albums in the 70s and 80s, junior football fans became familiar with the phrase “much-travelled” as those one-paragraph biographies of players struggled to list the numerous clubs certain players of ill repute had attained in their short careers. Curran was one of them.

Like many players of his era, he was a) incredibly skilful; b) shaggy haired and ‘tached; and c) something of a “character”, hence why managers got shut of him quickly. Even Brian Clough, who usually tamed disorderly players with ease, let Curran go after promotion with Nottingham Forest in 1977. Various clubs took him and jettisoned him again, including both Sheffield clubs (while with whom he developed a hateful relationship with City fans), and Everton, for whom he played nine matches in their 1984/5 title-winning team, not enough to earn him a medal.

City took him on in October 1986 but let him go again quickly. He played six senior games, scored once (in the Full Members Cup at Grimsby), got on the nerves of the City fans even more, and headed next for Sunderland. In total he played for 15 clubs, won two promotions and featured in a League Cup final, yet nothing sums him up more than the title of his autobiography – “Regrets Of A Football Maverick”.

5: David Rocastle

One of the best English footballers of his generation, decorated greatly by the game and capped by England, and yet by the time he was 30, Rocastle was arriving to play for a City team at their truly crappest. Where did it all go wrong?

Well, a couple of ill-advised moves and a couple of bad knees provide the answer. The knees may have flared up anyway, but Rocastle’s move from Arsenal to Leeds United in 1992 remained a regret held keenly by Arsenal fans ever after, even though Leeds had just won the league title. Rocastle couldn’t settle, nor could he do so at Manchester City after that, while Chelsea barely looked at him.

Yet he was still in the top tier, with four clubs of real prestige and history on his CV. He had 14 England caps and won two league championship medals and a League Cup, effortlessly destroying full backs with a swivelling, cavorting style of wingplay that only Chris Waddle could match at the time. City had sunk to the bottom of the football pile, but in he came, thanks to some persuasion from manager Mark Hateley. The two had England careers that hadn’t quite overlapped but nevertheless Hateley’s very name proved enough.

The squad Rocastle joined hardly had names comparable to that of Seaman, Adams, Winterburn or Merson, and it showed. In his ten games, interrupted every so often by his bad knees, he shone ridiculously brightly, which was unsurprising and slightly crazy to watch. He reduced Scarborough to jelly on his debut, scoring in a 3-0 win, and played beautifully and professionally for the remainder of his short loan.

Sadly, it didn’t do his career any good, as on his return to Chelsea he was freed and, at 30 with bad knees, a club genuinely worthy of his talents (which City weren’t) wouldn’t come forward. And, of course, within little more than three years of his wowing the City faithful, he had succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of just 33.

8 replies
  1. Brid Tiger
    Brid Tiger says:

    Great list! And so many more to mention. Jay Jay Okocha being my favourite.
    Also the Reggae boyzzzzzzz…

  2. Shuffle
    Shuffle says:

    I echo Brid. A surprising couple of names on that list; essentially, I’d add another 5 but that would destroy the symmetry of a Famous Five.

    Along with Jay Jay, who with Tom Huddlestone has been the most ridiculously skilful player to ever play for City, I would also add Emlyn Hughes. Even though he didn’t play much, to sign him as Player-Manager was one of the biggest Wow factors ever. Of course, even further back, was Raich Carter who came after the peak of his powers but was still incredible on and off the pitch. The last ‘Wow’ signing I would say was Nick Barmby. I think his arrival was less amazing as we’d always hoped he’d come back and play for City, and knew his love for the Beech Tree. But, he inspired the charge up the Leagues and was truly one of our best players in the First PL spell; its a shame he was somewhat injury prone, but still played 180 games for us.

  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    Hughes wasn’t our player-manager, of course. Merely a player, to the tune of nine games, who signed because he was big mates with Don Robinson. Like Okocha, Barmby (and Bullard, too – even as a Premier League club he seemed way beyond our expectations until we actually got him), I didn’t include him in this because he was a tad obvious.

  4. Decomposing
    Decomposing says:

    The first wow signing for me was Alan Taylor in 1984,. The last time I got a tad overly excited about a signing was Geovanni, that was when he joined us and not when he left.

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