The visit of Leicester City this weekend will be only the 11th occasion in their history that City have competitively faced defending champions, with eight of those coming since parity with the elite was first established in 2008. These ten matches have come against just four different clubs, so prepare for a mild bit of repetition as we look back at occasions when City have faced teams who are – literally – the best.
The first time we ever played a reigning champion as an equal, and it remains arguably the most enjoyable defeat, odd occurrence though that may be, in City’s modern history. Fresh from the Championship and still blithely undervalued by every big shot on the glittering Premier League walk of fame, City’s feast at the top table involved spitting out pips at quite a few such sides.
It was November, and City had jointly been in first place, done over Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle on their own grounds, swatted aside various others and only really been outfoxed by Wigan (yes) and Chelsea. The trip to Old Trafford was hugely intriguing; the victory at the Emirates, especially, meant there was genuine logic behind what would otherwise have been utterly wild belief in victory.
Manchester United scored first and early. Everyone instantly thought it would be a whitewash, obviously. Cristiano Ronaldo’s turn and shot edge its way in via a post, but City settled down, showing the total trust in one another that team spirit, fitness and self-belief can create. Daniel Cousin headed an equaliser in from Andy Dawson’s free kick and the travelling support went a bit daft, to say the least.
In truth, this was the nearest City ever came to winning the game, but it didn’t matter. Michael Carrick scuffed the champions back in front before half time, then Ronaldo headed his second from a corner just before the break. It didn’t take long upon resumption for the fourth to go in either, courtesy of another set-piece which City didn’t defend well, allowing Nemanja Vidić to steer in from close range.
But then the fun started.
Phil Brown slung on Bernard Mendy, resplendent in City gloves from the club shop, and he latched on to a crossfield pass from George Boateng, got away from Patrice Evra and lobbed the onrushing Edwin Van Der Sar, the ball dropping just over the line prior to Vidić hoiking it clear. Goal given, rightly; the same Frenchman, ridiculous at times but crazily talented at others, then ran from his own half at, then past, Rio Ferdinand and got as far as the box before falling under the desperate England defender’s nudge. Penalty. Geovanni. 4-3.
There were still eight minutes left and although City didn’t really look like scoring again, the sight of Ronaldo booting the ball away in a panic to waste time was one of the most hilarious things the seasoned City fan, drizzled in cynicism, had ever seen. When the final whistle went, the acclaim went to City even though the points went to Manchester United, while Alex Ferguson charmlessly berated the officials all the way to the tunnel in the corner over their temerity to give a (correct) penalty to opponents at Old Trafford. The bulbously-nosed boss was still in a strop with the BBC at the time, so it was his assistant – a certain Mike Phelan – who was assigned to talk to Match Of The Day that evening, and they only broadcast the part of the interview when he praised what City had done.
The moniker ‘School of Science’ was attributed to Everton in the early 60s after their 1963 title win, and it was a strong Toffees side that ventured across the Pennines in January 1964 for an FA Cup third round tie. They still felt beatable to an ambitious Third Division City side due to the absence of first choice keeper Gordon West, skipper Brian Labone and midfielder Tony Kay.
City, still a few months from completing their famous forward line, took the lead through a Billy Wilkinson header but Everton equalised shortly after half time courtesy of Alex Scott. A draw – to this day the only time City have not lost a game against champions – was fair and a mini-triumph for City, although it felt like the chance to dump the title-holders out of the FA Cup had gone.
Yet the replay at Goodison Park was a ripsnorter of a game, missed by Everton manager Harry Catterick (taken ill on the journey home from East Yorkshire). Everton did have Labone back, however, and this was crucial as Chris Chilton got little change from him.
Nonetheless, Everton’s 2-1 win was achieved the hard way, as John McSeveney gave the Tigers the lead early in the second half before Scott and then Brian Harris prevented what would have been quite a shock result. City chairman Harold Needler’s praise for the players was thickly laid in the press, and the game went some way to convincing him that the right investment in the team would take City towards Everton’s level. Before the year was out, Wagstaff, Houghton and Butler had arrived.
Much of this niche fixture’s history is very recent, and City’s previous Premier League season brought them into contact, twice, with the grossly common Manchester Hunter. It was an expensive occasion, with home tickets costing £50 in areas. It was also an eventful and, as with all of these games, ultimately fruitless occasion.
Six goal thrillers against the title holders during which the underdog recovers from two goals down don’t happen all the time, but it’s worth qualifying that an own goal from the comical Eliaquim Mangala and a penalty from Abel Hernández were all it took to get City back on terms after early strikes from Sergio Aguero and Edin Džeko had given the champions the early advantage.
City couldn’t do much more, however, and the hosts went through the gears in the second half with two goals in as many minutes from Frank Lampard and Džeko.
As eagerly anticipated an FA Cup tie as any until 2014, the visit of Kenny Dalglish’s champions in the fifth round of the competition was a marvellous, remarkable event which, at half time, City were on course to win. Liverpool had been runaway champions the year before, swatting aside decent teams with devastating ease (they remain this author’s most impressive title-winners of his lifetime) but the following season it hadn’t quite been so plain sailing.
City were going well in Division Two under the dour Eddie Gray and got Liverpool at home out of the hat after beating Bradford City in round four. Boothferry Park managed to squeeze a capacity 18,000 and a bit within its walls as goals from Billy Whitehurst and Keith Edwards gave the Tigers an eye-rubbingly impossible 2-1 lead at the break.
John Aldridge scored twice in the opening ten minutes after the break and Liverpool never looked like relinquishing the lead again, but for a long time it was the most talked about game at the old place for many a year.
5: Manchester United (2013-14)
Ryan Giggs played 963 competitive games for Manchester United, and the very last of them was against City at Old Trafford in a static, end of season affair.
City were awaiting the FA Cup final and were desperate not to pick up injuries, something which illustrated the whole final month or so of the season. The game was notable for young Manchester United striker James Wilson’s brace, Matt Fryatt’s superb 25-yard strike that brought City back into the game at 2-1 and Eldin Jakupović apologising for saving caretaker manager Giggs’ late free kick. It finished 3-1.