Excerpt from Blue Moon by Mark Hodkinson
Heads down, they streamed down the aisles. Two goals down, four minutes left, time for home. City, you see, don't do comebacks; magic and Manchester City parted company long ago. Suddenly, Horlock whacks a loose ball into the net. A consolation, surely. Tick-tock, more time gone. Another frenzied attack and Dickov strikes the ball home. City are everywhere, there's magic in the air.
Time for penalties and City can feel their most consistent performer of the season - their magnificent support. Forced to take their kicks in front of the City fans, Gillingham faced a cacophony of noise, not to mention a goalkeeper called Nicky Weaver. All shaggy hair and gangling legs, Weaver has the laid-back, loose-limbed demeanour of a fifth-former asked to join a kickabout with a few urchins in the park. Two penalty saves later, he is skipping, jumping, hopping across the Wembley turf. City are up and the road maps to Colchester, Wycombe et al are redundant.
Fittingly, City had brought Manchester weather with them and, if it felt like October for most of the game, both teams played as if they were wearing duffel coats and Wellingtons. Ominously, as the rain came down, stewards donned white raincoats complete with pointed hoods. They haunched in front of the supporters like grim reapers waiting for their quarry.
At the end, Joe Royle punched the air, hugged his goalkeeper. Back in December, Royle had already given up on discretion when he blurted: "I hate this division." As a player and manager, his previous visit to football's hinterland had been for the occasional stat in the Cup. Then, opponents would roll out the barrel-chested defenders and, after some thud in the mud, Royle and Co were back on the team coach 3-0 to the good and a hearty sing-song all the way home.
It has been a tortuous season for City. In their smart club blazers, they have disembarked from luxury coaches on to weed-strewn car parks. They have picked their way through puddles and pot holes, to run out on pitches surrounded by broken stands. Facing them at every game has been a set of players passionate to beat Manchester City, the very Manchester City who used to be on television used to be famous. You know, Colin Bell, Franny Lee, Rodney Marsh. It felt like great fun, the equivalent of a date with Claudia Schiffer at the scruffiest pub in town.
A good percentage of the players could be said to deserve the dishonour, since nine of those on duty at Wembley were in the squad that was relegated last season. The supporters, however, merit no part in this arbitrary punishment. If Blue Moon is the club theme song, "You're not famous any more" has become the scornful anti-theme. It has hurt that the same fans who once waved inflatable bananas at their rivals have gamely put their arms round one another or a bottle of beer. The enigma of City fans will go on. They are every character Shakespeare created, but all in the same person: foolish, loyal, proud, dogged, sentimental and headstrong. They are the type of people who still cry at re-runs of the Incredible Journey. Happy or sad, they howl, "Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone", to the night sky, or the pub landlady. It is a beautiful song, a ballad for the bruised. When they sing it, they are the sailor drifting down the Ship Canal after too many years at sea. They didn't get the goal, but City beat Gillingham - division one here we come!
So, United did the treble. Big deal. Very big, actually, but that's another story from another part of town. Wembley is Wembley and the promotion play-off final is more important to a club's well-being than a Cup Final. The latter is a pleasant day out, a celebration regardless of the result. The former is the future of your club condensed into 90 minutes. A dodgy back-pass, a goalkeeping fluff and you remain in Nowheresville for another season, at least. The Grim Reaper left Wembley with Gillingham under his arm. The other lot were singing their hearts out. How does that song go again?