Monday, January 8, 2018

SEMIS

She offered her face up tenderly to be kissed. I looked at her for a second pretending not to understand. Then, holding her in the hollow of my arms, I rubbed my cheek gently against hers, soft down and the vague scent of spring fields. I looked down at her for a long, loving moment. "City one step from Wembley," she murmured breathlessly and then it began.


As 1980 drifted enigmatically into 1981 Manchester City fans could have been forgiven for thinking the good times had finally arrived. It had been ten years since the club’s golden age had disappeared over the horizon with the speed of bathwater exiting noisily down the plug hole. The years in between had produced such scarce pickings, they could have filled an idle chapter in The Generation of Swine.  

Admittedly, City had reached two League Cup finals in the 70s, one a sloppy, unnecessary defeat to a Wolves side playing a jittery reserve goalkeeper (the totally unheralded and soon to be headline-making Gary Pierce), the other a vibrant, noise-filled victory over a flu-ridden Newcastle United.
    
City were, just for a change, in a state of some considerable flux. Malcolm Allison had come and gone for a second time, leaving many disgruntled with what he failed to achieve, his majestic reputation scorched and singed by a growing penchant for expensive booze and women grown ideolgically wide at the hips.

The stars of Tony Book's vibrant 1977 side had been sent packing, replaced with roosters and cobblers. Where once Dave Watson, Gary Owen, Brian Kidd and Peter Barnes trod the magic turf, we now gazed down upon Dave Wiffill, Stuart Lee and Paul Sugrue with unblinking eyes. Big Mal, so uncannily sure of his continuing Midas touch, had swapped Asa Hartford for Barry Silkman (the footballing equivalent of making a sow's ear out of a silk pass).  

Allison's sleight of hand had wrenched out the Rolls Royce engine and refitted the patient with the chugging innards of a Fiat Punto.

Big Mal had been replaced by the less flamboyant and curiously self-confident John Bond, a hair-do on legs with a nice line in comfy homilies. He appeared on first glance to be well trimmed and full of the joys of spring, but in fact carried the deep scars of having been Allison's stooge at West Ham, the smiley simpleton to Mal's big league pan-European jokes.

After a grim beginning under the new man (a dreadful pedestrian 0-1 home defeat to an equally lifeless Birmingham City), City started a long run from the bottom of the table. Thrilling December wins over Everton and Wolves, plus a last gasp defeat of a Leeds side who had come to Maine Road and spent eighty-nine minutes passing back to keeper John Lukic, took Bond's side  away from danger.

At the same time a League Cup run had been taking shape after wins over Stoke and Luton under Allison were carried on by a 5-1 beating of Notts County (Dennis Tueart nabbing four) and an unforgettably vibrant  quarter final win over West Brom at Maine Road which took City to the last four. 

A semi-final at last.

Lining up in the League Cup semi finals were the distinctly beatable pair of West Ham and Coventry, who of course promptly drew each other, leaving City to tackle the invigorating and all-conquering European champions Liverpool, a threshing machine that had been devouring everything in its way for years. The feeling was nevertheless of high hopes for advancement, given the vivid upsurge of form under the new manager. The weeks running up to the game were spent in high anticipation. At last that gut wrenching dread that accompanied a match of great consequence gripped us all.

***

Kevin Reeves nets at Anfield in the 2nd leg of the 1981 League Cup semi final. 
Those hopes would be dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a thunderous, expectant Maine Road was a gentleman called Alf Grey, an upright sort of man who had developed a strong liking for the sound of his own whistle. He had already blown it a couple of times when, in the 2nd minute of the match Kevin Reeves leapt like a salmon to put City ahead. The whole ground, unused to this kind of edgy one-upmanship, was in tumult, the heaving bulk of the Kippax a swaying livid morasse of cavorting bodies.

Then Mr Grey took another good long blow on his whistle, proclaimed that Reeves must have fouled hapless Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence to have been so much higher in the air than the man in green, and promptly extinguished all those dreams. Liverpool steadied their early nerves and won the game with a simple strike from Ray Kennedy.

The Merseysiders would scrape through to the final on aggregate thanks to the slimmest of margins, that one goal scored by Kennedy. After a brave second leg performance at Anfield, the width of the crossbar was the only thing preventing Dave Bennett’s header from putting the Blues level and into extra time.

That City again stood at the gates of Wembley a matter of three short months later was scarcely believable. What a season of passion the new manager had conjured from the darkened ashes of Big Mal’s second coming.

The multitude descended on Villa Park, in those days a fine and traditional venue for such a match, for the much awaited FA Cup semi final against favourites Ipswich Town, still going strong on three fronts under Bobby Robson, who had the Suffolk side punching well above its weight.

Ipswich were fighting Liverpool for the title and would finish a busy season in the UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar. They were seen by many as a step too far for Bond’s patched up City.

The Holte End awash with excitement as City kick off one-ahead for the second period of extra time. FA Cup 1981.

However, in a bitty affair City prevailed with a dramatic extra time free kick struck by the trusty left foot of captain Paul Power. Power had scored in every tie except the 5th round win at Peterborough and now his goal had landed City, incredibly, at Wembley. They would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa’s FA Cup final barbecue, a swerving slalom goal to be imprinted on every City fan's memory for the next 35 years.

Then a curious thing happened.

Manchester City and cup semi finals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of even the most distracted conversations. They went off the radar completely. FA Cup semi finals were for teams like Wycombe Wanderers and Watford, Plymouth Argyle and Wimbledon. They were for Coventry and Leeds, Sheffield United and Wednesday and even, bless them, good old Newcastle. Even that lesser thing of value the League Cup semi final became the territory of Tranmere and Oxford, Oldham and QPR.

City meanwhile went into well deserved hibernation.

In those barren intervening years City would even find themselves playing the likes of Halifax and Darlington in the Cup’s preliminary rounds, as a member of the third tier of English professional football.

Legendary defeats to Halifax, Shrewsbury, Oldham, Forest, Brentford, Blackpool, Chesterfield, Brighton and even to a loose balloon at Sheffield United seemed to tell City fans that the romance of the cups had become the sole property of others.

Between the 1981 semi final win over Ipswich and City’s appearance in the 2009-10 League Cup semi final with arch rivals United, nearly 30 years had passed. Now, never let it be said that Manchester City fans of a certain vintage are impatient, but some may have been pretty sure that they were unlikely to ever again need the cardboard FA Cup covered in tinfoil. The mouldy old 1969 rosette could be safely binned too.

"It was the clearest indication yet of how the so-called "noisy neighbours" have got up the noses of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United" - Phil McNulty, BBC 

In those two cataclysmic matches with the arch foes in 2010, City lost out narrowly on the chance to get to Wembley. Five games into Roberto Mancini's reign as boss, Cty fielded a side from which only Vincent Kompany survives today, a player who will certainly not be involved against Bristol City this week.   

City were growing fast. Since that semi-final disappointment against United, the growth spurt has become more of an avalanche prompting a serious taste for these occasions.
And how they have started to flow...

Carlos Tevez scores in the tumultuous semi final with United in 2010

         
THE MODERN ERA SEMI-FINALS

19th January 2010 League Cup semi final
City 2 Manchester United 1

27th January 2010 League Cup semi final
Manchester United 3 City 1

16th April 2011 FA Cup semi final 
City 1 Manchester United 0

11th January 2012 League Cup semi final 
City 0 Liverpool 1

25th January 2012 League Cup semi final
Liverpool 2 City 2

14th April 2013 FA Cup semi final 
City 2 Chelsea 1

8th January 2014 League Cup semi final

City 6 West Ham 0

21st January 2014 League Cup semi final

West Ham 0 City 3

7th January 2016 League Cup semi final

Everton 2 City 1

27th January 2016 League Cup semi final

City 3 Everton 1

23rd April 2017 FA Cup semi final
City 1 Arsenal 2
   





:::

Two seasons ago, Everton stood in the way and, having won 2-1 in a boisterous first leg at Goodison Park. the Merseysiders made City fight all the way in the second leg. After falling behind to Ross Barkley's goal early on, a rousing second half onslaught brought City the three goals they needed to go through to face Everton's neighbours Liverpool in the final.

A similar feat of recovery took place in the same competition, against Middlesbrough in 1976.

Having won 1-0 at Ayresome Park, Boro travelled west in the hope of making it to their first ever final, but were wiped away by a stunning show of power from City. Inspired by Peter Barnes on the wing and the indefatigable pair of Alan Oakes and Asa Hartford in midfield, the Blues ran out emphatic 4-0 winners in the 2nd leg. Boro, a more than competent side in those days, were flattened to the thickness of a dinner plate.
It is to the kind of rapier wing-play produced by Barnes on that occasion that Pep Guardiola will now rely upon against Bristol City, with Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling more than capable of having a similarly devastating effect on their opponents from the championship.

A place at Wembley awaits. It is questionable whether anyone, who stood through City's semi finals of the 70s and 80s will ever become blasé about such events. Semi finals might be slightly more familiar occurrences these days, but that inimitable tingle of expectation is enough to tell all involved that it is a game above and beyond the ordinary, even in these heightened times of rich return. 

In the name of David Bennett and Kevin Reeves, deprived of their moments of glory by the fickle hand of fate in 1981; for Carlos Tevez and Nigel de Jong, semi final scorers in more recent unsuccessful attempts, another golden chance beckons for City. For fate is always watching, always waiting, as those on the Kippax in 1981 will confirm.





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