Friday, May 10, 2019


All smiles as Bond announces his resignation
As Manchester City gear up for a momentous afternoon on the South Coast this weekend, some minds will drift back to the last time the club entered the city of Brighton followed by a long trail of supporters emitting a variety of squeaking noises as they walked.

Almost 36 years ago to the day, City staggered into a date with destiny at the dilapidated old Goldstone Ground. It had been a torrid season. City, 2nd in November after beating Southampton at Maine Road, had dropped slowly but surely to the very edge of the relegation places. The descent had been exacerbated by manager John Bond's departure, ironically after an embarrassing FA Cup 4th round drubbing in the same Brighton stadium City now needed to win in, an embarrassment orchestrated by ex-City forward Michael Robinson and Tony Grealish, who would show briefly in Manchester two and a half years later. As usual the planets were aligning to make City look like a special brand of thoroughbred doughnut.

"John Benson is the perfect choice to take over from me..." - John Bond signals that his assistant should be the next manager, the day he announces his resignation from the City manager's post.
Bond, a curious man, who veered between big stage vanity and a like for spouting strangely homespun metaphors, had left the sinking ship in the less than capable hands of his assistant John Benson.

Benson, an introverted man with little to say for himself, had loyally and seamlessly carried on Bond's work with a stultifying 0-4 reverse at Coventry and a home defeat to Notts County, for whom Justin Fashanu - the target of several attempts by Bond to bring in on loan - scored the winner.

Benson managed to prolong City's winless run right through to April. Included in this litany of gaffes were horrendous back-to-back drubbings at Swansea and Southampton, City conceding four at each venue. If football clubs could look like shipwrecks, then City had the unmistakable sideways listing  of the Mary Rose.

Suddenly, after a ten-game run of startling sparseness, City conjured a rickety 2-0 win at The Hawthorns, with goals from David Cross and Kevin Reeves. "Just what we needed!" shouted the banner headline in the Sunday Express, as Benson came out of his shell to announce to the waiting world that "the better side had won". This indeed had been a feature of his tenure up to this point.

The next game brought the customary home drubbing by Liverpool, however, followed swiftly by defeat at Stoke, where this time the irony-laden goal was supplied by ex-Red and future Blue Sammy McIlroy. The defeat in the Potteries gave the hapless Benson his first opportunity to wheel out the notorious relegation-manager-in waiting quotes. " We Won't Go Down, Says City Boss", made the back pages the next day.

Incredibly, the win put Stoke 5th with only six games to play, while City had nestled controversially into 17th spot, just above Norwich and Luton Town. The five point gap to the first of the relegation places, occupied by Swansea, seemed comfortable enough, especially when the next game brought a resounding home win over West Ham, but trouble was brewing.

As City sank to embarrassing defeat at Highbury, John Bond, ever keen for the warm glow of attention from the cameras, was seen parading the press area offering quotes to the gathered hacks. "I feel for the manager John Benson," he chirruped, " because I brought him to City. It's sad to see him in charge of a team like that." The irony that Benson's sloppy, half-hearted side had been entirely bequeathed to him by Bond seemed to escape him, as the journalists gleefully listened to a string of denials that he was coming back to City to help stave off relegation in the final three games. Wins for Luton, Brighton and Birmingham that afternoon left City looking anxiously at the cloud of dust looming in their rear view mirror. Stalled in neutral, panic was beginning to set in.

With most people suggesting one more win from the last three would be enough, City faced Nottingham Forest on a sunny April 20th at Maine Road. A desperate, mistake-ridden 1-2 defeat brought a thick bank of despair over the club. The leak City appeared to have sprung was not going to be plugged with a bedraggled hairpiece from chairman Peter Swales. Here was a hole of some size and water was pouring through it.

Tommy Caton congratulates scorer Kevin Reeves
It seemed like an unstoppable decline had been set in motion by Bond's disappearance. Only two summers before he had been responsible for one of the club's greatest ever cup runs, sailing through to the Centenary Final against Tottenham with a band of youth teamers and bargain basement signings. Allison's Crystal Palace had been sent packing 4-0, Bond's old club Norwich 6-0 and Everton and Ipswich removed in the latter stages, yet here were City looking threadbare and needy, with just two games of the 82-83 season left.

City set off for the South Coast in poor shape. Injuries and a complete crisis of confidence meant most were apprehensive to say the least. Brighton, heading for the cup final against neighbours United, also needed points for survival. In a match of towering tension, Kevin Reeves' slow looping header with a quarter of an hour remaining sealed an unlikely City win and dumped Brighton into Division Two. Benson, looking like a man who had been mauled by hungry chipmunks, reeled out his relegation quotes again. "I am fairly confident we can now stay up, " he whispered to John Motson for the Match of the Day cameras. John Bean, writing in the Monday edition of the Daily Express - in those days a fine carrier of football news and views - seemed to echo the general view when he wrote,

"The verdict on board City's coach as it sped away from the scene of their great escape was that one of England's major clubs had kept their first division status by the skin of Kevin Reeves' forehead…"
Luton Town, thrashed 5-1 on their own ground by Everton that same afternoon, had an extra game, but it was at Old Trafford and nobody could see them gaining anything at United, who were about to finish 3rd behind champions Liverpool and runners-up Watford. Luton duly lost 3-1 in the first of their Manchester double header and returned to the city for a nail-biting finale, knowing only a win would keep them up. City, still without a visit to the three relegation places all season, needed just a point, thanks to the heroics at Brighton the previous week.

What happened next scarred an entire generation of City fans and is part of the reason they find it wholly normal to worry their fingers down to the bone in the present scenario. Despite Pep Gaurdiola's star-studded team and the prize at stake being as far from the relegation dungheap their predecessors slid in all those years ago, you will still find plenty of City fans refusing to count even one chicken before kick-off at Brighton's shiny new ground on Sunday.

The ghosts of Brightons past, of Bond and Benson and poor old Tommy Caton, are still vivid enough to provoke a scream or two in 2019.

Reeves is chaired off by exultant City fans on the final whistle at Brighton. 


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