Playing To The Invisible Man: Manchester City & An Empty Stand.

By Simon Curtis | 28th May 2020
A look back at when Manchester City had to play in front of an empty stand – playing to the invisible man.

The old North Stand at Maine Road became a stronghold of noisy support in the second division days of the mid-80s, with some of the Kippax faithful splintering to the seats behind the goal at that end of the ground. It added a raw edge to a stadium atmosphere, which had generally been produced with the most convincing volume by the great heaving Kippax terrace running along the touchline.

Now things would be different.

There was a counterbalance and a noisy one at that. Early era large-scale stadium banter could now also crop up with some panache, each stand baiting the other during the plentiful lulls in meaningful action as Ken McNaught and David Johnson searched for the eternal meaning of life.. “We can’t hear a fucking thing” would be tossed back with “Kippax Kippax give us a song”, until both stands broke into lusty support for the team or continued derision of each other. The wearing of half Rangers/half City ski hats and half Celtic/half City ones also added a little spice, with chants of “Rangers”, “Celtic” exchanged between different groups. These were simple times.

Swings and changes such as these little affected what was going on down on the pitch, however. City were broadly dreadful during the decade, clinching relegation twice and drifting far from the heady days of the 70s, when a League Cup had been won and the league title missed out on by a single point to Bob Paisley’s red steamroller.

With changing stadium dynamics and the need to fulfil the recommendations of the Taylor Report, City’s support in the North Stand remained vociferous and rowdy during the increasingly desperate decade that followed. Relegation came again in 1996 after a period of relatively upbeat fortunes in the early 90s. Once Alan Ball’s unique coaching wisdom had landed City back in the second tier, a proper unravelling could take place.

The fall-out from years of inertia and bad karma saw the club crash through to the third tier for the first time in its existence. The worse it got, the livelier the crowds became. 32,000 greeted the first team of the season put out by Joe Royle in a 3-0 romp against Blackpool.

By the turn of the year, the struggle was real, however. Not only were palpably “small” teams coming for their big day out (Bristol Rovers, Gillingham and Wrexham all left Maine Road with 0-0 draws that were celebrated like Cup Final wins) but also massive away followings. Chesterfield managed a 1-1 draw and lifted the roof with glee. The 3,000 away allocation, now housed in the corner of the same North Stand where a good slice of City’s most fanatical followers still stood, was more often than not fully taken up by the most unlikely of distant visitors, amongst them Bristol Rovers and Gillingham.

It wasn’t until Saturday 6th February 1999 that this was to become a problem, however.

On this day “the mob returned to football” as Ken Lawrence of the Daily Mail put it. What had actually returned to Maine Road for the first time since 1990 was Millwall, followed as ever by a large and unruly phalanx of travelling hustlers.

Supporters of many clubs will have reason to remember the visit of Millwall to their grounds. Equally, visiting Cold Blow Lane could also be a truly memorable experience. City had drawn Millwall in the FA Cup in 1990 and I clearly remember the privilege of picking through the debris of previous full-scale riots on my way to two night-replays at The Den that season. The Easter league visit was only mildly less intimidating, thanks mainly to a wan sun flicking its rays over the furrowed ground. That day was not to be without drama, as my mate’s girlfriend enacted the worst-ever jumping onto the back of a moving bus, missing the grab bar and falling off with a squeal into the gutter as it pulled away gently. The unseemly hurry to board the bus suggests that we must have encountered a certain amount of action that day too.

Back at Maine Road on 6th February 1999, the wind was cold, the sky laden and the atmosphere equally heavy with gloom. As the away section filled up, stories were already filtering through that the majority of Millwall’s support had descended gracefully from the London-Manchester Intercity at Stockport in order to meet and greet in Manchester’s southernmost outskirts. There, they had been fortunate enough to meet United fans on their way to Nottingham and had met and greeted them in the traditional manner too.

By the time the police escort managed to siphon them into the North Stand, they had worked up a full appetite for social mixing. Even to the uninitiated eye, the gatherings in the stair wells of large groups of men whose knuckles were close to the ground and others in uniform (anything dark and hooded and waterproof) as close as possible to the flimsy cordon of police officers and stewards arranged tremulously down the dividing line of empty bucket seats, looked more than a little ominous. The away contingent was evidently not content to take to their seats to flick through the programme and enjoy a bag of wine gums before the action started.

They had brought the action with them. They were the action.

By 7pm that night, all the available police cells in south Manchester were occupied.

Football’s increasingly upmarket image in the 90s had been rolled in the dirt and stamped upon in one easy afternoon’s work.

City’s support, far from retiring violets themselves, had been fully aware that some kind of retribution might have been fitting after a similarly feisty affair had taken place the previous September in a 1-1 draw at The Den, a match liberally punctuated by small and medium-scale rioting in the stands throughout.

Here was the comeback. Superintendent Clive Wolfendale exclaimed breathlessly, “Even if I had had five times the number of officers at my disposal it would still not have been possible to contain the problems. We escorted 1500 Millwall fans by foot from the city centre alone, but earlier in the day for some reason, a similar number of Millwall fans had got off the trains in Stockport and created havoc there.”

The worst of the violence was yet to come, however, and it duly arrived at approximately 16 minutes past 4, when Paul Dickov put City ahead. Superintendent Wolfendale, dented whistle to his lips, takes up the story: “The worst of the violence took place after Manchester City scored their first goal. It was very violent indeed at this point, with some of my officers and some supporters receiving head injuries from flying coins and other missiles. It was extremely violent.”

As Dickov’s soft shot squirmed under the slowly folding body of Millwall keeper Nigel Spink, all hell broke loose. A sizeable chunk of the Millwall contingent tried its best to break through police lines. As it did so, Terry Cooke floated in a peach of a free kick to make it 2-0. As exhortations to riot some more go, it was an eloquent one. After City had added a third from Kevin Horlock, the North Stand began to empty, leaving a scene reminiscent of Rorke’s Drift, long after Michael Caine and Stanley Baker had had their helmets knocked off.

City licked their wounds, counted the cost of the damage and jumped to 7th in the 3rd division table. Millwall exited stage left, demoralised and needing a good lie down.

By the time the clubs met again three years later, City had been promoted twice and relegated once. It’s comforting to be reminded occasionally that there was once a more unstable time before you could set your watch to Kevin De Bruyne through-balls and Fernandinho midfield shirt tugs. City’s way-too-steep ascent had resulted in an immediate “return” to the second tier from the Premier, where newly promoted Millwall were eagerly waiting to renew hostilities.

This time, all parties had got wise to the likelihood of combustion. An agreement between the two clubs meant that no away fans would be allowed into either fixture. As the first meeting would be at the New Den, this seemed less of a problem, as only the most foolhardy City fans would have insisted on being there. Or indeed those, like Sean Riley, who were attempting to keep an unbroken match-going sequence intact and managing it, albeit in disguise: “The abiding memory was having to wear Millwall colours as we attempted to pass off as home fans. Each of our goals was greeted with the eeriest of silences. You could hear a pin drop before the home fans rallied their team. The best moment of the night was Shaun Wright-Phillips’s winner. You could hear the noise as the ball brushed on the inside of the netting as it flew in. At no point was there a desire to jump up and celebrate. It was the easiest thing to stay quiet and smile inwardly. 5,000 watched on a big screen at Maine Road that night, but I know at least 30 who got into the New Den that night…”

For Sean, it would be another night of no entry for City fans, this time in Moscow, that would bring an end to a 1258-game run, which included two home fans-only games at Luton’s Kenilworth Road and a Manchester derby during the refurbishment of Old Trafford, when City fans were barred.

In a week where you might have been forgiven for being distracted by Tony Blair’s tub-thumping for war in Iraq or even Rotherham manager Ronnie Moore’s insistence on reporting City’s Christian Negouai for knocking in the equaliser against his side with his fist the week before, what transpired in East London would also carve its own little groove in City football folklore.

In a game fashioned expertly for the description topsy-turvy the deafening silence that greeted Shaun Wright-Phillips’s first-ever City goal in the 83rd minute of the match eloquently told the story. With manager Kevin Keegan sent off for protesting a ghost penalty awarded by referee Mr Wilkes, who, not unreasonably, was already plotting his safe retreat from London’s docklands to return to the bosom of his family, the match appeared to have caught up on City at two-apiece. Twice ahead through Shaun Goater and Darren Huckerby, City had been pegged back by Richard Sadlier and Steve Claridge’s penalty.

The penalty, awarded by the short-sighted, pre-Barnard Castle Mr Wilkes, brought the effete, bow-tie-wearing home supporters to genteel applause (you can imagine the hanky-waving scenes). Ian Prior’s report in the Guardian had it “against the run of play”, but the Millwall lads were too busy whirling their children above their heads by their ankles to notice.

Before this, Huckerby’s goal had been the catalyst for one of City’s most iconic goal celebrations, an effort that would not go amiss in any of the ghost games going on in the Bundesliga this month. As the speeding ex-Norwich man sliced in with the outside of his right boot, he rushed behind the goal to greet the two-tiered away end with an enthusiastic interaction with the thousands of missing City fans. As his team-mates arrived to join in the clapping, the empty rows gawped back and the rest of the ground discharged an odd guttural noise, as if steadying itself for meaty retribution.

Claridge’s equaliser was later offset by City’s third goal, a glorious, sweeping attack so typical of that effervescent Keegan promotion season.

The game proved pivotal to City’s fortunes. Keegan stated at the end of the campaign “It’s a tough place to go, Millwall, and that was a real turning point for us. There were others of course, after that, but that was a major result for us at their place”.

City had ransacked the Lion’s Den, pulled the beast’s tail and run off with its soup bones. To a backdrop of rancorous grumbling, the New Den had been conquered. Little did we know that there would be more empty seats to come, first in Moscow in highly dubious circumstances and then in the desperate finale to the frayed and tattered 2019-20 season.

The reality of the culmination to the season being played out in front of empty stands is almost upon us. Like Huckerby in 2001, it will be up to the players to devise a way of sharing any special moments that occur with those of us locked out of the spectacle.