The 1998-99 season in the Second Division (now League One) was one in which was supposed to be one in which the big names and big spenders were supposed to lay waste to the competition and preserve a perceived natural order. While the final reckoning shows that this did happen, to a large degree, Tom Simmonds reveals that the big clubs didn’t have it all their own way.
Virtually every preview of the 1998-99 season in the third tier of English football was centred on one thing alone-Manchester City’s presence in it. While their relegation from Division One the previous season provided Division Two with undoubted novelty and the glamour of a big name, it was also a representation of the death spiral that the club was in at the time.
Though the bookies installed their expensive squad as favourites for an immediate return, seasoned lower league watchers were mindful of how the dysfunction that had prevailed at Maine Road in previous seasons would not sit easily with their new rustic surroundings.
The other heavy favourites for promotion, Fulham, were on the upswing just as Joe Royle was engaged in the salvage operation to secure City’s immediate promotion.
The new beneficiaries of Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed’s generosity assembled a ludicrous squad for the third tier, with big names like Chris Coleman, Kit Symons, Steve Finnan, Peter Beardsley and, later, Phillippe Albert, were augmented by a pair of up-and-coming forwards, Geoff Horsfield and Barry Hayles.
The two favourites met at Craven Cottage on the second Saturday of the season and Fulham put down a firm marker of how things were going to be all season, walloping City 3-0.
Horsfield’s arrival from Halifax in the October was the catalyst for Fulham running away with the title, as he bagged 15 goals in 28 appearances ,ably assisted by a team from where goals came from all over the pitch (Symons’ haul of 11 from centre-back made him their second top goalscorer).
Fulham seized top spot in December and never relinquished it as they amassed 101 points, a full 14 points clear of the runners-up. While the order was perhaps not as the bookies had imagined it – Fulham had done what was expected of them, and then some.
A look at the runners-up shows us a big diversion from the pre-ordained script. It is safe to say that nobody expected a Walsall side of modest means to be troubling the top end of the table.
However, as a member of the Aston Villa side who won the European Cup against Bayern Munich in 1982, manager Ray Graydon knew a thing or two about upsetting the odds.
While there was a little top-level experience in their side, in the form of ex-Everton left- back Neil Pointon, Graydon’s squad was largely comprised of solid lower division pros such as centre-back Adi Viveash (now managing Chelsea’s youth team) and no-nonsense striker Andy Rammell.
Rammell and ex-Derby youngster Darren Wrack carried their main attacking threat, plundering 31 of their 63 league goals between them. As can be inferred by their not being free-scoring, this was a team whose bedrock was a defence and goalkeeper (club legend and future West Ham custodian Jimmy Walker) who kept 20 clean sheets and conceded a parsimonious 47 league goals all season.
Handily placed in third at the start of February, the Saddlers put their foot down from there, winning 11 of their last 18 games and timing their run to automatic promotion to perfection.
They almost got to Wembley in the Auto Windscreens Shield (now the Checkatrade trophy) too, losing a tight semi-final to Millwall 2-1 on aggregate. Though they had to wait until 2015 to play at the national stadium, in the context of their season as a whole, Walsall could brush it off on this occasion.
City ended up topping the melange below the top two, never fully convincing at any point, but always doing enough to keep themselves in contention. A slow start to the season saw them draw six and lose two of their first 12 games, and a look at their results throughout the season shows a team who would win, lose and draw in clumps. This would serve them well towards the end of the season, when they went on three and four game winning streaks to send them into the play-offs in reasonable form.
Joining them would be Tony Pulis’ Gillingham, whose front line of the pacy Carl Asaba (signed to replace Ade Akinbiyi that summer) and the deceptively cultured big man Robert Taylor ran amok throughout the season. The Gills racked up 75 goals overall and Taylor’s bag of 5 in a 5-0 away win over Burnley is something that Gillingham fans who travelled to East Lancs that day will never forget. This was a serious team, built around the midfield promptings of the abrasive, but hugely classy, Andy Hessenthaler and founded on the solidity provided by ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Vince Bartram and Spurs-bred centre-back Guy Butters. They and City would congregate again in the season finale, of which, more later.
The play-offs were made up by two more teams from the north west. The first being David Moyes’ Preston North End, who would streak to the title the following season after losing out to Gillingham 2-1 on aggregate this time. Hessenthaler’s early winner sealing the deal in the second leg at Priestfield after Taylor’s late equaliser had secured them a draw in the first leg at Deepdale.
City’s opponents in the semi-finals, in an amusing foreshadow of the 2013 FA Cup final, were Wigan Athletic, who were about to leave their crumbling Springfield Park home for the new surroundings of the JJB Stadium, as chairman Dave Whelan plotted their ascent up the football ladder.
They were a fair side in this season, their star being future Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll, but they were packed with top-level pedigree top goalscorer Stuart Barlow started at Everton, centre back Pat McGibbon was polished at Old Trafford and Carl Bradshaw and Paul Rogers played in Dave Bassett’s famously robust Sheffield United sides of the early 90s. Their semi-final with City followed the pattern of Gillingham’s with Preston.
After Barlow accepted a gift from City’s defence to put the Latics 1-0 up in the first minute of the first leg, Paul Dickov’s neat first-time finish set up a tense second leg at Maine Road, which City edged thanks to Shaun Goater’s controversial winner that had shades of handball about it.
Wigan had to wait five more years for promotion, losing the play-off final to Gillingham the following season and then enduring two unsuccessful seasons before romping to the title in 2002-03. For now though, Latics fans had to content themselves with Auto Windscreens Shield success as Rogers’ injury time goal, which had more than a shade of handball about it itself, secured a 1-0 win over Millwall at Wembley.
In what has become known, possibly correctly, as the most dramatic play-off final of all time, City looked as though they would fall short for long periods, though they had the best chance of a dull first half, as Bartram was on hand to parry Kevin Horlock’s header away. Goater hitting the post when it looked easier to score early in the second half seemed to serve as a harbinger of what was to come, and so it proved when Asaba, ten minutes from time, smashed the ball into the roof of the net after Paul Smith played him in.
When Taylor doubled the lead five minutes later, by belting Asaba’s back-heel pass past Nicky Weaver from outside the area, City looked set for another season in a division many of their fans had been saying was beneath them all season.
Taylor’s goal was the cue for the famous rush to the exits by many of the Mancunian contingent. Horlock drilling in what seemed to be a consolation on the follow up after Goater was denied by a last-ditch tackle.
What did get them rushing back into Wembley was what happened next. A long ball was hoisted forward and flicked on, Goater managed to smuggle it to Dickov on the right-hand edge of the penalty area. The Scot probably never hit another shot better in his career than the one he proceeded to leather past his best friend and former Arsenal team-mate Bartram to take it into extra time, which bore no fruit.
Penalties it was then. Horlock scored City’s first, blasting it down the middle as Bartram went left. Paul Smith attempted to do the same with Gillingham’s first kick, but succeeded only in hitting Weaver’s feet rather than the net.
Dickov then proceeded to miss a penalty in a way he couldn’t repeat if he tried. He beat Bartram to his left, only to see the shot hit the inside of the post, roll behind Bartram’s prone body, hit the inside of the other post and stay out. Dickov was redeemed with the Kent club’s next kick, as their current manager Ady Pennock ballooned the ball wide while aiming for the top right-hand corner.
Terry Cooke put City 2-0 up on pens with a quality finish low into the side netting to heap pressure on John Hodge, the next Gillingham taker. It didn’t show as he buried the ball with aplomb in the place where Pennock attempted to put it. Richard Edgehill, the City left-back who had never scored a goal in his career thumped the ball into that same top corner off the underside of the bar for 3-1. Butters then put Gillingham’s all-or-nothing kick to the left-handed Weaver’s stronger side, and he was able to parry it away to seal promotion in a way that nobody thought they would attain it prior to the season’s start.
One of the surprises of the season is that a side who were inferior arguably only to Fulham in the scheme of things missed out on the play-offs entirely. It was close for Bournemouth, who were managed by former City gaffer Mel Machin.
They equalled Wigan’s points total of 76, but lost out on the final play-off place on goals scored after a horrendous end to the season saw them lose 4 of their last 9 games to fall from fourth place in April to seventh on the last day, when a failure to beat Wrexham at home saw them miss out.
They were a hell of a side, though, and it looked for all money that they would be serious contenders, particularly after a fast start and a December and January in which they slayed almost all comers.
A defence marshalled by current gaffer Eddie Howe (who was, let us not forget, a magnificent player who would have played at the top level but for injury) and the goal threat Ian Cox conceded only 41 times all season, and a reliable stream of goals came from veteran Mark Stein, Steve Robinson and Steve Fletcher.
Most people who saw Bournemouth play that season are still mystified by their failure to get promoted. As we know, things have turned out rather well for them but this narrow failure was a catalyst for five or six dark years that took the club to the brink of not existing.
A year after flirting heavily with relegation, club legends Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary were quietly rebuilding Millwall around a core of exciting youngsters and hardened pros such as Stuart Nethercott and Scott Fitzgerald.
Future internationals Tim Cahill and Steven Reid played out their first full seasons in professional football and this was also the season club record scorer and current manager Neil Harris signed for the club.
A tenth-place finish and a Wembley appearance would prove to be good markers for a young team who would storm to the title two seasons later after a narrow defeat to Wigan in the play-off semis the following season.
The third tier also contained a future England manager in 1998-99, as Sam Allardyce steered his newly-promoted Notts County to a sixteenth-place finish. Fun was in short supply at Meadow Lane this season, as a nondescript team scrapped their way to enough points to be easily safe despite losing 20 times in the league.
The relegation issues were, sadly for the divisions minnows, pretty cut and dried from the off. Macclesfield Town, who had gone straight through the fourth tier the previous season immediately after winning the Conference in 1996-97, finished bottom and always looked like doing so.
Lincoln City, the other real underdogs in the league, gave it a brave go and picked up some shock wins, most notably beating City 2-1 at Sincil Bank in October and Bournemouth by the same score in early January.
However, if you lose 26 games in a season, as Lincoln did that year, there is only one way you are going. Northampton and York City completed the relegation quartet in results which were largely proportionate to resources.
Follow Tom on Twitter at @Tallulahonearth