“Where’s the nearest job centre?”
That’s what Manchester City manager Kevin Keegan asked assistant Derek Fazackerley, ten years ago to this Tuesday, as he slunk towards the White Hart Lane dressing room at half-time.
The two-time Ballon d’Or winner’s team hadn’t registered a league win in 12 games and over three months. During that time they’d been dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Polish unknowns Grodzisk Wielkopolski and eliminated from the League Cup 3-1 by Tottenham Hotspur. Now they were on their way to the same fate, by the same punishers, in the FA Cup – but this time in grossly humiliating fashion.
City trailed Spurs 3-0 in their fourth-round replay, Arni Arason – the club’s third-choice goalkeeper – having been powerless to prevent an excellent Ledley King left-footer, a sumptuously-taken Robbie Keane effort and a patented 25-yard free-kick from Christian Ziege. The Mancunians had lost £13m club-record signing Nicolas Anelka to injury. They had lost another key player, midfielder Joey Barton, to a red card.
A comeback wasn’t even on Keegan’s interval agenda. Defeat, and the sack, felt inevitable.
“’Where's the nearest job centre?’ I asked Faz,” the former England striker and manager recalled. “I knew I needed a miracle to survive [the sack]. And any miracle wasn’t going to come on the pitch. Three-nil down, a man down, without a key, in-form striker (Anelka), away from home… it was about damage limitation. I told the players to go out there and play for pride.”
Within three minutes of the restart, City had restored a slice of that pride. Dynamite-booted German Michael Tarnat shaped to strike a free-kick but instead deceivingly dinked it into the box, catching the Spurs defenders off-guard and enabling Sylvain Distin to head home.
You couldn’t make that up. They’ll talk about this game long after we are dead and gone.
Arason then made a stunning double-save to deny Ziege and Gus Poyet putting the contest to bed before, on the stroke of 70 minutes, Bosvelt’s shot from the edge of the box took a wicked deflection off Anthony Gardner and wrong-footed Tottenham goalkeeper Kasey Keller en route to pulling another goal back.
Heroic defending from Distin and Richard Dunne, as well as another fine save from the Iceland international, maintained City’s lifeline, before they restored parity with ten minutes remaining. Shaun Wright-Phillips outpaced the Tottenham backline and clipped Robbie Fowler’s through-ball over the outrushing Kasey Keller to make it 3-3.
As the clock ticked past 90, extra-time beckoned. “The boys had played the entire second half at ten against 11 – they had run their socks off,” explained Keegan. “Another 30 minutes would have been really difficult on them.”
The men in sky blue nevertheless spared themselves of that exhaustion. Jon Macken had no right to get to a left-wing Tarnat cross before two opponents, but not only did he manage that, he also, from a difficult position, headed the ball across goal and into the bottom corner with unerring accuracy.
City had, somehow, eked out a 4-3 victory, booked themselves a fifth-round derby with Manchester United, and completed arguably the greatest comeback in FA Cup history. “I have never known anything like that!” gasped Keegan post-match. “It was truly incredible.
“Our supporters got us back in the game – they were magnificent. At 3-0 down they were still chanting for us, not against us, and it made up our 11th man. The lads responded. Everybody chased every ball. You couldn’t make that up. They’ll talk about this game long after we are dead and gone.”