It was one of the greatest individual goals I have ever witnessed. It was a meaningless consolation. It was a surreal solo charge born of utter frustration. It was a full stop to our well-worn patience that directly led to a pitch invasion.
That’s quite a lot to pin on a single moment, and especially one that is little more than a curio stashed away in a memory bank rarely withdrawn from, but Terry Phelan’s mad pitch-long scamp in the dying moments of City’s FA Cup quarter final defeat to Spurs in 1993 is worthy of a blue plaque on the club’s timeline. At the time it changed nothing. In hindsight it helped change everything.
1993 was the best of times and the worst of times for City. We’d become immune to the former but the latter felt new and exciting. For generation after generation we’d endured the wiggy ineptitude of chairman Peter Swales but after relentlessly chopping and changing managers – usually for the worse – the creepy gnome seemed to have finally learnt his lesson. For the first time in yonks there was an air of optimism and stability around the club with manager Peter Reid being in charge long enough for his monikered mug to gain some tanning on his desk. Better yet Reidy was putting together a rather decent side.
True he favoured a distinctly direct style of play but with one of the best wingers around in David White flying down the right and Niall Quinn in his pomp it made sense to play to strength. Trumping all other considerations for an unparalleled four years we’d not suffered the indignity of relegation and conversely were scaling the heights of the new-look swish’n’swanky Premier League looking to establish ourselves as a major player. The opening of the new Platt Lane stand only added to the sense that our time was coming and the dark days of yesteryear could be consigned to anecdotes.
What mirrored this rebirth was an extended FA Cup run and with Reading, QPR and Barnsley dispensed with the stage was set for a televised quarter final with Spurs. We were just ninety minutes away from a Wembley semi and rather thrillingly it was on the BBC back when being on the telly meant a VHS tape was especially allocated for the occasion.
After a lifetime of f***-ups and disappointments City were on the cusp of being taken seriously with half the nation tuning in to witness our new dawn. Alan Hansen was even tipping us to win the competition. This was City; what could possibly go wrong?
An early lead only strengthened our sincere belief that this was our year, this was our time. That was before Spurs put together a lethal four-goal combination that would have floored an elephant. It hurt because reality slapping you across the face always does. It hurt because this wasn’t just another false dawn, a City cock-up, a flare-up of Cityitis. There was genuine hope this time. And with millions watching Spurs ruthlessly pulled back the curtain of Oz to reveal our chairman, wig askew, at the controls.
F*** Swales. F*** hope. As Justin Edinburgh put away a late fifth a handful of supporters ran onto the pitch oblivious to the offside flag that spared us another stake through the heart. When on the turf they didn’t have a clue what to do next. It was as if they just needed to flee their stationary despair.
Once they were stewarded off play resumed and City’s keeper Tony Coton passed to Phelan deep in his own half. Spying ten yards of space he instinctively ran into it then just….kept going. He skipped past one, two, then a clump of bemused opposition at once, before slotting home past a stunned Ian Walker to complete an astonishing individual effort the likes of which I’ve not seen before or since. I know Reid liked a direct style from his players but this was ridiculous.
What possessed the City left-back to embark on the run? Who knows, with Wembley now a shattered dream and an electric storm of discontent fizzing from the terraces maybe he was running off his own existential anguish?
Whatever the reason his defiant retaliatory punch spurred the fans into life and the pitch soon swarmed with blokes with bad taches and shellsuits railing against the club’s flawed DNA. It was a discontent that had reached breaking point and something had to give. Something duly did.
A year later it was channelled into ousting Swales largely through supporter campaigning, a revolution that brought Franny Lee at the helm and Brian Horton in the dug-out and yet another false dawn. It led to Alan Ball and Frank Clark. It led to us descending into the third tier and becoming the butt of a thousand jokes.
How typical of our misfortune back then that our big revolt only resulted in things getting drastically worse: even peasant stock in eastern European hinterlands manage to topple dictators and bring in the vote when they rise up. Yet that would be entirely missing the point. What happened that March day was a breaking of our emotional seal; a group declaration that enough was enough. The status quo – like the band with the same name – was unbearable and if the situation had to get worse before it got better then so be it.
There have been much more momentous goals scored since but none better. And for significance too Phelan’s most pointless of wondergoals should be placed right up there.
When Yaya thumped home his ten-yarded against Stoke at Wembley I fell to my knees like Willem Defoe in Platoon, my arms curled up to a heaven I don’t believe in.
When Sergio drilled home the title decider deep in stoppage time I blubbed like a newborn baby.
When Terry Phelan ran the length of Maine Road to make the scoreline of yet another defeat semi-respectable I awoke into life.
Who is to say the latter doesn’t deserve to be in such esteemed company?