The year is 2004, the month February. Harry Kane, a mere ten years old, is firing goals past a helpless classmate at his Chingford primary school, while at Manchester City, the only trace of Middle Eastern pulling power is a shawarma joint on the walk up from Piccadilly Station.
At the summit of the Premier League, a seemingly unconquerable Arsenal are gallivanting towards a thirteenth English title with a five-point lead over the chasing Manchester United, with Chelsea a close third and a country mile ahead of the rest of the competition.
With eyes fixed on the leading pack – and the prospect of an unprecedented season-long unbeaten run the primary subject of debate among the press, pundits and the public – an FA Cup clash between the top two’s underachieving neighbours might easily have come and gone without much ado.
But after our visit to Belgium for the first instalment in this Comeback Kings series, we move on to a cold White Hart Lane for a wondrous winter’s tale.
When plucked out of the hat to face one another in the FA Cup fourth round, midway through the 2003/04 season, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City were enduring something of a dry spell. Spurs’ only piece of major silverware in thirteen years had come via the League Cup in 1998/99, the same season in which the Citizens had been entertaining the likes of York and Macclesfield, stuck in the doldrums of the third tier. Neither had placed in the top seven since the 1992 advent of the Premier League, and with 16th-placed City mired in a relegation fight and Spurs, eleventh, pulling up no trees, that run looked set for extension.
A late-September divisional encounter had resulted in a goalless draw in Manchester, though a second meeting – the League Cup fourth-round clash in December – had been distinctly more flavoursome. Spurs had led 2-0 at the break, but the travelling side fought hard; Robbie Fowler’s 80th minute strike threw the cat among the pigeons, but with City pushing to force extra time, Freddie Kanouté sealed Tottenham’s passage.
But by the time the following month’s FA Cup tie unravelled into another uninspiring stalemate and required a replay, both sets of supporters were likely sick of the sight of one another. With a devilishly tough fifth-round away trip to Old Trafford awaiting the winner, a February 4 match-up in North London showed few initial signs of a classic – at least not on paper.
If anything, the contest looked over as early as the nineteenth minute. A full-strength Spurs called on Robbie Keane to open up a two-goal cushion, the Irishman tucking the ball past replacement City stopper Arni Arason after a sublime show of close-control to take down a long aerial pass. A Ledley King effort from outside the box had already punished an errant clearance in the opening exchanges and when 20-goal forward Nicolas Anelka was forced off with a hamstring strain before the half-hour mark, the visitors’ race looked run.
Following referee Rob Styles’ decision, on the stroke of half-time, to punish Joey Barton’s wild stamp on Michael Brown with a booking, rather than a dismissal, the City midfielder might have considered himself lucky. But when the ensuing Christian Ziege free-kick sailed over the defensive wall and into Arason’s net, leading Barton to hurl a tirade of dissent at the match officials and earn himself his marching orders, any controversy regarding the initial call was immaterial.
As the sides filed down the tunnel to a chorus of boos from the away end, the Citizens – down by a man and three goals – faced a humbling elimination and a lengthy trip back up north.
“They’ve almost rendered the second half academic,” TV commentator Martin Tyler said of Spurs. And it was true.
Floundering City had won just one of their last eighteen outings; with his ship sinking – and now without talisman Anelka to turn the tide – City helmsman Kevin Keegan was under veritable threat of the sack. His bid to limit the damage relied on an inconsistent Fowler, who had completed just seven full games that season due to fitness problems of his own, and substitute striker Jon Macken, who had hit the net only twice that campaign and missed a sure-fire winner in the first tie. The result seemed the most steadfastly forgone of conclusions.
Yet the seeds of the most miraculous fightbacks are often sown by the unlikeliest of yeomen. Maybe City’s French centre-half had merely sought to keep moving in order to fight off the cold, or perhaps it was the ‘anything goes’ approach that comes hand-in-hand with an imminent cup exit, but whatever the cause, Sylvain Distin found himself on the end of a lofted free-kick from deep. Michael Tarnat’s delivery, weighted perfectly, hung in the air just long enough for his teammate to peel away from Spurs’ Stéphane Dalmat inside the area. With only goalkeeper Kasey Keller left to beat, the adventuring defender looked every inch a target man as he nodded his side back to within two on 48 minutes. It was only the second of the City captain’s three goals all season, but boy would it prove a pivotal one.
The ante would soon be raised once more, but not before an excellent double save from Arason, first to keep out another Ziege free-kick at one post, then to sprint and gather Gus Poyet’s goal-bound follow-up at the other. The Icelandic international had received a rude awakening in this, his first-ever game in English football, but his reflexes at 3-1 played as great a part in this epic as any strike at either end.
Battling back at their hosts, City’s perseverance bore fruit in the 69th minute. Tarnat, again, twisting and turning on the left-hand edge of the Spurs area, whipped a cross in towards the sky-blue shirt of Fowler, poised on the six-yard line. King rose and beat him to it, but fed his clearing header straight into the path of the visitors’ Paul Bosvelt. The vastly experienced Dutchman, formerly midfield custodian at Feyenoord and a regular with die Oranje, was yet to score for the Citizens – his hacked effort from the eighteen-yard box, a volley fired awkwardly down and into the turf, hinted at why. But while Keller dived off to his right for a comfortable stop, centre-half Anthony Gardner flicked a left leg at the shot as it travelled past his hip. A reflexive movement, no doubt, but a fateful one. The touch of foot on ball sent it veering off in a new direction and, a split-second later, arching into the net for 3-2.
By now, Tottenham were rocking, their advantage evaporating. And City, with the wind at their backs, surged forward with ten minutes left to play. A powerful Richard Dunne header was taken down deftly on the thigh of Jon Macken, ten yards inside Spurs territory. The forward looked over his right shoulder to find Fowler, who, on receiving a short pass, threaded a through ball ahead of the pacey Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Often, when it comes to comebacks, Lady Luck has her say. Never was that truer than when the winger, glaringly ahead of last defender Johnnie Jackson when the pass was made, stole through on goal without so much as a twitch of the linesman’s flag. But if good fortune had given Wright-Phillips the opening, it was class that gave him his seventh goal of the season. With Keller haring out to close the angle, the City man waited until the very last moment before pulling the trigger with an audacious chip into the far corner.
Wright-Phillips peeled jubilantly away, lauded by the raucous and revitalised travelling contingent. Behind the goal, the opposite was the case; contemptuous arms waved as heads hit hands. One man in a navy jacket sprang to his feet, berating the son of legendary Gunner Ian Wright, who had dared to restore parity.
At 3-3, the tie seemed headed in one direction only. Keegan, beating his palms together in a picture of joy at the third goal, threw on Antoine Sibierski and Steve McManaman. With the minutes ticking down before extra time, City’s best chance was to strike while the iron was hot.
As Tottenham clung on, the blue jerseys pressed over halfway. The next ten minutes would pass without further change to the scoreline, but the Citizens’ threat was constant.
With just seconds left of normal time, China international Sun Jihai spreads play to Sibierski, forty yards out from the hosts’ goal. The Frenchman rides the challenge of Simon Davies and weaves his way towards the left flank, taken to ground by a sliding Dalmat challenge, but not before the ball is worked out wider to the instrumental Tarnat. The German loops in one final cross, a firmly hit delivery that floats over the heads in the box. King, defending the corner of the six-yard area, looks for all money to be the favourite. But as the ball drops under the White Hart Lane floodlights, the unfancied Macken darts forward from deep. At five foot ten, he is hardly the tallest man on the field and certainly no match in the air for the imposing 6’2” centre-back. And yet, in the final moments of the most memorable of cup clashes, the Tottenham man mistimes his challenge, jumping too early. The same cannot be said for the City forward, who rises high and powers his forehead into synthetic leather. The ball careers back the way it came, over the defence, flying past a stranded Keller and in behind the post to see City through.
As Macken, vilified after his crucial miss in the original tie, hurtles towards the crazed Mancunian support, all his forgiven. King and his charges are slumped in defeat.
Added time still needs to be navigated, but it passes without further incident – Spurs are out of the contest and out of the cup. At the final whistle, a relieved Keegan embraces his technical staff and substitutes; in the midst of a torrid season, his side have somehow found a reason to celebrate. Way off the pace before the interval, faced with a three-goal deficit, deprived of their best striker and down to ten men, the strugglers, hopelessly off-form, had no right to turn the night around. And though a spirited fifth-round performance at eventual cup-winners Manchester United would end in a 4-2 loss, City were able to save their campaign in similar fashion, finishing eight points clear of the drop. Keegan indeed kept his job, announcing his retirement from management a year later after a decidedly stronger showing in 2004/05, though he would eventually reappear to lead old club Newcastle.
As for Tottenham, the result – though hugely embarrassing – was not immediately disastrous. Ironically, they would score four goals in each of their next three fixtures, earning seven points. But though they sat five points shy of fifth come mid-March, an implosion brought about an eight-game winless run and they would plummet to fourteenth, ending just four points better off than the Citizens.
Fortunes are vastly different for both sides these days; regular Premier League representatives on the European stage, the two have come a long way since. But City fans, despite all the many successes and accolades that their club’s newfound dominance has brought them, will still hold in high regard the evening of February 4, 2004.