Boro 1 (Armstrong) Manchester City 0
Stuart Pearce visits the Riverside on Saturday, with rumours suggesting a defeat would spell the end of his tenure of relegation-haunted Manchester City. City visited Teesside under such pressure in April 1998, in a game which went a long way to assuring both team's exit from Division One, although in opposite directions.
With Nottingham Forest comfortably clear at the top of the division, Boro were locked in a battle with Sunderland and outsiders Ipswich in the battle for the last automatic promotion spot. Boro's run to a third successive Wembley final (inevitably accompanied by another defeat to Chelsea) had threatened to de-rail the promotion push. After the semi-final success against Liverpool, a four goal defeat at Forest rapidly followed by an inexplicable 5-0 reverse at QPR had gone a long way to ending title hopes. After the final, crucial away defeats at Sheffield United and West Brom had put promotion in the balance. City were in desperate trouble at the other end. After relegation in 1996, City had failed to impress in their first season in Division One but struggled even more in 1997/8. They went down on the final day, only just scraping their way out of Division Two with penalty victory over Gillingham in the next season's play-offs.
With Mikkel Beck and Paul Merson creaking under the pressure of firing Boro to promotion, Bryan Robson splashed the cash on three new strikers in early 1998. Stockport's Alun Armstrong, impressive in the previous season's League Cup clash and Inter's wily veteran Marco Branca arrived for around £1m each. Colombian striker Hamilton Ricard was also signed. On the eve of the cup final, Bryan Robson splashed out £3.5m on Rangers' Paul Gascoigne, far from his only expensive mis-judgement. City arrived with a combative pair of Teesside-born midfielders Michael Brown and captain Jamie Pollock. Stockton-born Pollock had been a regular in the early 1990s, popular for his hard tackling, which covered his major technical shortcomings. After a brief spell with Osasuna, Pollock had returned to England and ended up at Maine Road. Pollock received a warm welcome that quickly evaporated.
The game was played on a Friday night for the TV cameras. The floodlit Riverside added tension to the occasion. A desperately poor game sparked into life before half time. Branca, having been a revelation since scoring 4 minutes into his debut, was injured late in the first half. Despite an aborted Premiership comeback, this injury ultimately proved to be career-ending. Branca's legal wrangles with the club soured what had once seemed destined to be a prolific spell on Teesside. Armstrong replaced him and swiftly opened the scoring, firing home in the area after smart work from Gascoigne outside the area (not often I got to say that). City were handed a lifeline just before the break. Steve Vickers, a man so timid he often appeared in fear of the ball, the crowd, the opposition and the concept of football itself, was sent off for violent conduct. Although it was barely even conduct - Vickers squared up to City lump Lee Bradbury, making a vague head movement in the striker's direction. Vickers' forehead never got closer than a yard to his opponent, yet Bradbury collapsed in a heap. After lengthy discussion, the referee dismissed Vickers - why he took his long to say 'get off' is not clear.
As the players went into the tunnel before half time, a melee broke. Fans rushed to peer down the tunnel to watch a scrap that was largely caused by Pollock's inexplicable attack on a bemused Alun Armstrong. Pollock's typically feisty tackling had undermined the crowd's initial goodwill. His half time fisticuffs, further suggesting some kind of hormal imbalance, turned this into outright abuse. It was hardly surprising though - the unthinking combination of passion and clumsy violence had been a hallmark of Pollock's career. It seems bizarre that this was the same man that could score a goal of such class that he was made Time's man of the century by QPR fans.
Little happened in the second half. Ten-man Boro lacked the inclination and City lacked the quality to attack convincingly. Boro held on for a vital three points. This may not have been a great game but it did turn out to be an extremely important one.