Frank Clark was appointed the manager of Manchester City on December 30th after a successful period in charge of Nottingham Forest. His reign in charge of City was less than successful than previously hoped for. Clark was appointed to replace Steve Coppell who resigned after thirty-three days in charge.
Relegation from the Premiership in 1996 brought turmoil to a club who were already suffering from a clear lack of instability. Steve Coppell’s resignation infuriated the City fan-base with the majority of which disgusted by Coppell’s lack of interest in the position. Coppell’s resignation on medical grounds never sat well with the blues especially when he guided Crystal Palace to promotion later that same season.
Clark was appointed after Phil Neal took caretaker charge, a stint that lasted longer than Coppell’s reign as City’s manager. Newspapers and local media stated City were in crisis, something Clark was quick to dismiss before his first game by highlighting the club’s phenomenal support.
“If you consider that 30,000 turn up for a home game when you are near the bottom of the First Division and 6,000 fans travel to an away game at Barnsley, it certainly doesn’t seem a job from hell to me”
Frank’s first game in charge of the Blues came at home to Crystal Palace on 11th January. Coincidentally, Dave Bassett was the Palace manager after he turned down the position to manage City before the appointment of Coppell in September.
Three successive draws followed by City’s biggest win of the season against Oxford meant Clark had arbitrarily started his City career. Clark quickly acted to add his element to this City side by recruiting Kevin Horlock from Swindon.
Three successive wins pushed City away from danger, and some began to hope of a playoff push. Dalian Atkinson was signed in late March as Clark aimed to add Premier League experience. Inconsistency towards the end of the season brought an element of tiredness throughout the club with many wanting the end of the season to occur swiftly.
The end of season issues seen rumours of Georgi Kinkladze expected to depart the club – something Clark was unwilling to allow. A 14th place finish for City was met by glorious celebrations because of the seemingly bleak future of the club before Clark’s appointment in December.
Now a fan favourite, fans fully believed that Clark would be the man that would be able to deliver promotion. Clark also gave Nicky Summerbee, Uwe Rosler and Kinkladze a new lease of life at Maine Road when their City careers looked to be over.
The 1997-1998 season brought a major sense of hope from the club’s supporters. Lee Bradbury was signed for a club record £3million plus £500,000 should Bradbury make his international debut. Gerard Wiekens and Tony Vaughan also followed suit. A 2-2 draw at home to Portsmouth resulted in Clark admitting the pressure from the supporters was too high.
Defeat in the Coca-Cola Cup first round to Blackpool at home meant the season had started abysmally with the pre-season optimism already being drained from the long-suffering supporters. The second leg of the tie seen City dumped out of the competition via a penalty shoot-out. Jason Van Blerk was also signed as Clark aimed to strengthen the squad depth.
By the end of September, the blues lay 20th following a crushing 6-0 defeat of Swindon. A run of three defeats from four soon followed, and the blues were 22nd in the division staring relegation firmly in the face. Clark was forced to search in the transfer market once again to help ease the worries around the club. Craig Russell was signed for £1million from Sunderland.
Embarrassment soon followed at the hands of local rivals, Stockport County. City went down 1-3 away to County in a game many suggest a little point of the Clark era. It was rare that the opposition was beating City, it was more a fact the side’s individual errors kept costing Clark’s men valuable points.
Two wins in December meant Clark’s position at the club was becoming doubtful. Still looking likely for the drop, the club quickly denied rumours that they were about to replace the former Forest manager. The club was 23rd out of a possible 24 teams in the division.
Another rock bottom point hit when City was beaten 1-2 at home to Bury at Maine Road. The result saw cries from fans ordering the sacking of Clark and resignation of chairman, Francis Lee. Fans began to throw away their season ticket with one famously doing so on the pitch. Rumours start to occur of Clark being dismissed and Joe Royle coming in.
Clark seemed resigned to the fact his future at the club was nearing the end. The defeat to Bury had many fans convinced their destiny lay in third tier next season. Tensions at boardroom level were evident with Francis Lee receiving the majority of the blame (not Clark) for the club’s demise. However, the expectation around the club was that Clark was soon to be dismissed once the boardroom issue had been resolved.
February 17th’s board meeting proved pivotal for Clark. He was travelling to Sunderland to watch their game with Reading when he received a phone call from Bernard Halford saying the chairman wanted to see him. Clark offered to turn around, but he was told the matter could wait until the following morning.
Later that night, Clark received a message from journalist John Richardson stating he had received accurate information that he was to be sacked and Joe Royle was on the verge of being appointed his successor. Clark shortly received a call from Francis Lee stating his services were no longer required.
Clark left under bitter circumstances indicating a vendetta was in-place behind the scenes to up-lift him from his position. However, it’s difficult to agree with Clark when results were as poor as the club had ever seen. Clark claimed to have been the victim of internal fighting at the club and felt he deserved more time in the hot-seat. Supporters were delighted to see the dismissal of Clark as they feared relegation was impending.
Despite the arrival of Joe Royle, City were unable to survive the drop, and the damage that had been done during Clark’s tenure proved to a major blow to overcome in their pursuit of avoiding third tier football for the following season.