In May 2001, Manchester City once again suffered relegation from the Premier League which ultimately resulted in the departure of manager Joe Royle. Less than one week later Kevin Keegan was announced as the successor to Royle and was handed the tough task of bringing the club back to the Premier League within his first season. Keegan served in seasons 2001-2002, 2002-2003, and until March of the 2004-2005 season.
The appointment was met with mixed responses from both former players and fans. Many felt Royle deserved another shot at bringing City back up and this brought criticism to the door of chairman David Bernstein.
Speaking at the time of the managerial change, former City defender Paul Ritchie said: “I was disappointed when Joe Royle went because obviously, he brought me here. But if you are bringing in a top-class manager then you could not have asked for anybody better than Kevin Keegan.”
Fans and legends alike were still unsure regarding the appointment because, despite his track record in charge of Newcastle and Fulham, Keegan had resigned from these jobs and the England job amid acrimony before taking the reins at Maine Road.
However, the appointment of Keegan attracted many experienced European and Premier League players. England veteran Stuart Pearce, the experienced Eyal Berkovic and PSG regular Ali Benarbia were all recruited in the hope of promotion at the first attempt.
Despite a mixed start to the season, City would go on to become the most entertaining side in the country. 108 goals for and 52 against was a record for the second tier. City’s promotion back to the Premier League was secured, and Keegan became the first man to win the division with two different clubs.
A club record fee was paid for Nicolas Anelka, while Marc-Vivien Foe, Peter Schmeichel and Sylvain Distin followed as the club were keen to push for European places in the coming years. The first season back would prove to be historic for reasons off the pitch as the club closed its doors on Maine Road after eighty years. City were moving to their new home at the City of Manchester Stadium which had recently been built for the Commonwealth Games in 2002.
Keegan next guided his City side to ninth and saw a return on his investment in Anelka who notched 14 goals. A 3-1 victory over Manchester United proved the highlight of an entertaining season. The game held even more significance than normal as the last derby at Maine Road went City’s way.
Also for the first time in twenty-six years, the club had the chance to play in European competition by qualifying for the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Fair Play Ranking gave City the opportunity however it would prove unsuccessful as Polish side Groclin Grodzisk Wielkopolski surprisingly knocked City out in qualifying on away goals.
A fresh beginning in the fourth largest stadium in the country meant Keegan once again reinforced as he aimed to guide City into Europe during the 2003-2004 season. Steve McManaman, Michael Tarnat and Paul Bosvelt were all brought in on free transfers to add some valuable experience. Veteran goalkeeper David Seaman was also added to replace the recently retired Peter Schmeichel.
A brilliant start to the season saw City fifth in the league at the start of November, but defeat to Groclin in the UEFA Cup qualifying round resulted in a slump in form domestically. Sixteen games later City finally won a league game again away at the Reebok where a 3-1 victory ended a barren run.
During the winless run, City recorded arguably the most famous F.A. Cup comeback of all time. Losing 3-0 to Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup, City were also down to ten men due to Joey Barton’s characteristic petulance. Keegan somehow masterminded a 4-3 win to set up a tie with near neighbours United in the next round. Winning 4-1 at home against United and recording the first derby victory in the new stadium cemented Keegan’s place in City folklore.
The season ended with a slight chance of relegation right up to the penultimate game, but the team finished 16th with a goal difference of +1. A mostly disappointing season at the helm for Keegan.
Season 2004-2005 proved to be Keegan’s last in charge. Disappointment after disappointment occurred throughout this final season where inconsistent performances had City faltering in mid-table. He suffered disappointing cup defeats to local rivals Oldham and an Arsenal side with an average age of 19 and keen on retiring at the end of his contract in 2006 anyway, he cut his career short and resigned from the club on March 10th 2005.
Keegan remarked after his resignation: “We could have jumped into the European shake-up, but again we couldn’t make that leap. That’s seven or eight times in a year we could have jumped into something good for this club, and we’ve failed.”
Many City fans see Keegan as the man who attracted many top performers due to his passion for the game.
Ultimately his four-year tenure brought much-needed stability as he gained promotion to the Premier League at the first attempt and then kept the side in the top flight. He failed, however, to build on those foundations.
Stuart Pearce took over as caretaker manager for the final few months of the 2004-2005 season.