Neither club could have achieved their recent success without considerable financial backing, with Wembley providing the opportunity to end a three-decade drought for both
By Nick Price
Manchester City, perhaps the richest club in the world, with a foreign manager and a legion of international superstars, take on comparative paupers Stoke City, who feature few standout players and are led by a man from a seemingly bygone coaching era, in an FA Cup final that puts total opposites together.
But on closer inspection, the Wembley duo have plenty of shared experiences and are remarkably similar, with a financial backing that has enabled them to surpass their fans' wildest expectations in the past two seasons, despite an absence of trophies.
Neither club has lifted a major trophy in over 35 years – inexcusable for some, but perhaps forgivable for teams who have gone through the torment endured by Manchester City and Stoke fans.
The Blues' drought is well known, and frequently mocked by their local rivals, with their trophy cabinet bare since 1976, when a League Cup was hoisted by captain Mike Doyle.
That same competition was won by the Potters four years previously, with the club having only a Division Two title to boast of since. Seldom does a cup final put together two teams for whom a win would end such a long wait for silverware.
And it's not just an absence of trophies that both Cities have had to endure, as they have suffered the ignominy of sliding down the league.
Tony Waddington's departure – after a 17-year tenure at Stoke that almost ended in financial ruin as a result of the Victoria Ground falling apart in a freak storm – was followed by relegation to Division Two, but they bounced back in 1979 and found stability in the top flight until 1985, a year that the club's supporters somewhat insensitively refer to as 'the Holocaust season' as they were sunk with a then record low points total, and subsequently spent two decades in the wilderness of the Football League.
For their Mancunian rivals, the '80s followed a yo-yo trajectory, with the Blues twice dumped out of the top flight, but it was a decline in the '90s that brought the clubs together as rivals.
The pair were pitted against each other in a Division One battle at Stoke's newly built Britannia Stadium in 1998, with the hosts needing a win against their already relegated opponents to avoid the drop on the final day of the season.
Yet it was the visitors who stole the show, establishing a two-goal lead through Shaun Goater and Paul Dickov before eventually winning 5-2, with the game marred by running battles between supporters.
Going down | Manchester City and Stoke were relegated to the third tier together in 1998
The next season saw the Blues winning both clashes as they fired back up the Football League via the playoffs, where they beat a Tony Pulis-led Gillingham in the final despite being two goals down in injury time at Wembley, with some pointing to the horror of such a calamitous defeat as the reason why the manager has adopted a safety-first mentality ever since.
The two clubs did not play each other again until 2008 when the Potters had reached the promised land of the Premier League, but in between Manchester City followed the Potters in moving to a new stadium and both clubs found themselves under new ownership.
For Stoke, unpopular chairman Peter Coates – who had overseen the move to the Britannia – was pushed out as fans protested his stagnant reign and his reluctance to splash the cash in the transfer market, with the club subsequently sold to an Icelandic consortium in 1999.
|WE'LL MEET AGAIN | City & City
|Relegation: Both clubs dropped to the third tier of English football in 1998, having met on the last day of the season at the Britannia Stadium
Promotion: Manchester City bounced back in 1999, beating Tony Pulis' Gillingham side in a famous play-off final at Wembley
New stadiums: Stoke moved into the Britannia in 1997, Manchester City moved to Eastlands in 2003
New owners: Both clubs had mixed fortunes with foreign investors (Stoke with an Icelandic consortium, Man City with Thaksin Shinawatra) before having millions ploughed in by their current owners
Trophy droughts: Stoke's extends to 1972, Manchester City's to 1976
The Emirati has since invested the best part of a billion pounds on the playing squad alone, with a host of big-name signings turning up in the pursuit of the Holy Grail that is the Champions League.
But at the Britannia things aren't all that different, as a mini-Mansour has injected the cash to fire the team to the Premier League and ensure they stay there.
With the Icelanders vastly underestimating the level of funding required to reach the top flight, former chairman Coates returned with an offer to buy back the club, reappointing Pulis – the Welshman was one of five managers who toiled under the naive Nordics – and giving him the funds to mould a stubborn Championship side that achieved automatic promotion two years later.
Coates, like Sheikh Mansour, has ploughed his own money into his team, with Stoke being the third biggest net spenders – ahead of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, no less – of last summer's transfer window.
The likes of Robert Huth, Danny Higginbotham, Kenwyne Jones, Jermaine Pennant, Asmir Begovic and Matthew Etherington may not compare too favourably to the superstars brought in by the Sheikh over the past two years, but they have been the backbone of a side sitting pretty in the top half of the table, and few promoted teams in recent years have benefited from such generosity and unquestioned backing from the board.
Coates – son of a miner and lifelong fan – has also wiped out the debt and purchased the stadium on top of the more than £40 million spent on players since 2006, providing the team with an enviable financial stability and allowing it to post a profit in the last financial year. They may not be cash rich, but they are getting close to a self-sustaining status, without the need for their owner's selflessness.
Manchester City are far from such fiscal security, with losses of £121m to the 12 months up to May 31 2010 posted; not that the club's fans will mind, though Roberto Mancini and the board will be scratching their heads as to how they can comply with Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules while strengthening the squad for a tilt at both the Premier League and the European Cup next year – for regardless of what the Italian may say are his realistic aims, the Blues, with all their wealth behind them, will be expected to challenge for the two highest honours.
The same will almost certainly never be asked of Stoke, for though they have a chairman all too happy to make a name for himself, he does not have pockets as deep as the Sheikh's, and he is unlikely to risk the wrath of supporters for a second time by going down the Leeds route of gambling on future success to pay for spectacular purchases in the present. The FA Cup, therefore, represents the best the club can ever likely attain.
But one thing both teams can share on Saturday is the knowledge that they will be playing European football next season. The possibility of continental giants coming to the Britannia for the first time since 1974 has the Potteries cracking with excitement, while for Mancini's men, the Champions League is seen as the start of what could be an unprecedented era of dominance.
Dreams of what next season holds, however, will be put to one side for 90 minutes at Wembley, as the sides who astonishingly swept away Bolton and Manchester United in the semis clash, with the unfamiliar and much longed for feeling of glory – and a place in history – the prize for the victor.
For whoever wins, lifting the famous cup will be well worth the wait.
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