Manchester City cult hero Nicky Weaver: The goalkeeper who saved the club from oblivion

If you were to visualise an iconic moment involving a Manchester City goalkeeper, there are two images that immediately spring to mind. One is of Bert Trautmann half-smiling, half-grimacing as he rubs his broken neck after helping City to victory in the 1956 FA Cup after playing the final minutes with the horrendous injury.

The other is of Nicky Weaver celebrating wildly, running furiously around the same Wembley pitch after his penalty saves secured promotion from the depths of the third tier of English football.

It’s now 23 years since that dramatic play-off final victory over Gillingham and City are no longer the same club. The change has been phenomenal - six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, six League Cups and an appearance in a Champions League final.

Yet for the City supporters that were there during the bad times as well as the good, that 1999 Wembley triumph will always have a special place in their hearts.

Heading into injury time, City trailed 2-0 before late strikes from Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov took the game into extra-time and then to penalties.

Enter Weaver with two saves that clinched promotion and an extravagant celebration that will never be forgotten.

“For all the City fans of a certain age, they can really appreciate what they've got now because it's not always been like that,” Weaver tells GOAL.

“I get little kids come up to me saying my dad showed it to me on YouTube - it's a sort of iconic moment in the club's history.

“Youngsters have grown up with their team winning everything, which is obviously great, but the slightly older generation know how to explain to them how they got to it.”

How the football climate has changed in the following years, particularly in Manchester, is almost unbelievable.

Just four days before the play-off final, United had won the Champions League to complete a historic treble in a season when they would win what would be the fifth of seven Premier League titles in nine years.

City, meanwhile, had been relegated twice in three years and were at the lowest point in the club’s history with any thoughts of challenging for silverware not even a passing consideration.

More pressing was the long-term viability of the club. It’s hard to know exactly where City would have been without promotion on that day, but another season in the third tier would have made prospects bleak.

Some have suggested the club were in serious danger of going out of business, former chairman David Bernstein has said a move to the Etihad Stadium would have been in jeopardy and the thought of Sheikh Mansour eventually taking over such a struggling club seems fanciful.

Stakes were high going into the new campaign and many inside the club were feeling the pressure. However, Weaver, who was just 19 when he made his debut on the opening day of the season wasn’t one of them.

“There was a lot of noise around it all and for some of the players who had been there a few years and been through a couple of relegations it was a lot more noticeable,” he says. “But I was just learning my trade and I was absolutely buzzing to be playing for Manchester City's first team!

“But results weren’t going to plan and there were some dark times in there. It it was tough going because everywhere we went it was a full house - it was 'Manchester City’s in town' and a cup final for everybody.”

The lowest of the low points came in mid-December when a 2-1 defeat at York City saw Joe Royle’s side slump to 12th in the table with thoughts of automatic promotion gone and the threat of missing out on the play-offs now a realistic proposition.

Pressure was growing and it boiled over a week later at Maine Road when they were trailing 1-0 to Stoke.

“There were players squaring up to each other and squaring up to coaching staff at half-time and it all kicked off,” Weaver recalls. “But that was maybe what we needed.

“We came out the second half and Dickov and Gareth Taylor scored and we won that game went on a great run. We knew we were good, we had a good team, but it was just a case of doing it on a more consistent basis.”

Despite the problems on the pitch, the fans never stopped supporting. An average crowd of nearly 30,000 people was more than half of the clubs in the top flight that year while almost every away game was a sellout.

The season started to turn around, following the arrival of captain Andy Morrison who added leadership in the dressing room and after sneaking past Wigan in the play-off semi-final, Weaver’s saves helped them gain promotion with a first victory at Wembley in 23 years.

“It took me a good few weeks to come down from the high and euphoria of it all,” he says. “I did what regular 20-year-olds did, I went with my mates to Ayia Napa and partied the summer away.

“I'd made my debut on the first day, played 55 games, and saved the penalties in the shootout - those sort of things just don't happen really.”

It was to be the start of the good times and Weaver helped City secure a successive promotion back to the Premier League the following season and he spent the return to the top-flight as the first-choice keeper.

But then he was struck down by knee injuries and had to have six operations, travelling to the United States with Erling Haaland’s dad, and former City midfielder, Alfie on one occasion.

After just two appearances in four years, he feared his career was over but he got himself back to full fitness and was back as first choice for the second half of the 2007 season.

“My best achievement I think was to play most of the season in the Premier League that season after I'd come back from all the knee problems,” Weaver says.

“A lot of people had written me off and there were some dark times when I was injured, I don't think I could have come much closer to retirement.”

He left the following season on loan to hometown club Sheffield Wednesday and would play for another seven years with Charlton, Dundee United, Burnley and Aberdeen.

Weaver is now back at Wednesday, coaching the under-18 and under-23 goalkeepers but always gets a warm welcome whenever he returns to the Etihad.

“People always say what if you hadn't got injured, but I did and it's part of a football,” he adds. “But thankfully, I ended up playing at City and playing on until I was 35.

“When I left school, if someone said you could be a professional footballer for the next 19 years, you would rip their arm off so I'm very fortunate.”

If Weaver feels lucky to have played for City, the feeling is reciprocated. Who knows where City would be now had it not been but for those unforgettable penalty saves at Wembley in 1999?