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Jan 6, 2014

Man City's reacquaintance with the cup semifinal

As 1980 turned into 1981, Manchester City fans could have been forgiven for thinking the good times had arrived. It had been 10 years since the club's golden age had disappeared over the horizon, and the years in between had produced scarce pickings. With City lining up in the League Cup semifinals, with a two-legged barrier between them and the final, the smell of Wembley's lush turf began to fill the nostrils once more.

City had been drawn against the all-conquering Liverpool, but held high hopes of advancement given the upsurge of form under new manager John Bond (Malcolm Allison had been sacked before the end of 1980). Those hopes were dashed, partly because the referee for the first leg at a steaming Maine Road was a fellow called Alf Grey, an upright sort of man who liked the sound of his own whistle. He had already blown it a couple of times when, in the second minute of the match, Kevin Reeves leapt like a salmon to put City ahead. The place was in tumult, the heaving Kippax terracing a swaying livid morass of cavorting bodies.

Then Mr. Grey took another good long blow on his whistle, proclaimed that Reeves must have fouled hapless Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobelaar to have been so much higher in the air than the man in green, and promptly put an end to all of our dreams. Liverpool steadied their early nerves and won the game with a late strike from Ray Kennedy.

Liverpool would scrape through to the final after the two games thanks to the slimmest of margins, that one goal scored by Kennedy after a brave second-leg performance by City at Anfield where the width of the crossbar prevented Dave Bennett's header from putting the Blues through 2-1.

That City again stood at the gates of Wembley a matter of three short months later was scarcely believable. What a season of passion and vivacity new man Bond had conjured from the ashes of Big Mal's second coming. Thousands and thousands of City fans descended on Villa Park, in those days a fine and traditional venue for such a match, for the much awaited FA Cup semifinal against favourites Ipswich Town, still going strong on three fronts under the late great Bobby Robson, who had the Suffolk side punching well above its weight. Ipswich were fighting Liverpool for the title and heading toward a UEFA Cup final with AZ Alkmaar and were thus seen as a step too far for Bond's patched up City.

But City prevailed with a dramatic extra-time free kick winner from captain Paul Power and would then be the sacrificial lambs on Ricky Villa's FA Cup final barbecue, a terrible swerving slalom goal imprinted on our memories for evermore.

And then a curious thing happened. Manchester City and cup semifinals ceased to be an item. They ceased to be a topic of conversation. They went off the radar completely.

In the intervening years City would even find themselves playing the likes of Halifax and Darlington in the Cup's preliminary rounds, as a member of the third tier of English professional football. The game with Halifax, won 3-0 before a sparse crowd, would even bring memories of one of City's most embarrassing outings in the competition, when Malcolm Allison's expensively constructed side went down in a quagmire in West Yorkshire to a goal from Paul Hendrie.

Legendary defeats to Shrewsbury, Oldham, Forest and even to a loose balloon at Sheffield United seemed to tell City fans that the romance of the cups had become the sole property of others, especially any smaller brethren who happened to be playing the Sky Blues in direct combat.

Between the 1981 semifinal win over Robson's Ipswich Town and City's appearance in the 2009-10 League Cup semifinals with arch rivals Manchester United, nearly 30 years passed. Now, never let it be said that Manchester City fans of a certain vintage are impatient, but some may have been ready to give up on any dream of the club ever reaching such a momentous occasion again. In two cataclysmic matches with the arch foes in 2010, City lost out on the chance to get to Wembley but, since that game, the following strange things have happened:

16th April 2011 FA Cup semifinal City 1 Manchester United 0

11th January 2012 Carling Cup semifinal City 0 Liverpool 1

25th January 2012 Carling Cup semifinal Liverpool 2 City 2

14th April 2013 FA Cup semifinal City 2 Chelsea 1

Now, West Ham United, the team that City would have faced in the League Cup final of 1981, had Liverpool not been so strong and Alf Grey's whistle not been so tempting, stand between the club and another Wembley appearance, in the Capital One Cup. City have reached their fourth semifinal in three years, a turn-around fabricated to make all blues fans a little dizzy and confused.

It is to be hoped that this sudden about-turn in fortunes, this sudden rich vein of cup form will not be taken for granted by those who did not have to wait quite as long as others for such bubbling excitement. As David Moyes will tell you, we must never take these kinds of things for granted, for they can disappear from our dinner table just as quickly as they appeared there in the first place.