Since their purchase by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, Manchester City has become synonymous with success in the English Premier League, winning the title six times in the Premier League era and regularly competing for domestic and European honours in recent years.
Even prior to that, Manchester City still had a decent record if not amongst the best in the game, having won two league titles in the English Football League prior to the Premier League being established and also being known as a good FA Cup team – with recent successes too, they’ve now won the world’s oldest Cup competition six times in total.
However, if you’re a recent fan of the game then it may surprise you or indeed even be completely unthinkable to consider that a club which is now a financial and football juggernaut like Manchester City was previously a club with a turbulent history which regularly experienced relegation from the top division of English football and indeed has dropped even further through the leagues! All in all, Manchester City have been relegated an incredible ELEVEN times in their history!
Most regularly relegated amongst the Big Six
Their record of 11 relegation seasons in their history makes Manchester City the most-frequently relegated member of the current ‘Big Six’ sides in English football. This colourful history makes their recent ascent to the very top of the English game an even more remarkable achievement and is important context when one looks at their first Premier League triumph in 2011, helping to explain some of Martin Tyler’s famous commentary of their injury-time league-winning goal. For Manchester City fans who had stuck with their team through more turbulent times, the fact that the team hasn’t always been as successful as in recent years made this success taste all the sweeter.
The football club now known as Manchester City was founded in 1880 as St. Mark’s (West Gorton), became Ardwick Association Football Club in 1887, and was renamed Manchester City in 1894 – a name which has lasted for over a hundred years and which it seems difficult to imagine ever changing again.
The club joined the English Football League in the 1892/93 season, starting out in the Second Division and it was here that they played for their first seven seasons. The seventh of those saw City finish as Second Division champions and secure promotion to the First Division.
In the decades that followed, Man City established themselves as a solid First Division side. They would experience occasional lows and in both 1901/02 and 1908/09 the club finished in the bottom three places of the league, resulting in their first two demotions. However, on both of these occasions City managed to immediately win the Second Division the season afterwards, ensuring their trips outside of the top flight were brief ones and adding to the argument that they were too good for that lower division.
Two more between the Wars
This trend of City generally performing well in the First Division but having occasional short trips to the Second Division would continue for many decades, with two more relegation campaigns following before the Second World War.
The first of these seasons came in 1925/26. Manager David Ashworth resigned in November 1925, and the club vice-chairman led a selection committee that ran the team for the rest of the season. In a memorable season some would say was typical of Manchester City as a club, the team reached the FA Cup Final, beat local rivals Manchester 6-1 in a derby match, but also suffered a first relegation since 1909. Maine Road was the place to go if you wanted to see goals as City scored 89 and conceded 100 in their 42 league matches.
This time the stay in the Second Division would last for two seasons, as City could only finish 3rd in 1926/27 but then won the division the following year to return to the top flight.
City’s second relegation between the two World Wars was arguably even more crazy than the first. In 1936/37 the club had won its first ever Football League title, scoring 107 goals and going unbeaten from Boxing Day until the end of the season. But in 1937/38 the club followed that up with a dismal 21st-place finish and relegation, an incredible change of fortunes. Even in this relegation campaign, City continued to be a great team to watch and actually scored more goals than they conceded: an unusual feat for a demoted side in any era of football.
With the Football League suspended for the Second World War, City would spend quite a few years in the wilderness this time before they won the Second Division shortly after the war in 1946/47 to secure their return.
After returning to the First Division shortly after the War, Manchester City experienced another of those familiar one-season drops, as they were demoted in 1949/50 but bounced back with a league title in 1950/51.
Over the following seasons Man City would build on this success in the Second Division, establishing themselves as a top-flight side again and, after finishing 7th in the First Division and losing the FA Cup Final in 1955, the club would finish 4th and win the Cup in 1956.
The pattern was then repeated in the following decade: Man City were relegated in 1962/63 after a 21st-placed finish, returned a few years later in 1966 as Second Division champions, and then enjoyed their most successful spell so far as a club in the remainder of the 1960s, as they won the 1968 First Division title, the 1969 FA Cup, and then in 1970 won both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. This would be a high for the club, and whilst they have recently eclipsed this in terms of sustained victories in domestic competitions, this remains the club’s only European trophy win.
After all that success in the 1960s and another League Cup win in the 1970s, City would gradually slide down the league again and in the 1980s they added two more relegation seasons to their record, finishing 20th in 1982/83 and 21st in 1986/87. Each time this resulted in a two-year stay outside of the top division.
The Yo-Yo Team
For those counting, so far we’ve covered eight of the club’s eleven demotions. Incredibly, three more were to come in just six years in the late 90s and early 2000s, including Manchester City’s first (and so far only) trip below the top two divisions of English football.
The club had been founding members of the Premier League when it split from the Football League in 1992 and became the new top division of English football. But after a 9th-placed finish in the inaugural season, City began to struggle and in after finishing 16th in 1993/94 and 17th in 1994/95, they couldn’t prevent their slide and finished 18th in 1995/96 to drop into the First Division.
Their first season outside the Premier League saw Man City finish in mid-table, and gave few clues of what was about to happen. Amazingly, between 1997/98 and 2002/03 the club experienced a run of six seasons where every single one was spent in a different division to the previous.
First City were relegated in 97/98 after finishing 22nd in the First Division. They dropped into what was still called the Second Division, so technically a division they had played in before, but of course with the Premier League now added to English football, this was now the third tier of English football and a first for the club.
Immediately following this darkest hour came some great success: powered by the goals of Shaun Goater, City won promotion in two successive seasons, firstly winning the Second Division play-offs after a 3rd-place finish in 1998/99 and then finishing as runners-up in the First Division the following year. They were back in the Premier League, but this proved too tough the first time around and they were relegated in 2000/01 before bouncing back as First Division champions in 2001/02. In 2002/03 they finally finished a season in midtable, finishing 9th to end this remarkable spell of promotion and relegation seasons.
In the decade that followed, City would first establish themselves as a Premier League side at last, then experience the takeover that changed everything. In the following decades they would ascend to the very top of the English game. But for football fans of a certain age, this period of the 1990s and 2000s is something that will always be associated with a club which hasn’t always had it easy in its search for success.