• Rewind to 1996

City take their eye off the Ball

ESPN staff
August 16, 2012
Dave Beasant celebrates Southampton's survival © Getty Images

Manchester City and Southampton may have wildly different ambitions this season but, not so long ago, they shared a common goal: to survive a relegation dogfight.

Having guided Southampton to a respectable tenth-place finish in the Premiership in 1994-95, City legend Alan Ball found the opportunity of returning to the Sky Blues too tempting to turn down, becoming their manager in the summer of 1995.

Following his acrimonious departure from Southampton, Ball endured a turbulent start to his City reign, overseeing nine defeats and not a single victory in their opening 11 games of the new season. A brief period of respite followed for the club - they recorded three wins and a draw in November to haul themselves away from the drop zone, with Ball going from zero to hero as he celebrated the manager of the month award.

His joy didn't last long. City failed to build on their mini revival and they entered the last round of fixtures trailing Southampton and Coventry on goal difference.

In Ball's absence, the Saints turned to long-serving coach David Merrington to man the fort. The outlook made for glum reading as, having waited five games for their first win of the campaign, they tumbled down the standings at an alarming rate. A 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa in early April left their hopes of survival hanging by a thread, before two crucial wins as the season approached its climax breathed new life into their wilting quest to retain their Premiership status.

Firstly, a stunned Dell witnessed Saints pull off a shock 3-1 win over Manchester United, who would go on to seal the double, and although they were on the receiving end of a 3-0 drubbing by QPR they claimed a crucial away win at Bolton on the penultimate weekend of the season to keep their faint hopes of survival alive.

With only one relegation spot left to be decided, City hosted Liverpool and Wimbledon travelled to Southampton on the final day of the season. With tensions reaching boiling point something had to give and, four minutes in at Maine Road, Steve Lomas' own goal saw City fall behind.

Ian Rush doubled the visitors' lead before City hauled themselves back on level terms through Uwe Rosler and Kit Symons. Confusion then arose as Ball told Lomas that Southampton were losing, prompting the midfielder to head straight for the corner flag in a bid to run down the clock. However, realising that Ball had been misinformed, Niall Quinn - who was following the scores on TV in the tunnel having been taken off - stormed back out to be the bearer of bad news.

While Lomas and his team-mates didn't have enough time to grab a winner and save themselves, Southampton celebrated a miraculous escape after holding firm for a 0-0 draw with Wimbledon to avoid relegation on goal difference.

A disconsolate Lomas said: "It's fair to say I don't have good memories of last-day scenarios. The situation with City was just one of those things. Alan Ball, God rest his soul, told us a draw was enough to keep us up.

"If it wasn't so serious there was great comic value in seeing big Niall running half-dressed down the touchline to say a draw WASN'T enough. It's the quickest I had ever seen Niall run! He told us we needed to win so it was just crazy. Alan had received false information because he thought Southampton were losing and I was taking the ball into the corner flag to kill time.

"It was tough because just a week earlier I had scored the winner away to Aston Villa to keep us in the hunt. Relegation is hard enough anyway but under those circumstances it was so hard to take. I'd been at the club from the age of 12 so it was particularly hard on me."

What happened next
The City board showed loyalty by standing by Ball but he stood down three games into the club's Division One campaign after disagreeing with their activity in the transfer market. Despite leading Saints to safety, Merrington was sacked shortly after the season had finished, with former Liverpool and Rangers manager Graeme Souness named his successor.

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