Wednesday 3 March 2010

“I waved the lads over pulling that stupid face, hopped over the advertising boards and just ran round. I didn’t want anybody to catch me. It felt amazing”

Back in 1998 he was the fresh-faced teenage goalkeeper who won an army of fans through his superb shot-stopping and Wembley heroics. In the first part of an exclusive three-part interview, Nicky Weaver reminisces over his debut season and that moment at Wembley. Intrigued? I was...

Manchester City’s relegation in May 1998 was undoubtedly the darkest hour the football club has faced. A traditional club steeped in history sliding down to the third tier of English football, its devoted fans horrified and heartbroken. But when the reality sunk in and the club played the first game of the 1998/99 season at Maine Road against Blackpool in the sunshine, a young hopeful was realising his dream by making his debut for City.

Nicky Weaver signed from Mansfield Town and was immediately thrust into the first team, replacing Martyn Margetson. The 19 year-olds first 90 minutes of football resulted in a 3-0 victory for City, Weaver keeping a clean sheet and the start of a childhood dream being realised.

“I suppose it’s every kid’s dream to be footballer. All I ever wanted to do was play for Sheffield Wednesday: growing up I had a season ticket for them and my dad used to take me to Hillsborough. I never really had any other plans and I’ve no idea what I would have done if I hadn’t had made it. I wasn’t any good at school so I was one of the lucky ones.

“I had a couple of heroes growing up. From a goalkeeping point of view it has got to be Peter Shilton. He was the England goalkeeper when I was a little kid and the first I can remember. The World Cup in 1990 was a big memory for me and he played well in that tournament. Closer to home it was a guy called David Hirst; he was centre forward for Sheffield Wednesday at the time.”
"It was City getting relegated that gave me a chance"

For a club like City to be playing football in Division Two was pretty incredible. The always-loyal fan base at Maine Road remained ever-present, sustaining regular attendances averaging 28,000. For Weaver it was a peculiar scenario, but one he benefitted greatly from.

“It was definitely strange. One week you’d play at home in front of 28,000 and the next you’d go to Lincoln or Colchester and there would be 4,000 there so it was really different every week. I think for me at the age of 19 to be playing at that standard in the third tier of English football but to be playing on that stage, at Maine Road, was great for my development. I was lucky really that it was City getting relegated to that division that gave me a chance. That season really put me on the map.”

As the season continued, so did Weaver’s clean sheets. The Sheffield-born starlet was enthusiastic yet endearingly naive, learning more about his trade and developing along the way. He was young and incredibly determined. Despite not being in a top-flight team, Weaver was attracting attention for his shot-stopping abilities. He admits his record-breaking clean-sheets tally is something he
values and confesses he thinks it may never be broken.

“I wasn’t really aware of it until I reached about 18 clean sheets and then somebody mentioned that I could break Alex Williams’ record. You just play every game, you love it and you can’t wait for the next game. I remember equalling it at Gillingham and beating it on the last day of the season, it was York at home. It was fantastic. I’ve still got a decanter souvenir that Alex presented me with. That record now will probably not get broken so it’s something that I cherish and look back on with fondness.”
"Michael Brown asked me to save a couple"

The end of Weaver’s debut season, 1998/99, coincided with the event that most City fans remember him for- the 1999 Division Two play-off final. The game itself was pretty uneventful- neither team had scored until the last five minutes. Gillingham scored twice, then Kevin Horlock pulled one back for City before Paul Dickov levelled it with the last kick of the game- taking the Blues into extra time and penalties. The penalty shoot-out creates heroes and villains and for Weaver was the culmination of an incredible first season at City. What was going through his mind as he orchestrated the City fans behind the goal before the shoot-out?

“I always felt that once it got to a shoot-out it was a massive advantage to be taking the penalties in front of the City end. I wouldn’t have really fancied doing it down the other end. I remember it all quite well: Michael Brown put his arms round me and asked me to try and save a couple. As a ‘keeper going into that situation you’ve got nothing to lose because the players are expected to score and the penalties I saved weren’t great penalties, so I was a bit fortunate there.

(Laughs) “I remember asking the lineman before the penalty if I saved it, did it mean City were definitely up. He nodded and I asked him again just to be sure. I remember saving it and (pauses and smiles) just...I waved the lads over pulling that stupid face, hopped over the advertising boards and just ran round. I didn’t want anybody to catch me. It felt amazing.

“Looking back now, that was the end of my first season and I probably thought it would be like that every season. It was just the most unbelievable feeling and it’s probably the highlight of my career. I’d just turned 20 and it was a lot to take it. It probably took me about two or three weeks to get my feet back on the ground, to settle down and realise what a massive achievement it was.

"Even now, people approach me talking about Wembley. Everybody’s got their own individual story: whether they was up the M1, at the tube station, had left the ground but heard the cheer and ran back in, everybody has their own special account of that day. It was just such a unique day. It’s something I’ll live with forever, it was just fantastic.”

In part two, Weaver tells me about his favourite moments in a City shirt (it’s not just about Wembley), how his career has been resurrected by an anonymous dead man and what he thought when he played in goal while David James played upfront at the City of Manchester Stadium.

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