Jamie Pollock is a Manchester City cult hero not because he was occasionally brilliant, but largely because, on one particular occasion, he was hilariously bad.
Pollock joined City in March 1998 with the club third from bottom in Division One, facing eight games to save themselves from a humiliating relegation to the third tier for the first time in their history.
His determined spirit in central midfield brought City back from the brink under Joe Royle, helping the Blues to the point that salvation was on the horizon. Two wins from their final two games would keep them up.
Royle had been appointed a month earlier to steady a porous ship, taking over from Frank Clark during a disastrous campaign which saw City use 38 different players. Royle recognised the need for leaders – Andy Morrison was brought in the following season to provide similar impetus – and paid £1million for a player who had been a regular for Bolton in the Premiership until that point.
However, unlike Morrison, who went on to become a cult hero in east Manchester after skippering City to successive promotions back to the top flight, Pollock achieved his status largely through a moment of absurdity.
It came during the penultimate game of the season against relegation rivals QPR, with a win ensuring City would keep their fate in their own hands going into the final day at Stoke.
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A tense encounter had been lit up by Georgi Kinkladze – the ying to Pollock’s yang – as he scored a sublime free-kick on a stage absolutely not deserving of the Georgian’s talents. But that opener was cancelled out by former City striker Mike Sheron, ensuring a tentative crowd and group of players.
Then it happened.
Veteran QPR full-back David Bardsley, who was born in Manchester, chipped an aimless ball towards the box, which the intelligent Pollock easily read. The midfielder intercepted the pass before it could reach a red-and-black hooped striker. It was all incredibly calm by Pollock in a game of such importance.
Then, having made the ground to get the ball, the former Middlesbrough man looped the ball high in the air over the QPR striker and covering defender. In a game of high intensity, it was good to see someone keep a cool head in such pressurised circumstances.
All he had to do now was head the ball back to his goalkeeper, to the customary applause from the stands.
Except Pollock, now in open space in his own area, was so focused on the dropping ball that he had not noticed Martyn Margetson had advanced off his goal-line to the edge of his six-yard box.
Gravity did what was natural as the ball came back to earth, but Pollock’s science was an untried experiment of trying to send a looping header back to a man that was not where he thought he was. Thus completing the best worst own goal of all time.
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The Maine Road crowd fell silent and the QPR forwards ran off celebrating their own embarrassment, knowing their opponent had handed them the greatest survival boost of them all.
Pollock turned, head bowed, to walk slowly back to the centre circle in full knowledge of what he had just done to the club he had only joined one month previously.
Summing up this period of City’s history has always been tough for many. But luckily Pollock took it into his own hands and without writing a word embodied the late 90s at Maine Road for all future generations to see in just a few seconds of madness, which like most of what happened to the club during those years, no one could have foreseen, however vivid their imagination.
Lee Bradbury, a man synonymous with City’s failings, would equalise in the game to earn his side a point, giving them a chance of staying up on the final day when they faced Stoke, but they needed other results to go their way.
Naturally, City were victorious at the Britannia (as it was then), beating their fellow relegation victims 5-2, but were relegated anyway as QPR survived.
Rangers supporters were so grateful for Pollock’s gift that the Scot was later named the most influential human being of the millennium in a poll they hijacked, beating Jesus Christ and Karl Marx into second and third place, respectively.
These are the sort of moments that make a City fan, bringing their gallows humour. Pollock’s own goal is remembered in the pubs of Manchester with fondness only reserved for the Division Two play-off final win over Gillingham and Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winner against…QPR. Yes, them again.
Experiences are what make you. Without Pollock there might not have been Wembley ‘99, no “Aguuuuueeeeeeerrrrrrooooo” or worse still, no Glauber Berti.
Fate was in City’s hand that day, and the hand Pollock dealt the club was one that enriched the tapestry of a club that were still everyone’s second favourite club: loveable, disastrous, calamitous and never likely to win away, let alone a trophy.
Pollock’s rugged simplicity and determination were what would make Morrison a cult hero for years to come, as he dragged City back up from the depths alongside his midfield equivalent.
Morrison would be the one who would forever command respect at City, but Pollock’s impact won’t be forgotten, even if it isn’t entirely for the right reasons.
By Will Unwin
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