“‘You’re a f—— p—-. You’ve just humiliated me’. That was the last time I spoke to him.” – Man City’s most famous in-game tactic ended Blues career of record signing
“It’s ridiculous. It’s on comedy channels, ‘The 50 Stupidest Things in Football’. I’m part of it, you’ve got to face it and answer it. I’ve never really spoke much about it other than to friends. At the time, it f—— hurt.”
This was the Premier League’s most infamous substitution, on par with Ali Dia’s ill-fated cameo for Southampton. In that instance, Dia was simply out of his depth, the butt of the joke. Yet on the final day of the 2004/05 Premier League season, this was a substitution that would cost Manchester City a place in Europe, and define the careers of three men.
For David James, it was a case of carrying out instructions, and he was the one with the least to lose from taking an outfield shirt and going upfront for the last few minutes against Middlesbrough. For Stuart Pearce, it was a high-risk gamble that would only pay off if City found a winner that would elude them. For Jon Macken, sat on the bench as James marauded up front, it was a blow that would take years to recover from.
The maths was simple going into the final day. City needed to beat Middlesbrough at the City of Manchester Stadium to leapfrog the visitors into the final UEFA Cup spot. Anything less, and Boro were in Europe.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink fired in a worldie to make the task harder, but Kiki Musampa levelled things just after half-time, and City were one goal away from European qualification for only the second time in 26 years.
But as time ticked away, the goal wouldn’t come, and manager Pearce felt the need to turn to his bench for a goal. He had already brought on youngsters Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lee Croft, with then-club record signing Macken another option to bring on. His decision to overlook Macken will never be forgotten.
Because Pearce had a trick up his sleeve that he’d been thinking about for a while, and decided that City’s most pivotal 10 minutes of the season was the time to deploy it.
The exact amount of pre-planning of Pearce’s ‘masterstroke’ is a subject of much debate.
Kitman Les Chapman, perhaps, is best placed to confirm how long Pearce had been considering playing James as an emergency striker.
Speaking on City’s recent documentary on the substitution, Chapman said: “I’d had to print a David James outfield shirt for a few games before that. I think he discussed it with assistant Steve Wigley and I think I overheard one conversation when Steve Wigley wasn’t in total agreement with him.
“I don’t know if the other players were aware that I had that shirt that it could actually happen. It was a very brave and innovative decision from Stuart Pearce and full marks to him for doing it.”
Pearce, speaking to TalkSport in 2019, corroborates that account.
“I was sat at home the night before thinking I’ve got to win the game. I was thinking about what I could do if the match was a stalemate late on,” he explained.
“I thought to myself, I’ll put James up front. I had that up my sleeve. Jon Macken was not scoring or playing well, by the way.
“I told the kit man to print me an outfield ‘James number one’ shirt and I said, ‘don’t tell him for goodness sake’. He didn’t know anything about it.
“My assistant at the time said he didn’t want anything to do with it. When it came to 75 minutes he said, ‘no chance, you’re on your own, you idiot’.”
Nicky Weaver, the man who came on to allow James to go outfield, told City that he was just as out-of-the-loop as everyone else when told to warm up.
He said: “Wigley backed out of it saying I don’t want anything to do with this, you’re on your own gaffer! The first I knew was Tim Flowers, the goalkeeping coach, turned around to me saying ‘get warmed up’.
“I saw the kitman, Les Chapman, pulled from his jacket an outfield shirt with ‘James 1’ on it. I was still a bit baffled, everyone was baffled.”
James himself had a little more warning, but only 45 minutes, as he was tipped off at half-time.
“I went into the game and we just had to win,” he said. “At half time, Chappy went ‘I’ve printed you a shirt’. I just dismissed it.
“All I saw was Nicky Weaver stood at the side, I didn’t see him warming up. I was thinking why am I coming off? I went over, the shirt comes out with ‘1’ on the back, so I thought I must be going upfront because nobody told me.”
What followed was a fairly calamitous 10 minutes, including injury time, as City abandoned all tactics and launched the ball forward to try and force the winner they needed to secure that UEFA Cup spot.
The footage of James kicking the air, fouling opponents and shinning a half volley are regularly shared and joked about, and James admits regret at his outfield performance in hindsight.
He said: “One of my frustrations retrospectively is had I known the day before I’d have practiced my touch, I’d have gone out and got Robbie [Fowler] or Macken to fire some balls at me and work on my touch.
“I had more instruction listening to Pearce’s interview on a radio station a couple of years ago. I didn’t have a clue what I was meant to be doing.
“I remember the sliced volley, I tried volleying it and Barton was behind me. He went mad because he could have volleyed it. That’s the one I think about it most, I could have brought it down, curled with my left foot, half-volleyed it to the corner. Headed it up or run past the defenders, I still think about it today.”
Pearce also rued James’ performance, saying: “I thought he was going to get on the end of things but he ended up playing as a number 10. He ended up tripping over the ball. He had the worst impact of all time!”
Back in 2005 after the end of the season, Pearce didn’t seem too bothered about his bold call.
“In all honesty, my main thought was what a fantastic game of football that would have been to watch,” he said, slightly missing the point that qualification had been squandered.
“If you look at all the things that are good about English football, the passion, wanting to win, all or nothing. We had that there on that day, the twist at the end, penalties, a keeper playing upfront, there was a bit of everything on the day.”
But it wasn’t all smiles and laughs in the immediate aftermath as Pearce tried to portray. Not only had City failed to qualify for Europe – a fact not helped by Fowler’s missed penalty in injury time – the impact on unused substitute Macken was huge.
Speaking to the Undr The Cosh podcast this year, Macken gave a rare account of the game, where Pearce had overlooked a recognised striker for a goalkeeper to find the most important goal of is season.
“It was to get into Europe. You’ve got a responsibility as a manager to the club, the fans, to yourself, your staff, the players,” he said.
“A responsibility to make the best of what you’ve got. A responsibility that you’ll do everything not to humiliate the club or put them in jeopardy and make them look stupid. That’s why you respect the badge. Doing something like that, come on.
“I knew he was going to do it, it was all about him at the time – what he thought and how he was viewed. For me, it was poor on every single level. To think about it, I don’t even know why you’d think about it because Jamo couldn’t kick a ball straight in shooting practice. Good kicker because all keepers are. To go upfront and do something different, it’s a different ball game.
“He said I was out of form – every striker can be out of form and it’s the next goal that lifts you to being in form. That’s what he didn’t think about and I don’t think he ever will because he’s focussed on what he wants and what’s best for him.”
It’s safe to say there is no love lost between Macken and Pearce following the Boro game, which had a big personal impact on the striker.
He said: “It affected me at the time. When someone humiliates you in front of a crowd. As a striker, I’d always scored important goals at important times. You always believe in yourself. I knew about it the day we turned up to the game.
“This is how much what he’s said previously is a lie. I knew when we turned up from people talking, I knew he’d do it, but for his own selfish reasons than for the benefit of the football team and the football club.
“It went through the kitman, and you see the printed shirt and you think ‘he’s going to f—— do this. He’s going to do this to try and lift himself as a wonderful magician’.
“He went on talkSPORT and said he rung his assistant on the morning and said he was thinking of it. When he did it, he’s got a responsibility as a manager to your players, your staff, the fans, to the football club. He let himself down with that responsibility because he made himself and the club a laughing stock.
“It’s turned out to be a f—— farce. He said if it turned out to work he’d have looked like Mourinho. F—— hell, I’ve not seen Mourinho many times in his career. Unfortunately, you looked a f—— d——-. At the time I said to him ‘you’re a f—— p—-, you. You’ve just humiliated me there’. I just walked out and it was the last time I spoke to him.”
Macken opted to leave City after the snub despite having a year left on his contract, moving to Crystal Palace and somewhat resurrecting a career that has unintentionally become most known for a substitution he wasn’t even involved in.
In hindsight, he said, he would have stayed and proved his point to Pearce. Since then, the pair haven’t spoken, but Macken opened the door for clear-the-air talks.
“He was just focussed on what he wanted and what was best for him. You get fans now saying he was stupid, the worst thing ever. He did it, made that choice and has to live with it. He can laugh it off like he did on talkSPORT, but at the end of the day, where’s the thought of all the fans he humiliated that day? Where’s the thought of the club, of me on the bench?
“In the dressing room I told him he was a p—- and a few other lads said something to him as well. I walked out. I think he said sorry as I walked out. ‘Sorry Jon, I wanted to do this’. He’ll probably say, blase, no he didn’t. So be it.
“I’d love to have a pint with him and ask him why. What was his thought process? I don’t hold grudges. I get angry about it, obviously, but I’d have a pint with him, I’ve got no issue whatsoever with people like that.
“That’s my thought, he’ll fire something back. If you’re brave enough to make a decision like that, you’ve got to back them up.”