The ten greatest Premier League opening day fixtures

Date published: Wednesday 14th June 2017 11:34

10. Aston Villa 4 Manchester City 2, 2008/09
The 2008/09 season was a historic one for two particular reasons. First, Manchester City were purchased by an Abu Dhabi-based investment group headed by Sheikh Mansour. Second, Gabriel Agbonlahor scored what will surely be his only ever Premier League hat-trick. It’s impossible to say which moment was more important.

That it came against City on the opening day of the club’s most tumultuous and important campaign ever is a source of great amusement. On August 17 of 2008, Mark Hughes was fielding one of the youngest starting XIs in Premier League history, spearheaded by Ched Evans and featuring a defence of Vedran Corluka, Micah Richards, Tal Ben-Haim and Javier Garrido. On September 1 he was signing Robinho for £32.5m.

Most memorable about this fixture is that the half-time scoreline was 0-0, betraying the considerable entertainment that Villa Park would witness in the second period. Agbonlahor struck thrice after John Carew opened the scoring, with Elano and Corluka trying in vain to add respectability to proceedings.

 

9. Liverpool 1 Chelsea 2, 2003/04
Martin Tyler came in for a great deal of criticism this past season, but the Sky Sports commentator knows precisely how to frame a story. “There’s a wind blowing through Anfield,” he said at the final whistle of this game in August 2003. “Maybe it’s the winds of change?”

Chelsea and Liverpool had actually met in the final fixture of the 2002/03 Premier League season, a game dubbed at the time as ‘the £20m match’. In reality, it was worth far, far more to the Blues. The victor at Stamford Bridge would claim a place in the Champions League, and without a Jesper Gronkjaer-inspired win in May 2003, Roman Abramovich would surely have invested his millions elsewhere.

By the time the following season had arrived, Chelsea were able to field five debutants in their starting line-up on the opening day. Glen Johnson, Wayne Bridge, Geremi, Juan Sebastian Veron and Damien Duff all featured for Claudio Ranieri, with Veron scoring the first goal. Liverpool, whose only new face was free signing Harry Kewell, equalised through a twice-taken Michael Owen penalty.

But just when it seemed as though Chelsea would draw the first game of their new era, up popped a vestige from their past. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink ended that season as the club’s top goalscorer, and he opened his account in the 87th minute at Anfield to secure all three points.

 

8. Wimbledon 0 Manchester United 3, 1996/97
Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin both scored in the first half. Jordi Cruyff made his full debut. New signing Ronny Johnsen was a first-half substitute. Fellow summer arrivals Karel Poborsky and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer watched from the stands. But each of those events paled in comparison to the iconic Premier League moment that all in attendance would witness in stoppage time at Selhurst Park.

David Beckham was certainly known to the footballing world before August 17, 1996. The floppy-haired free-kick master made his first-team debut in 1992 and featured regularly for United in the 1995/96 season, but his was not a household name. That all changed when he spotted Neil Sullivan off his line at the end of a comfortable victory, and he proceeded to lob the goalkeeper from inside his own half.

 

7. Everton 1 Arsenal 6, 2009/10
Three teams hold the record for most goals scored on a Premier League opening weekend fixture. Chelsea enjoyed a comprehensive victory over West Brom in August 2010, while Liverpool started the 1994/95 campaign with a rout of Crystal Palace. Arsenal are the third team to have savoured the joy of six in their first game.

While West Brom and Crystal Palace were teams expected to struggle, or at the very least not prosper, Arsenal’s opponents were considered a club capable of challenging the elite and qualifying for Europe. And Goodison Park is not the easiest place to visit.

That said, it does help to face a Joleon Lescott who was openly trying to engineer a move to Manchester City at the time. He was part of an Everton defence decimated by Denilson, Thomas Vermaelen, William Gallas and Eduardo, with Cesc Fabregas scoring twice. Louis Saha’s stoppage-time goal was the very definition of a consolation.

“The team we have now gets there, and by that I mean it wins the championship,” said Arsene Wenger post-match, dismissing the need for any new signings. Obviously.

 

6. Arsenal 3 Liverpool 4, 2016/17
“Physically, we look ready,” stated a confident Arsene Wenger on August 7, his Arsenal side having just beaten Manchester City 3-2 in a friendly in Sweden.

By August 14, the Frenchman had changed his assessment. He admitted that “some players are not ready physically to compete at this level” after a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool just seven days later.

In terms of quality, this opening day fixture offered fleeting moments. Sadio Mane’s goal on his Reds debut was delightful, as was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strike to bring the score to 4-2 moments later. But this is a game remembered more for mistakes and poor performances – here’s to you, Alberto Moreno, and a centre-back partnership of Rob Holding and Calum Chambers – than anything else.

 

5. Middlesbrough 3 Liverpool 3, 1996/97
Seven players have scored a Premier League opening-day hat-trick. Micky Quinn sunk Arsenal with a treble in August 1993. Southampton were beaten 4-3 by Nottingham Forest in 1995 despite Matt Le Tissier’s best efforts. Kevin Campbell, Dion Dublin and the aforementioned Agbonlahor can all lay claim to some first game heroics, while Didier Drogba was the last man to open his seasonal account in such emphatic fashion in 2010.

Managing the feat on your debut after moving to a foreign league for £7million in 1996 is another thing altogether. Manager Bryan Robson described Fabrizio Ravanelli as “one of the best strikers in the world” at the time, but many were sceptical about a player who was then the third-most expensive in British history.

Such doubts would be dismissed instantly. Liverpool took the lead three times at the Riverside in August 1996, first through Stig- Bjørnebye, then through John Barnes and Robbie Fowler. Each time, the silver-haired fox would turn predator to equalise, endearing himself to the home fans immediately.

 

4. Wigan 0 Blackpool 4, 2010/11
Of all the many understated delights in football, a newly-promoted team winning their first Premier League game of the season is one of the most enjoyable. Hull (twice), West Ham, Sunderland and Reading are four of only five sides to accomplish the feat in the last decade.

Blackpool are the fifth, and certainly the most unforgettable. Bolton once crushed Leicester 5-0 upon promotion to the Premier League in 2000, but Blackpool were never supposed to reach this stage. That their opening salvo was a 4-0 win over Wigan made it even sweeter.

Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Alex Baptiste and a double from Marlon Harewood provided perhaps the strangest Premier League scoresheet in recent memory as Wigan were ripped apart at the DW Stadium. Chelsea would thrash West Brom 6-0 later that day, but for a couple of Saturday afternoon hours at least, the top of the Premier League was as follows:

  1. Blackpool
  2. Aston Villa
  3. Wolves
  4. Blackburn
  5. Birmingham
  6. Sunderland

 

3. Aston Villa 3 Manchester United 1, 1995/96
A rare case of a game more synonymous with the punditry it inspired than the game that preceded it. Alan Hansen wrote his own chapter in footballing folklore for the ominous warning he delivered about Manchester United after an opening-day defeat in August 1995.

Gary Neville (20), Phil Neville (18), Paul Scholes (20), Nicky Butt (20) and Ryan Giggs (21) all started for Alex Ferguson’s side, who had missed out on the Premier League title the previous season, as they visited Villa Park. Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and Dwight Yorke ensured their return trip was a difficult one.

David Beckham (20), brought on as a second-half substitute, scored a late consolation for the visitors, who would go on to win the Premier League title and the FA Cup. With kids.

 

2. Arsenal 2 Norwich 4, 1992/93
The inaugural Premier League weekend needed one showcase match to justify the considerable hype. Sky Sports and the BBC paid a record £305m for the TV rights to the breakaway league, but thankfully those figures haven’t sky-rocketed by 1,572% in 25 years, because that would be silly.

Brian Deane scored the first goal in the competition’s history as eventual winners Manchester United were beaten by Sheffield United. Aston Villa and Ipswich played out a presumably enthralling 1-1 draw. Teddy Sheringham scored one final Nottingham Forest goal in a 1-0 win over Liverpool before leaving for Tottenham.

The excitement was clearly saved for Highbury, where Steve Bould and Kevin Campbell gave the Gunners a half-time lead over Norwich. The hosts were expected to challenge for the title; the Canaries had barely managed to escape relegation the season prior.

Even after the hour mark, Arsenal were still cruising. Then Mark Robins scored to allow the slightest of doubts to creep in. On 72 minutes, David Phillips benefited from a David Seaman mistake to equalise, then Ruel Fox completed the comeback ten minutes later. Robins added insult to not-quite-injury-time, capitalising on a Tony Adams error to chip Seaman and make it 4-2. It was probably first on Match of the Day.

 

1. Sheffield Wednesday 3 Tottenham Hotspur 4, 1994/95
When Jamie Redknapp described Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City selection for their December fixture against Chelsea last season as “the most attacking line-up in Premier League history”, one could perhaps forgive the Sky Sports pundit for not instantly recalling a starting line-up from the opening day of the 1994/95 season.

Trevor Francis has seen many things in his lifetime, but it was not until August 1994 that he would face “the most adventurous line-up I’ve ever come across in management”. Ossie Ardiles is famed for his attacking approach, but this was something else.

A defence of Kerslake, Nethercott, Campbell and Edinburgh were protected by one midfielder, Colin Calderwood, with the remaining players in Tottenham’s starting line-up to face Sheffield Wednesday all attack-minded.

To be fair to Ardiles, it worked. Darren Anderton crossed for Teddy Sheringham to open the scoring, with the two reversing roles to score a second in the first half. Wednesday managed to equalise through Dan Petrescu and a Calderwood own goal, but Sheringham turned provider again as Nick Barmby handed Spurs the lead once more. Then Anderton delivered one final sumptuous cross for the head of Jurgen Klinsmann.

By full-time, summer signing Ilie Dumitrescu was the only member of the ‘Famous Five’ not to either score or assist a goal. And don’t let this result fool you: Ardiles was sacked on November 1 after Spurs failed to record a single clean sheet in their first 12 Premier League games of the season. But boy, were they bloody fun.

 

Matt Stead

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