Manchester United would rather be relegated than hand Liverpool the Premier League crown by thwarting Manchester City on Wednesday. Or something. But they would not be the first team to help their bitter rivals in a title race…
Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn, May 1995
Liverpool might feel they have waited long enough for Manchester United to return the favour. Next month will mark 24 years since the Reds handed the Premier League title to their most bitter rivals on a silver platter, only for Alex Ferguson’s men to choke over 200 miles away at Upton Park.
The day started with Blackburn top of the table, two points clear with an inferior goal difference to United. It was bankrolled brilliance against the established elite; impudent upstarts standing defiant in the face of the reigning champions. But while Rovers were tasked with travelling to Anfield in their final game, United made the journey to a West Ham side safe from relegation and with European football out of their grasp.
Ferguson’s side needed to win, but they were surely expected to. The problem was Liverpool. Although the Reds started the day just two points clear of Newcastle in fifth place, they had already qualified for the UEFA Cup by virtue of their League Cup final win against Bolton the previous month. With little of significance to play for and the iconic Kenny Dalglish on the verge of beating his and the club’s sworn enemies to the crown, the fear was that Liverpool would greet Rovers with open arms and open goals.
The Daily Mirror match report from that game reflected a mood that the hosts subverted. ‘Rovers had lost the game but won the ultimate prize,’ wrote Steve Millar. ‘Liverpool had conquered the newly-crowned champs to blow out suggestions that they would lie down and die. But when they won the game with a Jamie Redknapp free-kick the Liverpool midfielder looked down apologetically for what could have spoiled Blackburn’s big day.’
It was certainly an eerie moment. Redknapp barely acknowledged a sensational stoppage-time free-kick that sealed a 2-1 comeback win – he later called it “one of the strangest moments of my life on a football field” – and Anfield itself celebrated seemingly more out of duty than anything else before quickly realising the implications. Liverpool had opened the gates for United to ride straight through.
Yet the horse had already bolted in east London with Ludek Miklosko firmly in the saddle. The Czech frustrated and foiled United at Upton Park, beaten only by Brian McClair’s headed equaliser early in the second half.
It was not enough, and as news filtered through Anfield soon after Redknapp’s atmosphere-sapping winner, Liverpool and Blackburn fans were united in their jubilation. The hosts found themselves between a rock and a hard place yet still managed to emerge without a scratch to their pride or their honour.
Blackburn 2-3 Manchester City, April 1995
United benefited from each member of their Holy Trinity of bitter enemies towards the end of the 1994/95 season. Blackburn earned just seven points in their final seven games, starting with a 1-1 draw against Leeds and finishing with that Liverpool defeat.
Rovers would also slip against the seemingly rightful champions West Ham, only to beat both Crystal Palace and Newcastle. But the home loss to Manchester City is when their grip on the title loosened ever so slightly. Blackburn had been six points ahead with five games left but City helped United close that gap despite having little to play for themselves.
Dalglish’s side had actually started typically quickly under the Monday evening floodlights, opening the scoring after seven minutes when Alan Shearer capitalised on a haphazard clearance by Tony Coton. Keith Curle equalised from the penalty spot before Colin Hendry restored their lead after 39 minutes.
All seemed well, but Uwe Rosler and Paul Walsh struck in the second half to condemn Rovers to a first defeat in ten games, and a first at home since the previous October.
United could not capitalise fully on the lifeline, drawing 0-0 at home to mid-table Chelsea that same day. But it was plain to see that momentum had swung firmly in their favour. It remains City’s last Premier League away win when losing at half-time – a run that stretches back 97 games – and it helped Ferguson’s men claw their way back into a race they had tripped out of.
Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle, April 1996
The best scenes always have hidden subplots weaved seamlessly into the backstory. It is not often that the Premier League title race takes on such secondary importance, but then it is rare to witness a game of such brilliant, unbridled entertainment.
Liverpool’s famous Anfield win over Newcastle in April 1996 was, and always has been, one of the key aspects of the archetypal meltdown. But the game itself almost transcended the title as 90 minutes of pure, isolated theatre, the sort that demands its very own Wikipedia page.
Robbie Fowler opened the scoring in the second minute. Stan Collymore memorably closed it in the second minute of second-half stoppage-time. The lead changed hands on four different occasions. The two sides were level for just half an hour overall.
Liverpool went into the game with the faintest possible hopes of a memorable Double. They had reached the FA Cup final just four days prior and were third in the Premier League table, eight points behind leaders Manchester United with seven matches remaining, including a game in hand. They had, at that point, scored the most and conceded the fewest goals of any side in the top flight.
But this will only ever be Newcastle’s failure. The Magpies were 12 points clear at the top by mid-January, yet a run of five defeats, one draw and two wins in eight games from February 21 to April 8 remains the yardstick against which every subsequent collapse must be measured.
By the time they faced Liverpool on April 3, their only win in their previous five games had come against West Ham. But they were still just three points behind Ferguson’s United with two games in hand. Newcastle controlled the situation all the way up until Kevin Keegan was sprawled over the Anfield advertising hoardings in defeat.
He himself described it as a “classic”, while Liverpool manager Roy Evans took a rather more pragmatic viewpoint. “To be fair, it was kamikaze defending,” he said. “Managers would be dead within six months if every game was like that. You cannot win the championship playing like that.”
And so it proved. Newcastle lost to Blackburn five days later and Liverpool won just two of their final six games as Manchester United 1-0 (Cantona)’d their way to the crown by four points, winning 13 of their last 15.
Tottenham 1-0 Liverpool, April 2002
Arsenal ended up winning the 2001-02 Premier League title by a comfortable seven points, but until late April Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool had been moving along very nicely. They arrived at White Hart Lane having won seven league games in a row, with their last defeat coming at the beginning of January. They had conceded just four times in fourteen games.
By contrast, Glenn Hoddle’s Tottenham were on their way to an unremarkable 9th place, had lost the League Cup final to a very ordinary Blackburn Rovers, and kept just two clean sheets since the turn of the year.
Hoddle’s team had aspirations of style, but they were a mess. Teddy Sheringham had returned to add craft to their forward line, and Gus Poyet scored 14 goals from midfield, but a back four of Thatcher, Taricco, Perry and Gardner looked vulnerable most days, let alone against Emile Heskey, Michael Owen and Nicolas Anelka.
Spurs could still have their days, though – they’d carved up Chelsea to reach that Cardiff final – and this was another. They survived early scares, with John Arne Riise hitting a post and Heskey seeing a header cleared off the line, but would grow into the game and finish it playing beautifully. For about a half an hour, as they had been against Chelsea, Spurs were everything Hoddle had promised to turn them into. Alas, it didn’t last.
One goal was enough to decide the game and finish Liverpool: a gorgeous, outside-of-the-boot Anderton cross carved its way to the back post, Simon Davies flicked back inside, and Poyet snapped a shot past Jerzy Dudek. Liverpool started the day in second, four points behind Arsenal with three games left, and ended it in third behind Manchester United. Arsenal beat Bolton two days later to effectively seal the deal.
Leeds 1-0 Arsenal, May 1999
This was a minor classic: a brilliant game full of tension, misses, little bits of quality and excellent goalkeeping.
This was also the title that Arsenal squandered. They were defending champions and, earlier in May, had been three points clear of a stuttering Manchester United. By the time they journeyed north to Elland Road, they hadn’t lost in the league since December 13. They were also facing a Leeds side who were for all intents and purposes finished for the year, having secured fourth and a place in the UEFA Cup.
In retrospect, what a thoroughly professional performance: this was the penultimate game of the season and Leeds would have known not only what defeat would do to Arsenal, but who the beneficiaries would be. Yet they played with stirring life and an early dipping volley from David Batty – yes, really – set their tone.
They should have led much earlier. Martin Keown conceded a first-half penalty – although that’s not how he recalls it – after a preposterous tackle on Alan Smith, but Ian Harte crashed his shot against the crossbar. Both keepers had excellent first halves: Nigel Martyn made a succession of saves to keep the scores level, and David Seaman brilliantly denied a rasping Harry Kewell effort from range.
Arsenal were profligate. Substitute Kaba Diawara was spritely after coming on, but missed chances, and Nicolas Anelka lacked the touch in front of goal which made him the club’s top-scorer (19 in all competitions) that season.
When it came, the end was a tease of what Leeds might have become but never quite did. Kewell wriggled on the byline, creating space for a cross which would find Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink alone at the far post, and his diving header all but ended Arsene Wenger’s hope of back-to-back championships.
And five days later it was over: Tottenham rubbed salt in the wound by rolling over at Old Trafford, leaving United to collect the last title of the 20th century.
Matt Stead and Seb Stafford-Bloor