This Premier League season’s final day has the makings of a classic. It just needs some dodgy lasagne, MOTD montages and a Liverpool collapse.
While it lacked that rich Barclaysian tapestry and depth, the final day of the 2005/06 Premier League season remains a vital cornerstone in the competition’s history. Chelsea had already successfully defended their title. There was vague interest as to whether Liverpool could finish ahead of Manchester United as runners-up, but mid-table Charlton popping up to Old Trafford meant it never seemed likely. Birmingham, West Brom and Sunderland had already succumbed to their fate. The remaining kernel of intrigue was being cooked up in north London – although speculation that it was by an Arsenal season ticket holder at the Marriott remains unfounded.
The Gunners had reached the Champions League final that season but Tottenham were in control of qualification for the subsequent season’s campaign. It was a tired and unimaginative reworking of the previous campaign’s plot, in which Everton pipped Liverpool for fourth but the Reds earned passage to the European Cup by winning it. But viewers were engrossed nonetheless.
Spurs had a one-point lead heading into their final game, away at West Ham. Arsenal hosted Wigan in Highbury’s last match. It seemed like a straightforward sprint finish. But then Martin Jol had 10 players fall to illness overnight and his side went into disarray, slipping to a 2-1 defeat as the Gunners came from behind to win 4-2. Tottenham tried to have their match postponed, or at least kick-off pushed back a few hours on the same day. They then explored the possibility of a replay and considered taking the matter to court. Claims of food poisoning were thoroughly investigated. Callum Davenport, by his own admission gave “this whopper in a Chinese takeaway container” for a stool sample as part of an internal investigation. The eventual conclusion was that a bout of norovirus tore through the squad but the accepted conspiracy is that Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe and company were felled by a dodgy lasagne at the last hurdle.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gary Megson’s stubborn Bolton contrived to drain the remaining vestiges of title excitement in May 2008, the former scoring a 33rd-minute penalty at Wigan while the latter held Chelsea until Manchester United had established a firm foothold against the Latics. With Middlesbrough channelling that season-ending chaotic energy with an 8-1 home win over Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City, total focus could be averted to a relegation battle for the ages.
Derby’s demise was inexorable; the next step was to deduce which two teams would be joining them in the Championship. Fulham seemed certain to take one of those spots but Roy Hodgson’s appointment as Lawrie Sanchez’s replacement coaxed the sort of improvement Watford might have expected a decade and a half later. The Cottagers had won three of their four games heading into the final day to sit 17th on goal difference. For Birmingham to survive, they had to beat Blackburn and hope Fulham and Reading both lost. Rovers were thrashed 4-1 at St Andrew’s but Derby could not be relied upon to deliver a favour against the Royals. Steve Coppell’s side were staying up until the final quarter of an hour, when Fulham found the breakthrough at Portsmouth through that most improbable of methods: a Danny Murphy header.
“I always thought, ‘If we can make sure they don’t score maybe something will come our way,’ but I was worried we might go gung-ho too early, start doing things individually, start flying forward. It was important we kept playing the right way,” was perhaps the most Hodgsonian post-match assessment of the pure theatre he had just orchestrated.
The comprehensive story threads were once again absent as this final day essentially hinged on one fixture with two direct consequences. Liverpool had a first Champions League campaign within reach, occupying fourth place but sitting behind Leeds and what was then the third and last European Cup spot that could be secured through league position. The Whites traipsed up to face an exciting West Ham side of Ferdinand, Lampard, Di Canio, Wanchope and Lomas, returning only with a goalless draw which offered Gerard Houllier and his Reds an unexpected opportunity. All they had to do was beat Bradford, who had spent all but a single gameweek since the start of January in the bottom three. That mattered nought when David Wetherall thundered a Gunnar Halle cross past Sander Westerveld in the first half, nor when the Bantams defended manfully to keep Michael Owen and Emile Heskey out, with Robbie Fowler omitted from the squad.
Liverpool made the best of an inexplicably bad situation, embracing their UEFA Cup consolation so much it comprised one third of the subsequent season’s technical Treble. Bradford went down with a whimper in 2000/01 by comparison.
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The agenda was again dominated by events at the lower end. Sheffield United started in 16th, ahead of West Ham, Wigan and the pair of Charlton and Watford, whose relegations had already been confirmed. Three points separated as many teams when it came to taking up the last place on the second-tier scrapheap – and two of them were playing each other.
Sheffield United could have avoided defeat at home to Wigan to render moot whatever result West Ham achieved at Old Trafford. But Paul Scharner scored after 14 minutes at the DW Stadium to make matters that little more agitated. Wigan and West Ham were staying up. Then uncle Jon Stead’s brave header swapped the Latics with the Blades. As half-time beckoned across the country, Carlos Tevez soaked himself in narrative to the delight of Neil Warnock, sending the Hammers clear. It became a straight shootout between Sheffield United and Wigan, who regained the lead at Bramall Lane when Phil Jagielka handled the ball; David Unsworth, a Blade until leaving that January on a free, and who had missed a penalty in a 0-0 draw against Blackburn the prior September, beat Paddy Kenny from 12 yards in first-half stoppage time. Danny Webber hit the post when through on goal. Lee McCulloch was sent off with 16 minutes remaining. But Wigan endured to send an embittered Warnock down.
Another Champions League implosion from Liverpool proved to be a satisfactory entrée to a relegation-centred main course. The Reds had been a point behind Manchester United with a four-point and one-game buffer to Arsenal by late February, but dreadful form down the final straight – P10 W4 D3 L3 F14 A14 – obliterated that advantage. Defeat at Wimbledon in their penultimate match meant both Arsenal and Newcastle had closed to within two points of second place and the only other European Cup qualification spot alongside champions Manchester United. Arsenal beat Derby; Newcastle pummelled Nottingham Forest and increased their superior goal difference. Liverpool needed to win at Sheffield Wednesday but went behind to O’Neill Donaldson in the 75th minute and could only pull one back through Jamie Redknapp. All three sides finished on 68 points but Newcastle ventured to the Champions League while Arsenal and Liverpool were headed to the UEFA Cup.
Middlesbrough, Coventry and Nottingham Forest occupied the bottom three places, with Forest already gone. Only Southampton and Sunderland were in reach and the door was opened when they lost at Aston Villa and Wimbledon respectively. Boro could only draw against Leeds and were made to rue their January points deduction, but Coventry took full advantage of the circumstances by beating Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Traffic problems meant that game had to be kicked off 15 minutes later than the rest – Jimmy Hill must have been proud – and player-manager Gordon Strachan later claimed to be “too nervous” to play as he remained an unused substitute. It kept him fit enough to leap into the welcoming arms of Dion Dublin at full-time.
Manchester City were 16th on 44 points. Southampton were 17th on 42. Sheffield United were 18th on goals scored. Ipswich were 19th on goal difference. Everton were 20th on 41 points. Oldham were 21st on 39. Swindon Town were gone.
Everton were 2-0 down at home to Wimbledon after 20 minutes, their predicament seemingly unsalvageable. Oldham led Norwich after 14 minutes but their inferior goal difference required Southampton, Sheffield United and Ipswich all to lose heavily. Manchester City were dragged in that little bit closer when Sheffield Wednesday went 1-0 up. Southampton fell behind to West Ham. By half-time, Sheffield United were beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and had four points and three teams between themselves and Everton. Manchester City equalised for the point they needed at Sheffield Wednesday. Southampton would concede a late Lee Chapman equaliser at West Ham but were clear. But Everton staged an improbable comeback to lead Wimbledon, thus taking Ipswich, drawing at Blackburn, down with Oldham. The Tractor Boys could do nothing to affect their own fate, yet two late goals from Mark Stein, the last in stoppage time, spared them and put Sheffield United into the relegation zone for the first and most crucial time on the final day.
Perhaps the peak of Match of the Day montage coverage: Gary Lineker linking four games while belying the drama by calmly explaining the permutations each team required to survive, as supporters were filmed listening on the radio and the live Premier League table was updated with each wild swing of momentum. No team had been relegated going into the final day and two points separated Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Brom. The Canaries tumbled down the mine and gave the rest a chance by capitulating at Fulham. The other three were staying up at various points across the evening. Saints were ahead against Manchester United but were pegged back and then lost. Palace came from behind to lead Charlton before Jonathan Fortune’s late equaliser. West Brom started the day bottom, were stranded at Christmas and needed the rest to slip up, but capitalised through Geoff Horsfield and Kieran Richardson in the second half against Portsmouth. Some Pompey fans filtered onto the Hawthorns pitch upon realising that their defeat had helped relegate Southampton. It was absolute perfection that almost overshadowed Stuart Pearce sending David James on up front instead of actual striker Jon Macken as Manchester City chased a result in a UEFA Cup decider against Middlesbrough.
On the line this time was Roman Abramovich’s heart. The media had dubbed Chelsea and Liverpool’s Champions League qualification showdown as ‘the £20m match’ but that barely covered a fraction of what was ultimately on offer. The Blues were fourth and had the Reds pipped on goal difference heading into a ludicrously poised last match at Stamford Bridge – winner takes all. Chelsea faced financial ruin if they failed. Sami Hyypia opened the scoring but Marcel Desailly almost immediately responded. Jesper Gronkjaer completed the turnaround within the half-hour and in doing so, intrinsically changed Chelsea’s future.
Blackburn secured a UEFA Cup spot ahead of Everton by beating Tottenham 4-0, while the Toffees inevitably lost 2-1 to Manchester United despite Kevin Campbell’s best efforts.
In terms of relegation, West Brom and Sunderland were adrift. It became a case of one out of three joining them, despite Leeds, Bolton and West Ham all having reached That Magical 40-point Mark. Leeds beat Aston Villa 3-1. Bolton beat Boro 2-1. West Ham could only draw 2-2 with Birmingham as they solidified their ‘too good to go down’ status.
You know exactly where this is going. It was, by definition of it subjectively being ranked second here, not the greatest of Premier League final days, but it was the first truly spectacular, fabric-altering one. It was truly breathtaking when Brian Deane rifled in an excellent goal to equalise against Tottenham and secure the point Leeds needed to pip Newcastle to the last UEFA Cup place.
There was a modicum of drama elsewhere. Jamie Redknapp scored a sublime last-gasp free-kick he dare not celebrate to beat Blackburn, the Premier League leaders who had been winning and heading for the title until John Barnes equalised in the 64th minute at Anfield. In doing so, Liverpool had betrayed club icon Kenny Dalglish and provided Manchester United with a gilt-edged chance. Alex Ferguson’s players had plenty of those against West Ham, of course. But let’s just say Ludek Miklosko need never buy his own pints in one half of Merseyside or Lancashire.
Martin Tyler receives some understandable criticism, such is his inherent bias against every team, but he absolutely nailed it here: that really was Aguerooooooooooooooo, and we surely will never see anything like this ever again. The most rudimentary explanation is that Manchester City had to only match Manchester United’s result at Sunderland when they hosted QPR to win their first Premier League title, and they did. That misses out a couple of key incidents and some absurd context but still.
Chief conspiracy theorist Wayne Rooney covered the side of the bargain for Ferguson’s team with a routine back-post header at a pliably mid-table Sunderland. Pablo Zabaleta restored Manchester City’s advantage on goal difference with the opener against QPR. But Rangers, fuelled by a relegation battle and some residual resentment from manager Mark Hughes, sacked in acrimony by City two and a half years prior, took inexplicable control through Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie. It was the ultimate bottle job, until Edin Dzeko and some Argentinean fella staged a stoppage-time intervention.
That alone would mark this final day out as the greatest. But there were layers playing out in the background, such as QPR staying up despite their own implosion and being able to freely celebrate with Manchester City as Bolton succumbed to a 77th-minute Jon Walters equaliser at Stoke. Arsenal gripped on to third place for dear life ahead of Tottenham, although it wasn’t until Chelsea won the Champions League six days later that Spurs learned fourth was only good enough for the Europa League.