Ben Poole recaps the 2011-12 English Premier League soccer season to measure success against expectation.
On Saturday night, Chelsea overcame the odds in the UEFA European Champions League. They have been making a habit of this in the past couple of months, so it was fitting that this would again be how the story played out in the competition’s grand, corporate hospitality-packed final.
The Blues won the cup for the very first time in their history, defeating Bayern Munich, despite the Germans playing in their own backyard (Munich’s Allianz Arena—an extraordinary spaceship of a stadium). Having being largely outplayed for the duration of the game, and going behind to Thomas Mueller’s header in the 83rd minute, Chelsea were dragged over the finishing line by their talismanic striker Didier Drogba. While lacking some of the pace from his unplayable best years, Drogba proved he is still the man for the big occasion, first by getting the equalizer to take the game into extra time, and then calmly slotting home the decisive penalty in the following shoot out.
For Chelsea, their multi-billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich, and their fans all the way from west London to Western Australia, this was very much Mission Accomplished. Despite being a Premier League force for much for the past 10 years (including five consecutive Top 2 finishes, including the Premier League title twice), this one had alluded Chelsea. The very next day, tens of thousands of their fans took to the streets to join in with the open top bus parade, with their victorious team showing off both the European Cup and the domestic FA Cup that they had won a couple of weeks earlier. What a season!
Or, should that be, what a successful couple of months?
It was only in March 2012 that Chelsea fired Andre Villas-Boas as their manager following a run of just three wins in 12 Premier League matches. And while winning the UEFA Champions League does make it a successful season overall for Chelsea, finishing sixth in the English Premier League is far below what Chelsea fans have come to expect from their big spending team. If they had not won the final of the Champions League, the Blues would have failed to qualify for Europe’s elite competition next season, something that had been contemplated as a “catastrophe” by $79 million Chelsea benchwarmer and occasional striker Fernando Torres. Simply put, on Saturday Chelsea’s entire year was merely two minutes from catastrophe, before Drogba’s intervention to send the game to extra time. Some half an hour later, and it had become one of the greatest seasons ever in the club’s 107-year history.
The other side of the coin:
This rollercoaster of hyperbole brings into question just what does count as a successful season these days? It is a question that has been afflicting many of the English Premier League teams this season, and nobody goes through the emotional wringer as to whether or not it has been a successful season than the fans. Take Fenway Sports Group-owned Liverpool as an example. Before the FA Cup final against Chelsea at the start of May, players and fans of Liverpool were falling over themselves to say that winning two cups would make it a successful season—in February 2012 they had won the other domestic cup, the League Cup, scraping by lower league Cardiff City on penalties. As it was, they lost to Chelsea after being largely dreadful for the first hour of the FA Cup final.
So did one cup make it a successful season?
Despite adding approximately $188 million worth of talent to their squad in the past 18 months, Liverpool slumped to an eighth place finish in this year’s EPL. As if this wasn’t bad enough for their fans, the team finishing ahead of them in seventh place was their big city rivals, Everton, who achieved this feat despite spending a mere $10 million or so on new players over the season. So while Liverpool may have won the minor domestic cup, it is undoubtedly the Everton fans that have enjoyed the more successful season in The Beatles’ home city. As I’m sure they enjoyed telling their Liverpool-supporting colleagues on the first day back at work after FA Cup final day. To compound matters for Liverpool fans, their manager and idol, ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish was summoned to Boston and then fired by the Fenway Sports Group.
Dalglish paid the price for raising expectations to an impossible level—the sum of his spending spree suggests a team adding Champions League stars to its roster, not midfielders from the likes of Aston Villa and Blackpool. And perhaps expectation is the key factor in determining whether your team has had a successful season or not. Fans of Swansea and Norwich, both newly promoted to the Premier League, are both toasting remarkable seasons. While teams tend to struggle in the first season in the league, the Swans and the Canaries both ensured their survival weeks before the games ran out, finishing in eleventh and twelfth respectively, just five points behind Liverpool! Indeed, Swansea’s victory over Liverpool on the final day of the season was the penultimate nail in Dalglish’s coffin.
“Football. Bloody hell!”
Over the course of a season, an English Premier League team will play for 3,420 minutes plus injury time. The last gasp nature of the successful season syndrome was perfectly captured at Manchester City this year. They went into their final game of the season at home against lowly QPR, knowing that victory would see them crowned champions of the top tier of English football for the first time in 44 years. Only 13 years previously, in 1999, Manchester City were in the third tier, and were 2-0 down with just three minutes to play in their promotion play-off final against Gillingham at Wembley Stadium. Somehow they recovered the situation, scoring twice to take the game to extra time and penalties. Winning the shoot-out, and therefore promotion, City established their form for taking their season right to the wire.
Fast forward to 2012 and the EPL title was on the line between Manchester City and Manchester United on the final day of the season. Ever since City were taken over by fantastically wealthy Sheikh Mansour in 2008, the rivalry between the two Manchester clubs has intensified both on and off the pitch, with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson dubbing City the ‘noisy neighbours’. By this season, however, it was clear that City were much more than that slight suggests, a point that was emphasized in October with City’s amazing 6-1 hammering of United at Old Trafford. Still, by the final game of the season, both teams were level on points at the top of the table, with City ahead thanks to a better goal difference. With the final games around the country being played simultaneously, City knew that if they matched or bettered United’s result away at Sunderland, they would become just the fifth different team to win the Premier League in its 20-year history. But after 90 minutes of both games, while United were comfortably homing in on victory at Sunderland, City were losing to QPR 2-1, despite the London team being down to 10 men after their captain Joey Barton was sent off for an admirable attempt to attack at least three different City players.
Two minutes into injury time, City’s Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko brought the game back to 2-2, but shortly afterwards the final whistle blew in Manchester United’s game. United had won 1-0 and with just seconds left in City’s game, it looked as though they had blown it. United fans from Manchester to Mumbai were getting the party started.
Having spent a king’s ransom on players since the takeover by Sheikh Mansour, surrendering the title in such a way would have been a disaster for Manchester City, not least for their supporters, who would endure similar friendly abuse from opposing fans in the same city as in the Liverpool/Everton example. Remarkably, however, there was still one more twist to the most dramatic final day in Premier League history. About $60 million of Mansour’s cash had gone on bringing Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero to City from Athletico Madrid in Spain, and it was he who, 3,420 plus minutes into the season, waltzed passed a despairing dive from a QPR defender and slammed the ball into the net beyond goalkeeper Paddy Kenny. Cue instant delirium inside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, and dejection for anyone associated with Manchester United.
Back in May 1999, when Manchester City pulled off their first great escape by beating Gillingham in that play-off final, Manchester United were putting on their own late show, in the final of the European Champions League. Their opponents, just like Chelsea’s this season, were Bayern Munich. United were down and out, having played poorly they were 1-0 down as the game entered injury time. And yet, just as Manchester City did in the Premier League this year, United managed to summon up two priceless goals in injury time to get their hands on the trophy. In the immediate television interview following the final whistle and United’s astonishing victory, manager Alex Ferguson was asked for his reaction. The first phrase that came to his mind was a truth that all football fans will identify with: “Football. Bloody hell!”
—Photo credit: algenta101/Flickr