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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Five Best Final Days of the Premiership Season

Arsenal captain Thierry Henry celebrates the final game at Highbury as Arsenal beat Wigan Athletic 4-2 to secure UEFA Champions League football over great rivals Tottenham Hotspur, who lost 2-1 to West Ham United on the final day of the 2005-06 season.
Arguably the most enjoyable day of the season, the final day of most if not all Premiership seasons have meant something decided from the winners to the relegation losers, the final day for the last twenty years has been one of the most climatic days for any Football fan and as we arrive at the final straight yet again with the title, UEFA Champions League football and the final relegation place up for grabs, this season looks to be as climatic and nail-biting as most.
However, what day has been the most enjoyable and climatic of all? Here are my top five final days of the Premiership season.

  1. 7th May 2006: Lasagne-gate
It was May 7th 2006 and as we approached four o'clock for kick offs around the grounds for one last time in the 2005-06 season, a season in which the title had already been decided as returning to Stamford Bridge as it did twelve months before, a more intriguing battle awaited. May 7th 2006 wasn't just the final day of the 2005-06 season, it was the final day of Football at Arsenal's Highbury Stadium, after ninety-three years of history, the stadium was to be closed and the team move down the road to awaiting Emirates Stadium. Nonetheless, it was no means time for celebration. Despite being in the UEFA Champions League final that season and setting records for consecutive clean sheets, Arsenal's domestic record was poor, behind rivals Tottenham for majorities of the season, it looked as though Arsenal's only hope of qualification of next years Champions League was to win it in ten days time, it looked as though Highbury's party may have to wait.

However, Tottenham's own pending party looked to be potentially cancelled too. Needing to only equal their rivals score in their away fixture with FA Cup finalists West Ham United to ensure UEFA Champions League football and a higher league position than Arsenal for the first time in eleven years, it looked to be going Tottenham's way. However, the night before, most of the first team squad were struck with a virus. It looked at first as if the game was to be postponed, however, with the Hammers in the final of the FA Cup the following Saturday and the preparations for the 2006 FIFA World Cup about to start, neither club nor FA could find a suitable time to replay the fixture it was agreed to go ahead at four o'clock that Sunday, a move Tottenham probably regret.

Within eight minutes Frenchman Robert Pires scored for Arsenal to put them one up at Highbury and just two minutes later Carl Fletcher really dampened Tottenham's hopes by putting the Hammers one-nil up at Upton Park too. It meant as it stood after ten minutes, Arsenal were in the drivers seat, and Tottenham needed two goals to change that.

However, as soon as you could call it, the game changed again Wigan's Paul Scharner equalised around the same time as Fletcher's opener at Upton Park and although Arsenal were still in fourth, they were looking shaky and in the thirty-third minute fell behind to a lucky free-kick from David Thompson when goalkeeper Jens Lehmann should have performed better.

Two minutes later, Tottenham equalised through former Hammer Jermaine Defoe. Tottenham were now in the drivers seat once more, or so they thought. As Defoe scored Tottenham's equaliser the league's top scorer Arsenal's Thierry Henry scored Arsenal's equaliser and Tottenham knew that a draw may not be good enough.

The draw wouldn't be good enough, Henry went onto complete a hat-trick as Highbury was saluted to an Arsenal four-two winning performance, whereas Tottenham conceded to future Arsenal loan-signing Yossi Benayoun's late winner within the last ten minutes. It meant Arsenal claimed fourth place and a qualification game for next season's UEFA Champions League, Spurs had blown it. Their only salvation that their rivals did not beat FC Barcelona in the final ten days later.

  1. 15th May 2005: West Bromwich Albion break the jinx
“Bottom at Christmas equals relegation.” is the famous phrase, even now, only one team has ever broken the jinx of being bottom on Christmas Day and surviving the drop and that team is West Bromwich Albion.

For the first time in Premiership history, no team had been relegated before the final day of the season, left to fight another day were Norwich City, Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion.
For Norwich and Southampton they were out of the race early, a six-nil away loss at Craven Cottage for Norwich meant there was no way their team who was starting to turn the corner could survive, despite upsetting third-placed FA Cup finalists Manchester United two-nil, just over a month before. Southampton also lost to Manchester United on the final day, and despite leading after ten minutes on virtue of a John O'Shea own goal, lost two-one to a Ruud Van Nistelrooy winner mid-way through the second half.

It left the door open for West Bromwich Albion to pull off the biggest upset at the bottom or Crystal Palace who held the league's second highest top scorer in Andy Johnson who scored twenty-one that season to get out themselves. Palace went into the game on thirty-two points, whereas West Bromwich Albion were bottom on thirty-one, Norwich City were the only team of the four outside the relegation zone before the day's action.

Palace fell behind after thirty minutes at The Valley and as that stood meant Southampton would survive, however, Geoff Horsfield put the Baggies in front after fifty-eight minutes whilst Dougie Freedman equalised for Palace, meaning West Bromwich Albion held the prestigious seventeenth place, that was until the seventy-first minute when Andy Johnson converted Palace's second from the spot and despite doubling their lead four minutes later, it was all in vein for Albion who would be relegated regardless if Palace could hold their slim two-one advantage.

Palace however, were relegated with a Charlton equaliser falling just eight minutes from time, with no late winner and no Portsmouth comeback to steal the win from West Brom, Albion survived by a point and became the first side to be bottom on the 25th December and still survive.

  1. 16th May 1999: One leg of a treble
In 1998, Arsenal had come from over ten points behind to steal Manchester United's precious crown, but United wanted it back. Despite the relegation story at the bottom between Southampton and Charlton, the battle at the time became far more intriguing.
After Arsenal lost mid-week to Leeds United in Yorkshire to a late Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink goal it was to Blackburn to see if Manchester United could take advantage the night after. A Manchester United win would see them regain the title, anything less kept us all guessing. Former Champions Blackburn needed a win themselves or else they would become the first Premiership Champions to be relegated. Despite both teams creating chances, the game ended nil-nil and Blackburn were relegated but the race for the title would go to the wire.

The stage was set, Manchester United won, whatever happened at Highbury didn't matter, it was theirs, anything less, Arsenal had the chance to win the title if they could beat Aston Villa at home, a team they'd thrown away a two-goal lead to in December at Villa Park. Manchester United walked into the game leading the table by one point and one goal on the Goal Difference, meaning they'd have to lose by two clear goals to lose the title should Arsenal only manage a draw, almost a binary opposite to the final day of the Old Division One season ten years previous where Arsenal travelled to Anfield, first versus second needing to win by two clear goals to win the title.

The only thing working against Arsenal was not just Manchester United being favourites, but the fact they were playing Arsenal's deadliest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham safely in eleventh knew weren't quite in need of points like Blackburn several days previous, however, that didn't stop them trying to spoil Manchester United's potential treble and try to give their rivals the chance to steal the title back again, however, at Highbury the goals weren't going in, by the time Kanu had scored, with just four minutes left, the celebrations at Highbury that had started when the news of Les Ferdinand's opener had gone in were long gone.

Manchester United despite missing several chances equalised through David Beckham just two minutes before the break and then three minutes afterwards with Andy Cole and with no Tottenham equaliser at Old Trafford, Kanu's goal counted for nothing as Manchester United completed the first leg of their historic treble.

  1. 14th May 1995: Not Over Yet
For the first time in it's short history, the Premiership title race would go all the way down to the wire. Blackburn Rovers led the back-to-back champions Manchester United by two points going into the final day. With both teams away from home, Blackburn at Anfield, the former home of Blackburn Rovers' manager Kenny Dalglish and Manchester United at Upton Park, neither side would be able to celebrate a title victory on home territory that afternoon. However, for Liverpool fans they wouldn't be opposed to Blackburn celebrating on their pitch in efforts to stop rivals Manchester United winning the title and being the first side since Liverpool themselves in 1984 to win the title three consecutive years running.

It meant for the first time in Premiership history that two games would be live on television simultaneously, rights holder Sky taking advantage of both their Sports Channels, Sky Sports and Sky Sports Two, the latter which had launched at the beginning of the season in August 1994.
All Blackburn needed to do was win, but leading the table by two points meant that as long as Manchester United didn't, whatever the score at Anfield, they were champions. Had Manchester United won, Blackburn would have to win themselves with goal difference not in their favour.

It started well for Blackburn within twenty minutes Alan Shearer broke free to put the visitors one-nil up, it meant that Upton Park, which was still deadlocked at nil-nil was meaningless, as long as Blackburn could hold out. More good fortune went Rovers way later in the first half as Michael Hughes put West Ham United one-nil up at Upton Park, it now meant that United had to score twice to have any chance of the title and even then they were now relying on rivals Liverpool.

In the second half, Manchester United got one back, Brian McClair equalising for the visitors, but that's how it stayed and it wouldn't be enough despite the second half at Anfield. John Barnes scored twelve minutes after McClair, meaning both games were locked at one-one but still Blackburn would prevail if West Ham could hold on to their draw. Manchester United were throwing everyone forward in a vein attempt to score again, should they have scored the title would have gone back to Old Trafford for the third time running and they would rue their misses more in the final minutes as in the last minute of the game at Anfield Jamie Redknapp scored to put Liverpool two-one ahead.

However, as he did, the final whistle went at Upton Park, West Ham had held on to the draw, meaning Blackburn's final day defeat was meaningless and despite fears they had thrown it all away when Redknapp scored, there was no time for Manchester United to capitalise and for the first time in eighty-one years, Blackburn were England's Champions.

  1. 22nd May 2011: Survival Sunday
Never before had the final day of a Premiership season concerned five clubs at the bottom of the table. West Ham United had been relegated the week before at the hands of Wigan, who themselves weren't safe and had just thrown themselves a lifeline, there were two relegation spaces remaining and two of five teams would fill them.

Just one point separated fifteenth from nineteenth, as Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, the only two teams of the five with forty points, the usually tally for survival met at Molineux, Birmingham went to fifth placed Tottenham, Blackpool travelled to Champions Manchester United and Wigan to tough away-day Stoke.

It was one of the most dramatic last days in the history of Football, throughout points of the day at least every team were in a safe position, however, only three could remain there.
With Blackburn's better goal-difference it meant, that unless they lost at Molineux and the teams around them could win, they'd more than likely survive. For Birmingham they were a goal and a point behind Wolves, with it possibly going down to Wolves' goals scored tally being better than theirs, for Wigan and Blackpool went into the game equal on points and goal-difference with Blackpool's fifteen more goals scored for that season being the difference between the two.

However, it mattered for nothing for Blackpool, who fell behind first to the Champions to a twenty-first minute Park Ji-Sung goal, meaning they were relegated with Wigan, however, a minute after that Blackburn scored through Jason Roberts a former Wolves and West Bromwich Albion player. However, with no score at White Hart Lane or Stoke, Wolves were still safe despite going behind.
With still no scores at Tottenham or Stoke, Wolves still remained safe, until two more Blackburn goals from Emerton and Hoilett coupled with a Blackpool equaliser from a beautiful Charlie Adam free-kick in between the two meant Wolves dropped into the bottom three on virtue of Blackpool's better goals scored tally, the highest tally of the five.

However, Wolves were brought back to life by a Roman Pavlyuchenko goal for Tottenham four minutes after the half-time break which meant Wolves were out of it as long as Wigan couldn't score nor Birmingham could equalise.

It all changed again as Blackpool took the lead at Old Trafford and as it stood Birmingham and Wigan would survive and despite being three-nil down at home Wolves would survive. However, it wouldn't last for Blackpool, Anderson scored five minutes after Taylor-Fletcher, to equalise and then an Ian Evatt own goal meant Blackpool were down just as Wolves had scored to get one back through Jamie O'Hara. Wigan four minutes after Evatt's own goal then scored themselves through Hugo Rodallega meaning Wigan were now safe and Birmingham who a minute later got an equaliser through local lad Craig Gardner were just safe.

As it stood Wolves were now down on goal-difference due to Birmingham's equaliser with the Molineux crowd praying for a goal singing “We only need one Goal” as Goals scored would be enough to send their Midlands rivals down instead of them. Blackpool's slim hopes faded as veteran Michael Owen scored to put the League Champions four-two in front and Blackpool's hopes of survival were gone now.
Six minutes after that, Stephen Hunt delivered the prayers of everyone in Gold & Black with a stunning goal with three minutes remaining. It meant that Wolves would survive with Wigan & Blackburn on virtue of goals scored, as long as the score in London stayed the same or Tottenham could score a winner, all this despite still being three-two down at home.
Birmingham threw everyone forward in search for a winner and Pavlyuchenko sent the League Cup winners down on the counter-attack with a last minute winner in North London and Stephen Hunt's goal was elementary.

With that goal, Molineux celebrated, both teams Wolves and Blackburn survived and Wigan joined them and despite once leading at Old Trafford much like the home game months before, they couldn't keep the lead and Blackpool were relegated with Birmingham who just months three months before had won the Carling Cup and West Ham.

That concludes my list of the five most dramatic and exciting final day in Premiership history. So will it be the blue half of red half of Manchester winning the title? Will it be Islington or Tottenham in next season's Champions League or even Newcastle? Will it be QPR or Bolton in next season's Premiership? Only tomorrow will tell.

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