In the first-ever edition of this column, I wrote — by way of introducing the Premier League season and discussing the possible shift in power at the top of the table — that "it's up for grabs now." It was a reference to a famous bit of football commentary by Brian Moore. Here's the context: In 1989, Arsenal went to Liverpool on the last day of the season, needing to win by two goals to take the First Division title. With less than a minute to go, Arsenal went, in the words of Moore, "streaming forward." Alan Smith picked out Michael Thomas with a looping pass that allowed Thomas to split the Liverpool defenders and, well
Who could have possibly predicted that, 23 years later, Sergio Aguero would have his own Michael Thomas moment, winning the title for Manchester City in the dying seconds of the 2011-12 Premier League season, bringing the topflight trophy to the blue side of the city for the first time in 44 years?
That moment was just one of many from a soap-operatic final day in English football. All 10 Premier League games kicked off at the same time on Sunday, meaning there would be no competitive advantage among the teams. It created one of the most nerve-mulching finishes to a league season, in any sport, that I've ever seen. With this in mind, there was only one thing to do: Boil all the matches down into a borderline insane retro diary of the events that transpired.
Kickoff: Here's what's in play (and it's a lot):
- The Title: If City win, they win the trophy. Real simple. United can equal them on points by beating Sunderland, but have no chance of eclipsing City's huge lead in goal difference. Sir Alex Ferguson is praying his former player Mark Hughes, now manager of Queens Park Rangers,1 does him a favor. I think Mark Hughes once did someone a favor in, like, 1998, but it's just a rumor.
- Champions League: Arsenal, Tottenham, and Newcastle are all competing for third. Ordinarily, four teams from the Premier League qualify for Champions League football the following season. But this year, Chelsea, who are currently in sixth, are playing in the Champions League final. If they beat Bayern Munich in Germany next weekend, they will be invited back into the competition to defend their title, allowing only the top three teams from England to compete. Arsenal is on 67 points, Spurs are on 66, and Newcastle is on 65. A lot to play for here.
Relegation: Wolves and Blackburn have taken some of the usual fun out of the final day of the season by already getting themselves relegated out of the Premier League. There's one more team going down, and it will either be Bolton — who started the day on 35 points and are visiting the balletic Stoke — or Queens Park Rangers, with their 37 points, who are at City. We like to talk about how much of a financial boon it is for clubs to be promoted into the Premier League, but it can be equally devastating to drop out. Despite parachute payments2 made to relegated teams, the losses (around £40 million) can be catastrophic. Ask Portsmouth.
Anyway, enough about financial ruin. Let's talk about personal sacrifice. I have a go-bag of smelling salts, energy drink, gauze, Fritos, Cap'n Crunch, Berocca, and some canned goods for good measure. I'm wearing an Allen Iverson arm sleeve brace. It's 6:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and I swear to God I think I just saw an Ewok walking around in my backyard. I am ready to change the channel at the drop of a dime (or the suggestion of Twitter). Let the games begin.
2nd minute: Well, BANG, that didn't take very long. Tottenham's Emmanuel Adebayor just scored in the opening two minutes. This comes from a great give-and-go with Rafael van der Vaart, who held the ball just long enough for Adebayor to get the right angle on his run. Kind of surprised Adebayor, the former Gunner and notorious Arsenal tormentor, didn't run right out of White Hart Lane and up the M1 to West Brom's Hawthorns stadium to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans. Couldn't be much longer of a run than the one he made when he was playing for City last season:
Pressure is on the Gunners now, who have looked lost since Mikel Arteta received the annual award given to an Arsenal player for achievement in the category of leg breaks or ligament damage.
4th minute: Scratch that! Arsenal's Yossi Benayoun just scored his third goal in five games, putting Arsene Wenger's tired, poor, huddled players in front of the Baggies, 1-0. Actually, that's really robbing West Brom's second-string keeper, Marton Fulop, of the glory. Fulop was first to a through-ball with Benayoun closing fast. Problem was the ball was just outside his area, so he couldn't pick it up. And whatever mental gymnastics he had to perform to make that decision prevented him from saying to himself, "I should probably hoof this into outer space." Benayoun was at the right place at the right time. I'd replace my Powerade with Knob Creek if I were Fullop.3
9th minute: Grant Holt looks like a Baggins on HGH. He just scored his 14th goal for Norwich this season. He's a fantastic success story, as are Norwich. The Canaries took on the Premier League titans with lower league talent, and somehow made it work. This achievement is best exemplified in Holt. Just a few years ago he was playing League Two football with Shrewsbury Town,4 now he's banging in goals in the Premier League against — well, against Aston Villa, who admittedly have played like a League Two side over these last few weeks. Still, I hope new England manager Roy Hodgson takes Holt to Euro 2012. It would be great to see Holtamania spread across Eastern Europe.
11th minute: West Brom's Shane Long scores and Arsenal's Girl, Interrupted season continues. The score is 1-1 now. How many goals were there scored against the Gunners this season that started with Arsenal defenders running desperately back toward their own goal and ended with keeper Wojciech Szczęsny shouting, "A GODDAMN SHARK ATE ME"? Seems like a lot. Thomas Vermaelen is one of the 10 or 15 best all-around players in the Premier League, but too often he has gotten caught — much like defensive midfielder Alex Song — seeing how the other half lives upfield. Yes, Wenger needs to buy goal-scoring help for van Persie this offseason (assuming van Persie stays), and he might want to look into a collar that zaps Vermaelen every time he ventures past the center circle.
12th minute: Do you believe in miracles? In the absence of miracles, do you believe in stone gargoyles coming to life and relegating Bolton? Jon Walters just scored the Stokiest stoking goal I've ever stoking seen. Matthew Etherington launched in a cross, Walters "controlled" it (much the way Sloth from Goonies "controlled" a Baby Ruth), chested the ball into the net, and ran over Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan (who has had a lot of redheaded-stepchild moments this season I can say that because I'm a redhead). Bolton have been in the Premier League since 2001. In recent seasons, they've stayed up by the skin of their teeth, but their luck seems to be running out.
15th minute: Graham Dorrans passes to Graham Dorrans (after a great setup from the underrated James Morrison), putting West Brom up, 2-1, on Arsenal. You know that scene toward the end of The Untouchables, the Potemkin scene, where Andy Garcia arrives just in the nick of time to save the day? Imagine if Andy Garcia showed up, like, five minutes later, asking, "What did I miss?" and there were just dead bodies and Kevin Costner making the Kevin Costner-welling-up face. That's how I can best explain what Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny just did. Dorrans looked offsides, but Arsenal's defense was again caught vacationing upfield. Stay at home!
16th minute: Steven Pienaar scores for Everton, putting the Toffees up, 1-0, and turning down the volume on Newcastle's unlikely symphony of a season. No team had a better January transfer window than Everton. They brought in the lethal Nika Jelavic from Rangers and brought Pienaar back from a wasted spell at Tottenham. Usually the January window is all smoke and no fire, but Everton have been tough to beat ever since they got their winter reinforcements.
20th minute: And now things get interesting. The New Jersey band Rye Coalition had a great song called "The Higher the Hair, the Closer to God," which I have thought of more than once while gazing upon Wayne Rooney's miracle-of-science head salad. Appropriately enough, Rooney nods in United's opener, shifting the pressure to City.
30th minute: Over at the Hawthorns, Arsenal's Andre Santos, who, charitably speaking, does not look like an athlete, was just wandering around at the bottom of my screen, looking like he was collecting his thoughts on Girls, Kitty Pryde, and Megan Draper. Then the ball landed at his feet and he roasted three Baggies players and snap-shot the ball past a diving Marton Fulop to equalize for Arsenal. I swear he looks like he's wheezing as he runs to celebrate.
31st minute: That will be the last John Terry goal this season. The Chelsea captain and former-teammate's-girlfriend-impregnator is suspended for the Champions League final and is on the outside looking in of the England national team. Couldn't have happened to a nicer man.
36th minute: Oh, you thought I forgot about City? Not a ton to say. Queens Park Rangers have built a 10-man wall in front of their goal, put on coonskin caps, and hung a sign on it that says "Queens Park Alamo." They are defending with their lives. Roberto Mancini is pacing the sidelines and Nigel De Jong is getting warmed up. Perhaps Mancini is trying to repeat last week's trick with Yaya Touré?
39th minute: Now things get interesting. City's Argentine fullback, Pablo Zabaleta, is on the receiving end of a pass from Touré. He pokes it toward goal, and though Paddy Kenny gets a mitt on it, it still gets into the back of the net. Hysteria. There's a guy holding a plastic banana.5 People are using inappropriate language around children. City players are piling on Zabaleta.
45th minute: Kevin Davies has played for Bolton for 206 years (OK, since 2003). And he may have scored one of the most important goals in the club's history, putting the Trotters ahead, 2-1 (following a Mark Davies goal). This brings the first half of today's action to a close on a high note. Whether Bolton stay up or go down, you can be assured of two things: (1) Owen Coyle will be wearing shorts, wherever he is, no matter how cold it is
and (2) Kevin Davies scored one of the most graceful goals you'll see all day.
[HALFTIME BREAK. STARE AT LIVE PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE LIKE I AM GOING TO USE IT TO SOLVE ZODIAC MURDERS]
46th minute: OK, if Owen Coyle is wearing shorts and Roberto Mancini is wearing an overcoat and a scarf one them is lying about the weather.
48th minute: If Sir Alex Ferguson runs a horse in the next Grand National called "Mad French Bastard With a Mohawk," it's going to be because of Djibril Cissé. This guy just Mola Ram'd Manchester City. Joleon Lescott, whose partnership with Vincent Kompany in the back has been the foundation of City's success this season, inexplicably headed the ball back toward the City goal, right into the path of a charging Cissé. 1-1. If it were to end now, United would win the total on points.
53rd minute: In the first game of this season, while still playing for Newcastle, Joey Barton picked Arsenal's Gervinho up off the ground by his collar, apparently incensed that the Ivorian may have dived to try to get a penalty. Gervinho and Barton scuffled, Barton took a blow to the face, acted as if he had just stared into the center of the sun from 11 feet away, and got Gervinho sent off. After that, he moved to QPR, talked a lot of garbage on Twitter, acted like he was the first human in the Western world to ever read a book without pictures, and tried to seem like a three-dimensional person by quoting Morrissey. But you know what? All the invocations of "Girlfriend in a Coma" can't change the fact that he put a cigar out on someone else's eye, beat the crap out of a teenager outside of a McDonald's, and ended a teammate's career after nearly blinding him.
So it should come as little surprise that Barton just ended his season in much the way he began it. After elbowing Carlos Tevez in the face, on the edge of the QPR box, at the most critical juncture in the QPR season, Barton gets himself sent off.
On his way off the field, Barton knees City's Sergio Aguero. City's Micah Richards is the only one standing between Barton and a thermonuclear Nigel De Jong. Oh, and now Balotelli is getting involved. Joey Barton and Mario Balotelli can't get into a fight. Why? Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molocule in your body stopping at the speed of light. Total protonic reversal. So, thank you, Micah Richards. You just saved us all. QPR down to 10 men. City back in the driver's seat. With a man advantage, you expect them to score.6
55th minute: Of course Arsenal go ahead on a corner, and of course it's tumbled in by Laurent Koscielny, a.k.a. French Mamba. Martin Fulop was practically terraforming on other worlds during a corner kick. Does anyone know if he owns stock in Arsenal? Koscielny is beating his chest in front of the Arsenal crowd. Martin Fulop is drinking (water) and has gone full-blown Kevin Costner-welling-up face.
63rd minute: Jermain Defoe seals it for Tottenham, but it's no matter. They know what's up at White Hart Lane. The Spurs fans are singing "There's only one Bayern Munich."
66th minute: I might as well watch the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey while listening to "Born Slippy," because I don't understand this life. Jamie Mackie has just put Queens Park Rangers ahead. A diving header. City had been pouring forward — Vincent Kompany so far ahead he was playing creative midfield — and they may have been a little slow in getting back into their defensive shape, as Paddy Kenny launched the ball upfield and Armand Traoré found Mackie on the far side of Joe Hart's goal. Is this part of a 20-year plan by Alex Ferguson to stab Manchester City in the heart? Is Mark Hughes a mole sent into the club to destroy it? Watching Roberto Mancini scream "FUCK YOU" at the field, in Italian and English, simultaneously, makes me think I'm on to something. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sparky?
75th minute: I've talked about Everton's Tony Hibbert before. Tony Hibbert looks like a guy who gets killed in the beginning of a Guy Ritchie movie. Tony Hibbert just scored against his own team. I feel like Tony Hibbert looks.
77th minute: Jon Walters just relegated Bolton. It seems unfair that a team that saw two of its best players — Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden — leave with season-ending injuries before the campaign even began, and had to deal with the emotional trauma of seeing a player suffer a heart attack on the field, would go down while a side that features Joey Barton would stay up. I guess deserving has nothing to do with it.
86th minute: I want to point out that Danny Graham just scored for Swansea, not because Swansea will likely beat Liverpool (they likely will), or because Swansea have been a blast to watch this season (they have), but because of Kenny Dalglish. For the sake of your scrolling, here's that Michael Thomas video again:
That's Dalglish managing Liverpool, 23 years ago, the same year as the Hillsborough disaster. Dalglish is as much a part of Liverpool's architecture as the famous Kop end. But after an incredibly disappointing league campaign, and his handling of the Luis Suarez controversy, it looks like Dalglish's second stint at Liverpool will likely come to a close.7 It's a disappointing end to one of the most storied careers in British football history.
92nd minute: Edin Dzeko just punched through the coffin like Uma Thurman. Manchester City lives. City were dealing with a phalanx-like QPR defense. To start the match, Mancini had been playing the Yaya & the Munchkins lineup, with Carlos Tevez, Aguero, David Silva, and Samir Nasri buzzing off of the giant in the center of midfield. But with Touré out injured, nothing was happening. Enter Dzeko. When facing eight to 10 defenders, rooted in their own box, the easiest way to get a goal is to put it up in the air for the tall fella. Dzeko heads it in.
94th minute: Sergio Aguero scores. Last week, when Djibril Cissé scored a game-winner for QPR (Stoke), the roughly 18,000-capacity Loftus Road jumped like it was on a trampoline. Kun Aguero just did that to the nearly 50,000-seat Etihad. Right now, for this moment, it is the Eastlands again. Right now it might as well be Maine Road. Ghosts are being killed right now. Forty-four years of them. Joe Hart is doing the Jason Terry dance, Roberto Mancini jumps into his assistant's arms, Liam Gallagher just threw a beer at someone in a VIP box.
Maybe it was Noel. God only knows. Today is gonna be the day. There's a pile of Argentines, two Frenchmen, a Belgian, a Bosnian, a Dutchman, at least one Englishman, and one crazy Ghanaian-Italian, who set the Aguero goal up. Balotelli. Of course it was Balotelli. This multinational band of mercenary brothers, of traitors, of job snatchers, of glory hunters. These noisy neighbors. You don't know noise. This is the new noise. This is Alex Ferguson, upon finding out Aguero had scored:
"An unbelievable climax to the league season." History repeats itself.