When Time Stood Still: The Final Day of the 2011-12 Season

When football fans think back to May 13, 2012, two names will instantly come to mind: Sergio Aguero and Martin Tyler. As he so often does, the latter captured the emotion and excitement perfectly after the former had just won the Premier League title with virtually the last kick of the season. “I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again,” Tyler exclaimed, and he was correct.

Up until that point, we had never witnessed anything quite as dramatic in the Premier League but it goes far beyond Aguero securing Manchester City’s first title in 44 years. Going into the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, we still didn’t know who would be crowned champions, who would compete in next season’s Champions League and who would be relegated. In fact, the fate of two clubs was finally concluded a week and 120 minutes of football after the last day of the Premier League season.

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Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League was no stranger to final fixture drama with Oldham Athletic beating Southampton 4-3 to relegate Crystal Palace in its debut campaign. Incredibly, the fight against relegation went down to the very last game during the first eight seasons of the Premier League.

Before 2012, the title race went down to the wire on five occasions with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United coming out on top three times in 1996, 1999 and 2008. Blackburn Rovers clinched the league in 1995 under Kenny Dalglish whilst Italian Carlo Ancelotti led Chelsea to a last day triumph in 2010 with an emphatic 8-0 victory over Wigan Athletic.

At the start of the 2001-02 campaign, four English top-tier teams could qualify for the Champions League and since then, a spot in Europe’s most elite club competition had only been decided twice on the final day before 2012. Chelsea beat direct rivals Liverpool 2-1 on the last day of the 2002-03 season to not only secure Champions League qualification but also Roman Abramovich’s millions, whilst Arsenal leapfrogged North London rivals Tottenham in 2006 to sign off its 93-year-old tenure at Highbury in style.

There had been times where everything was up for grabs on the final day of the league season with Jamie Redknapp’s last-minute free-kick against Blackburn in 1995, and Dennis Bergkamp’s late strike beating Bolton the following campaign securing European football for Liverpool and Arsenal respectively, but the prize was UEFA Cup football, not the Champions League.

However, in the home straight of the 2011-12 campaign, the final Champions League spot was on the line along with the League title and the battle against the drop for the first time in Premier League history. It was all set up to be a sensational and scintillating watch.

Title race

“City’s cracking up!” sang the jubilant away United supporters as their team took advantage of City’s slump in form to go five points clear with a 2-0 win over Blackburn, thanks to strikes from then wingers – now fullbacks- Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young at the start of April. Ewood Park had been the venue where Sir Alex’s men had clinched their 19th league title the previous campaign and it appeared this victory at the same ground would be a step closer to the 20th.

Roberto Mancini’s City had only won once in their last four league matches and headed into an important game at the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal knowing that anything but a win would be detrimental to their title ambitions. United defeated Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford earlier that day and City fell to a late Mikel Arteta strike. The loss meant City now trailed neighbours United by eight points with six matches remaining. Having encountered title battles with United in the past, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger could only see the title heading in one direction. He said: “City have a chance still but it will be difficult. The closer you get the less likely it is that United will make mistakes.” The following match proved the Frenchman wrong.

Sir Alex’s men lost 1-0 away at an in-form Wigan Athletic side battling against relegation whilst City thrashed West Bromwich Albion 4-0 at the Etihad Stadium. Regardless of the result, Mancini maintained that the title race was ‘finished’ despite his side closing the gap. With both sides claiming victories in their next matches, the title race certainly appeared to be finished when United came from behind to lead Everton 4-2 with 20 minutes to go at Old Trafford. After Patrice Evra missed a guilt-edge chance to wrap the game up, David Moyes’ men produced a stunning comeback and drew 4-4 to add life to this ridiculous title race.

Unlike any season before, Ferguson’s side had failed to win a single league match after conceding the first goal. Later that day, City ended Wolverhampton Wanderers’ three-year stay in the Premier League with Aguero and Samir Nasri goals setting up the most early anticipated Manchester derby in years, with the gap reduced to three points with three matches to go.

Mancini’s side went into the match at the Etihad knowing nothing but a win would send them top given their superior goal difference. Sir Alex set up his side in the same manner which current United boss Jose Mourinho would do away against a domestic rival, clearly content to come away with a point. The plan appeared to be working until City skipper Vincent Kompany rose highest from a corner, above Chris Smalling to head the hosts into the lead with the last action of the first-half. United failed to produce a single shot on target throughout the match and the only spark in the second-half came from the managers who clashed on the touchline, with both men gesturing that the other talks too much.

Following the incident, the Etihad bellowed Mancini’s name louder than ever before and once again when the final whistle blew. For the 11th time during the season, there was a change in leadership and City were now top with two games to play. Mancini insisted that United still had the slight advantage as Ferguson’s side had ‘two easy games’ to come. Mancini mind games perhaps?

The Italian did have a point. City travelled to Champions League chasing Newcastle United whilst Ferguson’s side hosted Premier League newcomers Swansea City. St James’ Park was the venue where City had clinched their last league crown more than four decades ago and they took one giant stride closer to the title with a late Yaya Toure double. United managed to see off the Swans but the championship was firmly in City’s hands as they were poised to host relegation threatened QPR while United travelled to Sunderland on the final day. In Jim White’s book Premier League: A History in 10 Matches, Nasri recalls receiving a text message from fellow France international and United man Evra two days before the encounter congratulating him on winning the title. “I sent him one back saying ‘Nothing’s over yet’, but he said: ‘Stop it, if you don’t beat QPR, if you’re not champions this year then you’ll never be’.”

Race for the Champions League

The traditional top four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool & Arsenal – had been dismantled for the first time in seven years when Tottenham entered the fray in the 2009-10 season and Manchester City replaced them the following campaign. Liverpool were the team to fall out of the elite and suffered a Champions League drought under Rafael Benitez, Roy Hogdson and Dalglish during this period. At the start of the 2011-12 campaign, it appeared that Arsenal would join the Merseyside club and drop out as they failed to win any of their opening three matches, including the famous 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford.

Meanwhile, North London rivals Spurs were enjoying a fantastic start to the season under manager Harry Redknapp and by the turn of the New Year, they were right behind the Manchester clubs in the title race. Spurs travelled to leaders City at the end of January and a win would have seen them just two points behind Mancini’s men. Tottenham recovered from two goals down to level 2-2 and had Jermain Defoe not missed an open goal to win it in stoppage time, they might have sustained a serious title challenge. As it turned out, City’s charismatic forward Mario Balotelli, who should’ve been sent off for a stamp on Scott Parker’s head, won and scored a penalty in the dying seconds to finish off Spurs.

Although Spurs managed to bounce back on the pitch, it was off the pitch where things were taking a turn for the worse. That same month saw Redknapp appear in court strongly denying allegations of tax evasion during his time as Portsmouth boss. On February 8, the Spurs manager was cleared of any wrongdoings and on the same day, the Football Association confirmed that England boss Fabio Capello had resigned from his post.

Despite his trial, Redknapp was the clear favourite amongst the public and pundits to take over as England’s new man and the next match saw his Tottenham side destroy Newcastle 5-0 at White Hart Lane. Throughout the 90 minutes, the home faithful begged Redknapp to stay at the club and the FA ultimately acknowledged their pleas as Roy Hodgson was appointed England manager at the end of the season.

Two weeks on from the Newcastle match, Spurs went into the North London derby at the Emirates unbeaten in five whilst Arsenal had just shipped four goals away to AC Milan in the Champions League before being dumped out of the FA Cup at Sunderland. With 35 minutes played, Tottenham were 2-0 up and 13 points clear of their biggest rivals. Once the final whistle blew, Arsenal had produced a stunning fightback to win 5-2 with goals from Bacary Sagna, Robin van Persie, Tomas Rosicky and a Theo Walcott double to reduce the gap to seven points.

This time, Spurs failed to respond on the pitch going four league matches without a win, losing the next two on the bounce. By late April, the Gunners’ revival saw them mount a six-point advantage over their rivals with Spurs slipping as low as fifth position. However, it was the turn of Wenger’s side to crack under pressure as they failed to win in their next three consecutive games whilst Spurs secured back-to-back victories, remaining one point behind with two games left.

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Arsenal hosted Norwich City on the Saturday and found themselves 2-1 down at the break but PFA Player of the Year Robin van Persie bagged his 29th and 30th league goals of the season to put the Gunners back in the driving seat. However, a late Steve Morison goal put automatic Champions League qualification safely in Tottenham’s hands. The next day, Redknapp’s side travelled to Aston Villa but could only manage a draw which left them a point behind Arsenal with the final match to come, with Tottenham needing to win against Fulham at home and hope the Gunners faltered away at West Brom.

Going into the final day, both North London clubs occupied 3rd and 4th place and in normal circumstances, it would be sufficient enough to guarantee Champions League qualification. However, normality wasn’t a running theme throughout this campaign and it was city rivals Chelsea who played the most important role in the race for the Champions League. Having unfairly dismissed Carlo Ancelotti just a year after he secured the club’s first ever double, Chelsea owner Abramovich appointed Andre Villas-Boas at the start of the new campaign.

The Portuguese was regarded as the new Mourinho after he won the treble with Porto the previous season, remaining unbeaten in the league and securing the UEFA Cup. But from the outset, the Blues were inconsistent in the league and never in contention with the Manchester clubs for the title. Villas-Boas also fell out with the experienced heads in the Chelsea dressing room and the club were set to drop out of the top four for the first time in nine years.

Following a shambolic display in the Round of 16 first leg tie at Napoli and a run of three league victories in 12 matches, Villas-Boas was dismissed and replaced by first-team coach and former Chelsea midfielder Roberto di Matteo. The Italian restored faith in the old guard and although they failed to find form in the league, Chelsea excelled in Europe and overcame Napoli and Benfica to set up a semi-final with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The La Liga side dominated possession in both legs and missed a host of chances – including Lionel Messi missing from the penalty spot at the Camp Nou- and it was Chelsea who incredibly came out on top and sealed a place in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.

The situation meant that Tottenham weren’t promised a place in next season’s elite competition if Chelsea managed to lift their first European Cup. Chelsea had already blown Spurs’ best chance of silverware earlier that season with a 5-1 thrashing in the FA Cup semi-final – a competition that the Blues went on to win – so could they stick the final nail in the Spurs coffin and snatch Champions League qualification from their grasp?

The fight against relegation

The fact that Wolves were confirmed as the first team to go down with three matches remaining demonstrates how the drama at the bottom matched the excitement at the other end of the table. Blackburn were the next team to go following a 1-0 defeat at home to a Wigan side who managed to secure Premier League survival for the seventh successive season, winning seven of their last nine games including victories over Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. The revival from Roberto Martinez’s men meant that it came down to Bolton and QPR.

Back in March, QPR boss Mark Hughes – who had replaced Neil Warnock at the turn of the year – was left furious after officials failed to see that Clint Hill’s header had clearly crossed the line in a classic six-pointer against Bolton at the then-named Reebok Stadium. Of course, this was during the pre-goal-line technology era and the hosts managed to secure a late 2-1 victory to lift themselves out of the bottom three and hold a point advantage over QPR.

However just a week later, Bolton suffered a crushing blow as their 6th round FA Cup tie at Tottenham had to be abandoned because midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest after 41 minutes with the score at 1-1. As supporters and players flooded support for him on social media, miraculously Muamba recovered but he would never play professional football again. Bolton club doctor Jonathan Tobin later revealed that Muamba was “in effect dead” for 78 minutes following his collapse on the pitch.

Owen Coyle’s side initially reacted brilliantly securing back-to-back league wins although they were dumped out of the FA Cup after losing to Spurs in the re-scheduled match. Bolton’s form took a turn for the worse in April where they only managed one victory in their next five league matches. Next up was Tottenham at home in the league and an emotional Muamba walked onto the pitch before kick-off and he was greeted with cheers from both sets of fans. Unfortunately for the hosts, Muamba’s appearance beforehand couldn’t lift them as they were outclassed 4-1, leaving them in the relegation zone but level on points with QPR.

Since the frustrating defeat at the Reebok Stadium, QPR secured unexpected home wins over Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham but they still found themselves above the bottom three only on goal difference with two games to go. In the penultimate match, Bolton let a 2-0 lead slip to draw at home to West Brom whilst an 89th minute Djibril Cisse winner for QPR against Stoke City gave the Londoners breathing space going into the final day, and when the final whistle blew at Loftus Road, QPR supporters danced on the pitch signalling that they believed their side had done enough to secure Premier League survival. Mark Hughes’ men travelled to title-chasing Manchester City on the final day with a two-point advantage over Bolton, who played Stoke at the previously called Britannia Stadium.

13 May, 2012 – 3pm kick-offs

Emmanuel Adebayor got the ball rolling with a fine finish to put Tottenham ahead inside two minutes. The Togo international, who spent three years at Arsenal, looked set to punish his former side and his was just one of a number of subplots on the final day. Just two minutes later, Arsenal took the lead at The Hawthorns with Yossi Benayoun capitalising on a terrible error from the late goalkeeper Marton Fulop. But with a quarter of an hour gone, the hosts led 2-1 through goals from Shane Long and Graham Dorrans to put Spurs in the driving seat in the race for the Champions League.

In the race against the drop, Bolton were on the wrong end of a shocking decision from referee Chris Foy, who allowed a goal from ex-Bolton man Jonathan Walters despite the striker clearly charging into goalkeeper Adam Bogdan. It’s said that in football, decisions tend to even themselves out over a season and this one certainly went in Mark Hughes’ favour.

QPR were holding their own against a nervous Manchester City outfit and the mood at the Etihad soured even further when news filtered through that Manchester United had taken the lead at Sunderland through Wayne Rooney in the 20th minute, meaning it was the first time on the final day where the leadership had changed hands with United now at the summit.

At 3.30pm, Arsenal levelled through Andre Santos through another Fulop error and nine minutes afterwards, another goalkeeping mistake led to a crucial goal as Paddy Kenny failed to hold Pablo Zabaleta’s shot which trickled into the net and saw City go above United into first place. Things went from bad to worse for QPR because at the same time, Bolton equalised through Mark Davies and went ahead just before the break thanks to Kevin Davies with two of the strangest goals seen throughout the campaign.

As the half-time whistle blew, City were champions, Spurs were in the automatic Champions League position and QPR were heading for the Championship.

Three minutes into the second-half and the title race and relegation battle were blown wide open as Cisse punished Joleon Lescott’s misplaced header to equalise for Rangers. However, the optimism for QPR and United didn’t last long as former City midfielder Joey Barton was sent off for catching ex-United man Carlos Tevez with an elbow. Before leaving the pitch, the QPR skipper kicked Aguero, attempted to head-butt Kompany and almost got into an altercation with City substitute Balotelli.

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At the same time at the Hawthorns, Tottenham’s Champions League hopes were fading as Laurent Koscielny put Arsenal ahead due to another Fulop mistake – this time punching the ball into the opposite direction from a corner – leaving the Arsenal defender with an empty net. The fact that Fulop had spent three years of his career at Tottenham made the situation even more sweet for the Arsenal supporters. After 63 minutes, Jermain Defoe grabbed a second for Spurs but White Hart Lane was left praying for another West Brom fightback.

Two minutes later, United supporters’ prayers were well and truly answered. Despite being down to ten men, QPR went in front as Armand Traore raced unattended down the left hand side and delivered a fine cross and Jamie Mackie scored with a great header which left City boss Mancini blurting out expletives and waving his arms around frantically. As the news filtered to the Stadium of Light, the United faithful were bouncing as City were cracking under pressure once again and even Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t sure how to react on the touchline.

At the other end of the table, things were unravelling for Bolton, and Bogdan was involved once more but this time he brought down Peter Crouch in the penalty area. Walters grabbed his second from the spot and not only did Bolton need to score one more, they were relying on City to mount a sensational comeback to keep them in the Premier League.

West Brom tried but failed to equalise meaning that Spurs had to settle for fourth place and Arsenal supporters could formally celebrate St. Totteringham’s Day for yet another season. Bolton couldn’t grab a late goal which meant their 11-year stay in the English top-flight came to an end, but the title race was far from over.

There were three minutes added on at the Stadium of Light and five at the Etihad. Within 75 seconds, City had equalised through Eden Dzeko and had less than four minutes to score the goal that would win them the league. When the final whistle blew at Sunderland, United were champions. 20 seconds later, total bedlam ensued. Sir Alex and a topless Phil Jones looked around confused and bewildered as Sunderland fans started celebrating but that was nothing compared to the explosion of noise in Manchester, as Balotelli produced his first and only ever Premier League assist to set up Aguero to score the winner with the clock at 93:20. Mike Dean blew his whistle a few minutes later and City, unsurprisingly before the final day but miraculously after it, were officially confirmed as the champions of England.

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Chelsea managed to produce a sensational turnaround of their own in the Champions League final a week later. Having been completely outplayed throughout the match and 1-0 down with two minutes remaining, Didier Drogba equalised and scored the decisive penalty in the shootout to beat Bayern on their own patch and secure Chelsea’s first European Cup. It was also on that night that the Premier League season came to a conclusion with Spurs missing out on Champions League football.

We had never seen a season like it in the Premier League and we have not yet seen one since. The final day of the 2011-12 campaign will be forever remembered for Aguero’s title-winning goal, but the drama over the course of that afternoon was a fitting finale for the greatest season of the Premier League era.

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