IT was the morning after the night before.
Chelsea had just beaten Benfica in the Europa League final in Amsterdam with a
last-minute goal from Branislav Ivanovic and their fans were still
celebrating in the bars and cafes along Nieuwendijk Centrum.
I made my way to Schipol Airport for the flight back home.
Typically, it had been delayed almost three hours. How to fill the time?
I shouldn’t have asked.
The phone went. It was the office. There was breaking news — David Beckham had
just announced his retirement.
What could possibly happen next?
Inside nine days Alex Ferguson had gone after 27 years at Manchester United,
rank outsiders Wigan had won the FA Cup only to lose at Arsenal three days
later and be relegated, Roberto Mancini had been sacked by Manchester City,
Chelsea had won their second European trophy inside 12 months… and now
Goldenballs was on his way.
You couldn’t make it up.
And there was still time for the final Sunday of the season.
A day on which Ferguson would bow out after 1,500 games at Old Trafford with
an astonishing 5-5 draw at West Bromwich while his successor David Moyes bid
farewell to Everton after 518 at Goodison — and another 234 with Preston.
They would be joined by a Who’s Who of some of the greatest players ever to
grace the Premier League.
Jamie Carragher saluted the Kop for the last time after 737 matches in the
shirt of his beloved Liverpool, while Paul Scholes, another one-club man,
waved goodbye to United after 720.
And there were more. Phil Neville played his 693rd and last game after
distinguished and understated service for Manchester United and Everton,
while Michael Owen’s youthfully glittering but eventually injury-plagued
career with Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United ended in
the jersey of Stoke at Southampton.
The previous night, Beckham had said an emotional au revoir in Paris with PSG.
And it still wasn’t over. Just two days later Tony Pulis became the TENTH Prem
manager to part company with his club when Stoke pulled the rug from under
It left Arsene Wenger, without a trophy in eight years but through to his 16th
consecutive season of Champions League football after Arsenal’s 1-0 win at
Newcastle, as the grand old man of English football at the age of 63 and
after 953 matches as Gunners’ boss.
Incredibly, Alan Pardew — under threat at Newcastle — was the second-longest
serving boss of a Premier League club, having been at St James’ Park for
just two years and 163 days.
Brendan Rodgers, in charge of Liverpool for under a year, was fifth. As I
said, you couldn’t make it up.
So how did it all come to this? At the start of one of the most momentous
seasons in Premier League history there was no suggestion, not even the
merest inkling, it would work out the way it did.
Manchester City were still bathing in the warm afterglow of their first title
in 44 years.
Chelsea were European champions, Fergie was hell-bent on reclaiming the title
after blowing an eight-point lead by signing Robin van Persie.
And QPR were spending millions to ensure there was no repeat of their last-day
survival a few months earlier. There were certainly no signs of the storm
clouds to encircle Stamford Bridge as Chelsea got off to a flier.
On October 20 they beat Tottenham 4-2 at White Hart Lane to stand top of the
table after taking 22 points out of 24.
Roberto Di Matteo, immensely popular with the fans, was at the height of his
powers and seemingly the new golden boy of management.
The only blot on the landscape had been a shock 4-1 thrashing by Atletico
Madrid in the European Super Cup in Monaco on August 31, an evening when
Falcao showed just how good he really was.
But after that win over Spurs, Chelsea and Di Matteo would go into a tailspin.
They would lose successive games to Shakhtar (a) and Manchester United (h),
draw with Swansea (a) and Liverpool (h) and then lose at Di Matteo’s former
club West Brom.
Chelsea had “slumped” to third and Di Matteo’s future had all but been
It most definitely was when they lost 3-0 to Juventus in Turin three days
later to more or less confirm they would become the first European champions
to fail to qualify from the group stage. And the identity of the new man to
take over the reins?
Rafa Benitez, to Chelsea fans the devil incarnate himself.
Elsewhere, Manchester City were also crashing out of the Champions League.
Drawn in the group of death with Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax they
would muster only three group points, the lowest tally by any English side
Already, the rift between chief Mancini and his players, that would eventually
turn into an unbridgeable chasm, was beginning to show with the City boss
publicly criticising goalkeeper Joe Hart.
City had also been humbled 4-2 at home by struggling Aston Villa in the League
United, despite losing their opening game at Everton 1-0, would then arrive at
the Etihad on December 9 top of the table with 13 wins and two defeats.
They would storm into a 2-0 lead before City came back to level at 2-2 after
Mancini had substituted the embarrassing Mario Balotelli, the rolling-on of
a saga that would finally end with Balotelli shipped out to AC Milan.
City were just congratulating themselves on the draw when Van Persie produced
a brilliant last-minute free-kick to steal all three points.
It was the sort of winning goal Ferguson had spent £22million for.
And it was a continuation of a rich vein of title-winning form from the
Dutchman who had announced himself with a hat-trick at Southampton on
September 2 — two goals coming in the last three minutes of normal time
after Saints had led 2-1.
Elsewhere, the great spending spree at Loftus Road had come to nothing with
QPR taking just four points from their opening 12 games.
It couldn’t go on and Mark Hughes was sacked on November 23 with Rangers still
searching for their first win.
Enter Harry Redknapp, confident he could turn things round. Millions more
would be spent all to no avail.
Arsenal were having another of those screwball seasons, beating Southampton
6-1, Spurs and Reading both 5-2, hitting seven past Newcastle and five
against West Ham.
But come the New Year they had lost the ones that mattered — losing four and
drawing one against the big three of United, City and Chelsea.
And what of Rafa?
Barracked everywhere he went by Chelsea fans, he put a brave face on it.
But the results were as inconsistent as those being achieved by Wenger at
Inside four days Chelsea beat Leeds 5-1 in the League Cup and then vaporised
Aston Villa 8-0 at the Bridge. They then won at both Norwich and Everton.
Astonishingly, they then lost 1-0 at home to Redknapp’s QPR.
But back they came again by hammering Southampton 5-1 in the FA Cup — only to
be beaten 2-0 at home by Swansea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup
Now the knives really were out for Benitez.
Swansea, under the impressive Michael Laudrup, would go on to reach the final
where, in one of the great romantic stories of the season, they would meet
giant- killers Bradford City.
The League Two side had captured the public imagination with victories over
Wigan and Aston Villa.
But it was the penalty shoot-out win over Arsenal at Valley Parade in the
quarter-final that provided one of the biggest nights of the season — and
the biggest shock.
Wembley was one step too far. And on February 23, Swansea exploited the gulf
in class to run out 5-0 winners to clinch their first major trophy.
The Bradford fans, though, would do their club proud.
United were now carrying everything before them and, by the time they met
Champions League opponents Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on February 13, had
strung together a league run of 14 wins and three draws. A 1-1 draw in Spain
left them slight favourites to edge the return in Manchester.
Arsenal, the only other English survivors, were not so lucky.
Drawing form team Bayern Munich, runaway leaders of the Bundesliga, they were
totally outplayed at The Emirates and fortunate to be on the end of only a
So all roads led to Old Trafford. A Sergio Ramos own goal just after half-time
seemed to have put United on their way to the quarter-finals.
Then enter referee Cuneyt Cakir. The Turkish official stunned Old Trafford and
all the neutrals by sending off Nani for an aerial challenge on Alvaro
Arbeloa in the 56th minute and the dynamic of the game changed immediately.
Jose Mourinho sent on the attacking Luka Modric to exploit the extra space in
And it was the former Spurs man who scored a superb equaliser within 10
Of course, it had to be Cristiano Ronaldo who provided what would be the
winner just three minutes later at the far post.
Ronaldo didn’t celebrate while Mourinho, in the uncharacteristic role of
diplomat, claimed that the best team had lost.
The other major talking-point of the night was Ferguson’s omission of Wayne
Rooney. That he should start United’s most important game of the season with
Rooney’s backside planted very firmly on the bench confirmed what many
people had started to suspect.
That the veteran manager was ready to wash his hands of a player who had once
been United’s talisman.
It was a story that would run and run until the end of the season and the
revelation Rooney had asked for a transfer.
It would be a statement of intent by the England player even though his heart
still remained firmly at Old Trafford.
And what of Arsenal? They went to the Allianz Arena trailing 3-1 and produced
the shock of the round.
Bayern, perhaps, should have been warned by Arsenal’s comeback against AC
Milan the previous season when they almost overcame a 4-0 deficit from the
San Siro with a 3-0 win at home.
Arsenal would beat a casual Bayern 2-0 to level the tie at 3-3 but still go
out on away goals.
Even more astonishingly it was only the Germans’ third defeat of the season
and their only reverse in a run of 39 games.
Back at the Etihad, things had come to a head with Balotelli after a
training-ground ruck with Mancini. Now even the City boss, and so-called
father figure to the madcap striker, had to admit defeat.
And on January 31 Balotelli’s chaotic career in England ended when he was
moved on to AC Milan.
It was another turning-point in Mancini’s own career with many wondering just
why he had gambled so heavily on his young fellow countryman.
A couple of weeks earlier, Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese had brought the
curtain down on manager Nigel Adkins. It was a surprise to many seeing
Adkins had taken Saints from League One to the Prem with successive
promotions — and they were still three points above the drop zone.
Then again, nothing is too much of a surprise with Cortese.
Brian McDermott, as popular at Reading as Adkins had been at Saints, would
also get the bullet at the start of March.
A few weeks later and it was the turn of Martin O’Neill at Sunderland after a
run of eight games without a win.
Incredibly, or so it seemed at the time, owner Ellis Short went for Paolo Di
A narrow 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in his first game was followed by a remarkable
3-0 win at hated rivals Newcastle.
It was Sunderland’s first victory on Tyneside in 13 years and, by the final
whistle, Wearside had a new hero as Di Canio’s name rang round St James’
Park. And now we headed for the run-in — stopping first at Anfield on April
21 for one of the most extraordinary events of the season.
Spurs had beaten Manchester City 3-1 earlier in the afternoon.
And few of us on Merseyside that day expected the Liverpool-Chelsea game to
knock Tottenham off the back page.
Halfway through the second half all that would change when Luis Suarez bit
Ivanovic’s arm. Once again, the Uruguayan was on the front page for all the
The FA would eventually hand out a 10-game ban and, with it, place Suarez’s
future at the club in considerable doubt.
Liverpool would question the length of the ban on grounds of victimisation,
pointing out Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe had virtually escaped scot-free for
taking a chunk out of Javier Mascherano in 2006.
On that occasion a booking was deemed sufficient. As far as the title was
concerned, nothing was going to stop United claiming their 20th and a 13th
for Ferguson and Ryan Giggs.
And they did it on April 22 when, with a month to spare, they beat Aston Villa
3-0 at Old Trafford.
Ferguson had bought Van Persie to win the title and the Dutchman did it in
style with a 33-minute hat-trick.
His second was one for the archive and the goal of the season. A beautiful
ball over the Villa defence from Rooney seemed to be landing perfectly for
Van Persie to take one touch before attempting a shot past Brad Guzan.
Instead, the United striker hit it first time with his left foot and the ball
was in the back of the net before the Villa keeper knew it had even left the
Dutchman’s boot. Van Persie would complete the season with 26 goals in 35
Meanwhile, Arsenal were finally clicking into gear.
And yet it had seemed all over for the Gunners on March 3 as Spurs, with
Gareth Bale on his way to 21 league goals and three Footballer of the Year
awards, beat them 2-1 at White Hart Lane.
At this stage, Spurs were seven points clear with 10 games to go.
Yet, in a remarkable run, Arsenal took 27 points from 30 to pip Spurs on the
last day of the season.
And what was happening to our old mate Rafa?
Well, interim manager or not, he was having the most stupendous end to the
Unluckily beaten by Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final — they didn’t
actually start playing until the second half — they then hit a purple patch
at the time that counted. The City game would be the last they would lose
all season as they embarked on a run of eight wins and two draws.
Basel were beaten home and away in the Europa League semi-final and United
edged out 1-0 at Old Trafford as Eden Hazard and Juan Mata confirmed all
their wonderful ability.
They would go all the way to Amsterdam and another European trophy — even if
it was against the run of play.
But the highlight for most Chelsea fans will have come at Villa Park on May 11
when Frank Lampard scored twice to take his career tally to 203 and so pass
Bobby Tambling’s club record.
That a season that for so long appeared to be his last at the club should end
in such triumph — and with another year’s contract — says everything about
Lampard’s character, self-belief, motivation and good sense in not throwing
any toys out of any pram at any time.
Later on the same day, Wigan would win the FA Cup when a late header from Ben
Watson gave them a thrilling and deserved victory over favourites Manchester
Roberto Martinez’s side played all the football on an afternoon that was a
tribute to the Wigan manager and his side.
And a fitting reward for the time, energy and cash poured into the club by
chairman Dave Whelan.
It was an afternoon that will be remembered by everyone connected with the
club for many more years than the trauma of relegation that would follow
just three days later.
So what a season. It may not have been the best in the history of the Premier
League, in fact it was one of the poorest.
But the events of 2012-2013 mark it down as a season like no other.
Especially one event in particular. The bombshell landed on Wednesday May 8
when Manchester United confirmed Alex Ferguson would finally be leaving.
Just four days later, we all assembled at Old Trafford for his last home game.
It didn’t seem possible. After more than a quarter of a century, it was soon
going to be over, seemingly in a blink of the eye.
He got his guard of honour, the tributes were paid, the 20th trophy presented
before a lap of the pitch with his 11 grandchildren.
And he kept it together throughout. There was sentiment but no sentimentality.
There was praise but nothing too gushing.
Just as Sir Alex would have wanted. Only once did he waver — and that was a
week later after his final game at West Brom.
As he and his players grouped to face and applaud the travelling United fans,
Giggs ushered him forward to take his final bow.
Only then did you see a momentary tear in his eye. Only then did the enormity
of it all strike home.
But it passed soon enough. Human frailty was for others not the old curmudgeon
with the hairdryer.
And so it WAS all over and we were left to ask: Where do we go from here?
Well, there’s a new manager at United. And a new manager at City.
And old wotsisface coming in at Chelsea. And, maybe, Wenger’s last season at
And a World Cup season getting ready to unfold.
Just about enough there to be getting on with.
Article source: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/football/4942342/2012-13-The-season-you-couldnt-make-up.html