Monday, May 14, 2012


There were people on the pitch and it was all over. The 44 years, over. The punchlines, over. The mockery, over. Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, that horrid little ticker at Old Trafford, those long Monday mornings at work having to pretend you didn't really care. Over, over, over.

Gone, all gone. Gone in a moment of unparalleled drama and ecstasy. Gone when all seemed lost. Gone on a day when, for 45 minutes that must have felt like hot-needle torture, it looked as if the capacity for chaos that has almost become a club trademark through five decades had returned to torment them once more.
The mission was quite simple. Manchester City needed to defeat Queens Park Rangers, the team with the worst away record in the Premier League, to win the title, barring a mathematical miracle in the match between Manchester United and Sunderland.

Yet as this game entered injury time, the trophy was hovering over Wearside in preparation for delivery to Sir Alex Ferguson once again.

United were winning, thanks to a 20th-minute goal from Wayne Rooney, and City were somehow contriving to trail 10-man QPR 2-1. There were tears, as there always are on this day of the season. 

No matter how much they steeled themselves for disappointment, City's long-suffering faithful would not be human if they did not also allow a dream. And here it was, in ruin before their eyes. Worse, the title was going to that lot again. Has there ever been a crueller twist of the knife? 

The details from that point will be well known by now. 

The equaliser from substitute Edin Dzeko, the winning goal from Sergio Aguero with 110 seconds of the domestic season remaining, the sheer force of will that took him past two Rangers defenders to score. What can never be captured on the black and white pages of the record books is the effect this day will have on all those who were present, its ramifications for the English game, the simple joy it brought, the shock of the new.

For, putting allegiances to one side, is that not what we want from sport? A new experience, a new kind of kick: and here it was. Manchester City are league champions. That is something we believed would never happen in our lifetime. The fans who surged on to the pitch could scarcely comprehend it, either

Some are calling this the greatest Premier League season and it is increasingly reasonable to concur. Certainly, it is the greatest climax, considering that Arsenal's famous win over Liverpool at Anfield occurred in the days of the old Football League. 

The most remarkable aspect was that at the end of the day the league, at top and bottom, looked exactly as it did at the start - yet it still felt as if the ground was shaking with the aftershocks of an earthquake.

So much of this season's narrative seemed to converge in the Etihad Stadium. City's journey to the summit, the transfer of power in Manchester and, we can only hope, the conclusion of Joey Barton's career as media sage.

His dismissal - inadvertently adding the extra time in which Manchester City won the league - is surely worthy of more than the standard four-match ban for another red card. 

He assaulted Carlos Tevez off the ball, was sent off and then assaulted Sergio Aguero before leaving the field. It was a despicable display, that could have cost his team their place in the Premier League had they not fought valiantly with 10 men. By Sunday evening, Barton had taken to his preferred medium, Twitter, to justify his actions, but it was of scant interest.

He can tell it to the judge, his followers, his autobiographer, BBC Newsnight (where he was asked to discuss the appointment of Roy Hodgson as England manager), The Times (where he has written for the op-ed pages), The Guardian (where he attended the editor's conference), tell it to the marines for all anyone cares - this was not the behaviour of a club captain or a Premier League footballer, two titles Rangers manager Mark Hughes may wish to challenge as the dust settles this summer.

Elsewhere, issues were settled according to expectations, even if there were twists and turns. Arsenal won at West Bromwich Albion to claim third place, but Tottenham Hotspur also won to cement fourth, although they will be bumped from the Champions League if Chelsea defeat Bayern Munich on Saturday. 

Newcastle United came fifth and Everton finished ahead of Liverpool. At the bottom, a draw at Stoke City meant Bolton Wanderers became the final club to fall, despite QPR's capitulation. 

This led to strange scenes in Manchester, winners and losers celebrating side by side, City's fans toasting the title, those of Rangers just as happy to have survived.
They all danced together to One Step Beyond; in their own way they have each gone beyond this season. Few more so than the match-winner, Aguero.

He announced his arrival as a substitute in the first game of the season against Swansea City, stealing the headlines such was his impact on a match already won.
Sunday was the full stop, more of an exclamation mark, really - a grand flourish, a final flick of the pen. And that's all he wrote. At times he has looked on his last legs as City stumbled from a frontrunner's position, yet he found a reserve of energy when it mattered most.

The finest compliment that can be paid is that this was a victory, a triumph, of which Ferguson would be proud.

This was United-esque, a phrase that may make blue lips curl with contempt, but not for long, we hope. There is no negative intended. Few rivals have the talent or pure determination to ape United's most sensational moments under Ferguson.

Winning the title in this manner will set City's players up for the tests ahead: retaining the trophy and next season's assault on the Champions League.

The future begins tomorrow morning, once heads clear - if it didn't already begin over glasses of celebratory champagne last night. Very few titles are won on goal difference, however, so credit United, too.

That they ran City to the final two minutes of the season is testament to the resilience Ferguson instils in his players, certainly having lost home and away to his title rivals. 

Yet the table does not lie and while it shows the Manchester clubs tied on points, it also confirms that City have scored more goals and let in fewer than their rivals.

The loss of Nemanja Vidic was huge for United, obviously, but the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, too.

It had to catch up with them sooner or later and while it seems like ancient history on an afternoon such as this, ultimately it is hard to imagine United surrendering a title on goal difference to anybody while Ronaldo was on their roster.

Rooney has been magnificent this season, Antonio Valencia - Ronaldo's direct replacement - has been very good, too. Yet how many league goals has Valencia scored? Four. How many in total? Six. How many did Ronaldo score this season with Real Madrid and Portugal? Sixty-two. In his final season with United? Twenty-five. The year before that? Forty-six. It is impossible to lose a match-defining force of that magnitude and remain immune year after year.

Ronaldo has now been gone three years; United have lost two of those titles, and to different clubs. What happens next is Ferguson's worst nightmare. Whatever the resources of the noisy neighbours, United have always been able to tout their reputation as winners. They pay the money, we win the pots. Not any more. City now offer the best deal and, arguably, the best chance of success, too.

It gets harder for United from here, and the time Ferguson spent with his staff as his players waited forlornly on the coach at the Stadium of Light seemed to reinforce this. A year ago, he was promising to regroup and have a tilt at Barcelona after being humbled in the Champions League final; now his problems are much closer to home.

Before addressing foreign policy, Ferguson needs to deal with domestic issues; it is 

United, not City, who will have to overcome the shattered emotions of this tumultuous day. 'Not in my lifetime,' Ferguson once promised when asked if City could ever enter a derby game as favourites. City fans held banners aloft reminding him of this fact. It is their turn to mock now; their clock that ticks contemptuously.

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