Football

‘Mad things happen’: A Premier League final day where one kick could change everything

After 37 rounds of fixtures, the title and relegation battles could yet be decided by the finest of margins on an afternoon like few others in football, writes Miguel Delaney

<p>Manchester City and Liverpool are fighting for the title on the final day while either Burnley or Leeds will be relegated</p>

Manchester City and Liverpool are fighting for the title on the final day while either Burnley or Leeds will be relegated

In order to try and ensure everything is at its optimum for Sunday, Pep Guardiola decided to have his players… do nothing. The Manchester City manager started the final week of the season by giving his squad two days off. Guardiola had sensed some frazzled minds after the 2-2 draw at West Ham United, so felt a psychological refresh was required.

His club arguably know better than anyone else the funny things that can happen on a final day, especially if the players are not as focused as they should be. It is not just that the modern City are now going through a fourth title race that goes the distance, or even a few chases for the Champions League. The club also know the other side of this. They’ve been involved in the most famous day at the top, as well as one of the most infamous at the bottom.

The image of Sergio Aguero running through on goal in 2011-12 was imbued with all the more emotion from memories of Niall Quinn running up the line to tell Steve Lomas that City couldn’t actually afford to waste time in 1995-96 and needed another goal to survive.

This season’s final day is at the very least set up for similar. It may even surpass all previous final days in terms of dramatic carnage.

The 2021-22 campaign is already the first in history to see all the major issues go the distance. City and Liverpool are going for the title. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are aiming for the last Champions League place. Manchester United and West Ham United are playing for the last Europa League place. Burnley and Leeds United are hoping for that final survival place. Such a combination has never been seen before.

Eight clubs still have something to play for, meaning eight of the 10 games have something at stake. Only the epic 1995-96 finale surpasses that, since there were nine fixtures of genuine consequence.

The usual quibble with such statements is to point out there was football history before 1992, but this is one time when it is genuinely only possible to really talk about the Premier League era. Derby County famously won the 1972 title on the beach, and Liverpool-Arsenal 1989 was a standalone fixture, because the idea of a full, synchronised complement of games was something only fixed upon in 1993-94.

It makes “the final day” a uniquely Premier League event in English football history, that has offered core elements and images of the competition’s lore.

There were the fans listening to transistor radios in the 1990s, to those anxiously hoping live score apps update in the 2010s. There were the City supporters throwing flags in frustration in 2012, and young Middlesbrough supporters crying in the stands as Juninho slumped on the pitch in 1997. There was the pitch invasion as Everton stayed up against Wimbledon in 1994, and Andy Cole redeeming himself for Manchester United after hitting it at West Ham’s Ludek Miklosko in 1995 by lifting it over Spurs goalkeeper Ian Walker in 1999.

Such excesses of emotion are intertwined with the extremes on the pitch, one forcing the other in an escalating cycle of sensation, in a way that can only happen on the final day. It is an afternoon, to repeat a phrase many involved have used, when “mad things happen”.

Everton’s victory on Thursday means either Burnley or Leeds will be relegated

That is because what happens is that the day brings the exacting nature of knockout football to the stretch of a league campaign, but with that multiplied many times over because the squeeze is on.

Even a cup final is after all a standalone fixture, all about the prize at stake. Teams don’t tend to go wild, or pour forward, because there is still more to lose; there’s a position to hold.

That isn’t the case on the final day of a league because little more can be done. They are about so much more than just that afternoon. They are nine months and 38 games potentially reduced to one moment or even one kick, with even those influenced by similar events elsewhere.

The very precariousness of it all shreds any sense of predictability, as players start to do things they would never do. The heightened tension creates an air of chaos, amplified by all the noise outside.

You only have to think of the Kop celebrating supposed West Ham United goals against Manchester United on the last day of 1994-95, and how that affected an ultimately victorious Blackburn Rovers, or the “stifled” West Brom crowd that Bryan Robson sensed 10 years later when it became apparent Crystal Palace had scored in the other crucial relegation game. The ultimate example remains Joey Barton’s red card for Queens Park Rangers on that fateful day at City in 2012.

“All hell broke loose,” Barton told Jamie Carragher for his Greatest Games book, echoing the sentiment about “mad things happening”. “Their heads had gone at that point. If I had not been sent off, no way would they have won.”

It is why basic psychology can have such a disproportionate effect on the day, even within elite sport.

For some players, the knowledge that you just have to win your last home game can have a beneficially clarifying effect. For others, that may as well be the most daunting prospect possible.

It is why Guardiola’s decision to let his players rest may yet prove important.

There is an argument that Liverpool are better set for the day in terms of mentality, if not points or position.

That is because they have accepted the reality of the situation, and are content with it. Jurgen Klopp’s side have already won two trophies, and can yet claim the biggest of all with the Champions League. They are prepared to just go out and play.

The Premier League would obviously be so much more than a “bonus”, but the key is their conviction that the season will be a success regardless.

That is not the case for City, or Guardiola. Sunday is now their entire season. They need to win the league in order to save the campaign.

These are precisely the kind of conditions that can lead players and coaches to make decisions they normally wouldn’t, something that is all the more pressing for Guardiola.

We know he is so conscious of the debate around his Champions League record, with the elimination to Real Madrid now influencing Sunday. The Catalan will be just as aware that winning four titles in the last five years looks a lot better than what that record could instead be spun as: that will be a mere three titles in a total of six years at City, and a return that looks a lot less convincing.

A figure as intense as the Catalan will have now spent a week ruminating on all this. The wonder is what that will produce.

Klopp’s Liverpool can still pip Guardiola’s City on the final day

Some of the week’s other circumstances are similarly suited to fostering a final day of fractious drama. There is first of all the fact it is Steven Gerrard on the Aston Villa bench. He can finally win Liverpool a league title, if in a way no one ever anticipated. It was at least conspicuous Gerrard did not start either Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings for Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Burnley. It was just as notable that City themselves made such noise about the news that Kyle Walker and John Stones had returned to training. Their availability would make City’s defence much less porous than it was against West Ham, and also prevent Guardiola making one of his less predictable tactical decisions.

That’s all the more acute given what the Catalan has been stressing to his players in order to focus them. If City just play as they can, and all goes normally, they are champions.

There is still an unmistakable edge around the club, though. It isn’t 2012, when Vincent Kompany spoke of a day when “everything was nervous” and “nothing was normal”, but it does have a tension all of its own. Guardiola just needs to repeat something else.

That is the fact that on the eight previous occasions when the Premier League has still been in the balance, no side has ever been top going into the final day and failed to win the title. City themselves have been in the situation three times and won, with two of those coming against Liverpool, in 2014 and 2019.

Klopp will doubtless be telling his players that this third occasion can be charmed, as they get ready for the visit of Wolves. A mantra of his time has after all been that they can do the impossible, do what has never been done before.

Such turnovers have at least happened once before in the chase for the Champions League places. That, pointedly, came between Spurs and Arsenal in 2006. Unlike their notorious defeat to West Ham that season, though, it feels like it would take a lot more than a virus to prevent Tottenham getting the draw they require away to Norwich City. Antonio Conte is surely capable of driving any XI to a result there.

It is why, a little like West Ham’s own race for the Europa League with United, that chase feels much less charged.

The gloriously enticing complication of this day, however, is that one kick can change everything. Mikel Arteta will be telling his players exactly that in order to keep them focused against a newly safe Everton. If Norwich get an early penalty or a bounce goes their way, it is no longer about Conte’s side trying to get a point against one of the worst teams in the league. It is as much Spurs playing themselves.

That is ultimately the same with every team involved, from City to Leeds, and why this so becomes about psychology.

Gary Neville has mentioned how even the most relentless winners of all were affected by this, as his Manchester United went for the treble in 1999.

“When Les Ferdinand scored to put Spurs 1–0 up, Old Trafford filled with nerves, and that transmitted to us,” the pundit said in his autobiography. “We were anxious and in need of inspiration.”

It took a player as focused as David Beckham to offer it before Cole scored the goal that eluded him in 1995.

Neville rightly marvelled about a curled finish from Beckham that was “a top-class piece of skill produced under massive pressure when doubts were creeping in”.

That’s what makes the difference on such days. That’s what brings the Aguero moments, that clarity of quality and purpose when everything else is engulfed by chaos. It is the mindset to rise above it.

United of course had an abundance of such characters. The relegation battle does not. It is why, in stark contrast to the upper levels of the table, there have been a series of final-day upheavals in the relegation zone.

Seven Premier League clubs have started their last game in the bottom three and got out of there by the end, although the last was Wigan Athletic in 2011.

Burnley are ahead of Leeds on goal difference after Ashley Barnes’s penalty secured them a point against Aston Villa on Thursday

Leeds United can at least hope to become the eighth, partly because you can’t really bank on anything down there. There isn’t the quality. Wins have such a disproportionate impact because they are so rare.

Consider the emotions of some of the players involved in the most remarkable escapes.

Gareth Farrelly was responsible for the single kick against Coventry that kept Everton up in 1997-98 but can mostly remember the range of thoughts and emotions running through his mind. “Fear, pressure, realisation of importance, excitement, energy,” he tells The Independent, before finally: “Release, relief.”

This is what Leeds will have to reckon with at Brentford, and Burnley at home to Newcastle United, respectively. The awkwardness of the fixtures, against two upwardly mobile teams, could further upend things.

Burnley’s home advantage could also be offset by the knowledge that relegation would have far greater consequences for them than it would for Leeds.

This is what comes to bear on the final day. Everything is made more acute, accentuating the intensity of every moment, every play, every interaction, meaning it can all build up to single moments.

Anything can happen, ensuring there’s really nothing like it.

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