It's 'squeaky bum time' and the nightmare scenario at Eastlands is that all their good work evaporates in a puff of panic - a fate that has befallen others before them
By Graham Lister
The ability of would-be champions Manchester City to withstand pressure will be put to the test when Sunderland visit the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.
Roberto Mancini’s side are trailing neighbours United by three points but can reclaim top spot on goal difference with victory over the Black Cats. There is no margin for error, though: with United having the chance to re-establish their lead 48 hours later at Blackburn, City know they simply have to beat Martin O’Neill’s side.
They also know many feel they are about to implode, that their mental strength will be found wanting in the rarefied atmosphere of psychological warfare against their battle-hardened rivals across town.
A foray into the minefield of mind-games by City executive Patrick Vieira was possibly ill-advised against so wily an adversary as Sir Alex Ferguson, whose response was merely to fling the “desperation” of recalling Carlos Tevez back into City’s faces. Having led the table so convincingly for so long, the prospect of finishing empty-handed will be gnawing away at City.
There is a whiff of anxiety emanating from Eastlands – hardly surprising in view of City’s worryingly underwhelming away form. But if they do miss out on the title, they will certainly not be the first team to blow what was once a substantial advantage. Goal.com recalls some of the others.
| LEEDS UNITED IN 1970-71
Arsenal’s visit to the Baseball Ground on 27 February 1971 ended in a 2-0 victory for Brian Clough’s Derby County and marked a third successive away defeat for the Gunners, a wobble that appeared to have derailed their title challenge, as it allowed Leeds United to open up a seven-point gap at the top.
Don Revie’s formidable side were effectively four wins better off when victory was worth only two points. Yet for all their power, Leeds had an unwanted reputation as bridesmaids – they’d finished empty-handed on three fronts the previous season – and over the next six weeks Arsenal relentlessly hunted them down. As the Gunners reeled off nine straight League victories, Leeds began to falter.
The pivotal Saturday was 17 April, Arsenal beating Newcastle at Highbury as Leeds lost 2-1 to West Brom in a match infamous for the Albion goal regarded in Yorkshire as “miles offside”. It sparked an Elland Road pitch invasion and fury from Revie, but to no avail.
Arsenal went top for the first time. And although Leeds beat the Gunners, also controversially, 10 days later, Bertie Mee’s side went into their final match – at arch-rivals Tottenham – needing a goalless draw to finish level on points with Leeds but top on goal average. A score-draw and Leeds would be champions.
Arsenal rendered the maths irrelevant by winning 1-0 to clinch the title by a point, leaving Leeds once more bereft.
| MANCHESTER CITY IN 1971-72
City will need no reminding that the following season saw the title race develop into a four-way affair between themselves, Leeds, Derby and Liverpool. By then Malcolm Allison, assistant to Joe Mercer when City had pipped neighbours United to the title four years earlier, was the manager at Maine Road.
And in March 1972 his side were an apparently commanding four points ahead of the chasing pack. At that moment Allison swooped to sign the mercurial Rodney Marsh from Queens Park Rangers for what was then City’s record fee of £200,000.
He was supposed to be the final piece in the jigsaw, yet victories suddenly became elusive. Crowd-pleaser Marsh was later honest enough to admit he’d cost the club the title, attributing City’s final position of fourth to his arrival and the disruptive effect it had on the balance of the team.
Nevertheless, it was a close-run thing. City and Derby completed their programmes with the Rams on 58 points and Allison’s men on 57. Two days after winning the FA Cup final, Leeds (on 57 points) had the opportunity to secure the double by drawing at Wolves. But if Leeds were to lose and Liverpool (56) could beat Arsenal at Highbury on the same Monday night, the Reds would be champions on goal average.
Wolves stunned Leeds by winning 2-1, Arsenal held Liverpool to a goalless draw and Derby, who were already on holiday in Majorca, won their first Championship – leaving Allison, Marsh and City’s fans to ponder where it had all gone wrong.
| MANCHESTER UNITED IN 1991-92
It seems almost inconceivable in view of what’s happened since, but 20 years ago Manchester United’s wait for their eighth championship stretched to a quarter of a century. Although Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United had battled all season with the Red Devils for leadership of the old First Division, by mid-April it seemed odds-on that the title was heading to Old Trafford.
Alex Ferguson’s side had only been beaten three times, and went into their home match with Nottingham Forest on Easter Monday two points ahead of Leeds with a game in hand. Yet Forest inflicted on them a shock home 2-1 home defeat, while Leeds were winning 2-0 at Coventry. Two days later United's game in hand was squandered as bottom club West Ham, already relegated, stunned them 1-0 at Upton Park.
It left United a point behind Leeds with two games left. And there was worse to come. Leeds, inspired by one Eric Cantona, won a Yorkshire derby 3-2 at Bramall Lane as United slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Anfield, home of arch-rivals Liverpool. Their misery was compounded by the Kop serenading them with a chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life”.
So while Leeds were duly crowned champions a week early, there was only bitter disappointment for Manchester United – although 12 months later, with Cantona now in red, their mood would be considerably lighter.
| NEWCASTLE UNITED IN 1995-96
The last few furlongs of the 1995-96 season have entered football folklore as the Premier League’s ultimate “Devon Loch” episode. The hapless heroes-to-zeroes were Kevin Keegan’s cavalier Newcastle. The Magpies had enchanted the Toon Army and neutrals alike with some exhilarating attacking football, and in January held a seemingly unassailable 12-point lead over the Red Devils.
Ominously though, United completed the double over their North-East rivals on 4 March to establish a psychological edge. Their opening day defeat at Aston Villa had prompted pundit Alan Hansen’s infamous observation that “You’ll never win anything with kids”; yet now they had lost just one of their last 16 matches.
Such relentless pressure was compounded by Newcastle’s sudden frailty. In a crucial six-match spell from 21 February, they collected four points from a possible 18; Ferguson’s side picked up 16 in the same period.
Keegan had been criticised by some for adding David Batty and Faustino Asprilla to a winning squad. But it seemed fate rather than new faces had conspired to steal the Magpies’ mojo. That was never more evident than at Anfield on 3 April. In a see-sawing match hailed as one of the greatest ever, Liverpool edged it 4-3 with an injury time winner.
Although three consecutive 1-0 wins kept Newcastle in the race, Alex Ferguson’s mind games – seen as masterful use of psychology by some, blatant gamesmanship by others – had clearly got to Keegan. He railed emotionally against the United boss on live TV in a notorious post-match interview, convincing many that the title was already lost.
It conclusively was six days later, as Manchester United took the crown by a margin of four points over the Magpies.
| MANCHESTER UNITED IN 1997-98
In December 1997, following a 3-1 home defeat by Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal were languishing in sixth place in the Premier League table, 13 points behind leaders Manchester United. The title was United’s to lose.
However, in his first full season as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger proceeded to mastermind a blistering sequence of 15 wins and three draws in 18 matches to establish an unassailable lead over the defending champions with two games remaining.
Fittingly, the pivotal moment came at Old Trafford on 14 March when the Gunners confounded those who’d confidently declared as early as Christmas that the title race was already over, with United de facto champions again. One rash Manchester bookie had even paid out on United retaining the title.
Arsenal’s 1-0 win through a late Marc Overmars goal still left them six points behind United with a considerably inferior goal difference. But they now had three games in hand, meaning their destiny was in their own hands; the momentum was very definitely with Wenger’s side.
That Old Trafford victory was their second in a run of 10 straight wins, and a month later they overtook United with a 5-0 thrashing of Wimbledon. Two weeks after that they clinched the title.
United were themselves unbeaten in seven after losing to the Gunners, but it just wasn’t enough.
| ARSENAL IN 2002-03
A criticism of Arsene Wenger’s teams is that they have failed to defend the Premier League title. Champions in 2001-02 and again in 2003-04, they might well have pulled off a hat-trick, having led the table by eight points on 2 March 2003 before eventually finishing second to Manchester United in the 2002-03 season.
After the opening six matches United were ninth, already six points behind leaders Arsenal. But they underlined the cliché that the title race is a marathon, not a sprint, pacing themselves perfectly. They hit the front for the first time on 12 April, then took a significant point at Highbury just before the Gunners experienced a decisively damaging blip.
Arsenal’s fluent football had made them almost unplayable at times, and they were installed as firm favourites to win the League they’d headed since November. Their 5-1 win at Manchester City in February prompted former United keeper Peter Schmeichel, now in goal for City, to commend the Gunners as being “on a different planet”.
But by then United were in the midst of an 18-match unbeaten run themselves in which they earned 48 points from 54, while Wenger’s side would soon lose at Blackburn and be held at Aston Villa before crucially blowing a two-goal lead at Bolton in a 2-2 draw – the day before United beat Spurs to open up a five-point lead.
That became eight when the Red Devils humbled Charlton 4-1 at home, 24 hours ahead of struggling Leeds United’s visit to Highbury.
Alex Ferguson was on the golf course as Peter Reid’s side secured their Premier League survival with an unlikely 3-2 victory over the Gunners, meaning the title went to Old Trafford for the eighth time in 11 years.