Too early to talk Man City title
There were a spate of tweets and online predictions late on Monday night suggesting that the final places in this season's Premier League had already been occupied after one game. The table, in case you have been pot-holing in northern Iceland and didn't know, reads: 1. Chelsea, 2. Manchester City, 3. Arsenal, 4. Liverpool. Done.
Well, not quite.
Last season, Arsenal, who finished in fourth place, occupied first place for nearly 50% of the days of the season. Manchester City, who were busy occupying a spot in the table as low as fourth place on Matchday 22, sat proudly on top of the league for just fractionally over four percent of the days available. That's not much for a side aspiring to be league champions.
Manchester City were champions and the Gunners, as stated a moment ago but repeated here for emphasis, finished fourth.
Manchester City have won the league twice in the last three years. In 2011-12, with only six games to play, a much heralded defeat at the Emirates left City eight points off then-leaders Manchester United. The Arsenal players and indeed the Arsenal fans, celebrated like it was Christmas. Presumably, a similar state of euphoria existed in Salford and all points south, where United's fans would have been preparing themselves for the big event too. Even on the official Manchester City website, the match report from the Arsenal defeat began with the laden words: "City's title race finally ended in disarray with Mario Balotelli sent off and City left trailing eight points behind with only six games to go..."
That particular title race went to the wire, as has been pretty well-documented around these pages, with City semi-miraculously pulling the whole thing round to give themselves a decent chance on the final day. Just beat relegation-threatened QPR on the final day, at home, in the sunshine, with the crowd and the wind behind you, and the gold and the pot with the big ears and all the acclaim of the football nation will be yours. As almost everybody on the planet knows, not even that went to plan. Entering injury time with two goals needed to be scored in order to do the business, the crowing had once again started up at the Emirates and at Old Trafford.
City got the two goals. Edin Dzeko's header from David Silva's corner and Sergio Aguero's sure-footed finish to Balotelli's prod sealing the club's first title since 1968, when the daring deed had also been done on the final day of the season with little to spare and the world waiting to acclaim Manchester United as winners.
It seems strange to relate the details of such a mind-numbing, euphoric afternoon in such cold, statistical fashion, but that is indeed how things came to pass. City scraped past Manchester United after their own season had finished, and Sir Alex Ferguson's players were wandering about the pitch at Sunderland waiting for confirmation of the biggest foul-up in football history.
In season 1982-83, a time City fans of a certain vintage like to occasionally think of when they get a little carried away with the present, Manchester City sat proudly in second place in the league going into the last days of November. A 2-0 win over Southampton, tidy and efficient in its accomplishment of the two points on offer, had City supporters dreaming of pleasant spring afternoons watching their side challenge for glory. Come May there might even be a championship to crow about.
By January manager John Bond had jumped ship after his side had been engulfed by four goals in an FA Cup tie at Brighton, to be replaced by a chap called John Benson, a quiet man with few words of wisdom for the press, and City embarked on a golden run of atrocious form (including humiliating four-goal blasts at Coventry and Southampton), which ended with a last day defeat at home to Luton Town, whose manager David Pleat then took off across the Maine Road turf in a dance of the merry widows, captured forever by the television cameras. The moment has gone down with such weight in City's colourful history that you probably only have to YouTube "David Pleat Shoes" to get the whole disastrous story. The defeat sent City to the second division and kept Pleat's Luton up. There were tears and unidentified stains on shirts. There would never again be a welcome for the man in the fawn slip-ons, beige suit and brown tie. Mucky colours for mucky times. Second in November, relegated in May.
Many of our childhoods are pocked with memories of seeing our heroes go top of the league after one, two or three games. As a child, I used to pour over these nascent league tables like they were the Ten Commandments. City ahead of Liverpool AND Nottingham Forest? Time for a Topdeck!
Thou shalt not deceive your followers into thinking this season will be a fruitful one.
What do we know? What little can we glean from one game? The Manchester Evening News -- in more sensible times -- used to print the opening weekend's fixtures and below them stood the league table from the previous May. There were no tables after one game. They just did not exist. They refused to print a long block of zeros and ones. There would be a midweek fixture and the new league tables would be there in the Sunday papers for all to see who was making an early spurt for glory and who was heading for the dusty basement. These days, if you score on day one and make the top four on opening night, you will create reams of excited tittle tattle that you are actually this year's bee's knees.
Maybe we should look at the other end of the table and rush to the same ridiculous premature conclusions. If so, are we to believe that West Ham, Burnley and Newcastle will go down? Perhaps. But I doubt it.
Therefore, tempting as it may be to look at that neatly aligned top four and say "that's all, folks", I fear there may be a little more to it than that.