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2002/03 - Season Review

Did Arsenal throw away the championship or was it the brilliance of Manchester United which won the Premiership crown? In truth, it was probably a bit of both.

It cannot be denied that Arsenal's jitters at the end of what seemed certain to be a glittering campaign helped play into the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson's men.

Arsenal began the season with what appeared to be rather grandiose claims of going the whole term unbeaten. Supporters scoffed at such outlandish statements and they were proved right when the Gunners lost 2-1 at Everton in October.

Not only did the match leave Arsene Wenger with a severe dose of egg on his face, but it also introduced Wayne Rooney to the Premiership as he produced a wonder goal at the death to win the match.

The 16-year-old's dipping shot went in off the underside of the bar and made him the youngest ever scorer in the division - a record that would be snatched by Leeds United's James Milner just a couple of months later.

He would also become the youngest player to win a cap for England coming on for the second half of the defeat to Australia at Upton Park. Coach Sven Goran Eriksson then showed great faith in the youngster's ability by handing him his first start in the crucial Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey at the Stadium of Light - and he was an inspiration in the 2-0 win.

Bar a brief spell at the top of the Premiership for arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal led the table throughout the season until they were caught by the Red Devils.

United finally began to string results together around the time of an amazing run-in between David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson, with the United boss kicking a stray boot into the face of the England star following an FA Cup tie against Arsenal. It was the beginning of the end for the relationship between Beckham, Ferguson and United.

By mid-March United had finally hit the top of the table, and Arsenal's inability to move up a gear was all too clear. No match better illustrated their lack of confidence than the 2-2 draw at Bolton Wanderers in late April, when they surrendered a two-goal lead in the last 16 minutes.

United's march to the title was helped by Ruud van Nistelrooy equalling his own record for scoring in consecutive Premiership games by scoring in each of the last eight games.

The title race was over on May 4 when the Gunners lost 3-2 at home to Leeds, thus handing the crown back to United.

At the other end of the table, Bolton and West Ham United embarked on one of the most remarkable battles for survival the Premiership has seen. After struggling to find any sort of form in the first half of the season, from March onwards both produced the kind of form which would have earned a place in Europe across an entire season.

West Ham had to play out the final weeks under the popular stewardship of playing hero Trevor Brooking after manager Glenn Roeder was rushed to hospital with what turned out to be a brain tumour. Brooking only just failed to pull off the escape act.

It was Bolton who ensured an extended stay in the top flight with victory over Middlesbrough on the final day. West Ham were relegated with an unheard of tally of 42 points, the highest in a 20-team Premiership.

It signalled the break-up of a Hammers side blessed with the likes of Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Paolo Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair and Frederic Kanoute - a group of players which should never have been near the foot of the table.

While Bolton and West Ham put up a stirring fight to the bitter end, Sunderland went out with a whimper. Going into their fourth consecutive season in the top flight, the board bowed to the wishes of Reid and granted him a transfer war chest.

United celebrate after winning the championship
United celebrate after winning the championship

The Black Cats had finished one place above the drop zone in 2001/02, scoring just 28 goals - no team scored fewer. Reid clearly decided that he had to bolster the forward line, but perhaps forking out £8million on Rangers striker Tore Andre Flo was ill-advised.

The Norwegian international scored on his debut in a fiery encounter against Manchester United - during which Roy Keane was dismissed for a vicious elbow on Jason McAteer - but Flo would score only three more Premiership goals and not one in 2003.

Keane, meanwhile, was eventually handed a £150,000 fine and a five-match ban for his assault on the Ireland international, which came about following comments made by McAteer about the United skipper's book.

As well as the big money spent on Flo, Reid also paid £3million for Liverpool defender Stephen Wright and £3.5million on Matt Piper from Leicester City, Marcus Stewart of Ipswich cost £3.25million. In total, Sunderland had handed their manager almost £18million - a manager they would sack in little more than a month.

Within days of Reid's removal, Sunderland brought in the 'dream team' of Howard Wilkinson, who quit his post as the FA's technical director, with former Stoke City boss Steve Cotterill as his right-hand man. With the pair at the helm, Sunderland won only four games out of 27 in all competitions.

The deadly duo's brief tenure on Wearside came to an end on March 10 after five disastrous months. In stepped Mick McCarthy as their third manager of the campaign - and he didn't find things any easier.

They lost 15 consecutive matches from mid-January until the end of the campaign. Only victory at Preston three games into the following season prevented them from equalling the all-time record for consecutive losses.

Unsurprisingly, Sunderland are officially the worst team ever to 'grace' the Premiership. In 2002/03 they earned only 19 points and scored just 21 goals, a record which will take some beating. They were joined in the Football League by West Bromwich Albion, relegated after just one season with the elite.

It was also the season which marked the beginning of Leeds' spiral into obscurity as their financial troubles began to hit home. David O'Leary 'paid the price' for finishing fifth in the Premiership by being handed the sack, a move which later proved to be largely based on the club's desperate need for Champions League football to keep their heads above water.

Leeds saw Terry Venables as the man to rekindle the brief glory days which had seen them reach the semi-finals of Europe's premier club tournament. But despite a promising start to the season they soon began to slide down the table and by the end of November the former England boss found his new club hovering just three points outside the relegation zone.

January saw Leeds record their worst run of results in almost 50 years. The firesale continued as Jonathan Woodgate, in moving to Newcastle, became the latest 'crown jewel' to be sold despite the promises of chairman Peter Ridsdale.

The gruesome twosome: Steve Cotterill and Howard Wilkinson entertain a packed Sunderland crowd
The gruesome twosome: Steve Cotterill and Howard Wilkinson entertain a packed Sunderland crowd

Two months later Ridsdale did what the fans had been calling for and resigned, and Venables was not far behind, complaining of broken promises and moving goalposts. Relegation remained a real possibility, but new manager Peter Reid managed to produce the results to pull Leeds clear.

Blackburn Rovers and Southampton surprised many by finishing in the top half of the table, but it was Everton boss David Moyes who won the Manager of the Year award for guiding the Toffees to seventh place after years of struggle.

Everton's embarrassing loss to struggling Third Division outfit Shrewsbury Town in the Third Round of the FA Cup had been quickly forgotten.

Elsewhere, Liverpool's downward spiral under Gerard Houllier was in full swing as they could only finish fifth, missing out on the Champions League in a last-day battle at Chelsea and also enduring their worst run without a win since 1955. They went 11 games without a victory.

However, they did earn success in the League Cup with a 2-0 victory over Manchester United.

Arsenal's compensation for running out of steam in the title race was FA Cup glory against Southampton, with Robert Pires scoring the only goal of the game. Thierry Henry lifted both the PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Year Awards, with Newcastle's Jermaine Jenas winning the PFA's Young Player gong.

Peter Enckleman went down in Premiership folklore for his gaffe when trying to deal with a throw-in from team-mate Olof Mellberg in the Midlands derby against Birmingham City. The Finnish goalkeeper was credited with one of the most bizarre own-goals ever.

In Europe, AC Milan won the Champions League with a penalty shoot-out victory over Juventus at Old Trafford - while Jose Mourinho introduced himself to a wider audience as FC Porto overcame Celtic 3-2 in the UEFA Cup final to break Bhoys' hearts after a thrilling ride to the final from Martin O'Neill's side.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.