Two crosstown rivals, one Premier League title. On the fifth anniversary of a spectacular season finale thatBROUGHT TEARS AND JOY TO MANCHESTER,players and pundits recall the roiling ups and downs
THE GREATEST DAY in English Premier League history is now five years old. On May 13, 2012, rivals Manchester City and Manchester United entered the final day of the season tied for the league lead, with City holding a commanding eight-goal advantage on the tie-breaking goal differential. It was a day that no Manchester soccer fan will ever forget—and a day that almost nobody would have imagined a month earlier, in the stretch run, when City lost to Arsenal and fell eight points behind United with just six games left to play.
City defender, captain
It started with that defeat at Arsenal, which to us meant the end of our title hopes. At that moment it was over. But we decided we had nothing to lose anymore. It kind of took a weight off our shoulders, and we started scoring goals and annihilating teams. United made a few mistakes, and we got back in the race.
The perception with United and [manager] Sir Alex Ferguson and their track record was: They'd never make a mistake in a situation like this. City were the team trying to win the league for the first time in 44 years. Then United surprisingly lost to Wigan, and the lead got cut to five points. They were 4--2 up on Everton and conceded in the 83rd and 85th minutes to draw. United and City still had to meet. I covered that game. Kompany got the winner [1--0], and that's when it tilted back in City's favor. Going into that final day, it was in their hands.
After so many years, our fans had been waiting for that moment. That game against United was so important.
pregame host at City's Etihad Stadium
My dad was a lifelong City season-ticket holder. I've had a season ticket since I was six. Even though I work for the club and could sit wherever I want, I sit with my mates, and I go to as many away matches as possible. I'm pretty hard-core. But, historically, we're the club that never won anything. Even in good positions, we failed. The penultimate game in 2012 was away to Newcastle [a 2--0 City win], and we were great on that day. That was the first time we actually sang, We're going to win the league!
But one match day still remained, with all 10 games kicking off at the same time to negate any potential advantage from knowing results. Barring any outlandish scorelines, all City needed to win its first English league title since 1968—and vanquish crosstown rival United, which was away at Sunderland—was to win at home over Queens Park Rangers, who were in danger of being relegated. But even though the club's new owners from Abu Dhabi had spent hundreds of millions of pounds upgrading the roster since 2008, City had yet to shake its reputation for choking.
Sky Sports broadcaster
There was a phrase among fans of any vintage: typical City. As in, Oh, yeah, that's typical City. We've built up our hopes and they've been dashed.
Daily Telegraph writer, now with The Times of London
You'd talk to City fans, and they always had this line: If there was a Cup of Cock-ups, City would win it every year.
I covered Manchester City back in the '90s when United were becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world. And City were working out ever-different ways to mess it up. They were quite lovable but erratic, endlessly put in the shade by this massive giant in the same city. If they had blown it that day in 2012, it would have been seen as, Even with all the new money, even with the superstar players—oh, my God, they still have City-itis.
If you win, you get the league trophy presented to you on a small stage. So the day before the final game we had a rehearsal on the pitch. My fear was that, City being City, we would see it the day before, but not on the day of the game. I've been a fan for over 30 years, and we always seemed to just get on the edge of doing something—and then someone pulls the floor away from us.
[As journalists] we're supposedly neutrals, but I wanted City to win it as a change of narrative. It would also be a triumph of the working classes, if you want to put it in socioeconomic terms. There's a lot of poverty in areas around where City play [in East Manchester]. It was transformed in terms of this amazing gleaming new stadium [in 2002], but it was like putting a lick of paint on an old house. You still needed that Premier League silverware.
City equipment manager
We had these shirts that said CHAMPIONS '12 on the back. But I'd hidden them away just in case it didn't happen.
Before the Newcastle game, Yaya [Touré] had said to me, "Vinny, you guys defend and you keep the ball out of the net. You did really well, so thank you for this. But today it's me." Usually when someone says that, you think, Yeah, right. Then all of a sudden he turns up and scores two goals in that game. Funny enough, Kun [Agüero, City's top striker] said the same thing before the QPR game. He said, "Vinny, today is my day. You'll see."
Once the 10 simultaneous finales kicked off around England and Wales, the first halves met expectations. Wayne Rooney scored in the 20th minute at Sunderland, and United went into cruise control from there. Back in Manchester, Zabaleta scored late in the first half to put City up 1--0, but things got crazy in the second half. Djibril Cissé scored in the 48th minute to tie the game. Seven minutes later QPR's Joey Barton was sent off for elbowing Carlos Tévez. Then—typical City—10-man QPR went ahead 2--1 in the 66th minute on Jamie Mackie's goal against the run of play. With United on its way to a 1--0 victory, City needed to find two goals.
I look back and think, Oh, my God, they were playing QPR, who had the worst away record in the league. The Barton [sending off], on any other day, would have been a pretty massive story itself, because he didn't just get sent off—he looked like he was going to start a riot. If you've read his book, he claims he was far from being frenzied, that he was actually rational and thinking, Ah, well, if I'm going to get sent off, I'll try and take a few of them with me.
When [Mackie] scored—usually you don't recover from this. I remember thinking, Don't be one of those guys who falls to his knees and starts crying. I wasn't going to be that guy. If we'd lost the league, my whole world would have crumbled, but I wasn't going to show it. I was going to show the fighting spirit that next year might be our year.
SERGIO (KUN) AGÜERO
That was the whole season. There had been times when we played well—and there were other times when it looked like the title race might be over. We had worked so hard to get to where we were, and with only a few minutes to go, it looked like our first chance to win the league had gone.
That's the sort of thing that leaves a mark on your psyche forever. You'd be haunted by that.
The ground goes silent. It all felt again like typical City. Typical comedy club City. We're not going to win the league. And we're going to lose it in the most humiliating circumstances to our biggest rival.
The City press box is right in the middle of their fans. The front row feels like you're sitting in the terraces; you're incredibly alert and aware of the tension. There was a woman who looked to be about eight months pregnant right in front of the press box, and she was clutching her stomach, going, "I can't bear this anymore." She wasn't talking about the pregnancy. As a journalist you're sort of loving the story, but at the same time you can't help but think, These poor people.
I saw a father leave with his son at 2--1 because the son simply couldn't handle it. There was a look on the father's face, like, All the things you pass on to your kids, good principles, maybe a few quid and the furniture, but also you pass along your allegiance to a team. And there was a look on this kid's face like, My friends at school are supporting United, and Dad's given me City. This is the worst moment of my life. Dad looked shell-shocked. What have I done? Social services is going to be called for the torture I've put him through. I probably should have been concentrating on the game, but I thought, What is that going to do to their relationship for the rest of their lives? There will always be that moment that will pop up in college, in wedding speeches: Oh, thanks, Dad. You gave me the worst moment of my life.
City forward, now with Roma
When we conceded to go down 1--2, [City manager Roberto] Mancini put me straight away on the pitch. We had a few chances, but we couldn't score. Close to the end of 90 minutes, the whole stadium was quiet. It looked like the mind of everyone was somewhere else. I was less and less confident we would win ... but some part of me was still believing.
United, meanwhile, was closing out its 1--0 win knowing that unless City scored twice in stoppage time, the Red Devils would capture a record 20th league title.
Times of London writer, now at The New York Times
I remember seeing the podium [at Sunderland]. They started assembling it in about the 75th minute in the tunnel area. I'd gone into the day expecting City to win, expecting to write a close-but-no-cigar piece on United, and then you saw the podium being built. There were police on both sides of it; they were getting everything ready to present United with the trophy. [Duplicate trophies were on hand in Manchester and at Sunderland's Stadium of Light.]
Also, by that time QPR were being told they were safe from relegation, because the result had come in from Stoke [where Hull City, needing a win to pass QPR, had instead drawn 2--2]. Now, I don't think that had anything to do with what happened next, but that was the chronology of the day.
We got a corner in the 91st minute. [Nedum] Onuoha was marking me on corners, and every time he was so close to me that I couldn't get rid of him. But somehow I managed to separate on that play, and I jumped higher than everyone. Goal! Everyone woke up and brought their minds back. Everyone started to believe.
The equalizer, it was so strange. At that point it was already into injury time, and people were almost annoyed. It's the hope that kills you. By that I mean: To be that close to winning something, it's even more frustrating. You'd rather get beat 3--0 than know one more goal would've taken us to the title. Nobody really celebrated Džeko's goal.
The United game had finished earlier by three or four minutes. You had this weird thing where the pitch of the celebrations in the stands [among United fans at Stadium of Light] changed really rapidly. The final whistle went, and City were 2--1 down. United had won; United were champions. It was delirium among the United fans.... And then it filtered through that City had equalized, and there was still time to play. You could see the United fans thinking, All right, this should go through—but maybe not....
I was one of two City fans in my whole school growing up. I had to fight my battles, and City were getting relegated left, right and center. We were rubbish. I think part of who I am—my resilience and sense of humor—is because I had to defend myself from an early age. My dad and granddad were City fans; it was never anything but City for me. So at 2--2, I figured I would go into work [the next day], and I'd have to stand my ground and fight my battles. I was already on Twitter and Facebook, deleting people who were United fans because I knew I was going to get so much abuse. I genuinely stood still when Džeko scored and deleted people because I could not handle the ultimate disappointment.
Džeko's goal was in the 92nd minute, and the fourth official had signaled for no more than five minutes of stoppage time. The clock was ticking.
When Edin scored the equalizer, there was a rush to get the ball back and start again. I remember Nigel [de Jong] bringing the ball forward [in the 93rd minute] and thinking, I have to help get us as close to the goal as possible. I took the pass from him and laid it off to Mario [Balotelli]. I knew I had to be in the box, so I kept running and hoped Mario might be able to find me.
We went to the split screen: United players [watching the game] at Sunderland, and City coverage as Balotelli went for the ball.
Old-school City fans didn't really like Mario because of the character he was. [Among other things, Balotelli had burned down part of his own home with fireworks and had been punished for throwing darts at youth team players.] But the vast majority of City fans loved him because he was a character. He was mad as a box of frogs. One day he would look like he'd never played football in his life, but the next he would be an absolute game-changer.
Everyone thought Mario had passed it to himself, and too strong, but he slid on the grass and passed to Kun.
It was like that moment was frozen in time.
He managed to squeeze the ball through, and I could see the goal. One of their players jumped in and caught my standing foot, but I was so intent on scoring that I barely felt it. I only had eyes for the goal.
I get out of the way really well. [Laughs.] At first I'm thinking, [being in the attacking penalty box] is the right thing to do at that time of the game. And then I see that ball arriving nearby, and I'm thinking, I need to get out of the way here. So I do that, and I drag my defender away from where Kun then finishes his run.
I shot as hard as I could, and when I saw it hit the back of the net, it was just incredible. The stadium erupted. I remember running away, throwing my shirt around in the air, and then my teammates jumped on top of me.
Everything becomes blurry. I remember we all piled up. People were shouting and crying; you couldn't see them, but they were there, below. It was madness, something that's hard to describe. You can't experience that more than once in your life.
My only "contribution" to it was thinking, as Agüero took a touch, that he would score. That's not a made-up memory. At that moment I knew he would score. All I did was get some air in my lungs, and the rest just happened.
This was Tyler, 3:10 into stoppage time, as De Jong pushed up the field: "Manchester City are still alive here ... Balotelli ... Agüer-OOOOOOOOOOO! I swear you'll never see anything like this ever again! So watch it! Drink it in! They've just heard the news at the Stadium of Light! Two goals in added time for Manchester City to snatch the title away from Manchester United! Stupendous!"
One of the great memories was the shot of [City goalkeeper] Joe Hart running around in a totally bewildered state, unable to comprehend or even accept that this had actually happened. I did swear, "We will never see anything like this again," and five years on, I think I can stand by that.
The Agüero goal, it's the birth of your child; it's your wedding day. I've replaced the picture on the mantel of me and the missus with [a photo of] Agüero scoring that goal and waving his shirt. You think I'm joking? Ask my missus! Unless you were there that day, you can't get your head around what that meant. The first thing I did, I rang my dad. I was crying. My dad was crying. It was the pure emotion of all those years of nothing, of humiliation from getting slapped left, right and center. It all changed in that goal.
I still remember the silence [from the United fans] as the news started to filter through, in the weird way it does at a sporting event—people listening on radios, getting texts. You could hear the word of mouth start: "City have scored, City have scored...." That entire visitors' end [of the stadium], which had been so noisy, just fell completely silent. At the same time, all the players on the pitch, you saw their faces just sink. It was a weird thing to see, a team being champions for 120 seconds.
It was one of those occasions where I don't write about the match, more about the significance to the people there. If you asked me what happened during the match, I could tell you Barton got sent off and about Balotelli's pass to Agüero and Agüero's extraordinary finish, but there could have been a pitch invasion by Martians and I wouldn't have taken it in. It was all about those last seconds.
City forward, now with Nice in France, via Twitter DM
It was just unbelievable! The best emotion in football I've had so far after the semifinal vs. Germany [at Euro 2012]. That day was just a dream.
The rest of that afternoon is still clear in the minds of everyone who experienced it.
The trophy was brought out by two players from City's other great team, from the '70s, Joe Corrigan and Mike Summerbee. It was a wonderful moment, a link to the past. People of a certain generation—anyone over 45 or 50—would have grown up with that team. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Then everyone sang "Wonderwall" [by Oasis, a band of hard-core City fans], which was just magnificent.
I had booked a hotel for the team in case we won, anticipating that there would be beverages consumed. And it came in handy; all of the team stayed in that hotel after the game. That moment where we walk into the hotel as winners, and we look at each other for the first time with the wives, the families, the medals around the neck, and you're looking at a group of winners—that was a big moment. That's when it sunk in.
I remember back five years ago, how little soccer would get on SportsCenter, let alone English soccer! I remember putting the microphone down after we'd finished broadcasting that game, and then the request came through: You're the lead story on SportsCenter, and they want five minutes. It suddenly grabbed people in the States. It was almost like the [Landon] Donovan goal [for the U.S. against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup]—one of those breakthrough moments for the millions of people that don't like the game. They said, Wow, I get that!
Manchester is pretty much divided between United and City. What made it more special is: Imagine that your biggest rival thinks they've won the league, and then you snatch it from them with seconds left. As soon as you saw United, and the looks of despair as they saw that we scored, you know what I did? I reached out to all those friends on Twitter and Facebook that I'd deleted. I absolutely rinsed them. For weeks on end!
I've got a rivalry with United's groundsman, Tony Sinclair, who's a United fan himself. About an hour after the game, he rang me up and said, "Congratulations." It's quite a mad thing to do; he didn't have to do that. It was a nice touch, really.
After the game, I was at a restaurant and met somebody who had a huge influence on my career, Paul Doherty, who is sadly no longer with us. His father, Peter Doherty, was a league winner with Manchester City in 1937. Paul brought his dad's winner's medal along and showed it to me. The poignancy of that ... it was a special thing.
It's [a lesson] that City fans and people who love football will never forget, and that sums up the Premier League: You have to perform until the last minute because you never know....
[City's season] was this great quest. If you were stirring in the perfect narrative ingredients, it would be hard to beat. To think that a 10-month season would come down to pretty much the last kick?
We know that sports entertain us and surprise us, but they rarely absolutely astound us—and that game was just astounding.
To win the title is incredibly special, no matter how you do it. To do it the way we did, and to score the winning goal in the final minutes? That is something I will never forget.
The Premier League is so much about money. But the last five minutes of that game weren't about the fame and the cars, they were about a hunger for glory. It was one of those great sporting moments.
Rooney heads United to a 1--0 lead.
Zabaleta's blast puts City ahead.
Cissé stuns the Etihad crowd, 1--1.
Barton (17) blows up on the blues, sees red.
Mackie gives QPR a 2--1 lead ...
... which elates United loyalists.
Džeko makes it 2--2 in stoppage time.
Agüero rips United's hearts out.
Phil Jones, Patrice Evra & Co. get the news.
Balotelli (with red), Kompany, Džeko and Agüero hoist the hardware.
City supporters take back their town.