The Last Champions
The more years that pass since Leeds United’s 1992 title success, making them the Last Champions – it’s 22 years now – the more the myth is perpetuated by the Man U-friendly media that it was the collapse under pressure of the Pride of Devon that year which denied them the ultimate accolade. In short – and as echoed in Alex Ferguson’s bile-ridden summary of the season – Leeds United didn’t win the League – Man U lost it.
There had been a lot of talk throughout that last season of pre-Murdoch football about how “fitting” it would be for Man U to at last end up as top dogs after 25 years of hurt (or amusement, depending on your point of view). There was nauseating speculation about the date that the title would finally “come home to OT”. Somewhere in Greater Manchester, there is, in all likelihood, a warehouse which still contains souvenir candles, t-shirts and sundry other tawdry tat, prematurely commemorating the 1992 Championship success that never happened for Ferguson’s nearly men. There was a fair degree of confidence in the air, as you can see.
In the end, it wasn’t fitting – because Man U weren’t good enough and Leeds claimed a deserved honour. The Whites finished top by four clear points, having won most games and lost fewest. They scored the second-highest number of goals and conceded the second fewest to end up with the best goal difference overall. Any way you care to look at it, Leeds were worthy champions – but that doesn’t stop the media and others from pushing the “unlucky Man U” myth. And the fact is, as well – the winning margin for the Champions could – and should – have been far greater.
Setting aside the well-remembered banana skins that Leeds contrived to skid wildly on away from home as the season got to its final act – those thrashings at Man City and QPR and a pallid defeat at Oldham – Leeds also managed to let slip four seemingly-vital points at fortress Elland Road, to mar an otherwise unstoppable progress in their home campaign. In the last eight home games, Leeds won six and drew two. The only teams to escape from LS11 with anything at all were Aston Villa and West Ham – coincidentally the two clubs Liverpool are now relying upon to upset the Manchester City apple-cart, and deliver a long-overdue title to Anfield.
Those two 0-0 draws at Elland Road served, at the time, to increase the conviction that we were destined to fall short at the end of the season. They were games of missed opportunities, including a rare missed penalty by the normally infallible Gordon Strachan – and those four dropped home points could well have been fatal in the final reckoning. But as things turned out, the two agonising draws served only to limit the final margin of success, proving that then, as now, it was impossible to call correctly the twists and turns of a title head-to-head.
In the end, it was Man U that bottled it – as Liverpool appear to have done at home to Chelsea and at Crystal Palace – and it was Leeds United who finally held their nerve to close the season out with a series of coldly nerveless performances, culminating in that crazy, decisive match at Sheffield United.
Now, in the moment of Liverpool’s blackest despair, it is those two claret-and-blue clubs which hold the key to the Reds’ remaining shreds of hope. Manchester City have to face the challenge of obtaining four points from the two home games left to them, and thereby clinch a title that was Liverpool’s to lose until these last couple of weeks.
City may well be without their talisman Aguero, but of course they have a squad packed with quality even without the quicksilver Argentinian. But in his absence, City always seem that bit more more ponderous in attack, that few percentage points less lethal than when he is in there and performing at his best.
Neither Villa nor West Ham have anything to play for other than pride; nor indeed do they have anything to fear. They may well set out to frustrate the home team in these two Etihad encounters – and in both games, the longer it remains goalless, the more Manchester City would become nervous and doubtful. The fans would sit there, getting edgy – thinking “typical City”. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
Liverpool, ultimately, will have only themselves to blame if they do end up missing out on what was a golden chance to be Champions again – after so long a time without that once perennial accolade. The defence has not been good enough and there has been, at times, an unforgivable naivety of approach made worse by shattering individual errors. A draw was good enough at home to Chelsea, but it was thrown away. A 3-0 win at Palace would have put the pressure on Man City – but a gung-ho quest for even more goals opened the back door, and the Pulis-inspired Palace nipped in three times to deny the Reds that victory.
It would take a heart of stone not to feel regret and sympathy for the sobbing, devastated double Player of the Year Suarez; he deserves far better from what has been a magical season for him. And Gerrard, too, deserves more than he looks likely to get. The list of mediocre players with Premier League medals is a long one, the list of greats who lack one is somewhat shorter. The injustice of that will not be lost on Gerrard, a player whose fierce desire to be the best has been etched in every line of his being lately; but who is likely, in a vicious twist of fate, to be the man who carries the can for Liverpool pulling up short of the line.
All these players and their team-mates can do now, is wait – and hope. If Aston Villa – notorious for blowing hot and cold this season – can turn it on at City and claim a highly unlikely win, then the Reds’ fate would be back in their own hands come Sunday. They would be one home victory over Newcastle from recapturing the Holy Grail; given that vastly improbable last chance, you sense they would not squander it at any price.
Now that Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has played his last card in the game of raising the pressure stakes, by publicly conceding the title, City will be as well aware as anyone that a banana skin awaits them on Wednesday, with another beyond that on Sunday. They’re the same two home-ground banana skins that Leeds United so nearly slipped up on all those years ago in 1992. Can Villa and the Hammers throw a spanner in the works for real this time?