May 13, 2012, The Stadium of Light –
A rare and limited window of time when the English weather is pristine and beautiful. The sunshine and warmth are perfect for many of the nation’s favourite sporting pastimes, including cricket and football. It is a special time in the football calendar. Emotions run high at every end of the spectrum. The team closing in on the title is cautiously excited, while those challenging them are starting to prepare for the worst and wonder if this time is not theirs. At the bottom, heartbreak and sorrow can be seen as teams scramble to avoid the drop. On May 13, all was decided. Yet the manner of that script continues to bemuse, befuddle and excite people beyond compare.
Manchester United, perennial title winners, had been cruising. Eight points clear, with six games to go. It had seemed certain that it would be business as usual, and that Sir Alex Ferguson would lead his troops to another crown. Yet United stumbled just when it mattered. A defeat to Wigan, and the collapse of a two-goal lead in the 4-4 draw against Everton had blown the race open. Manchester City talisman Vincent Kompany had pushed his club past their city rivals in the derby. On this final day, Manchester United were at the Stadium of Light, facing Sunderland. An early Wayne Rooney goal had set the club on their way to a comfortable victory. With just under 2 minutes left at the Stadium of Light, City were trailing to QPR. United’s manager, players and fans held their breath, the agony almost unbearable. Was there still a chance? Then, Edin Dzeko rose high, and United started to twitch.
Their fixture ended, but only one game mattered now, and it wasn’t the one being played here. It had been a long campaign, and the fans were nervously excited at the possibility of celebrating another title. Then, chaos erupted. A roar emerged from the crowd at Sunderland, and the smiles in the away stand vanished instantly. Soon, tears, grimaces and frustration were writ large on the face of every United fan across the world. Sergio Aguero had driven home not just a goal, but also a dagger to the hopes of City’s neighbours.
But one man did not have any tears or sorrow. He had fought every battle there was in the game, and he had won most of them. He was going to win this one too. While even Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs seemed shocked, Sir Alex gestured to his players to thank their away fans. The Sunderland fans soon mocked United with the Poznan. His players were deflated, his fans devastated. But all Sir Alex felt was a burning desire to get even.
As he recollects in his autobiography, he said to his players in the aftermath, “You walk out of that door with your heads up. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t show any weaknesses.” There were a lot of questions asked about United’s squad. Sir Alex himself writes in his book that the side was missing a ‘young Paul Scholes’ and cover for Patrice Evra at left-back. But while those deficiencies existed, this had been a campaign of two exactly even sides. One had won the title by virtue of a better goal difference. The solution then seemed simple. If all of United’s youthful players continued to grow and their senior players had enough left in the tank, their noisy neighbours could be defeated if United found an extra gear in the scoring department. But who was going to be the catalyst and take the challenge on?
The Flying Dutchman Arrives
As Sir Alex’s book details, van Persie was pursued by many of Europe’s leading lights. United, City and Juventus were all after his services. Van Persie did not want to go to City or Juventus. He had made up his mind on his destination. After a fair bit of haggling, United secured Van Persie’s services, in a deal amounting to some 24 million pounds.
It is possible to examine the campaign through the difference that van Persie made. United started poorly, stumbling to a Marouane Fellaini goal against Everton. They would not have to worry too much, for van Persie soon took full flight, and with him, so did the team.
Sir Alex writes, “We were hardly strangers to majestic individual talent, but it took us a while to understand just how good Robin van Persie is.” United started to win games, in a curious yet endearing fashion. They always seemed to concede the first goal, yet never gave up the fight. Doggedly, and more often due to the lethality of their new striker up top, they racked up victories. Turn around wins were registered against Fulham, Southampton and Liverpool at Anfield, all games where van Persie scored crucial goals for United. This was quickly followed up with a home defeat to Tottenham, where another of the season’s stars, Gareth Bale, ran United ragged.
A major theme that United fans will take with them from the initial stages of that campaign is how often United trailed in games and won by the margin of a solitary goal. Sir Alex is honest and frank in his own admission. “There were times in the first half of that season when we couldn’t have defended a sandcastle. We conceded way too many times for my liking before tightening up from January onwards.“
United’s first six-pointer of the season was against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The team from up north zoomed into a two-goal lead in 12 minutes (van Persie generating a David Luiz own goal and scoring one for himself), before Chelsea hauled themselves back into the contest. Two red cards for the West Londoners gave the Red Devils a chance they could not pass up, and Chicharito duly obliged, scoring the winner in a 3-2 win. United might have conceded a lot, but they were scoring freely. What change did van Persie bring to United’s play?
Sir Alex explains, “If we had a bad habit going into the 2012/13 season, it was over-passing in the middle of the pitch: players circulating the ball to acquire a feel of it. With van Persie, we learnt in time, you needed to look for that early pass to split the opposition defense. Until we grasped those possibilities, we could not make the most of Robin’s marvellous mobility and killer instinct.“
And who was making those early passes? It was primarily due to midfield metronome Michael Carrick, who served as the side’s lynchpin. United did have a problem looming in midfield, but it was often forgotten in the thrill of the campaign that unfolded. Carrick was supported by several players, including Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Paul Scholes and even Ryan Giggs. Up top, the squad had promising talent in Danny Welbeck and Chicharito, as well as Rooney and van Persie. Someone in midfield somehow found a way to feed van Persie, who never failed to finish. And on the odd occasion, he did not net; United seemed to inevitably find a goal from another source, as they had always done under Sir Alex.
Defining an era
Sir Alex had decided by the Christmas of 2012 that he was going to step down at the end of the campaign. His side came up with many a crazy game that defined his era at Manchester United. Attacking, aggressive and filled with comebacks. United won a fixture against Reading 4-3, netting all their four goals in under 35 minutes. A Boxing Day thriller against Newcastle is also a highlight that fans still remember, with a last minute winner from Chicharito off a sublime Carrick pass. The club also earned bragging rights in the derby against their noisy neighbours, with their flying Dutchman the hero, yet again. Van Persie wrote personal stories as well, netting against former club Arsenal when they faced United at Old Trafford.
In the new year of 2013, United settled in. Starting February, United went on a run of 7 clean sheets in 8 games. There were no unexpected hiccups or shock concession of leads. Three points, week after week, quietly and efficiently, was the norm. Manchester City, on the other hand, had the periodic falter that allowed United to increase their gap at the top of the table steadily. Their goalkeeper, David de Gea, blossomed. He was increasingly confident and assured of himself at the back, seeming to have mastered the physicality of English football. The club endured heartbreak in the Champions League, in their tie against Real Madrid, which turned quickly on the back of Nani’s red card. On the domestic front, they were relentless and clinical in getting the job done.
Van Persie himself went through a goal drought in the middle of the campaign. Sir Alex recollects, “I say this all the time about strikers. Cantona, Andy Cole: if they are not scoring, they think they are never going to score again.” Once the drought ended, van Persie was back to netting for fun again to the relief of United fans. While van Persie was the talisman on the pitch, there is no indication that he sought to be equally vocal or dominating off it. The United manager recollects him being ‘quieter than I expected him to be.’ Van Persie could simply focus on his dreams of winning trophies and scoring goals for himself. At Arsenal, he was a senior pro and club captain. Those responsibilities, along with being the main striker, might have weighed heavily. The Reds of Manchester had plenty of those personalities in Rio Ferdinand, Carrick, Vidic, Rooney, Evra and of course, Giggs and Scholes. Van Persie simply had to focus on being a committed professional and enjoy his new challenge.
The end of the era
Often, teams are remembered by the games that clinch their titles. City would be the first to accept that. While United did not necessarily have the same drama in their title clincher, they had an extraordinary goal. In their game at Old Trafford against Aston Villa, the club won their 20th league title, 13th under Sir Alex, in rather poetic fashion. A Robin van Persie hat trick sealed the deal for United, with a goal that took the breath away featuring in the mix. A Wayne Rooney long ball seemed to waft ahead of van Persie, perfectly weighted for him to run onto and strike on the volley. The ball was delightful, the finish majestic. Sir Alex recollects, “A normal player would try that trick a hundred times in training and score once. Van Persie could do it regularly. Shoulder down, head down, eyes down, through the ball.”
The celebrations at full time were particularly sweet. City had shown that they would be a force to reckon with, but this was a robust response from United. There had been many a doomsayer eager to write the club off. But somehow, yet again, they refused to go away. The last two games of the season were a maze of emotion. Sir Alex made the news of his retirement public, and nostalgia was at large. A dramatic late winner against Swansea from Rio Ferdinand was the prelude to a gala celebration of the title in front of their adoring supporters. But more than a title win, this was also farewell to a true legend of the game. Sir Matt and Sir Bobby will always hold a special place of honor in United folklore. And now Sir Alex would be spoken about and celebrated as an equally god-like, reverential figure to United’s supporters. He had defined an era at Manchester United, and retired a hero.
The days ahead would bring more than their fair share of trials and tribulations to United, but this campaign represented some of their happier days.
United finished on 89 points, a full 11 clear of City. Sir Alex had made his point. City might have broken United hearts on goal difference, but his rampaging reds had stormed back and re-established a clear difference. A campaign where the game’s greatest leader stepped into the shadows in a blaze of glory. A season where his side were once again the greatest in all the land. And this side was in the ilk of all his great sides of the past: lead by a talisman striker who added a magical flair and sparkle.
Written by Anirudh Madhavan | Feature Image via Independent
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