The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. Having stepped up from his role as Assistant Manager, Stuart Pearce suddenly found his Manchester City side within touching distance of Europe at the end of the 2004/05 season. Nearing the end of the game and desperate for a goal, he turned the rulebook on its head.
Manchester City’s brief flirtation back in the Premier League in 2000/01 had ended in immediate relegation, but with Joe Royle replaced by Kevin Keegan, the Blue Moon rose up to the big time once again, winning Division One at a canter and scoring 108 goals in the progress. The Entertainers had moved to Manchester. A strong first season back ended in a midtable finish, but the notorious difficult second season kicked in, with only the ineptitude of the sides beneath them saving City from the drop. Ahead of the 2004/05 season, Keegan decided that steel was the key to shoring up his defence, and duly recruited Ben Thatcher and Danny Mills on free transfers. Their presence in the squad alongside Richard Dunne, Paul Bosvelt, Antoine Sibierski and a emerging Joey Barton gave the Manchester City team a look more functional than flamboyant. The former Newcastle manager’s famed tendency to opt for flair over solidity had seemingly been beaten out of him, and his squad contained only three recognised senior strikers in Robbie Fowler, Nicolas Anelka and Jon Macken.
An inconsistent start to the season saw City languishing in lower midtable after seven games, with two wins and a draw. The one bright spot had been their improved defence, as none of their four defeats had been decided by more than a single goal, though in three of them Keegan’s side had failed to find the net. An upturn in form at the beginning of October looked to have turned the tide, with a home win over Chelsea and a draw at Old Trafford the highlights of an eight game spell in which City only lost once. Ironically, that defeat came at St James’ Park, where Keegan had made his name as a swashbuckling manager. Duly, Manchester City scored three, Newcastle scored four – including a stoppage time winner – and journalists had the story they’d all turned up for. The showing in the North East was in fact a rare off-day for the City defence, who would only concede more than two goals in a game once all season. The run of good results had lifted Keegan’s side into ninth, but inconsistency would strike once again as four points from five games dropped City back down the table. During this period, rumours of dressing room unrest were rife. After turning up late for the team coach to Newcastle, both Fowler and Barton had been ordered to pay a £500 fine. Barton, establishing himself as a first team regular, demurred, but the senior Scouser flat out refused. “I’m not paying that” was the striker’s response when Keegan announced the fine in front of his squad. A lively argument followed, and the pair were individually called into the managers office. Barton handed the £500 over, and when Fowler returned from his meeting to a full dressing room he handed the money back. Keegan had caved to the former Liverpool striker’s refusal to pay, and had instructed that Barton should receive his money back too, provided the rest of the squad did not find out. It soon became clear that Keegan had, once again, fallen out of love with football, and respect in the dressing room had been lost. After a meeting with chairman John Wardle following a 2-1 defeat at Tottenham in March, Keegan announced that he intended to retire at the end of the season, to which Wardle suggested he leave the post immediately in order to revive City’s season.
When Keegan’s assistant, Stuart Pearce, stepped up to take on first team duties, City were comfortably stranded in mid-table with eight games to go. Ten points clear of the relegation zone, and seven behind the European spots, Pearce was seen as a steady hand on the tiller to guide City to safety at the end of the season. After the January sale of Nicolas Anelka to Fenerbahce, Pearce has hamstrung in the striking department, and would have to rely on Fowler for goals. He almost got off to a perfect start as a Fowler goal gave his side led 2-1 at Charlton Athletic going into stoppage time, before Chris Perry headed in an equaliser for The Addicks. In his first game in charge at the City of Manchester Stadium the on-loan Kiki Musampa scored in the 90th minute to secure a win over Liverpool. The results kept on coming. A draw at Fulham was followed by a resounding 3-0 victory over Birmingham, then another draw, this time at Blackburn, before Portsmouth were put to the sword at home. In his first six games in charge, Pearce had presided over three wins and three draws, scoring nine and conceding three. That functional side that Keegan had built were suddenly functioning. By the end of April, City were back up to ninth and had made up significant ground on the European places. With two games left they trailed Tottenham by three points, though a tricky fixture at Villa Park lay in wait. Within twelve minutes the game was won as Shaun Wright-Phillips and Kiki Musampa set Pearce’s side on course for a vital 2-1 win. News of Tottenham’s defeat at Middlesbrough meant that City went 8th, three points behind the Teesiders but with a superior goal difference. All of a sudden they had something to play for in their final game of the season, which just so happened to be at home to Middlesbrough.
Ahead of the game Pearce planned for all eventualities, as all good managers should. No doubt he spent the eve of the game scribbling down notes, going through tactical changes, working through set-pieces in his head, thinking about how his substitutes could change the game. What if City score early, should he shut up shop? Or if they find themselves two down at the break, go all out attack?
“I sat at home on Saturday night and thought to myself: ‘What shall I do if we’re drawing the game late on and need to hit it long?'”
Nerves were frayed at Eastlands as the game kicked off and when, in the 23rd minute, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink fired a free-kick in off the bar, City supporters must have got that familiar sinking feeling. Their side would now need two goals to qualify for Europe and boasted one of the least effective attacks in the top half of the league. City did push forwards, however, with Wright-Phillips in particular causing Boro havoc, but Pearce’s side went in behind at the break. Within sixty seconds of the restart, they were level. Musampa again, an inspired loan signing from Athletico Madrid, went on a mazy dribble and drove the ball past Mark Schwarzer. Suddenly it was Steve McClaren’s side looking nervous, as blue shirts poured forwards looking for a winner. As the game ticked into the final few minutes, Pearce realised he had to roll the dice. He looked at his bench – Stephen Jordan, a 22 year old centre-back, too defensive; Jon Macken, one Premier League goal from thirty appearances, unlikely to help; Nicky Weaver, a goalkeeper, utterly useless. Unless…In the 88th minute, Pearce made his third and final substitution, and the 47,000 in attendance must have thought they were having an anxiety dream. Nicky Weaver, goalkeeper jersey and gloves on, replaced holding midfielder Claudio Reyna, while incumbent goalkeeper David James changed into an outfield shirt (with his name printed on it).
“I’ve got a good striker in Jon Macken, who is really disappointed, but I wanted to unsettle them and in some ways it did”
Sort of Stu, sort of. In the proceeding five minutes of play the England goalkeeper made a nuisance of himself, mainly to the home cause. Twice he dived into robust challenges to gift Middlesbrough a free-kick, but still the long balls rained into Schwarzer’s area. Finally, amidst the confusion of having David ruddy James putting himself about in the opposition area, Franck Quedrue was penalised for handball and City were awarded a 92nd minute penalty. Robbie Fowler, top scorer for the season, stepped up. Then saw his weak penalty saved by Schwarzer. The big chance had surely gone. Still there was time for drama, as another long ball pumped into the box was headed away the ball fell kindly in front of James and, with the grace of a new-born foal, he hit a massive air-shot and the ball bounced to safety. The final whistle blew, Boro had qualified for Europe, and Pearce’s zany scheme hadn’t quite paid off.
That late-season grasp at continental football was as good as it got for Stuart Pearce at City. A poor season followed, and with the club taken over by Thaksin Shinawatra his services were dispensed of. He quickly took up a job with the England Under 21’s and incredibly repeated the goalkeeper up front trick in a 7-0 victory against Azerbaijan U21s. Peterborough goalkeeper Joe Lewis was brought on as a forward after Pearce had used all his other subs. Stints in charge of Team GB and Nottingham Forest followed, before taking his place next to David Moyes on West Ham’s bench this season.
Chelsea were crowned Premier League Champions for the first time in 2005, following a near faultless season for their new manager. Jose Mourinho had arrived from Porto with a big reputation, and doubts surrounding his ability to succeed in England were very quickly dispelled. A twelve point gap to runners-up Arsenal tells only half the story of Chelsea’s dominance, while the concession of only fifteen goals all season remains a Premier League record. Everton nudged neighbours Liverpool out of the Champions League places by finishing fourth, though their neighbours had the last laugh as they came back from 3-0 down to defeat AC Milan and lift the trophy a week later. Southampton’s stay in the top division finally came to an end on a tense final day, along with Crystal Palace and a Norwich City side that only needed to avoid defeat to stay up, but got gubbed 6-0 at Fulham. West Bromwich Albion became the first side to survive relegation after being bottom at Christmas, though strangely never thought of sticking Tomasz Kuszczak up front. Wonder why.