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. Liverpool began the 2009/10 season looking to go one better than their 2nd place finish the previous year, while Sunderland were hoping to enjoy a season without a relegation scrap having survived ahead of rivals Newcastle United on the final day of 08/09. Though the October meeting between the two sides may not have had any great bearing over their respective performances across the season, it did produce the strangest goal ever scored in the Premier League.
Rafael Benitez’s spell as Liverpool manager had been broadly successful. Having taken the reigns from Gerard Houllier ahead of the 2004/05 season, the Spaniard won the Champions League at the first attempt with that miraculous victory over AC Milan in Istanbul. The following season had seen a dramatic FA Cup Final win over West Ham, and in his third season Benitez took the Reds to another Champions League final – though Milan were able to gain revenge this time around. By now Liverpool had re-established themselves as regulars in the top four, and seemed to gradually be closing in on that elusive first Premier League title. Halfway through the 08/09 season they found themselves top of the league, but the ruthless Manchester United machine were in hot pursuit, and despite dismantling Sir Alex Ferguson’s side 4-1 at Old Trafford, Liverpool saw their rivals embark on a nine game run at the end of the season in which they dropped only two points and had to settle for second. Even so, Benitez and Liverpool were seen as one of the favourites for the title in 2009/10, particularly since Manchester United had just sold their star player in Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Liverpool had also seen a key player depart for the Spanish capital, as Xabi Alonso was sold for £30m, with Alberto Aquilani brought in to replace the midfield string-puller. An opening day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur didn’t exactly bode well for Benitez, and despite a resounding 4-0 home victory over Stoke City the following week, a second defeat in three games arrived at the hands of Aston Villa, as the Birmingham side smashed and grabbed three points in a midweek fixture at Anfield. The goals flowed in the next four games, as Bolton, Burnley, West Ham and Hull were all put to the sword with the Reds racking up 17 goals but those two losses in the opening weeks had put Benitez’s side at a major disadvantage. They travelled to Stamford Bridge knowing defeat to Chelsea would put a serious dent in their title hopes before the leaves were barely beginning to fall from the trees. Second half goals from Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda were enough to seal the win for Carlo Ancellotti’s side, and Liverpool dropped to sixth. Luckily, a potentially morale-boosting fixture at perennial strugglers Sunderland was round the corner.
The Black Cats of the North East had developed something of a love/hate relationship with the Premier League. Relegated in their first top-flight season in 1996/97, Sunderland re-emerged two years later and enjoyed back-to-back seventh placed finishes as Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn struck up a deadly partnership, earning the former the European Golden Shoe in 2000. Those heady days didn’t last long, however, and after a successful fight against relegation in 2002, Sunderland finished rock bottom the following season. Another two years in Division One followed, before two Championship titles sandwiched an abysmal season in the top flight, with the Wearsiders picking up just 15 points all season. Back in the Premier League for the 2007/08 season and after two successful campaigns of staving off relegation, the regulars at The Stadium of Light were hoping their side had finally turned a corner. Steve Bruce was appointed pre-season, with caretaker Ricky Sbragia stepping down having steadied the ship the previous season following Roy Keane’s resignation. Bruce was backed with serious investment in the squad ahead of 2009/10, as Lorik Cana and Lee Cattermole arrived for a combined £11m to add steel to the Sunderland midfield, while Darren Bent’s nightmare at Tottenham came to an end with a £10m move to the North-East. With the emergence of home-grown schemer Jordan Henderson, as well as £10m goalkeeper Craig Gordon, the Black Cats looked in fine fettle heading into a new season. A debut goal from Darren Bent gave Sunderland an opening day win at Bolton Wanderers, and the £10m man followed up with a second at home to Chelsea, though the visitors eventually ran out 3-1 winners. A Kenwyne Jones brace earned Sunderland the points at home to Blackburn, and despite losing narrowly at Stoke City, Hull were easily dispatched in Bruce’s next home game. Defeat at Burnley was followed by another resounding home win, 5-2 against Wolves, and an excellent 2-2 draw was secured at Old Trafford thanks to goals from Bent and Jones. After eight games Sunderland sat in 8th position, and had established themselves as one of the best attacking sides outside the top four. Next up, a tricky game at home to Liverpool.
Benitez’s task ahead of the match was made slightly more difficult with injuries to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, but he was still able to call upon the boundless energy of Dirk Kuyt up front. A five-man defence with Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher at the heart would also provide a stern test for Sunderland. Bruce stuck with the blossoming strike partnership of Bent and Jones, while the brawn of Cattermole and Cana in central midfield was offset by the potential of Steed Malbranque and Andy Reid’s wizadry on the wings. Attacking the end housing the travelling Liverpool supporters, Sunderland were quick to stamp their authority on the game, but not even the most optimistic home supporter could have expected the game to be decided in the fifth minute. Reid scampered down the right hand side, and when his cross evaded everyone it fell for Bent to swivel and strike the ball into the bottom corner. At first glance it appeared Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal had been deceived by a deflection, but it wasn’t until the replay confirmed it that the bizarre nature of the goal became apparent. A red beach ball had been thrown onto the pitch from the away end during the opening exchanges, and before Reina had the opportunity to clear it from the penalty area, Sunderland had mounted an attack. Bent’s shot, which Reina more than likely had covered, had bounced off the beach ball on its way towards the goal and wrong footed the Spanish keeper on its way into the net. Liverpool’s players immediately raced to confront referee Mike Jones following the goal, but the Chester-born official allowed the goal to stand. The decision clearly affected a Liverpool side that had already looked uncomfortable in an unfamiliar formation, and despite forcing an excellent double save from Gordon late on, they were unable to recover from the early set-back and fell to their fourth defeat of the season. In the post-match interview, Benitez was magnanimous about the decision. The Spaniard conceded “We had a bit of bad luck with the goal, but I’m more disappointed with the performance. We had plenty of time to get back into the game, but we couldn’t react”. Steve Bruce, meanwhile, couldn’t believe his luck “I didn’t realise it had hit the beach ball until afterwards and I didn’t know the rules which said it should have been a drop ball, rather than a goal. One went for us, that’s for sure.”
As it turns out, the goal shouldn’t have stood. In the aftermath of the game the Referees Association admitted a mistake on Jones’ part, pointing out that Fifa’s laws of the game state “the referee should stop, suspend or abandon the match because of outside interference of any kind”. According to the rulebook, the goal should have been ruled out and the match restarted with a drop ball. Jones was dropped from the Premier League programme the following week, being assigned the Championship match between Peterborough United and Scunthorpe United, presumably because bad decisions are easier to take for teams with less money than Liverpool. The fallout that followed the ‘beach ball goal’ perhaps impacted most on Callum Campbell. The 16 year-old Liverpool fan had thrown the beach ball onto the pitch in the lead up to the goal, and was subsequently blamed for his team’s defeat. In the aftermath the young supporter received death threats from fellow Liverpool fans, and it took an appeal in The Daily Mirror, and a subsequent response from Rafa Benitez, for the heat on him to die down.
The win took Sunderland up to seventh, but that was as good as their season would get. One win – at home to Arsenal – between the end of October and the start of March saw Bruce’s side slide down to 14th, but a run of three wins in their final six games ensured a comfortable 13th placed finish, with the club well clear of relegation trouble. The following season would see further improvement under Bruce, as Sunderland finished in tenth, but a poor start to the 2011/12 season led to the Geordie manager receiving his marching orders, replaced by Martin O’Neill. The revolving doors at The Stadium of Light then sprung into motion as Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat, and Sam Allardyce all stepped in to save Sunderland from the drop in consecutive seasons. David Moyes’ appointment, however, was a bridge too far, and they dropped through the Premier League trapdoor in 2017.
Liverpool bounced back a week after the defeat at The Stadium of Light with a 2-0 win over Manchester United, but inconsistency would plague them throughout the season. Unable to string more than two wins together for the remainder of the season, they eventually finished 7th – their worst Premier League placing in a decade. In the close season Rafael Benitez left the club by mutual consent with Premier League manager of the year Roy Hodgson brought in as his replacement. Another three seasons outside of the top four followed before their heartbreaking second place finish in 2014 under Brendan Rogers. Benitez went on to manage Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid, before pitching up at Newcastle United as they succumbed to relegation in 2016.
Mike Jones returned to Premier League action shortly after his demotion, and was used as the fourth official for the 2012 FA Cup Final. The beach ball now resides in the National Football Museum in Manchester.
With Sunderland out of the picture, it fell to Hull City, Burnley and Portsmouth to take the relegation spots, while Wigan Athletic survived despite losing 9-1 to Tottenham at White Hart Lane. In Liverpool’s absence, Spurs took the fourth Champions League place, pipping Manchester City by three points. In his first season at the helm, Carlo Ancellotti secured the double for Chelsea in swashbuckling style. The West Londoners became the first Premier League side to breach the 100 goals mark in a season, helped in no small part by 7-0 and 8-0 victories in their final two home games of the season against Stoke and Wigan. Didier Drogba finished the season as the club’s top scorer with 29, while Frank Lampard added 22 from midfield. Rumours that Ancellotti was keen to add the promising B. Ball to his strikeforce were unfortunately wide of the mark.