Race For The Prize: The Thrills and Spills of a Title Race Through the Eyes of the Fans.

For the first time in five years it looks as though the Premier League title race will go down to the final day, as Manchester City and Livepool’s ruthless pursuit of English football’s top prize leaves the devastated remains of their fellow top flight teams pressed and passed to death in their wake. Whilst this season’s title fight has perhaps lacked the thrills and spills of Kevin Keegan’s breakdown in ’96 or Rafa Benitez’s rant in ’09, it has produced two exceptionally talented and driven sides pushing each other to the limit of their abilities for the trophy. But whilst us neutrals can sit back and enjoy the spectacle, their respective supporters are forced to live through the nerve-shredding conclusion to the season, as fingertips are gnawed, forehead veins pulsate, and brown trousers are donned.

So what’s it like following your team in a title race? We spoke to five sets of fans who’ve experienced it down the years, and got an insight into what supporters go through during those stomach-churning final weeks of the season.

1994/95: Blackburn Rovers


The Jack Walker revolution brought the kind of success not seen at Ewood Park since before the First World War. The local steel magnate had taken full control of the club in January 1991, and set to work making Blackburn Rovers the most ambitious side in the country. Sensationally appointing Kenny Dalglish as manager in October of the same year, and providing the former Liverpool boss with a handsome transfer kitty to bolster his squad, Walker oversaw Blackburn’s promotion to the Premier League, breaking the British transfer record to sign Alan Shearer upon arrival, and watched on as Rovers posted their highest league finish since 1914. In their second top flight campaign, Dalglish’s team gave Manchester United a run for their money but ultimately fell short, finishing eight points behind them in second place. Ahead of the 1994/95 season, Walker delivered another shot across the boughs.

“The signing of Chris Sutton in the summer of 1994 was a big statement of intent for me.  He hit the ground running with seven goals in his first eight league games giving you the feeling we would be up there at the end of the season.  We were becoming such a consistent and attacking team, going twelve league games unbeaten and winning eleven between the end of October and middle of January and scoring goals for fun.”
Jonathan Secker, Rovers Chat

Rovers had flown out of the traps, but some sensational early season form from Newcastle United had kept them off the top of the table in the opening months. Defeats at Norwich City and at home to Manchester United had hampered the progress of Dalglish’s team, but a shocking slump in from from Keegan’s men in November all but eliminated the Magpies from the title race. A 4-0 win over QPR in the midst of a remarkable unbeaten run sent Blackburn top of the league.

“We led the way in the league from November, and Shearer and Sutton were on fire. Sutton’s goals dried up towards the end of the season but Sir Al kept us going and the points coming in. The closing stages were very nervy as, despite the loss of Kung Fu Cantona, United were still picking up wins and closing in on us”
Matt Holden, Rovers Chat

For many, the turning point of the season came at Selhurst Park at the end of January, as Manchester United dropped two points to a struggling Crystal Palace and, more pertinently, lost their talisman Eric Cantona for the remainder of the season after the Frenchman’s flying kick into the crowd following racial abuse from a supporter led to a nine month ban. Cantona had scored a late winner against Blackburn three days earlier to swing momentum United’s way, but it would still be another month before the reigning champions returned to the summit, and even then it would only be temporary. Another long unbeaten run for Dalgish’s team cemented first place as they headed into the closing stages of the season. With six games left, and Rovers eight points clear, nerves began to fray.

“Going into the Easter weekend, I felt quite confident we would win the league with games to spare but then conceding a last-minute equaliser at Leeds followed by the home defeat to Manchester City on Easter Monday I started to get nervous. It’s amazing to think a team could lose three of their final 6 games and still win the title.  The pattern became a big win followed by a defeat. We just couldn’t shake Manchester United from our tails.”
Jonathan Secker, Rovers Chat

Blackburn’s lead evaporated to two points by the time they hosted Newcastle in the penultimate game of the season. Knowing that Manchester United still had two to play, both against favourable opposition, anything but three points against the erstwhile table-toppers would put a serious dent in Rovers’ title challenge. An early Shearer goal settled the nerves at Ewood Park, before Tim Flowers’ impression of a one-man wall kept the visitors out and restored Rovers’ five point cushion. With United winning their game in hand, Dalglish returned to Anfield on the final day knowing that only a victory would guarantee the title.

“It all seemed surreal that little old Blackburn could win the Premier League. My brother was a Man United fan so on that final day, I stayed at home and watched Blackburn with my Mum whilst he went to my Nan’s to watch United play West Ham. At half-time I felt relaxed. We were one up, United were one down,  and Liverpool seemed content to  watch us win. What could go wrong?”
Jonathan Secker, Rovers Chat

Shearer’s opener at Anfield had calmed the nerves of travelling supporters, and when news of Michael Hughes’ goal for West Ham filtered through into the away end, the celebrations began in earnest. Though the Hammers had little to play for, Ferguson’s team would need to score twice and hope for a Liverpool equaliser to overcome Rovers. Brian McClair’s goal seven minutes into the second half at Upton Park brought murmurs of concern among the Blackburn fans, before John Barnes levelled the scores for Liverpool. Suddenly the title dream was becoming a nightmare.

 “I remember hearing how United missed chance after chance and I couldn’t sit still. I have to admit on 85 minutes I switched over to watch the last few minutes of the United game!”
Jonathan Secker, Rovers Chat

Like Flowers against Newcastle, Ludek Miklosko was having the game of his career in West Ham’s goal, as Manchester United spurned a host of opportunities. At Anfield, with the clock ticking past ninety minutes, Liverpool were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the Blackburn area. Jamie Redknapp stepped up and curled an effort into the top corner, prompting only muted celebrations from the home support and a deathly quiet from the away end. The sound of hearts sinking lasted mere seconds, as news filtered through that United could only draw at Upton Park. Regardless of defeat on the day, Blackburn were champions.

“I was 11 years old and had seen my team win the Premier League. It was surreal, I was so happy and I’m not afraid to admit I shed a tear or two.  I lost count of the number of times over the next few weeks at school I got told to remove my Shearer 9 shirt from over the top of my school jumper.” 
Jonathan Secker, Rovers Chat

1997/98: Arsenal

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Arsenal v Everton - Highbury Stadium

Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Highbury in September 1996 heralded a new beginning for English football. The dietary habits of top flight footballers began changing in order to maximise performance for the first time, while clubs began to look at promising young players from abroad, rather than established names. The Frenchman’s first season at the helm had seen Arsenal’s highest league finish since they’d last won the title and, thanks to some barbed comments from Alex Ferguson surrounding Wenger’s suggestions to improve the English game (he had just come from Japan, after all) a new rivalry at the top end of the Premier League was brewing.

Though unbeaten in their opening twelve games, the Gunners would find themselves four points behind United when the sides met for the first time in the 97/98 season. A pinpoint David Platt header had secured the win for Arsenal and closed the gap on the league leaders, but a poor spell in the Autumn with three defeats in four left them flagging behind Ferguson’s men. It would take an almighty run of good form to catch them.

“It was tense, having not sniffed a chance of the title for seven seasons. Strangely, because the team were on a winning run and never behind in any game there were never any moments when we thought ‘we’ve made this impossible now’. The run of  ten wins on the trot, including four very narrow 1-0 wins in a row, was memorable.”
Kevin Whitcher, The Gooner Fanzine

From Boxing Day until the 3rd May, Arsenal remained undefeated, dropping just six points in eighteen games. Manchester United, meanwhile, would lose five in the same timeframe, as their thirteen point lead over the Gunners slowly ebbed away. On the 14th March, in a game that came too early to truly be dubbed a title decider, the momentum in the race shifted decisively. 

“Winning at Old Trafford meant we would at least have our fate in our own hands. Were we confident? No. The ref was an undoubted homer, denying an obvious penalty for a foul committed by their drafted in right back, John Curtis, but fortunately justice was done when Marc Overmars put the ball past Schmeichel after a break with touches from both Anelka and Bergkamp. You rarely got anything at Old Trafford, least of all a result, and the footage of the dark curly-haired Gooner celebrating that has been seen many times since sums the moment up beautifully.”
Kevin Whitcher, The Gooner Fanzine

That victory brought Arsenal to within touching distance of United again, and having seen Liverpool take a point at Old Trafford on Good Friday, Wenger’s team were given the opportunity to cut the gap to one point with two games in hand as they travelled to Ewood Park.

“The 4-1 win at Blackburn on Easter Monday was the moment we thought we’d win the league. We played like champions in waiting. It was pleasant enough Bank Holiday weather in the first half, followed by snow after the interval! We were four up before half-time though. The following Saturday we dismissed Wimbledon 5-0 at home. It felt within touching distance after that.”
Kevin Whitcher, The Gooner Fanzine

Manchester United were finally overhauled on the 18th April, and with Barnsley and Derby County both defeated in Arsenal’s next two games, the Gunners needed just three more points from their final three fixtures to secure the title. Emphatically, they managed it at the first attempt.

“Everton in early May was our final home match of the season. It was a gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon. The 4-0 scoreline says it all. Once we took the lead, it was party time, but the fourth goal was just a thing of beauty for so many reasons. I mean, sub Steve Bould playing in midfield, and teeing up Tony Adams for that volley. These are the moments you live for as a fan. Just wonderful.”
Kevin Whitcher, The Gooner Fanzine

2009/10: Chelsea


Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho had ended Chelsea’s fifty year wait for a league title in 2005, playing ruthlessly efficient football built on the foundations of the meanest defence the Premier League had ever seen. Back-to-back titles looked like ushering in an era of dominance for the West London side, but a falling out between the owner and manager brought an end to the winning formula. Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari had both been charged with returning the trophy to Stamford Bridge, but both had fallen short. Carlo Ancelotti was predicted to have better luck.

Six wins on the bounce in the opening weeks of the season saw Chelsea begin the season as pacesetters, though defeats at Wigan and Aston Villa would see them swapping the lead with Manchester United over the course of four weeks. A 5-0 win over Blackburn Rovers restored the Blues into pole position at the end of October. They’d stay there until the two sides met again in March.

“The 2009/10 season produced some of the best memories of my time supporting the club. Chelsea were firing hard, Drogba was leading the line and scoring for fun, and under King Carlo we had so much belief as fans that we would win the league for a third time. Every time we played we had full belief that we would win.”
Simon Phillips, Chelsea Echo

Defeats at Everton and at home to Manchester City represented Chelsea’s first major wobble of the season, allowing Manchester United, themselves struggling for consistency, to get their foot back in the door of the title race. El Hadji Diouf’s equaliser at Ewood Park looked to have put a serious dent in the Blues’ ambitions, seeing them sink to third with eight games to go. The team’s response was devastating.

“I always believed we would win the league again. Although some of them were ageing, we still had such a strong core to the squad with your Lampards, Terrys, Drogbas, Carvahlhos, Ballacks, Coles etc, and a coach who had the players’ full respect and backing. At the same time we lost to Wigan and Man City that season, so it wasn’t plain sailing. Some frustrations would creep in at times and people would lose hope.”
Simon Phillips, Chelsea Echo

A 5-0 win at Portsmouth was followed by a 7-1 victory over Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge. Through adversity Chelsea had found some unstoppable form, arriving just in time for a trip to Old Trafford. Goals from Joe Cole and Didier Drogba sealed the win over United, and sent Chelsea top again. Though they would lose at Tottenham before the end of the season, they wouldn’t be displaced. Victory on the final day against Wigan would see the Premier League title return to Stamford Bridge. They edged the contest. 8-0.

“It almost became the expectation that when we went 2-0 up, to go on and get 6 or 7! It was a feeling like no other to pay hard earned money to go watch your team play, then they turn out an absolute drumming goal fest for you to feast on! Amazing emotions! There are always nerves, but I think you just know when a squad are world beaters or not. In that season, during that era, I had that feeling inside that we would win every match we came out to play, and there’s no feeling like it.”
Simon Phillips, Chelsea Echo

2011/12: Manchester City


The sensational takeover of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi United Group in August 2008 changed the course of the club’s history forever. For so long known as ‘Typical City’, with their reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the newly-christened ‘noisy neighbours’ began making a serious splash in the transfer market in a bid to bring trophies to the blue side of Manchester. Victory in the 2011 FA Cup Final brought City their first major trophy in thirty-five years, and after a £90m summer spending spree that included the acquisition of Atletico Madrid’s highly rated Sergio Aguero, Roberto Mancini’s side were gunning for their first Premier Leauge title the following season.

An electric start to the campaign saw them lose just once before the turn of the year, with a ruthless 6-1 victory at Old Trafford signalling the winds of change in Manchester. Despite their remarkable form, City ended 2011 top of the league on goal difference only, as rivals Manchester United matched Mancini’s men pace-for-pace. Defeats at Sunderland and Everton in the New Year saw City begin to stumble, and United took full advantage, taking top spot on the 11th March with a win over West Brom, as Swansea City inflicted the Blues’ fourth defeat of the season on the same afternoon.

“We had a run of 5 games in March and the start of April where we only picked up 5 points. Our challenge looked over as United were winning 8 on the bounce around that time. We were 8 points behind with 6 games to go. It didn’t look like it would happen for us as we needed United to drop points and it didn’t really look likely that they’d drop that many points in the run in.”
Ray, Man City Fan TV 

Heading into April on a run of three games without a win, City had fallen eight points behind Ferguson’s team. A shock defeat at Wigan for United helped the Blues claw themselves back into the title race, but they would still need the league leaders to slip up again before a potentially decisive meeting between the two at the Etihad.

“We knew we were back in it when United drew with Everton. We had to play them at our place and that was really going to decide where the title was heading. After we beat them with Vincent Kompany’s magnificent header, we started to believe.”
Ray, Man City Fan TV

As City hit irresistable form, it was United’s turn to falter. A 4-2 lead at home to Everton was blown in the final seven minutes, and Vincent Kompany struck the decisive goal in the top of the table clash. Now level on points with their neighbours but with a considerably better goal difference, all City had to do was keep winning. A brace from Yaya Toure saw Mancini’s team sidestep a potential banana skin away at Newcastle, before relegation haunted Queens Park Rangers headed to Eastlands on the final day of the season. Surely not even Manchester City could mess it up from here.

“Going into the last game, we were quite confident (as much as City fans can be knowing we’ve done daft things before). I was living in France at the time and couldn’t get back for the game so had to watch on the telly. It seemed like everything was going to plan and then, suddenly, the world stopped spinning. They were down to ten men and winning 2-1. I couldn’t believe it. City had worked so hard to get into this position of winning the title, surely we weren’t gonna blow it against relegation threatened opposition. We weren’t playing well and it looked ominous. I have to say that I turned the TV off with a few minutes to go. My nerves were shattered and I couldn’t take the disappointment. A few minutes after the final whistle, I turned it on again as I needed to take it on the chin to be able to move on from disappointment of throwing the title away. Imagine my shock when I saw Vincent Kompany hoisting aloft the Premier League trophy.”
Ray, Man City Fan TV

2013/14: Liverpool


Sometimes supporting a team in the title race doesn’t have a happy ending. With Sir Alex Ferguson finally retiring in 2013, and Manchester United beginning to fade into the footballing wilderness, a vacancy opened at the top of the Premier League for a new title challenger. Manuel Pellegrini had been installed at Manchester City to return the trophy to the Etihad, while Jose Mourinho was back at Chelsea looking for his third Premier League title. Meanwhile, something surprising was stirring on Merseyside.

“I don’t think we even saw ourselves as title contenders until we were right up there and with City, Chelsea and Arsenal dropping points coupled with us on an unbelievable run, we all started to believe it was possible.”
Laurie Yard, Anfield Edition

The opening weeks of the 2013/14 season saw the lead at the top of the table change with each passing game. Manchester City, Chelsea and even Arsenal took turns in topping the pile during August and September, with a lack of consistency preventing any side from staking a genuine claim for top spot. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool were playing the kind of attractive attacking football not seen at Anfield in years. The front three of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling had clicked in the early stages, and consecutive maulings of Norwich City, West Ham and Tottenham had caught the eye. Their mettle would truly be tested in back-to-back meetings with fellow contenders Chelsea and Manchester City. They lost both games 2-1, and were immediately written out of the title race. 

By Christmas it was Arsenal that led the way, but their credentials were dealt a massive blow by a morale sapping 5-1 defeat at Anfield, in which Liverpool scored four in the opening twenty minutes. That result sparked the beginning of an eleven game winning streak for the Reds, which included a 3-0 victory at the former fortress of Old Trafford, and another shellacking of Spurs. By April, Liverpool had played their way back into contention.

“I think it dawned on me  that we could genuinely win the league after the Man City game. It was a fantastic match and with the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, it just felt like it was meant to be; when Coutinho scored that goal to make it 3-2, I remember going absolutely mental.”
Laurie Yard, Anfield Edition

Victory over Manchester City took Liverpool two points ahead of Chelsea and seven clear of Pellegrini’s side. At the final whistle, the Sky TV cameras zoomed in on a post-match huddle, with Steven Gerrard insisting to his team-mates that “this does not fucking slip”. With another narrow victory acheived at Norwich a week later, the Reds found themselves three games away from their first league title in more than twenty years. Then Gerrard slipped.

“I felt that we’d blown it after the Chelsea game. The manner in which we lost was so deflating and with it back in City’s hands along with their relatively straightforward run in, I felt it was unlikely. I don’t think any Liverpool fan wants to be reminded of the Palace game. I think that was the game that anyone with any hope left completely lost it. To crumble in the manner we did and concede three in eleven minutes really emphasised how poor the defence we had was. As soon as Gayle got the second, there was a definite sense of inevitability about it all and it was crushing when he scored again. It was an awful feeling at full-time as even though we could mathematically still win it, we all knew it was nigh-on impossible; it was extremely disheartening after the season we’d had.”
Laurie Yard, Anfield Edition

The draw at Crystal Palace gave Manchester City a two point lead at the top of the table going into the final weekend. Though mathematically still in with a shout, Liverpool’s big chance to win the league had all but disappeared. West Ham were comfortably dispatched at the Etihad on the final day, and the Reds’ long wait for a Premier League title went on.

“Here’s hoping we’re able to go one better this time round — the difference this time though is we’ve consistently looked like title contenders and have the makings and mentality of a title winning side. Whatever happens though it’s been an unforgettable ride.”
Laurie Yard, Anfield Edition


2015/16: Leicester City


It was the title race that no-one could have predicted. After an astounding run of form had saved them from the drop in their first season back in the top flight, Leicester City disposed of manager Nigel Pearson and appointed Claudio Ranieri in his stead. Last seen losing to the Faroe Islands whilst manager of Greece, Ranieri had unfinished business in England’s top flight, having been sacked by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea despite overseeing a steady improvement in the club’s standing in English football. Even so, his own reputation was at its lowest ebb, and the reaction to his appointment was far from positive.

The Foxes, though, picked up where they’d left off from the previous campaign, taking twelve points from their opening six games before an Alexis Sanchez inspired Arsenal tempered excitement at the King Power with a 5-2 win in late September. Instead of regressing to the mean, however, Leicester dusted themselves down and got back to winning ways at Norwich a week later. Inspired by the form of mercurial winger Riyad Mahrez, the Foxes went top with a 3-0 win at Newcastle in November, before Jamie Vardy broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s long standing record for goals in consecutive matches with the opener against Manchester United in a 1-1 draw. Defending champions Chelsea, in the midst of a horror season, were next to fall victim to the Mahrez and Vardy double act, with Jose Mourinho losing his job after the defeat at the King Power. Despite being top at Christmas, few were taking the Foxes title challenge seriously.

“I felt numb to it all if I’m honest, I was trying to savour every moment but refusing to let myself get ahead of myself and believe we could do it. So it felt like quite unemotional for parts of it, it was about trying to protect yourself as a fan of a normal club like Leicester. None of us had any experience of being in the mix for the biggest prize in English football. I didn’t want do be left heart broken if we didn’t do it, like most underdog stories end up.”
Alex, FoxesTalk

A lean spell over Christmas, in which Ranieri’s team dropped seven points and fell into second behind Arsenal, had most believing that the bubble had burst, but victory at White Hart Lane and another Vardy brace against Liverpool took Leicester top again. A trip to Manchester City would provide the real evidence of their title credentials.

“The late winner away at Spurs in January was so important, I was there for that and the celebrations were off the chain. Talking of Robert Huth, his two goals away at Man City when we destroyed them 3-1 is often talked about as when everyone knew we would do it. I can still remember sitting at home in disbelief.”
Alex, FoxesTalk

Mahrez again proved influential, slicing Manchester City apart on their own patch, and inspiring an unforgettable victory for the Foxes. Though the Algerian winger and partner-in-crime Vardy would take most of the plaudits, Leicester’s victorious campaign was underpinned by a solid back five that contained Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, a central defensive pair that made up for what they lacked in mobility with bags of experience, both chipping in with vital goals while hitting the form of their careers at the same time. They were helped immeasurably by the arrival of a little-known defensive midfielder from the French second division. N’Golo Kante had cost Leicester a shade over £5.5m, but throughout the season covered the ground and made the interceptions of three midfielders in one. A natural destroyer, his pace and tenacity in midfield allowed the attacking players freedom to play. Following the win over Manchester City, the next few weeks would offer Leicester’s fans an insight into the rollercoaster ride of taking part in a title race.

There was a defeat at Arsenal:

“As far as blowing it, it’s easy to look at that Arsenal match where we had gone one up and then Danny Simpson had been sent off. After defending for our lives they got back level and then Marcin Wasilewski gave away a needless free kick in injury time and Danny Welbeck nodded in.”

Followed by a win over Norwich:

“The game I thought we might win the league was when Ulloa scored in injury time at home to Norwich. The cheer caused a minor earthquake according to some boffins. I think this was the first game after an international break, on the back of the gutting defeat to Arsenal who celebrated like they’d won the league. That win was massive, it definitely spurred us on, we never looked back.”

Then a surprise draw against West Brom:

“There was also a 2-2 home draw with West Brom not long after that where everyone in the media claimed we’d blown it, but the following night Arsenal, Man City and Spurs all inexplicably lost and we’d actually extended our lead at the top. Summed up the season and the pundits and press, we continued to make a mockery of everything.”
Alex, FoxesTalk

As with any title winning team, there came a point in the season where Leicester were required to dig in, and four 1-0 wins on the bounce in March and April put the Foxes in touching distance of the title. Though they would drop points at home to West Ham and away to Manchester United, the stuttering form of their main title rivals meant that the hard work had already been done. On Easter Monday, Tottenham surrendered a two-goal lead at Chelsea to hand Leicester City an unbelievable Premier League title. The following Saturday, Foxes fans enjoyed a day they’ll never forget.

“I’d had some unbelievable highs and lows supporting Leicester, we are a club that has courted drama both good and bad over the years but this was never supposed to happen. Me and my Dad, who have gone together home and away so many times together over the last 25-30 years,were both in disbelief of what we were experiencing.

Inside the ground it was chaos, I’d lost my voice way before the game but the noise being generated was something else. We’d had some soulless years at what is now known as The King Power Stadium, years where you could barely hear fans sing from the other sides of the ground.

I’m not embarrassed to admit I was in floods of tears during the trophy presentation, I was leathered and all the emotions that I’d refused to let out in the months leading up to this hit me like a bull hammer. I needed it, I needed to feel what we had bloody done. My dad was the same, in fact there were so many people looking an absolute wreck it was unreal.

 We completed football, nothing will ever be the same again. Everything now is a bonus following this club, we will always be thankful. I wish I could re-live the day in slow motion again but I’ve enough memorabilia and footage of our title win and that day to keep me going. We really did it didn’t we?”
Alex, FoxesTalk

Thank you to all the fans that shared their experiences for this piece: Jonathan and Matt from Rovers Chat, the online Blackburn Rovers fanzine; Kevin Whitcher, editor of The Gooner Fanzine and creator of Online Gooner; Simon Phillips, sportswriter on all things Chelsea and founder of Chelsea Echo; Ray from Man City Fan TV; Laurie Yard from the Anfield Edition, your source for up to date Liverpool news; and Alex from FoxesTalk, the Leicester City fans forum

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