Category Archives: Seasonal Stories

Seasonal Stories: Portsmouth (2003-2004)

Lucky 13

In 2003-2004, Portsmouth made their Premier League debut after storming to the First Division title in the previous season. Former West Ham United manager Harry Redknapp was the man behind the revival at Fratton Park, ably supported by ex-Derby County boss Jim Smith.

Portsmouth made an incredible start, staying unbeaten in their first five matches and topping the table briefly in mid-August. A catalogue of injuries in mid-season threatened to derail the campaign but a South Coast Derby victory over Southampton in March was the catalyst for a brilliant run towards the end of the season. Pompey finished in a creditable 13th and ahead of some bigger established sides too.

Squad: Shaka Hislop, Pavel Srnicek (Left in February 2004), Harald Wapenaar, Linvoy Primus, Boris Zivkovic (Left in January 2004), Dejan Stefanovic, Hayden Foxe, Arjan de Zeeuw, Sebastien Schemmel, Richard Duffy, John Curtis, Petri Pasanen, Kevin Harper, Tim Sherwood, Nigel Quashie, Amdy Faye, Matt Taylor, Carl Robinson, Steve Stone, Richard Hughes, Gary O’Neil, Alexey Smertin, Patrik Berger, Eyal Berkovic, Vincent Pericard, Svetoslav Todorov, Deon Burton, Ivica Mornar, Lomana Lualua, Teddy Sheringham, Yakubu, Jason Roberts (Left in January 2004)

Early experience pays off

In pre-season, Portsmouth ensured that they would have some useful experience amongst their ranks. First to arrive was former Czech international Patrik Berger, whose contract had expired at Liverpool FC. Berger was also joined by Teddy Sheringham who was in a similar predicament after his second stint at Tottenham Hotspur had come to an end. Neither cost any money and Redknapp wasted no time in getting both added by the end of June.

Further experience arrived from abroad. Boris Zivkovic was another free capture transfer from the Bundesliga. He’d helped Bayer 04 Leverkusen reach the UEFA Champions League final in 2002. Also arriving before the big kick-off was Amdy Faye for an estimated £1.5 million from Auxerre and ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Dejan Stefanovic from Vitesse Arnhem for £1.85 million. Portsmouth had done some smart business in the summer transfer window.

However, one of their talismanic figures from the previous season wouldn’t be sticking around. Despite captaining the side to their First Division title success, Paul Merson left in July, returning to the second-tier with Walsall. The main reason was to move closer to his family who were based in the Midlands. When paying tribute to his departing captain, Redknapp admitted: “He doesn’t feel he can play in the Premier now and I think he knows himself better than anybody. He said he played in the Premier League two years ago and found it difficult, so he certainly didn’t think it was going to be easier now.”

Portsmouth made a brilliant start to their maiden Premier League campaign and only their second top-flight experience in the last 45 years. They kicked off the campaign with a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at home to Aston Villa. Sheringham opened the scoring before half-time and Berger finished off a flowing team move to double the lead just after the hour mark. Gareth Barry did score a late consolation from the penalty spot but was sent off before full-time and Pompey had their first win on opening day.

The form continued in their next home match, where Sheringham truly rolled back the years. The veteran forward scored a second half hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers and the first treble of the 2003-2004 season. The 4-0 victory took Portsmouth briefly to the top of the table for 24 hours. Three away draws made it an excellent opening and one of those points gained was at Highbury. Sheringham again scoring to keep his rich vein of form going and Arsenal’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw was through a disputed penalty where Robert Pires went down under the challenge of Arjan de Zeeuw even though it looked like the Frenchman had tripped himself up. Thierry Henry converted the spot-kick and Redknapp was not amused. Nevertheless, it was a very encouraging start.

TABLE ON 15th September 2003

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Arsenal 5 4 1 0 11 3 +8 13
2 Manchester United 5 4 0 1 9 2 +7 12
3 Manchester City 5 3 1 1 12 6 +6 10
4 Chelsea 4 3 1 0 10 6 +4 10
5 PORTSMOUTH 5 2 3 0 8 3 +5 9
6 Southampton 5 2 3 0 5 2 +3 9

Slipping down the table

Portsmouth’s first defeat in their Premier League history came a week later when they were beaten 2-1 by Blackburn Rovers on home soil. At Fratton Park, they were formidable and not many sides enjoyed great success on the south coast throughout the season. In fact, they lost only five home matches all season and out of the teams that struggled all campaign, only Leicester City and Everton left with all three points.

Home form saw a couple of major scalps along the way. Liverpool FC visited Fratton Park in mid-October and left with a 1-0 defeat against their name. Against his former club, Berger scored the only goal of the game after four minutes. Three weeks later, Leeds United were destroyed 6-1 in a result that saw Peter Reid lose his job as Leeds boss. The win still remains Portsmouth’s biggest margin of victory in their Premier League history. Gary O’Neil scored twice on the day and he was one of the most consistent performers in the squad all season.

It was a different story away from home with a familiar tale of no points and no goals to show for their efforts. Redknapp and his team endured pointless and goalless trips to Birmingham City, Newcastle United, Manchester United and Chelsea.

When Southampton cruised to a 3-0 victory in the first South Coast Derby match of the season just before Christmas, Portsmouth had dropped into the bottom three after a run of one win in eight games. The early season optimism had somewhat got sour. With a growing injury list, fresh faces were added to the ranks in the January transfer window.

Still no away joy

Boxing Day did bring some light relief. A second half double from Berger helped Pompey to a 2-0 home victory against an out-of-form Tottenham Hotspur side. The opening of the January window gave the experienced Portsmouth manager the opportunity to refresh and reenergise his side.

Creative midfielder Eyal Berkovic was the first addition, coming in after he’d fallen out of favour with Kevin Keegan at Manchester City. Berkovic was one of six additions in a busy window. Also arriving were Lomana Lualua on-loan from Newcastle United, defender John Curtis on a free transfer from Leicester City and Croatian international forward Ivica Mornar for £400,000 from Anderlecht.

Exiting the club was Zivkovic. The Croatian had featured 18 times in the Premier League but a public spat with Redknapp led to the defender being released. A return ticket to the Bundesliga awaited him, as he joined VfB Stuttgart who were still competing in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds.

However, there was still no away joy. Portsmouth put in one of their best away displays of the campaign at White Hart Lane in early February against Tottenham. They equalised three times on the afternoon with new signings Berkovic, Lualua and Mornar all finding the back of the net. However, Gus Poyet’s 89th minute strike gave Spurs a fortunate 4-3 victory. By 20th March, Portsmouth were in desperate trouble. Just one win in 2004 in the Premier League left them in the bottom three with 10 games to play and two points adrift of safety. Victory was paramount in their next fixture against bitter rivals Southampton.

South Coast Derby revenge

On an afternoon in mixed conditions with sunshine and hailstorms, Portsmouth simply had to win the second South Coast Derby of the season. It was only Paul Sturrock’s second match as Southampton manager and he ended up on the losing side. Steve Stone’s cross found Yakubu and the Nigerian settled a scrappy contest in the 68th minute in Pompey’s favour. The 1-0 win was the lift-off needed for a fantastic end to the season.

A week later, the away hoodoo was finally broken. Yakubu, who would finish as the club’s top scorer in the league with 16 goals, struck the decisive goal in the 82nd minute for a 2-1 win on the road at Blackburn Rovers. It was a massive victory for the travelling faithful and took Portsmouth out of the bottom three for the first time since mid-January. They wouldn’t fall into it again for the remainder of the season.

In fact, Portsmouth lost only one of their last 10 fixtures and that was on the penultimate weekend away at already relegated Leicester City. Survival had already been clinched a week earlier by a 1-1 home draw with Fulham, whilst other results condemned the Foxes and Wolverhampton Wanderers. One of the season’s main highlights was a home victory over outgoing champions Manchester United. Stone scored his only goal of the season in the 1-0 win. Out of the division’s final top 10 – only Chelsea and Charlton Athletic claimed all three points on their visits to Fratton Park.

Portsmouth and in particular, Yakubu finished the season in the grand manner at home to Middlesbrough. The forward scored four goals and Sheringham concluded his one-season stay with an 80th minute goal in the 5-1 win over Boro. Portsmouth finished in 13th and ahead of four clubs on much bigger budgets in Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Everton.

It had been a very successful debut season in the Premier League for Portsmouth and a reminder of how good a manager Harry Redknapp was.

FINAL 2003-2004 TABLE – 11th to 16th  

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
11 Middlesbrough 38 13 9 16 44 52 -8 48
12 Southampton 38 12 11 15 44 45 -1 47
13 PORTSMOUTH 38 12 9 17 47 54 -7 45
14 Tottenham Hotspur 38 13 6 19 47 57 -10 45
15 Blackburn Rovers 38 12 8 18 51 59 -8 44
16 Manchester City 38 9 14 15 55 54 +1 41
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Seasonal Stories: Liverpool FC (1996-1997)

A missed opportunity

This was Roy Evans’ third full season as Liverpool FC manager and the pressure was increasing on him to bring back silverware to the Anfield trophy cabinet. Liverpool had an emerging young crop of players coming through along with a few experienced heads and in 1996-1997, they looked like a genuine title contender. They were five points clear going into the New Year.

However, too many dropped points against inferior sides, a series of goalkeeper blunders from David James and questions about the team’s mentality saw the challenge ebb away and on the final day, the Reds were squeezed into fourth place courtesy of goal difference. It definitely felt like a missed opportunity.

Squad: David James, Rob Jones, John Scales (Left in December 1996), Bjorn Tore Kvarme, Jason McAteer, Mark Wright, Phil Babb, Steve Harkness, Neil Ruddock, Stig Inge Bjornebye, Dominic Matteo, Jamie Carragher, Mark Kennedy, Michael Thomas, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman, Patrik Berger, David Thompson, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen

Bagging Berger

After finishing third in 1995-1996 behind Manchester United and Newcastle United, Liverpool FC were seen as a creditable contender for Premier League glory. Six whole seasons had now passed since the Reds had been English champions and that was far too long for many of the patient supporters.

Manager Roy Evans didn’t see any need to invest heavily in the summer transfer market but he did swoop for the Czech midfielder Patrik Berger from Borussia Dortmund. Berger had excelled at the 1996 European Championships, helping his country reach the final and Liverpool snapped him up for £3.25 million.

One player who did move on was Ian Rush, who had announced his departure towards the end of the previous campaign. Rush was LFC’s all-time leading goalscorer but had now fallen behind Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore in the pecking order and elected to move on for a fresh challenge at Leeds United.

Setting the pace

Liverpool’s first game of the new season came at The Riverside Stadium against Middlesbrough and it was a thrilling contest. The Reds led three times through goals from Stig Inge Bjornebye, John Barnes and Fowler. However, they had to be content with a 3-3 draw thanks to a spectacular opening day hat-trick from Middlesbrough’s new striker, Fabrizio Ravanelli.

The first victory arrived two days later when two Steve McManaman goals defeated Arsenal 2-0 at Anfield and Liverpool stayed unbeaten for the first eight matches of the Premier League campaign, topping the standings at the end of September.

Berger settled in very quickly, grabbing a brace on his LFC debut in a fine 3-0 away win at Filbert Street against Leicester City before repeating the trick in a fabulous 5-1 victory over Chelsea at Anfield. Fowler was still scoring goals as freely as the previous campaign and even the unlikely source of Phil Babb popped up with the winner at his old stomping ground of Highfield Road.

There were only three defeats in the first half of the campaign. The first came at Old Trafford in mid-October thanks to a David Beckham strike. There was a dismal day at Ewood Park where Liverpool lost 3-0 to bottom-placed Blackburn Rovers and in early December, surprise packages Sheffield Wednesday claimed a 1-0 victory and became the first team to leave Anfield with all three points in the 1996-1997 campaign.

Fowler scored four goals in the return fixture with Middlesbrough and when Barnes rolled back the years with a winning goal from distance in the final Premier League fixture of 1996 away at Southampton, Liverpool went into 1997 holding a useful five-point lead at the top of the table.

29th DECEMBER 1996 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 LIVERPOOL FC 21 12 6 3 38 19 +19 42
2 Manchester United 20 10 7 3 42 25 +17 37
3 Arsenal 20 10 7 3 37 20 +17 37
4 Wimbledon 19 11 4 4 33 23 +10 37
5 Newcastle United 20 10 4 6 35 22 +13 34
6 Aston Villa 20 10 4 6 29 19 +10 34

Faltering signs

1997 did start with a 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea who would also stage an extraordinary fightback from 2-0 down to beat Evans’ side 4-2 in the FA Cup fourth round. Liverpool though were still conducting business in the Premier League in a fairly professional manner.

They kept five successive clean sheets in the top-flight after the setback in west London and dismissed Aston Villa and Leeds United very comfortably. The Villa game saw the first Premier League appearance from young defender Jamie Carragher and he scored the opening goal too in the 3-0 triumph.

The first signs of a faltering title bid came towards the end of February against Blackburn Rovers on home soil. Despite dominating possession and creating a host of chances, Liverpool’s finishing let them down with Fowler especially guilty of missing glorious openings. The 0-0 draw was the third stalemate at home in the season for Liverpool and this was an omen of things to come.

A week later, a late Ian Taylor goal sent Liverpool to defeat at Villa Park and gave reigning champions Manchester United a four-point lead at the top of the table. Liverpool dropped further points away at The City Ground, drawing 1-1 when Ian Woan punished a dreadful goalkeeping error from David James.

James was starting to cost Liverpool crucial points, earning himself the unfortunate nickname of ‘Calamity James.’ In early April, he was at fault for both goals to allow 20th place Coventry City to come from behind to pull off a stunning 2-1 victory at Anfield. The title dream was ebbing away and the supporters knew it.

A catastrophe against Manchester United

In that period, Liverpool did beat both Newcastle United and Arsenal. In the latter game, Fowler won a UEFA Fair Play Award for attempting to overturn Gerald Ashby’s decision to give the Reds a penalty after Fowler went down without any contact from Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman.

There were serious question marks about Liverpool’s hunger and mentality. Some of the young players – particularly Fowler, McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and Jason McAteer were criticised for partying too much and not focusing completely on football. Another unfortunate tag was dished out with this group being referred too as ‘The Spice Boys.’

The final nail in Liverpool’s title coffin came when league leaders Manchester United arrived at Anfield on 19th April. This was the Reds last chance and they put in a deeply disappointing display. They conceded two sloppy set-piece goals to Gary Pallister and James had another catastrophe, failing to catch a cross and allowing Andy Cole to score one of the simplest goals of his career. The Red Devils won 3-1 and it was all over.

Title hopes officially ended on 6th May when Liverpool lost 2-1 to Wimbledon which ended their mathematical hopes of catching Manchester United. The only plus point of a thoroughly frustrating evening at Selhurst Park was the emergence of young prodigy Michael Owen. Owen came off the bench and scored with virtually his first chance in the senior side. Having impressed greatly at youth level, this was Owen’s big moment and a goalscoring star was well and truly born.

Second place was still up for grabs on the final day but Liverpool could only draw 1-1 at Sheffield Wednesday. Rivals Newcastle United and Arsenal both won which saw them overtake Liverpool on the final day on goal difference. Newcastle grabbed second spot which meant they would compete in the following season’s UEFA Champions League.

Despite having been considered as the best team for much of the season, Liverpool FC had nothing to show for their efforts. Fourth place and two cup semi-finals was seen as a major underachievement for this emerging team and they wouldn’t get a better opportunity to end the league famine for the remainder of the 1990s.

FINAL 1996-1997 TABLE – FIRST TO SIXTH

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Manchester United 38 21 12 5 76 44 +32 75
2 Newcastle United 38 19 11 8 73 40 +33 68
3 Arsenal 38 19 11 8 62 32 +30 68
4 LIVERPOOL FC 38 19 11 8 62 37 +25 68
5 Aston Villa 38 17 10 11 47 34 +13 61
6 Chelsea 38 16 11 11 58 55 +3 59

Seasonal Stories: Fulham (2003-2004)

Breaking into the top ten

Fulham’s third full Premier League campaign saw the Cottagers break into the top half of the table for the first time. Under the guidance of Chris Coleman, who was enjoying his first full season in management, the west Londoners picked up some impressive results early in the season, including a marvellous 3-1 away victory at Old Trafford in October.

Their form levelled out when top scorer and star player Louis Saha was sold to Manchester United in the January transfer window. Nevertheless, it was an impressive season for all connected with Fulham as they prepared to return to Craven Cottage for the following campaign after continuing to groundshare at Loftus Road with Queens Park Rangers.

Squad: Edwin van der Sar, Mark Crossley, Moritz Volz, Zat Knight, Martin Djetou, Alain Goma, Jerome Bonnissel, Carlos Bocanegra, Ian Pearce, Adam Green, Jon Harley, Dean Leacock, Zesh Rehman, Andy Melville (Left in January 2004), Sylvain Legwinski, Sean Davis, Lee Clark, Steed Malbranque, Junichi Inamoto, Mark Pembridge, Bobby Petta, Malik Buari, Darren Pratley, Luis Boa Morte, Brian McBride, Collins John, Barry Hayles, Facundo Sava, Louis Saha (Left in January 2004), Steve Marlet (Left in August 2004)

Saha makes an impact

With Craven Cottage still being redeveloped, Fulham continued to groundshare at Loftus Road with Queens Park Rangers and had a new permanent manager to start the 2003-2004 season. After impressing in his five-game reign at the end of the previous campaign, former club captain Chris Coleman was given the chance to prove his credentials as a manager on a full-time basis.

It was a quiet summer for the club in the transfer market. The only notable arrival was Mark Crossley for £500,000 from Middlesbrough. Crossley would fill the gap as a deputy to Edwin van der Sar. It was a couple of defenders though who would make more of a mark on Coleman’s first-team plans. Frenchman Jerome Bonnissel arrived on a free transfer from Rangers and Moritz Volz joined on an initial four-month loan deal from Arsenal also this would later turn into a season-long loan arrangement with the Gunners.

Among those leaving was Maik Taylor on a season-long loan switch to Birmingham City and Republic of Ireland international Steve Finnan, who switched to Liverpool FC for around £3.5 million. Steve Marlet started the season and scored in the opening day 3-2 victory over Middlesbrough. However, he wouldn’t see August out and moved to Marseille on-loan after a largely disappointing two-season spell on these shores.

After that opening victory, Fulham got a rude awakening in their first away fixture of the season, trailing 3-0 at half-time to Everton before eventually losing 3-1. However, they enjoyed their short trip across the capital to White Hart Lane a week later. Barry Hayles scored twice and Luis Boa Morte also found the target in a 3-0 success at Tottenham Hotspur which piled the pressure on beleaguered Spurs boss Glenn Hoddle.

Louis Saha scored in the opening day victory over Middlesbrough and in September, he started to make a real impact on Fulham’s campaign. It started with a 2-2 draw away at Birmingham infront of the Sky Sports cameras with the Frenchman scoring twice. One of those goals came in the very first minute. Saha scored four goals in the month and Fulham ended September with just one defeat from their opening six games. Better was to follow with an October visit to Old Trafford.

Van der Star at Highbury

Fulham travelled to Manchester United in high spirits but their supporters went there more in hope of gaining a positive result. The team put in their best performance of the entire campaign. Skipper Lee Clark gave the Cottagers the dream start with a goal inside three minutes. Diego Forlan did equalise on the stroke of half-time but Fulham bounced back brilliantly from this setback. Marvellous goals in the second half from Steed Malbranque and Junichi Inamoto helped them record a stunning 3-1 victory. This was a real statement victory for Coleman who seemed to be finding management an enjoyable and easy task.

November began with back-to-back defeats to Liverpool FC and Charlton Athletic before Saha rediscovered his goalscoring touch after a four-game drought with two quick-fire first half goals to sink Portsmouth 2-0.

The month ended with a trip to Highbury to face unbeaten Arsenal who were on their own crest of a wave following a 5-1 midweek rout of Inter Milan at The San Siro in the UEFA Champions League. Fulham’s goal took a beating but Edwin van der Sar put in a simply heroic display. He made seven first half saves and despite 27 shots on-goal, Arsenal couldn’t find a way through. Fulham earned a 0-0 draw and ended the month in the UEFA Champions League qualifying positions. It was some achievement for a team that looked like being a relegation struggler in pre-season.

However, fresh investment was coming for the team in the January transfer window.

TABLE ON 30th November 2003

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Chelsea 14 11 2 1 28 9 +19 35
2 Arsenal 14 10 4 0 28 10 +18 34
3 Manchester United 14 10 1 3 25 9 +16 31
4 FULHAM 14 6 4 4 24 18 +6 22
5 Charlton Athletic 14 6 4 4 20 17 +3 22
6 Liverpool FC 14 6 3 5 21 15 +6 21

Louis departs for Manchester United

December was a mixed month for the club with two wins and three defeats. Chelsea came to Loftus Road and left with all three points thanks to Hernan Crespo’s second half header and there was also a bad performance and result at Villa Park, going down 3-0 to an ever-improving Aston Villa side.

Saha was still banging in the goals though. Two more arrived in a 2-0 win on Boxing Day over Southampton and he now had 13 Premier League goals for the campaign. It became clear in January 2004 that Fulham were going to struggle to be able to persuade Saha to stay at the club.

Manchester United were on the search for a new striker with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer out long-term with injury and Ruud van Nistelrooy not quite displaying his devastating form he’d shown in his first two Old Trafford campaigns.

They got their man towards the end of January in a £12.8 million transfer although the way Saha left the club left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Fulham supporters. Coleman immediately started to reinvest the squad with the funds from the transfer. Brian McBride arrived from the MLS having previously auditioned in the Premier League in a loan spell with Everton in the previous campaign. Collins John also arrived on an undisclosed fee from Dutch side FC Twente whilst Volz’s loan switch from Arsenal became a permanent move having impressed greatly in the right-back role.

Regrouping for the future

Saha’s departure ultimately had a damaging effect on Fulham’s chances of a shot at European contention. The likes of Liverpool FC and Newcastle United, who had underachieved for much of the campaign, started to take command of the Champions League qualification battle and their main challengers turned out to be from the Midlands in Aston Villa and Birmingham City rather than from London in Fulham and Charlton Athletic.

Saha scored on his first return to Fulham just a month after his departure but he couldn’t help Manchester United to victory as they were held to a 1-1 draw. There was also an excellent point gained at Anfield where Van der Sar saved a penalty from Steven Gerrard in the second half.

The Dutchman had his best campaign but he was still prone to the odd costly error. In Fulham’s last home match of the season against Arsenal, he stupidly attempted to dribble around Jose Antonio Reyes, who simply stole possession from him and put the ball into an empty net to give Arsenal a 1-0 victory in their penultimate match of ‘The Invincibles’ campaign.

Fulham finished their best-ever Premier League campaign to this point with a 2-0 win on the final day away at Bolton Wanderers with McBride endearing himself to his new supporters with a brace. A 9th place finish was fair reward for an exciting campaign and just five points behind Newcastle United in fifth was a good basis for seasons to come under Coleman’s shrewd and calm management.

FINAL 2003-2004 TABLE – 6th to 11th  

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
6 Aston Villa 38 15 11 12 48 44 +4 56
7 Charlton Athletic 38 14 11 13 51 51 0 53
8 Bolton Wanderers 38 14 11 13 48 56 -8 53
9 FULHAM 38 14 10 14 52 46 +6 52
10 Birmingham City 38 12 14 12 43 48 -5 50
11 Middlesbrough 38 13 9 16 44 52 -8 48

Seasonal Stories: Aston Villa (2006-2007)

The Lerner era begins

Aston Villa went under new ownership early on in the 2006-2007 season as Doug Ellis sold the club to American businessman Randy Lerner. Lerner was ambitious to start with and wanted to see his new investment pay off. There was also a new manager as Martin O’Neill returned to the Premier League after a six-year absence. It was always going to take time for the new partnership to bear fruition so although an 11th place finish sounds unremarkable, it was the first steps towards three seasons of upcoming excitement for the Villa supporters.

Squad: Thomas Sorensen, Mark Delaney, Jlloyd Samuel, Olof Mellberg, Martin Laursen, Wilfred Bouma, Aaron Hughes, Liam Ridgewell, Gary Cahill, Phil Bardsley, Didier Agathe (Left in January 2007), Gavin McCann, Steven Davis, Gareth Barry, Craig Gardner, Peter Whittingham (Left in January 2007), Isaiah Osbourne, Stiliyan Petrov, Ashley Young, John Carew, Gabby Agbonlahor, Chris Sutton, Luke Moore, Milan Baros (Left in January 2007), Juan Pablo Angel (Left in April 2007)

Staying unbeaten

Having finished a disappointing 16th in 2005-2006, there was a change in the managerial hotseat at Aston Villa. Out went David O’Leary and in came Martin O’Neill, back in management after a 12-month sabbatical. O’Neill knew the area well, having steered Leicester City to two League Cup triumphs in four seasons between 1997 and 2000.

There were no initial summer arrivals in regards to new players but that was because Villa were heading for a takeover. American businessman Randy Lerner, who owned NFL franchise Cleveland Browns completed his protracted purchase of the club towards the end of August. He took 60% of the club’s shares and succeeded Doug Ellis as owner. There was enough time for Lerner to immediately allow O’Neill the opportunity to sign his former captain at Celtic, Stiliyan Petrov on August transfer deadline day for £6.5 million.

With the limited player recruitment options and having flirted with relegation in the previous campaign, there were some pundits who were tipping Villa for the drop but that didn’t look likely after a lengthy unbeaten start to the season. In fact, it wasn’t until the 10th game of the Premier League campaign until they tasted defeat when Liverpool FC beat the Villans 3-1 at Anfield.

On the opening day, Olof Mellberg had the honour of scoring the first-ever competitive goal at Arsenal’s new home, The Emirates Stadium as Villa claimed an excellent point. The first win of O’Neill’s reign came a few days later when they recovered from a goal down to beat newly-promoted Reading 2-1. Gareth Barry scored the winner in a season where he was one of the team’s best players.

Aston Villa also claimed a 1-1 draw at champions Chelsea through a first half equaliser by Gabby Agbonlahor and Barry came to the rescue in another 1-1 draw, this time at home to Tottenham Hotspur. He scored a brilliant individual equaliser to get Juan Pablo Angel out of a deep hole. The Colombian forward had missed a penalty and scored an own goal! He would leave the club before the season ended.

TABLE ON 28th October 2006

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
3 Bolton Wanderers 10 6 2 2 10 8 +2 20
4 Portsmouth 10 6 1 3 16 6 +10 19
5 Arsenal 9 5 3 1 16 5 +11 18
6 Everton 10 4 5 1 16 9 +7 17
7 ASTON VILLA 10 3 6 1 12 9 +3 15
8 Liverpool FC 10 4 2 4 12 12 0 14

Lean winter

Aston Villa’s response to their first loss of the league season was a good one as they won their next two fixtures. Blackburn Rovers were beaten 2-0 at Villa Park and then, there was an excellent 1-0 away triumph at Everton. Chris Sutton had linked up with O’Neill again in October having been a free agent. He scored the only goal of the game at Goodison Park in what turned out to be his last-ever Premier League goal.

A lean winter followed though as an 11-game winless run saw the club plummet from the top six into 14th place. This included a four-game losing sequence which saw back-to-back reverses at home to Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United.

The 3-0 home defeat to the Red Devils was the first of three quick-fire defeats to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. They lost 3-1 at Old Trafford a month later and also saw their FA Cup hopes for the season extinguish with a last-gasp 2-1 loss at The Theatre of Dreams in the third round.

However, fresh investment was coming for the team in the January transfer window.

Carew and Young arrive

January 2007 was the first opportunity O’Neill had to invest in the squad since Lerner’s takeover of the club. First up was actually a player-exchange deal. Having preferred not to use Milan Baros as a central striker in his first six months at the club, O’Neill allowed Baros to leave for Lyon in a swap deal which saw John Carew arrive at Villa Park.

A day after Carew’s arrival, Aston Villa paid Watford an initial £8 million, potentially rising to £9.65 million in add-ons to sign young English winger Ashley Young. Young had impressed greatly for the Hornets in the first half of the season and had been courted by Villa for a few weeks before his arrival into the Second City.

Shaun Maloney also arrived for a cheaper fee of £1 million, becoming the fourth player who used to work with O’Neill at Celtic to follow him to England alongside Petrov, Sutton and defender Didier Agathe.

Both Carew and Young made goalscoring impacts early on in their careers at their new club. Young scored first but his effort came in a 3-1 defeat away at Newcastle United. Carew’s goal was the only one of the contest to steer Villa to a vital 1-0 home success over struggling West Ham United.

Finishing with a flourish

Going into April, there was still an outside danger that Aston Villa could be dragged into the relegation battle because they weren’t winning many matches. However, they were proving to be difficult to beat. Only Reading and Arsenal had defeated Villa since early February.

Any lingering doubts were ended by an excellent performance at Ewood Park to complete a league double over Blackburn Rovers. A 2-1 away victory saw Patrik Berger score a rare goal after a nightmare season which had seen him struggle with injury and even have a spell out on-loan at Championship club Stoke City.

The win at Blackburn began an excellent sequence to finish the season as Villa ended with a flourish. A nine-game unbeaten run saw them finish top of the bottom half in 11th position. Among the wins were two more away successes at Middlesbrough and Manchester City and a 3-0 home win against Sheffield United – arguably the best performance of the entire season from the team.

Aston Villa ended with 50 points and drew 17 of their 38 league matches – the most of any side in the 2006-2007 campaign. It had been a solid first season in the dugout for O’Neill and the foundations were in place for even better results to come in the coming seasons.

FINAL 2006-2007 TABLE – 8th to 13th

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
8 Reading 38 16 7 15 52 47 +5 55
9 Portsmouth 38 14 12 12 45 42 +3 54
10 Blackburn Rovers 38 15 7 16 52 54 -2 52
11 ASTON VILLA 38 11 17 10 43 41 +2 50
12 Middlesbrough 38 12 10 16 44 49 -5 46
13 Newcastle United 38 11 10 17 38 47 -9 43

Seasonal Stories: Norwich City (2012-2013)

Mid-table stability

In their second season back in the Premier League after promotion in 2011, Norwich City achieved solid mid-table stability again, finishing in 11th position. There were some notable results too in what was Chris Hughton’s first season as manager at Carrow Road which included home victories over Arsenal and Manchester United.

Norwich also enjoyed a 10-match unbeaten run in the autumn which remains their best-ever unbeaten sequence in their Premier League history.

A new man at the managerial helm

After an excellent 12th place finish in their first campaign back among the elite in 2011-2012, Norwich City suffered a blow when Paul Lambert acrimoniously quit the club to take over as manager of Aston Villa. He would be replaced by Chris Hughton, who had previously managed Newcastle United in the Premier League and steered Birmingham City to the play-offs in the Championship in the previous season.

Hughton managed to keep all of the Canaries’ key players from the previous campaign which included skipper Grant Holt, goalkeeper John Ruddy and creative asset Wes Hoolahan. He added to the squad too with the acquisition of seven players including Robert Snodgrass from Leeds United, full-back Steven Whittaker after Rangers’ financial collapse and Sebastien Bassong from Tottenham Hotspur.

On transfer deadline day, Hughton made two further loan additions. Javier Garrido came in from Lazio having previously auditioned in the Premier League at Manchester City and a certain striker called Harry Kane arrived from Tottenham Hotspur and would make his top-flight debut for Norwich. This move didn’t work out though and Kane was recalled by Spurs in the January transfer window.

Sluggish beginning

It was always going to take some time for Hughton to stamp his authority on his new squad and it showed in the early weeks of the campaign. Norwich actually went through the first two months of the campaign winless.

Things didn’t start well with a heavy 5-0 reverse away at Fulham on the opening day of the season and Liverpool FC also scored five at Carrow Road at the end of September. For the second consecutive season, Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick in East Anglia. The 5-2 defeat meant after six matches, Norwich had just three points from three draws and three defeats.

The turning point in the season for the Norfolk club came on 20th October. A first victory of the season was recorded and it came against mighty Arsenal. Holt scored the only goal of the game after 19 minutes and the home side held on for their second clean sheet of the campaign and a first victory against the Gunners since August 1992.

It was the catalyst for an impressive sequence of results for Hughton and his team.

The perfect 10

Norwich’s second game of their 10-match unbeaten run came at Villa Park and a stoic 1-1 draw with Aston Villa in a first reunion with their former boss Lambert. Michael Turner scored an equaliser with 11 minutes to go in what was his first season at the club after moving from Sunderland in the summer. Lambert would have the last laugh though with Villa going on to win the return fixture later in the season and also knock the Canaries out 4-1 in the League Cup quarter-finals.

An unbeaten November followed, despite only four goals being scored. Bradley Johnson’s 44th minute goal sunk Stoke City and two weeks later came the best moment of the campaign when Anthony Pilkington’s header beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 1-0. Either side of a stale goalless draw at Reading and Norwich had kept four clean sheets in their last five games – an impressive return given how leaky they had been defensively in the season’s early weeks.

Bassong would go on to be crowned Player of the Season and the Cameroonian enjoyed a goalscoring run in this sequence. He scored a 90th minute equaliser at Goodison Park for a 1-1 draw and also netted in a 2-1 home win over Sunderland and in a highly enthralling 4-3 triumph away at Swansea City. Going into the 2012 festive programme, Norwich were sitting in an impressive eighth place in the Premier League table.

17th DECEMBER 2012 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
7 West Bromwich Albion 17 8 3 6 24 21 +3 27
8 NORWICH CITY 17 6 7 4 19 25 -6 25
9 Stoke City 17 5 9 3 15 13 +2 24
10 Swansea City 17 6 5 6 26 22 +4 23
11 West Ham United 17 6 5 6 21 20 +1 23
12 Liverpool FC 17 5 7 5 23 23 0 22

Finishing with a flourish at City

The lengthy run of excellent form came to an end just before Christmas with a 2-1 defeat away at West Bromwich Albion. That became a much more worrying run of form with a nine-game winless sequence which included a zero-point return from the festive period and a 5-0 beating at Anfield against Liverpool FC in January.

Norwich beat Everton 2-1 with a late winner from Holt in late February to stop the rot and despite recording only another three wins from 11 games, Hughton’s side were never in any danger from the fear of relegation.

They finished on a high with back-to-back victories over West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City, scoring seven goals in these matches. The 4-0 triumph over the Baggies was actually the club’s biggest margin of victory in the 2012-2013 season. Holt scored in this game and in the 3-2 triumph at The Etihad to finish top scorer for the club yet again – this time with eight strikes.

An 11th place finish was encouraging despite a worse points tally than in 2011-2012 and with further investment promised, Norwich were looking up rather than down going into the summer of 2013.

FINAL 2012-2013 TABLE – 11th to 16th

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
11 NORWICH CITY 38 10 14 14 41 58 -17 44
12 Fulham 38 11 10 17 50 60 -10 43
13 Stoke City 38 9 15 14 34 45 -11 42
14 Southampton 38 9 14 15 49 60 -11 41
15 Aston Villa 38 10 11 17 47 69 -22 41
16 Newcastle United 38 11 8 19 45 68 -23 41

Seasonal Stories: Sunderland (1999-2000)

Storming to seventh

Sunderland returned to the elite of English football in 1999 after two seasons in Division One. The Black Cats had coasted to the title in the previous campaign and had learned their lessons from their painful relegation on the final day in 1997.

Peter Reid’s side played some thrilling football all campaign and finished in a fine seventh position, just outside of the European qualifying positions. They also had the top scorer of the Premier League season in their ranks with Kevin Phillips scoring 30 goals in his debut top-flight campaign.

Adding experience

Manager Peter Reid largely kept trust with the squad that had brought Premier League football back to Sunderland for the 1999-2000 season. Just £5.5 million was spent in the summer transfer window but some useful experience was added, especially to the defence.

The main arrival was that of Steve Bould. The central defender, a serial winner of FA Cups and league championships during his time at Arsenal, was signed in early July for £500,000 and was appointed as the new captain of the side upon his arrival. He was joined by 1996 European Championship winner Thomas Helmer from Bayern Munich on a free transfer. However, he made just two appearances all season for Reid.

The most expensive arrival was midfielder Stefan Schwarz. The Swede was a £4 million capture from Valencia and had Premier League experience on his CV too from a one-season spell with Arsenal in 1994-1995.

Rude awakening

Sunderland made a disastrous start on the opening day at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. It wasn’t going to be an easy beginning but they lost 4-0 with future Sunderland manager Gus Poyet scoring an early contender for Goal of the Season.

Their first victory came three days later in their first-ever Premier League match at The Stadium of Light. Kevin Phillips scored twice to beat his former club and fellow Premier League promoted side Watford 2-0.

Sunderland’s season received proper lift-on towards the end of August when they travelled to St James’ Park for a local derby with Newcastle United. It was a filthy evening weather-wise but a joyous one for the visiting fans. Niall Quinn and Phillips scored second half goals as the Black Cats recovered from a goal down at the interval to win 2-1. The result sealed Ruud Gullit’s fate and ended his reign as Newcastle manager.

The win on Tyneside began an 11-match unbeaten run in the top-flight with one of the highlights coming at Pride Park where they ran riot at Derby County. Phillips scored his first Premier League treble in a 5-0 victory which still remains Sunderland’s biggest-ever Premier League victory. When his two goals downed Aston Villa 2-1 a month later, the Black Cats were sitting in impressive company in the table.

18th OCTOBER 1999 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Leeds United 11 8 1 2 21 12 +9 25
2 Manchester United 11 7 3 1 27 16 +11 24
3 SUNDERLAND 11 7 2 2 20 9 +11 23
4 Arsenal 11 7 1 3 17 10 +7 22
5 Leicester City 11 6 2 3 19 14 +5 20
6 Chelsea 9 6 1 2 15 4 +11 19

Dishing out revenge on Chelsea

Sunderland’s unbeaten run came to an end on 20th November when they were beaten 2-0 at home by Liverpool FC. It was their first home defeat of the campaign. However, they bounced back again with another run of three successive victories. The second of those wins was probably the sweetest of the season on home soil.

Chelsea turned up at The Stadium of Light on a difficult run of form domestically that saw them down in the upper reaches of mid-table. Nevertheless, no-one could have forecasted the amazing first half performance Sunderland put in. The Phillips/Quinn axis was working a treat and both scored a brace. Sunderland supporters were dreaming at half-time and they richly deserved their 4-0 lead. They eventually won 4-1 and dished out the perfect revenge on the Blues for their opening day drubbing.

Before Christmas, Phillips had already scored 19 Premier League goals and he was leading the race for the Golden Boot. Sunderland went into Christmas still in third spot in the table and only below Leeds United and Manchester United.

Boxing Day was a horror story at Everton, folding to a 5-0 defeat in what was the club’s worst defeat of the season. This result started an 11-game sequence that ultimately saw any European hopes dashed.

Only five points were collected in this period but there were spirted draws at home to both Manchester United and Newcastle United. A 5-2 loss to Leicester City in early March forced Reid into some tactical adjustment for the run-in with the club having dropped into ninth position in the table.

Kev reaches the 30-goal mark

Despite the winless run, Phillips had still scored another six goals and it became clear that he wasn’t going to be caught by anyone in the Golden Boot battle. Only England captain Alan Shearer from Newcastle United was putting up any sort of challenge but Phillips finished well-clear.

In Sunderland’s final home game of the season, he scored the only goal of the game against West Ham United and it saw him reach a personal milestone. He became a member of the 30-goal club in a Premier League season, only becoming the third player to achieve this mark after Shearer and Andy Cole. Since then, only Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane, Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie have achieved a similar total in any Premier League season meaning Phillips is in very elite company.

A final day 3-1 loss at White Hart Lane to Tottenham Hotspur meant Sunderland missed out on overhauling Aston Villa in the league table in the final reckoning. Nevertheless, a seventh place final position had most definitely exceeded expectations from the start of the season.

Going down in 1997 had hurt everyone connected with Sunderland Football Club but they had learned lessons from that experience which made them better and more knowledgeable for the experience. The 1999-2000 season had been an enjoyable campaign for the club and most especially, for Kevin Phillips who won England international recognition for his goalscoring heroics in this campaign.

FINAL 1999-2000 TABLE – 6th to 11th

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
6 Aston Villa 38 15 13 10 46 35 +11 58
7 SUNDERLAND 38 16 10 12 57 56 +1 58
8 Leicester City 38 16 7 15 55 55 0 55
9 West Ham United 38 15 10 13 52 53 -1 55
10 Tottenham Hotspur 38 15 8 15 57 48 +8 53
11 Newcastle United 38 14 10 14 63 54 +9 52

Seasonal Stories: Middlesbrough (1995-1996)

The Riverside years start

After two seasons away, Middlesbrough were back in the Premier League for the 1995-1996 season and also, set to welcome a new home with the state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium ready for action. This was an opportunity for Boro to go and become an established force under the guidance of ex-Manchester United midfield marvel, Bryan Robson.

Middlesbrough finished in 12th position despite an alarming run in the winter months and settled in well into their new surroundings. The signing of the Brazilian Player of the Year, Juninho also attracted plenty of attention from the supporters on Teeside.

Bringing Barmby in

Middlesbrough had dominated the First Division in 1994-1995 and won the title with plenty to spare. Manager Bryan Robson brought in three new signings. He used his contacts from his Manchester United days to bring in Gary Walsh, who had become frustrated playing second-fiddle to Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford.

The big deal though was a club-record fee that was paid to Tottenham Hotspur to bring in midfielder Nick Barmby. His £5.25 million transfer surprised many considering how important he had been to Tottenham’s improvement in the previous season.

Middlesbrough top-flight return began with the first live Sky Sports fixture of the season away at Highbury against Arsenal. There was plenty of attention on the two major Arsenal signings, David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp but neither got much of a look-in and it was Middlesbrough’s new recruit who stole the show. On his return to north London, Barmby opened the scoring and although Ian Wright equalised before half-time, the 1-1 draw was a fair result.

A Riverside carnival

The Taylor Report, which required all stadiums in the top division to become all-seater meant Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough’s home couldn’t be expanded further due to its location in a residential area.

Work started on a new stadium in the autumn of 1994 and The Riverside Stadium (the name chosen by the fans) was ready for the start of the new season. 28,286 spectators were there for its first match and the first goalscorer in the new stadium was Craig Hignett after being set-up by Barmby. Jan Aage Fjortoft scored the second as Middlesbrough beat Chelsea 2-0 to make the perfect start in their new home.

In fact, Middlesbrough made a seriously good start to their Premier League return. They lost just one of their opening 10 matches and that was a narrow 1-0 loss on Tyneside to local rivals and early pacesetters, Newcastle United.

That run also included a five-game winning sequence. Hignett was proving to be a real focal point and matchwinning penalties were enough for 1-0 wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers. The win over the latter took Middlesbrough into the dizzying heights of fourth position in the table and another carnival was set to take place days later with the introduction of a new Brazilian.

22nd OCTOBER 1995 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Newcastle United 10 9 0 1 26 7 +19 27
2 Manchester United 10 7 2 1 21 11 +10 23
3 Arsenal 10 6 3 1 15 5 +10 21
4 MIDDLESBROUGH 10 6 3 1 11 4 +7 21
5 Liverpool FC 10 6 2 2 18 8 +10 20
6 Nottingham Forest 10 5 5 0 18 11 +7 20

Welcome Juninho

Brazilian midfielder Juninho was being tracked by numerous European clubs after his performances in the international team. So, it was a major surprise to see Middlesbrough win the race to his signature. Boro paid Sao Paulo £4.75 million for his services. He was welcomed to the club in a carnival atmosphere where a piece of Brazil seemed to have landed in Teeside.

There was plenty of hype around Juninho’s debut which came in early November. The match with Leeds United finished in a 1-1 draw and Juninho made an instant impact by setting up the opening goal in the 11th minute for Fjortoft to convert. His skills, tricks and pace wowed the supporters and he scored his first goal in his sixth appearance for the club in a 4-1 home win over Manchester City.

Although Middlesbrough’s unbeaten home record did end in November with a 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, they toppled Liverpool FC days later 2-1, thanks to goals by Neil Cox and Barmby who continued to justify the price tag Robson had paid for him in the summer.

By Christmas, Middlesbrough had lost just four times in the Premier League and were in the shakeup for a UEFA Cup qualifying position alongside the likes of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.

Boxing Day brought about a reality check and a real shock with a poor display on Merseyside – losing 4-0 to Everton. It started a horrendous run of form that saw the Teesiders plummet down the table.

A painful winter

The Everton defeat began a worrying run of 13 matches without a victory. There was a real lack of a goalscoring touch too with Boro scoring just five times in this period and one of those was an own goal from Newcastle United defender John Beresford.

In that period was a run of eight successive defeats which was among one of the worst sequences of the entire Premier League season. The nadir was a horrendous performance at Stamford Bridge in early February, losing 5-0 to Chelsea with Gavin Peacock scoring a hat-trick. By mid-March, Middlesbrough had dropped to 13th in the table. Luckily, the form of the teams below them was not great so there was still a nine-point cushion to the bottom three.

36 points had been garnered already and a 1-0 victory at the end of March over Leeds United thanks to a spot-kick by Graham Kavanagh eased any lasting concerns. A week later, Fjortoft scored twice in a 3-1 Good Friday win at home to Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough finished in 12th place which was a respectable position on their return to the top-flight.

Robson knew though work was required in the forward line. Only Southampton and relegated Manchester City scored fewer goals than Middlesbrough in 1995-1996 and he began to search for a new forward that summer. A flamboyant Italian would arrive and the next 12 months were going to be among the most dramatic and heartbreaking in the club’s history.

FINAL 1995-1996 TABLE – 11TH TO 16TH

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
11 Chelsea 38 12 14 12 46 44 +2 50
12 MIDDLESBROUGH 38 11 10 17 35 50 -15 43
13 Leeds United 38 12 7 19 40 57 -17 43
14 Wimbledon 38 10 11 17 55 70 -15 41
15 Sheffield Wednesday 38 10 10 18 48 61 -13 40
16 Coventry City 38 8 14 16 42 60 -18 38

Seasonal Stories: Southampton (2014-2015)

Challenging the elite

Summer 2014 was one of turmoil for Southampton who saw their manager leave for a new post and several key figures from the previous season move onto bigger clubs. However, new manager Ronald Koeman and his players found a great resolve that saw them achieve a best-ever Premier League finish of seventh, despite being made relegation favourites at the start of the campaign.

The form of Graziano Pelle was important whilst towards the end of the season, another of the new purchases in Sadio Mane sealed his place in the Premier League record books.

A challenging summer

Southampton had finished the 2013-2014 Premier League season in eighth position with their best-ever points tally in a 38-game season. However, the club were about to experience plenty of upheaval in a challenging summer.

First was the departure of Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino. Pochettino had impressed throughout his 18-month tenure in the St Mary’s hotseat and plenty of clubs were interested in his services. It was Tottenham Hotspur who eventually got his signature, replacing Tim Sherwood. Pochettino’s successor would be ex-Dutch defender Ronald Koeman, who had plenty of managerial experience from spells with PSV Eindhoven, Benfica and Valencia.

Koeman had to deal with many of the key Southampton first-team squad moving onto pastures new. Liverpool FC took the trio of Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren, whilst Manchester United signed Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers left for Arsenal. Morgan Schneiderlin also tried to force a move through to Tottenham but his transfer request was rejected and a serious knee injury meant Jay Rodriguez’s impact on this campaign was going to be severely limited.

There were eight new arrivals. Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld and left-back Ryan Bertrand were the season’s loan stars and they would be joined by six new permanent squad members. Attacking midfielder Sadio Mane came in from RB Salzburg, Fraser Forster moved from Celtic to succeed Artur Boruc as the club’s permanent no.1 goalkeeper and Serbian midfielder Dusan Tadic was acquired from FC Twente. Many columnists and pundits had Southampton down among their contenders for relegation following the summer of change.

Tremendous early run

Southampton played well on the opening weekend at Anfield and were unfortunate to lose 2-1 to Liverpool FC. Shane Long, a recent signing from Hull City, missed a great late opportunity to earn the Saints a share of the points.

Southampton’s first win came at the end of August. Having made peace with the hierarchy after his summer spat, Schneiderlin came to the fore at Upton Park, scoring twice in Southampton’s 3-1 triumph away at West Ham United.

This win in east London started a tremendous run of form for Southampton as they would win eight of their next nine matches to rise to the dizzying heights of second position. They kept six clean sheets in that period with Alderweireld and Bertrand settling in very quickly and showing that Shaw and Lovren weren’t being missed at all.

One of those victories remains the club’s biggest-ever Premier League victory as they wiped the floor with Sunderland. Southampton won 8-0. They were helped by three own goals whilst Graziano Pelle scored twice to continue his fantastic start to his Southampton career. He scored six goals in his first 11 matches.

TABLE ON 9th November 2014

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Chelsea 11 9 2 0 28 11 +17 29
2 SOUTHAMPTON 11 8 1 2 23 5 +18 25
3 Manchester City 11 6 3 2 22 12 +10 21
4 West Ham United 11 5 3 3 19 14 +5 18
5 Swansea City 11 5 3 3 15 11 +4 18
6 Arsenal 11 4 5 2 19 13 +6 17

Maintaining form in festive period

Another player who was having an excellent season was Nathaniel Clyne. The right-back scored a late equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw at Aston Villa but it did begin a dip of form which saw Southampton lose four consecutive matches. Three of those games were against the elite in the shape of Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United.

However, there was another bounce at the right time. With the festive period in sight, Southampton had some tricky games against Everton, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal but collected 10 points from a possible 12. The 3-1 victory at Selhurst Park saw Neil Warnock’s second reign as Crystal Palace manager come to an end whilst the 2-0 victory over Arsenal forced Arsene Wenger into changing his main goalkeeper from Wojciech Szczesny after an error-strewn display on the south coast to David Ospina.

The January transfer window was a quiet one in comparison to the busy summer period. Bertrand’s loan move became a permanent transfer whilst Dutch winger Eljero Elia was brought in on-loan for the rest of the season from SV Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. Jack Cork though did leave for a fresh start at Swansea City after being unable to hold down a regular place in Koeman’s starting XI.

Elia’s impact was limited but he did score both goals to spearhead a 2-1 away victory at Newcastle United. This came after Tadic came off the bench to secure victory at Old Trafford against Manchester United. In mid-January, Southampton were sitting in third place and above Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Liverpool FC. They looked a potential serious player for the UEFA Champions League qualifying positions.

Feeling the pace

A late home defeat in early February to Swansea City was the first signs that Southampton would fall short of what had turned out to be an ambitious but feasible target. Jonjo Shelvey’s long-range strike helped the Welsh club garner all three points on a day where a couple of Southampton’s key players had days to forget. Forster, who had been excellent in-goal, didn’t do enough to keep out Shelvey’s shot, whilst Bertrand blotted his copybook with a red card for a dangerous tackle on Modou Barrow.

Southampton would win only another five Premier League matches after this game and dropped out of the top four after a 2-0 home loss to Liverpool FC on 22nd February. They wouldn’t return to that position again.

Nevertheless, there were still some high points. Tadic’s penalty ensured they collected an excellent point at Stamford Bridge against champions-elect Chelsea whilst James Ward-Prowse scored only his second-ever goal for the club in April’s 2-0 win over Hull City which briefly took the Saints back into fifth position.

Southampton eventually finished in seventh, winning just one of their last six games. However, that victory was a memorable one against Aston Villa.

Southampton were leading 5-1 at half-time as they took full advantage of a brittle defensive display from their opponents. Mane broke Robbie Fowler’s 21-year record to become the new holder of the fastest Premier League hat-trick in history. Mane’s treble came in just two minutes, 56 seconds. Shane Long added a spectacular fifth from 40 yards out and Koeman admitted afterwards: “It was an amazing afternoon and I didn’t expect it I have to be honest but I was expecting a reaction after the last two games and it was great as it was our last home game. The fans deserved it for their amazing support.”

FINAL 2014-2015 TABLE – THE TOP SEVEN

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Chelsea 38 26 9 3 73 32 +41 87
2 Manchester City 38 24 7 7 83 38 +45 79
3 Arsenal 38 22 9 7 71 36 +35 75
4 Manchester United 38 20 10 8 62 37 +25 70
5 Tottenham Hotspur 38 19 7 12 58 53 +5 64
6 Liverpool FC 38 18 8 12 52 48 +4 62
7 SOUTHAMPTON 38 18 6 14 54 33 +21 60

Southampton had produced a stunning season and proven a lot of people wrong. The fans could be happy that despite all of the summer changes, Koeman and the board had made some smart moves in the transfer market and been rewarded with the club’s best-ever Premier League finish. They also finished with the second-best defensive record, letting in just 33 goals in 38 matches.

Seasonal Stories: Tottenham Hotspur (2016-2017)

Farewell to the Lane

Tottenham Hotspur might have ended the 2016-2017 season without any silverware but it was a memorable campaign for Mauricio Pochettino and his young, exciting side. For the second successive season, they made a challenge for the title, eventually falling seven points short of London rivals Chelsea but they finished gallant runners-up.

They finished above north London rivals Arsenal for the first time in 22 years, Harry Kane won the Golden Boot for the second successive season and they dropped just four points all campaign on home soil as White Hart Lane received a fond farewell.

Splashing the cash

After coming close to winning the Premier League title in 2015-2016, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino and his young squad were hungry to take two further steps following their third-place finish the previous season.

After impressing for France during EURO 2016, Moussa Sissoko was acquired from relegated Newcastle United for £30 million on transfer deadline day. He joined Victor Wanyama, who linked up with Pochettino again having played underneath the Argentine at Southampton and Vincent Janssen, who came in from Ajax as back-up for Harry Kane.

Tottenham made a brilliant start to the season and finished September in second place, with four wins from their opening six matches. Heung-Min Son started the season in peak form. The South Korean scored braces in away victories over Stoke City and Middlesbrough. The only blow was the loss of Kane for seven weeks after he sustained an ankle injury in the closing stages of a narrow home win against rock-bottom Sunderland.

Poch triumphing over Pep

October began with a visit to White Hart Lane from league leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side had made an impeccable start, winning their first six league matches of the season but on the day, it was Pochettino who would triumph over Pep. Tottenham got at the Citizens early on and the visitors couldn’t handle their pressing tactics. An Aleksandar Kolarov own goal and strike from Dele Alli helped Spurs to record an impressive 2-0 victory and meant, they were now the only club yet to taste defeat in the Premier League in 2016-2017.

The next period of league matches was frustrating and ultimately, a run of just two wins in eight matches proved to be costly come the final outcome in regards to a title challenge. Tottenham’s unbeaten record remained until the end of November when in their 13th match, they lost 2-1 at Stamford Bridge to league leaders Chelsea. By now, Kane was back from injury and rescued a point from the penalty spot in the first North London Derby of the season at The Emirates Stadium.

Defeat no.2 of the season came at Old Trafford in mid-December. Kane was robbed of possession in the centre circle and Manchester United broke forward, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan scoring the only goal of the game. Tottenham’s response to this setback was a run of six successive victories which meant by mid-January, they were firmly in the shake-up for a top four finish.

15th JANUARY 2017 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Chelsea 21 17 1 3 45 15 +30 52
2 TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 21 13 6 2 43 14 +29 45
3 Liverpool FC 21 13 6 2 49 24 +25 45
4 Arsenal 21 13 5 3 48 22 +26 44
5 Manchester City 21 13 3 5 41 26 +15 42
6 Manchester United 21 11 7 3 32 20 +12 40

King Kane loves a treble

At the turn of the year, it was Dele Alli who was firmly in the goals. Alli managed to score three successive braces of goals during the festive period, including two headers at White Hart Lane in early January which saw Chelsea’s 13-match winning sequence end in a 2-0 defeat.

Kane was about to enjoy a stunning 2017 which ultimately saw him break the record for Premier League goals in a calendar year. His first hat-trick of the season came in mid-January in a fairly routine 4-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion.

Kane followed this hat-trick up with back-to-back trebles in successive Sundays in February. First, his hat-trick took Spurs past Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup fifth round before a first half hat-trick saw Stoke City condemned to a third successive 4-0 loss against the Lilywhites in the Premier League.

Kane was locked in a tight battle for the Golden Boot with Everton’s Romelu Lukaku but it looked like the Belgian might have the edge, especially when Kane injured his ankle again in the FA Cup quarter-finals against Millwall, putting him on the treatment table again for another month.

With uncertainty around Arsene Wenger’s future at Arsenal and the inconsistency from Liverpool FC and both Manchester clubs, it was Tottenham who were the only team who looked capable of giving Chelsea some nervy moments in the run-in. 10 points behind with 10 games left to play, Tottenham quickly cut that gap to four points, enjoying a fruitful run of nine successive victories – their best-ever sequence in their Premier League history.

The end at White Hart Lane

At the end of April, Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-0 in the last North London Derby at White Hart Lane with goals from Alli and the returning Kane. This meant that Tottenham would finish above Arsenal in a top-flight table for the first time since 1995 and guaranteed a finish in the top four.

There was a sense within the supporters that a genuine bid for the title was on but a week later, that hope expired on Tottenham’s first visit to The London Stadium. Manuel Lanzini’s second half strike guided West Ham to a 1-0 victory, sending their supporters into ecstasy at crushing Spurs’ dreams. By the time Tottenham played their next match, Chelsea had recorded the two wins they had required to regain the Premier League title.

All that was left was for the final-ever match to be played at White Hart Lane. Tottenham were moving temporarily into Wembley Stadium whilst a new stadium was built on the site of the historic ground. Manchester United were the visitors but they couldn’t be the party poopers. Wanyama opened the scoring with an early header and fittingly, Kane would be the final Tottenham scorer at the ground, scoring his first-ever goal against Manchester United in the process.

A 2-1 victory over the Red Devils guaranteed second place in the table, their best-ever Premier League finish and an unbeaten home record in the last White Hart Lane season, recording 15 successive home victories. Only Liverpool FC and Leicester City avoided defeat. There was plenty of emotion as a final celebration was held with Tottenham legends past and present braving the rain to join in the celebrations. Kane wasn’t done though. Seven goals in the last week of the season, including another two hat-tricks as Spurs brushed aside Leicester and Hull City 6-1 and 7-1 respectively. That meant a second successive Golden Boot for the striker.

Alas, there was no silverware for the team but Tottenham Hotspur had produced plenty of excitement and entertainment for their supporters and the neutrals in season 2016-2017.

FINAL 2016-2017 TABLE – THE TOP SIX

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Chelsea 38 30 3 5 85 33 +52 93
2 TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 38 26 8 4 86 26 +60 86
3 Manchester City 38 23 9 6 80 39 +41 78
4 Liverpool FC 38 22 10 6 78 42 +36 76
5 Arsenal 38 23 6 9 77 44 +33 75
6 Manchester United 38 18 15 5 54 29 +25 69

Seasonal Stories: Bolton Wanderers (2001-2002)

Target achieved

Bolton Wanderers were tipped by many as favourites to make an instant return to the First Division ahead of the 2001-2002 Premier League campaign. Without a great deal of money to spend following promotion, Sam Allardyce had to rely on the bulk of his promotion-winning squad and they did him proud. Top of the table in August and a memorable win at Old Trafford over the reigning champions were among the early highlights.

A winter wobble gave way to a successful spring and a 16th-place finish which meant the Trotters avoided relegation for the first time in their Premier League existence.

Three wins from three

Having won promotion to the Premier League after defeating Preston North End in the play-off final in late May, Sam Allardyce was about to face a big challenge as a top-flight manager and with little summer investment. Bolton spent a meagre £650,000 in pre-season and that was on one player, Henrik Pedersen from Danish outfit Silkeborg.

Allardyce had to rely on the majority of his promotion-winning squad but they made a fabulous start on the opening day at Filbert Street, handing down a 5-0 thrashing to Leicester City. Kevin Nolan scored twice on his Premier League debut and Per Frandsen struck two fantastic free-kicks in a scoreline that left everyone surprised by the way Bolton had trounced a team who had comfortably finished in mid-table in the previous campaign.

Michael Ricketts had also scored in that victory and he made a brilliant individual start to his maiden season in the top-flight. Ricketts got the only goal of the game in Bolton’s first home match of the season against Middlesbrough three days later, then opened the scoring against Liverpool FC in a shock 2-1 victory over the side that held five trophies to their name at this stage of the season. A record crowd at The Reebok Stadium saw Sander Westerveld allow a weak Dean Holdsworth shot to defeat him in stoppage-time and ensure Bolton ended August top of the Premier League table.

Surprising the elite

September was a winless month but Bolton still remained in fourth place and picked up more vital points on their travels. The Premier League elite were struggling against ‘Big Sam’ and his battling squad. Liverpool FC had lost to them and after the first international break of the season, Leeds United couldn’t break Bolton down at Elland Road, drawing 0-0.

Later in the month, Ricketts came off the bench to snatch an equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Highbury with Arsenal. He later admitted he had been dropped by the manager for a poor performance in the previous match but seemed happy to play the rotational role. He would strike a more significant blow a month later on the reigning champions.

When Bolton travelled to Old Trafford to play Manchester United in mid-October, they had slipped to eighth in the table and were winless in six matches. They fell behind to Juan Sebastian Veron’s free-kick and needed a splendid double-save from Jussi Jaaskelainen to stop the Red Devils increasing their advantage. Then, Nolan scored a brilliant equaliser before Ricketts raced clear of Wes Brown in the last five minutes and silenced the home support with a stunning winning goal. Bolton had just stunned Manchester United and left with all three points. They were mixing it in decent company in the upper echelons of the Premier League table.

21st OCTOBER 2001 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
1 Leeds United 9 5 4 0 12 3 +9 19
2 Arsenal 9 5 3 1 21 8 +13 18
3 Aston Villa 9 5 3 1 14 6 +8 18
4 Manchester United 9 5 2 2 26 16 +10 17
5 Liverpool FC 8 5 1 2 15 9 +6 16
6 BOLTON WANDERERS 10 4 3 3 12 11 +1 15

Momentum lost

The fine start Bolton made to the season seemed to have silenced the critics who had believed they had little hope of staying up at the start of the campaign. However, winter would leave a real freeze over The Reebok.

After the win at Old Trafford, Allardyce’s side lost all sense of momentum, only winning one of their next 15 matches which was a 2-1 success infront of the Sky Sports Super Sunday cameras away at struggling Ipswich Town in mid-November.

Bolton plummeted down the table and were beginning to concede goals at an alarming rate too. Chelsea beat them 5-1 at Stamford Bridge despite Nolan giving them a third-minute lead. Days later, Robbie Fowler scored his first Leeds United hat-trick as David O’Leary’s side cruised to a 3-0 victory on Boxing Day.

When they lost an end-to-end contest in early February on Tyneside to Newcastle United 3-2, the club had dropped into the bottom three for the first time in the season. Maybe the doubters were about to be proven right.

Allardyce knew he needed to add some proven experience to his squad and swooped into the European market to bring in defender Bruno N’Gotty from Marseille, tough-tackling midfielder Stig Tøfting from Hamburger SV and experienced forwards Youri Djorkaeff and Fredi Bobic. The latter pair would have a huge influence on Bolton’s fortunes in the spring months.

Fredi and Youri do the business

Bolton did record a 1-0 victory over West Ham United in mid-February but the genuine turning point came in late March when the Trotters travelled to The Valley to play Charlton Athletic. Djorkaeff scored his first goals for the club as Bolton recorded a 2-1 victory to climb out of the drop zone and it started a run of three victories in four games.

On Easter Saturday, Bobic broke his duck at home to Aston Villa and Nolan rediscovered his goalscoring form to send Villa to a 3-2 defeat. A week later, Bobic was in sensational form at home to Ipswich. In a game that was a genuine relegation six-pointer, he scored a first half hat-trick and Djorkaeff chipped in with another strike as Allardyce’s side enjoyed a memorable first half. Ipswich were 4-0 down at the interval and their season never truly recovered. The final scoreline was 4-1 and it was a result that virtually secured Bolton’s place in the Premier League for another season.

The magical 40-point mark was achieved a week later with a 1-1 home draw against Tottenham Hotspur and although they lost their final three matches against a trio of London sides in Fulham, Arsenal and West Ham United, Bolton had achieved survival for the first time in their Premier League life – finishing four points above danger. It was a job well done from a team considered the favourite for the drop at the start of the season.

FINAL 2001-2002 TABLE – THE BOTTOM SIX

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
15 Everton 38 11 10 17 45 57 -12 43
16 BOLTON WANDERERS 38 9 13 16 44 62 -18 40
17 Sunderland 38 10 10 18 29 51 -22 40
18 Ipswich Town 38 9 9 20 41 64 -23 36
19 Derby County 38 8 6 24 33 63 -30 30
20 Leicester City 38 5 13 20 30 64 -34 28

Seasonal Stories: Newcastle United (2008-2009)

A calamitous campaign

Newcastle United’s 2008-2009 Premier League season turned out to be a calamitous mess. No fewer than four managers during the campaign, either in a full-time or caretaker capacity, mass demonstrations over the running of the club and it ended with the worst possible outcome on-the-pitch.

A final day 1-0 defeat at Villa Park against Aston Villa saw the club relegated to the Championship, ending their 16-year stay in England’s top-flight. No-one could argue at the end of the season with the ultimate final outcome.

Keegan walks away

It was Newcastle United icon Kevin Keegan who was the manager at the start of the campaign and with him in-charge, expectations were high with the supporters who were hoping to see the glory days of the mid-1990s return to the St James’ Park turf.

Among the arrivals in pre-season were midfielder Jonas Gutierrez and central defenders Sebastien Bassong and Fabricio Coloccini and in the first two games of the season, four points were collected. On the opening weekend, Obafemi Martins scored at Old Trafford as Newcastle recorded a creditable 1-1 draw at defending champions Manchester United before Bolton Wanderers were overcome 1-0. Even a 3-0 defeat at the end of August to Arsenal wasn’t seen as a complete disaster.

Shortly afterwards though, Keegan was gone. Furious with the sale of James Milner in the closing days of the summer transfer window to Aston Villa in a £12 million deal and other disagreements over the club’s transfer policy saw ‘King Kev’ tender his resignation on 4th September. Incensed, the fans began bitter protests against owner Mike Ashley and Director of Football Dennis Wise.

Response on Kinnear’s arrival

For the club’s next home match, the directors box was noticeably empty and the growing tension increased as newly-promoted Hull City recorded a 2-1 victory on Tyneside. Chris Hughton had taken caretaker charge following Keegan’s exit but Ashley elected to appoint Joe Kinnear as full-time manager at the end of September to the shock of many. Kinnear hadn’t managed in the top-flight since health problems ended his reign at Wimbledon back in 1999.

There was a response from the players on his appointment. Back-to-back home victories over West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa saw the Magpies climb out of the bottom three at the start of November. However, there was a damaging 2-1 defeat in the first Tyne & Wear Derby of the season at Sunderland which was their first reverse away to Sunderland in 28 years.

Newcastle’s first away victory of the season arrived in mid-December. Michael Owen scored twice as Portsmouth were comfortably vanquished 3-0 on home soil. That was part of a six-game unbeaten run which had the Geordies as high as 12th in the Premier League table. Considering the turmoil that had engulfed the club at boardroom and managerial level throughout 2008, it was a respectable position.

2008 did end though in humiliating fashion with a 5-1 loss at home to league leaders Liverpool FC. Shay Given was in sensational form, making a string of world-class saves in the first half and had it not been for him, Liverpool could have amassed a heavier margin of victory, such was the gulfing class between the two sides on the day. Newcastle’s plight was only about to get worse.

30TH DECEMBER 2008 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
14 NEWCASTLE UNITED 20 5 7 8 26 32 -6 22
15 Sunderland 20 6 4 10 21 29 -8 22
16 Tottenham Hotspur 20 5 5 10 20 25 -5 20
17 Middlesbrough 20 5 5 10 17 29 -12 20
18 Stoke City 20 5 5 10 18 33 -15 20
19 Blackburn Rovers 20 4 6 10 22 36 -14 18

Another managerial change

The January transfer window did see the surprising acquisition of Kevin Nolan after the midfielder had grown tired of some criticism over his performances at Bolton Wanderers. However, there were another two notable departures. Goalkeeper Given ended his 12-year association with the club, signing for ambitious Manchester City whilst midfielder Charles N’Zogbia elected to move on to Wigan Athletic. The Frenchman was furious when Kinnear got tongue-tied during a TV interview after a 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, when he called him “Insomnia!” N’Zogbia gladly moved on with Ryan Taylor moving in part-exchange to Tyneside.

On the morning of 7th February, Kinnear’s reign at Newcastle would end. He was taken ill on the eve of Newcastle’s trip to relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion. He would require a triple heart bypass and would have to stand down. So once again, Chris Hughton took over in a caretaker capacity with former Tottenham defender Colin Calderwood arriving on the staff to help the Irishman out.

Newcastle rallied on the day at The Hawthorns, winning a see-saw contest 3-2 to keep the Baggies bottom of the table. However, it would be the only victory Hughton and Calderwood managed as a managerial combination.

The next home game against Everton saw Nolan sent off for a horrendous tackle on Victor Anichebe. There was no malice in the challenge but it was terribly mistimed and it would leave the Nigerian sidelined for months with bad knee ligament damage. That match finished goalless. A month later, Arsenal’s 3-1 victory on Tyneside saw Newcastle drop back into the bottom three. It called for desperate measures from an under-pressure Ashley who reached out for the Toon Army’s greatest-ever goalscorer.

No miracle with Shearer in-charge

With eight games left, Alan Shearer was persuaded to vacate his regular role as a BBC pundit to help out his boyhood club. The mission was to try and keep Newcastle in the Premier League. He brought in former Crystal Palace and Charlton Athletic boss Iain Dowie as his assistant manager. However, the Shearer effect would have no change on Newcastle’s fortunes.

He managed just one victory which was a 3-1 home success over Middlesbrough and that did briefly lift the Magpies out of the relegation zone on goal difference. However, on the penultimate weekend of the campaign, they slipped back into the bottom three after a home defeat to Fulham whilst Hull City claimed a priceless point away at Bolton.

On the final day, Newcastle needed to better Hull’s result. The Magpies travelled to Villa Park, hoping Hull would slip up against Manchester United. They received a helping hand from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side as they defeated the Tigers 1-0. However, Damien Duff deflected Gareth Barry’s wayward shot into his own net approximately 10 minutes before half-time to give Aston Villa a 1-0 lead. Youngster David Edgar was sent off in the closing stages and Newcastle never looked like equalising. On the final whistle, their players sank to their knees while Shearer looked motionless on the touchline. As Martin Tyler said when Newcastle’s relegation was confirmed: “From undermining Kevin Keegan to overtaxing Alan Shearer, it has been disastrous.”

In the days afterwards, Mike Ashley tried to sell the club for a second time but couldn’t find a buyer. Shearer’s contract as manager wasn’t renewed and Chris Hughton succeeded him as permanent boss and big-money players like Geremi, Owen and Duff all left in the summer.

It was a season of strife, frustration and desolation for Newcastle United supporters – one remembered for all the wrong reasons.

FINAL 2008-2009 TABLE – THE BOTTOM SIX

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
15 Blackburn Rovers 38 10 11 17 40 60 -20 41
16 Sunderland 38 9 9 20 34 54 -20 36
17 Hull City 38 8 11 19 39 64 -25 35
18 NEWCASTLE UNITED 38 7 13 18 40 59 -19 34
19 Middlesbrough 38 7 11 20 28 57 -29 32
20 West Bromwich Albion 38 8 8 22 36 67 -31 32

Seasonal Stories: Birmingham City (2009-2010)

A fine return

Back in the Premier League for the 2009-2010 season, Birmingham City enjoyed one of their finest campaigns, going on a lengthy unbeaten 12-game run which lasted over four months. Alex McLeish’s side recorded their best-ever finish in the Premier League, ending the season in ninth place.

Carson Yeung also completed his takeover of the club in October 2009 which gave Birmingham a bit more financial muscle, although his ownership would ultimately turn out to be controversial for the club’s longer-term future.

Breaking club records

Birmingham’s first act after promotion back to the Premier League in the summer was to hand new contracts to experienced right-back Stephen Carr and forward Cameron Jerome. Jerome would face competition though in the striking department when the club broke their transfer record fee to sign Christian Benitez from Santos Laguna.

Benitez would be joined by a new useful centre-back partnership that was formed by the signings of Scott Dann from Coventry City and Roger Johnson from Cardiff City. Lee Bowyer joined up on a free transfer following his summer release by West Ham United and Joe Hart would be the club’s new first-choice goalkeeper after arriving on-loan from Manchester City for the season.

Birmingham’s first match back in the top-flight was a daunting trip to Old Trafford to face reigning champions Manchester United. Wayne Rooney’s first half goal was the decisive factor but Birmingham put in a solid display and were slightly unfortunate to lose 1-0, with Ben Foster making a brilliant save to deny Benitez a goal on his Premier League debut.

A lift from the new owner

Although they were tight defensively throughout the season, it was a slow start for Alex McLeish’s side back in the Premier League. They lost six of their first nine matches and after a 3-1 loss in mid-October away at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the Blues sat 16th in the table. However, a lift from a new owner was about to galvanise their fortunes.

Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung had tried to purchase the club unsuccessfully during the 2007-2008 season but he returned in the summer to revive his interest in the Midlands outfit. It was protracted and a lengthy process but in mid-October, the takeover was finally officially completed. Michael Dunford was appointed Chief Executive and Yeung became the club’s president. He also indicated that the manager would receive funds to invest in the first-team squad and make Birmingham a sustained force in English football.

There was a huge uplift with the supporters happy the ownership issue was sorted and the players got that bounce too. A nervy but deserved 2-1 victory over Sunderland, managed by former Birmingham boss Steve Bruce started a tremendous run of form that saw the club embark on a 12-match unbeaten run.

This included a five-game winning sequence that saw them rise as high as sixth briefly in the table after a 2-1 home victory over Blackburn Rovers. Bowyer was proving his worth to the team, scoring five times in this sequence including a magnificent winning goal away at Molineux while Jerome scored one of the greatest goals of his career in a 2-2 draw away at Anfield in November.

20TH DECEMBER 2009 TABLE

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
3 Arsenal 17 11 2 4 44 20 +24 35
4 Aston Villa 18 10 5 3 29 14 +15 35
5 Tottenham Hotspur 18 10 3 5 40 22 +18 33
6 Manchester City 17 7 8 2 33 27 +6 29
7 BIRMINGHAM CITY 18 8 4 6 19 18 +1 28
8 Liverpool FC 18 8 3 7 34 25 +9 27

Chelsea end the sequence

McLeish’s excellent work saw him rightfully rewarded with the Manager of the Month award for December and Birmingham’s unbeaten run continued during the festive period, holding league leaders Chelsea to a goalless draw on Boxing Day and repeating the trick against Manchester United at St Andrew’s in January, drawing 1-1 with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.

Although the funds were there, McLeish elected to largely keep faith with the squad he had at his disposal in the January transfer window but did add Craig Gardner for £3 million from city rivals, Aston Villa. At the end of January, the 12-game unbeaten run ended at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were simply too strong for the Blues, cruising to a 3-0 victory. Nevertheless, it was a great run which Birmingham had enjoyed and by the end of the first month of 2010, they could plan already for the 2010-2011 season.

February began with a league double being completed over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Veteran forward Kevin Phillips came off the bench to score twice in the last 10 minutes to steer Birmingham to a 2-1 victory. That took Birmingham into eighth position in the table and they wouldn’t relinquish a position in the top half for the remainder of the campaign.

Jerome finished as the club’s top goalscorer in the Premier League, scoring 11 times. However, club-record signing Benitez struggled to settle in English football. He scored just three times in 30 league matches and the Ecuadorian left at the end of the campaign for a fresh start elsewhere. Meanwhile, Hart’s great form saw him earn a spot in Fabio Capello’s England World Cup 2010 squad.

Faltering finish

In terms of excitement, Birmingham’s season virtually finished in mid-March when their FA Cup adventure ended with a disappointing 2-0 defeat against financially troubled Portsmouth at the quarter-final stage.

Following the league victory over Wolves in February, McLeish’s side managed just three further victories over the rest of the Premier League campaign over Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth (just days after the FA Cup exit) and Burnley. Birmingham ended the season in ninth position. Their home form was impressive all season, losing just two games all term against Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa.

FINAL 1997-1998 TABLE – SEVENTH TO TWELFTH

POS TABLE P W D L F A GD PTS
7 Liverpool FC 38 18 9 11 61 35 +26 63
8 Everton 38 16 13 9 60 49 +11 61
9 BIRMINGHAM CITY 38 13 11 14 38 47 -9 50
10 Blackburn Rovers 38 13 11 14 41 55 -14 50
11 Stoke City 38 11 14 13 34 48 -14 47
12 Fulham 38 12 10 16 39 46 -7 46