Thursday 14 December 2017

How to blow the title: The Premiership managers who cracked under pressure

Newcastle's Terry McDermott and Kevin Keegan feel the pain in throwing away a 12 point lead
Newcastle's Terry McDermott and Kevin Keegan feel the pain in throwing away a 12 point lead

This is the time of year when leads are lost, fans cry and dreams die. As Manchester City approach their moment of truth, Tim Rich recalls five cases of teams who should have won the League but didn’t. They all had flair players and were almost unbeatable at home. Remind you of anyone?

Manchester City, 1972

Led from: January 29-April 1
Biggest lead: 5 pts
Points from last 10 games: 14 (two points for a win)
Finished: 4th

It was the equivalent of an athlete waving to the crowd as he entered the final bend. Manchester City were driving towards the title, but Malcolm Allison, against the wishes of his co-manager, Joe Mercer, wanted it done with a final flourish.

An arrival in the shape of Rodney Marsh, brought to Maine Road for £200,000, stemmed from Allison's fascination with George Best.

Best was still the most glamorous footballer in England. Marsh's arrival would counter that. "It will take 6,000 off the gate at Old Trafford," Allison told Mercer, bizarrely assuming that fans changed brands like soap powder.

There were many things wrong with Marsh's transfer from Queens Park Rangers, not least that he was out of condition when he arrived, in a Lotus.

Mike Doyle, City's most decorated footballer, who loathed Marsh, said: "Marsh was a stone overweight and I told Malcolm exactly what I thought about his decision to leave out Tony Towers, who had been playing better than any of us, to accommodate him.

"In Franny Lee, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell we had three of the best attackers in the business, but, suddenly, they were getting into positions and the ball never arrived. Everyone seemed to be running into a blind alley."

Marsh admits he was responsible for the collapse, although maybe he is giving in too easily to dressing-room opinion.

The flash new signing featured in eight of City's final nine fixtures in which he scored four times. Of those eight, five were won and, although defeats to Southampton and Stoke proved fatal, the latter was due to an astonishing performance from Gordon Banks.

City, in contrast, had something of a goalkeeping crisis, with Joe Corrigan dropped for the run-in.

Marsh scored twice in City's final game of the season, a 2-0 win over Derby that saw them end their fixtures on top. However, the lead was a mere point and Derby had one game in hand, Leeds and Liverpool two.

Derby clung on and in Majorca Brian Clough's squad heard that Leeds had lost at Wolves and they were champions.

Mercer, whose relationship with Allison was torn beyond repair, left Maine Road that summer.

Relevance to City now -- 3/5: The decision to recall Carlos Tevez reeks of 1972.

Queens Park Rgs, 1976

Led from: March 6-April 17
Biggest lead: 2 pts
Points from last 10 games: 17
Finished: 2nd

The most romantic title tilt of the lot, a run-of-the-mill London club who suddenly discovered a brand of football they have never looked like replicating. They won 13 of their final 15 fixtures and but for a freakish 3-2 defeat at Norwich would have denied Liverpool a first title under Bob Paisley.

They were unbeaten at Loftus Road all season and finished off with a 2-0 win against Leeds, but had to wait 10 days for Liverpool to play their final fixture, at Wolves, needing a draw to win the title.

Dave Sexton's players gathered in a Thames Television studio to watch the game. Wolves took the lead, but after Kevin Keegan equalised with 13 minutes left, most of the QPR team walked out. Liverpool won 3-1.

Some of QPR's victories were spectacular. They thrashed the champions Derby 5-1 (Stan Bowles scoring a hat-trick) and disembowelled Everton 5-0.

"They were fun days and we had great flair players," recalled Dave Webb, who said he and Frank McLintock patrolled the centre of defence "like an old married couple. We had Stan Bowles up front, Gerry Francis in the middle, Dave Thomas wide. We played the ball out from the back, which was unusual."

Relevance to City now -- 3/5: For all their brilliant football, City -- like QPR back then -- have never had a decisive lead.

Manchester Utd, 1992

Led from: March 31-April 18
Biggest lead: 6 pts
Points from last 10 games: 13 (three points for a win)
Finished: 2nd

Kevin Keegan's "I'd love it.." speech is usually wheeled out to show a club (Newcastle United) dissolving under pressure. However, almost exactly four years before, Alex Ferguson combusted in remarkably similar fashion at Upton Park.

The Manchester United manager was fortunate it was just a few months before the Sky cameras obtained their access-all-areas passes. United were in the middle of a run of four games in six days.

They had begun it a point behind Leeds, but with two games in hand. The first against Southampton was won, but four points were dropped against Luton and Nottingham Forest and on Wednesday, April 22, United travelled to West Ham, who had already been relegated, and lost 1-0.

Ferguson, who a couple of days before had turned up on Lee Sharpe's doorstep to fling out a host of party guests -- and Ryan Giggs -- lost it. He said it was "obscene and almost criminal" that a side that had played so badly for so much of the season should suddenly have raised their game. West Ham won with a fluke goal when Gary Pallister's clearance struck Kenny Brown on the knee and flew over Peter Schmeichel. A club without a championship for a quarter of a century had self-destructed.

Ferguson also blamed a ruined pitch at Old Trafford and his failure to sign Mick Harford and pump long balls to him.

There were still two games to go and Leeds were only a point clear, but, untypically, all the fight seemed to have drained from United -- an impression strengthened by the sight of Bobby Charlton thanking every player for their efforts in the away dressing-room.

Painfully, the title was surrendered at Anfield, where Giggs recalls being asked for his autograph and then seeing the paper torn up in his face.

That they should have waded into this morass of fixtures was the result of two trophies that do not loom large in the United pantheon -- the League Cup and Uefa Super Cup, which was played in mid-season.

Critically, Bryan Robson was injured and United sank under the weight of injuries and their own history. Typically, Ferguson ensured this kind of end-of-season meltdown would never happen at Old Trafford again.

Relevance to City now -- 1/5: Might have been a factor had City stayed in the Europa League.

Newcastle Utd, 1996

Led from: August 19-March 23
Biggest lead: 12 pts
Points from last 10 games: 17
Finished: 2nd

Perhaps the most epic title race of all, certainly it was the one that captured the public imagination.

It was partly because the experience of round-the-clock matches on Sky was still new and partly because there was such a contrast between the fresh openness of Keegan and Ferguson's cussedness.

Every part of the country except Sunderland and south Manchester appeared to will Newcastle on.

Thousands watched Newcastle train at Maiden Castle and Keegan often gave two press conferences a day. The football was thrilling, but the expectation was suffocating -- there were Christmas cards printed with David Ginola holding the league trophy.

When it came to the crunch, Keegan seemed to buckle. Les Ferdinand recalled that a man who had been a supreme motivator became sullen and withdrawn and that attitude infected his team.

Nobody at St James' Park bar Keegan even noticed Ferguson's comments about how Leeds should raise their game against Newcastle. Keegan grabbed a microphone and launched into a tirade.

Keegan himself thought the collective nerve of a side that, Peter Beardsley and David Batty apart, had not won a championship before, suddenly gave way.

The games they lost were the stuff of myth. A 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at St James' Park; a 2-1 loss at Blackburn, where a 21-year-old substitute from Whitley Bay called Graham Fenton scored both goals; and, above all, the 4-3 defeat at Anfield in arguably the greatest game the league has staged.

Rob Lee, Newcastle's captain, argued that United took the title as much as his team lost it. United won 13 of their final 15 matches and, to support Alan Hansen's assertion that you win nothing with kids, it was Ferguson's imperial guard -- Pallister, Bruce, Cantona and Schmeichel -- who were pivotal.

When Newcastle beat Bolton 2-1 at St James' Park in January, they moved 12 points clear, a lead that should have been beyond even Ferguson's reach. It was then that Keegan confirmed the signing of Faustino Asprilla.

There were echoes of Rodney Marsh and Manchester City. Beardsley was pushed out to the right and Ferdinand, who had scored 21 goals in 24 games, found the net just four times in the decisive final 13 games.

A beautiful, wonderfully tuned machine simply seized up.

Relevance to City now -- 4/5: Perhaps the nearest parallel of all.

Arsenal, 2008

Led from: 15 September 15-March 15
Biggest lead: 5 pts
Points from last 10 games: 18
Finished: 3rd

As the grounding of the Costa Concordia proved, there are many requirements of a captain and one of them is not to be first into the lifeboats when the rocks are struck.

It was the end of February, which by nobody's reckoning is a crucial time in the title race. Arsenal had gone to St Andrew's five points clear in a campaign that had seen them lose once.

And yet when Birmingham were awarded a last-minute penalty that was to earn them a 2-2 draw, William Gallas behaved as if the title itself had been surrendered, beginning a sit-down protest that only ended when Arsene Wenger persuaded him to leave the pitch.

Some, like Hansen, argued that this was a catastrophic display of leadership from the captain of a side that had led the Premier League for five months, were still three points clear of Manchester United and who would not lose a home game all season.

There were mitigating circumstances. Gallas, like all of Wenger's players, had been shocked by the tackle by Martin Taylor that broke Eduardo da Silva's leg. However, Arsenal appeared to suffer from a collective convulsion at a point of the season when they were still in control of their own destinies.

It is too trite to say that had Gallas simply walked off Arsenal would have won the title.

The loss of Eduardo was more damaging. Harry Redknapp, who signed Gallas, said he would have been more concerned had he simply "put on one of those big headphones and asked which West End club they were going to. He was gutted about not winning."

Arsenal simply collapsed, failing to win any of their next three games, and by the time they went down 2-1 at Chelsea, Manchester United were five points clear, establishing the kind of lead over Arsenal that has endured over four years.

In an interview he gave after the title was squandered, Gallas accused his Arsenal team-mates of "not being brave enough in battle," a statement which cost him the captaincy.

Just before that, Wenger had turned on Gallas, accusing him of "unacceptable behaviour." The Arsenal manager was not referring to his captain's lamentable lack of leadership in Birmingham, but of photographs of the defender emerging from a London bar with a cigarette.

Relevance to City now -- 1/5: Whatever mistakes they may have made, this is not a team prone to panic attacks. (© Independent News Service)

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