‘Squeaky bum time!’ is the famous phrase coined by Sir Alex Ferguson to describe the tension of a title race at the business end of a Premier League season. It was a phase when his Manchester United sides excelled and stole the march on their rivals to be often crowned champions.
Ferguson’s teams weren’t just famous for their late shows in matches but also for surging late in the season. Many great teams and coaches fell victims to Ferguson’s mind games and lost the plot late on.
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So, when Manchester City (without a top-flight English football title for 54 years) were locked in a title race with United in 2012 (a team that had won four out of the five league titles at the time) they were expected to falter.
After leading the table for most of the campaign, City were caught by United who then opened up an eight-point gap. For those who had watched English football over the past two decades, the title race was over.
But as it turned out Manchester City, forever in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours, gave United a taste of their own medicine.
After bridging the gap, City went into the final day of the 2011-’12 Premier League campaign level on points with United, but ahead of goal difference. A win at home against relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers was all that stood between the Citizens and their first Premier League crown.
Unbeaten at home and having dropped just two points at the Etihad Stadium all season, it was expected to be a walk in the part for City. But history had shown that in the blue half of Manchester, things had gone wrong more than they had gone right.
The anxiety around the Etihad stadium increased after, elsewhere, Wayne Rooney gave Manchester United an early lead at Sunderland. It meant City had to win to ensure they become champions.
Half an hour passed without a goal at the Etihad, a rarity that season, and the anxiety grew. But six minutes from the interval, after a well-worked move, right-back Pablo Zabaleta popped up inside the box to give City the lead. It was his first league goal that season, perhaps the most important.
At half time, it was all going to plan for City, and the result at Sunderland was immaterial. But a half of football was time enough for City to mess it up.
The scepticism turned into big concern when Djibril Cisse equalised for QPR in the 48th minute. The visitors were fighting for their lives in the Premier League and were not going to go down with a fight.
The fears eased to an extent in the 55th minute when Joey Barton, a former Manchester City player, was sent off. City had 35 minutes to score a goal against a ten-man QPR. Easy?
But surprise, surprise. The incredible title race had another twist. James Mackie arrived from nowhere to head home QPR’s second goal in the 66th minute. The Londoners were headed for another year in the Premier League, City for another year of agony.
United meanwhile clung on to their 1-0 lead at Sunderland well aware of the happenings at the Etihad. At the Etihad as minutes ticked by, some fans were pulling their hair in frustration, some smashing their scarfs on the chairs and while some younger ones were in tears. The rise of the Blue Moon was put on hold.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. On came strikers Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. City were throwing the kitchen sink, but that was not enough. United were still leading and the hopes of their rivals were fading; fading fast.
The QPR fans who had one eye on the Bolton Wanderers game knew that their team was safe as Bolton were only drawing at Stoke City. The celebrations began in the stands as the fourth official signalled four minutes of stoppage time.
The QPR players got the hint and perhaps dropped their guard a bit. City were unrelenting. In the second minute of stoppage time, David Silva sent in a corner, super sub Dzeko rose the highest to head home City’s equaliser. 2-2. Game on.
“Two and a half minutes to save themselves, two and a half minutes to save the season, two and a half minutes to find the title,” said Peter Drury on commentary.
Surely not enough time. The equaliser was only going to add to the pain of missing out on the title. Surely, there could be no more twists in the title race.
United held on to win 1-0 at Sunderland. Ferguson and his players hesitantly celebrated. They were two minutes away from glory, a 20th Premier League title.
City pushed and pushed. It was the last throw of the dice. Nigel de Jong carried the ball forward from his own half into the QPR territory. There was no pressure on the ball. QPR sat deep, as deep as they could, holding onto the point.
De Jong found Sergio Aguero who had to drop deep to receive the ball. Surely not the place City fans wanted to see him at that time, but there was a plan. The Argentine turned, threaded the ball to Balotelli at the edge of the box, and ran for the heart of the QPR defence. Balotelli was instantly pressurised, shoved in the back and closed down. He lost balance, but not the sight of the run Aguero had made. On his way down, he managed to find just enough connection on the ball to feed Aguero inside the box.
Meanwhile, Vincent Kompany a centre-back had made a diagonal run inside the box in the direction opposite to the one made by Aguero. It seemed immaterial but it dragged a player in that tight QPR defence with him, it opened the space for Aguero who had the bit of magic in him to make something out of it.
He took a touch away from an onrushing QPR defender, balanced himself and fired a shot goalwards with all his might. Paddy Kenny in the QPR goal, who had saved virtually everything that City had thrown at him earlier, could barely move. Crucially for City, the back of the net moved.
The Etihad stadium went from pin-drop silence to ecstasy in a matter of seconds. “Aguerooooooooooooooooo,” went commentator Martin Taylor, a piece of mic work that was to go down in history. “You’ll never see something like this ever again,” he added, gathering himself.
It was 3-2. City had come back from the dead to win their first title in 54 years. Manchester United, Ferguson’s perennial winners were beaten. It had all happened in three minutes of madness.
Peter Drury summed it up quite brilliantly at the time. “Where does football go from here?”
Nine years on, there’s still no answer to that question. There’s simply no matching the drama of the 2011-’12 Premier League title climax. A documentary series made by Manchester City named 93:20, the exact time of Aguero’s winner, does a fine job of revisiting the emotions football fans felt on the day.
For Manchester City, it was a watershed moment in their history. They went onto win three more Premier League titles in that decade and many other domestic cups. One wonders where they would have been had it not been for May 13, 2012. The day the blue moon rose in English football.