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Manchester derby not the first decider

Michael Thomas scores the goal at Anfield which gives Arsenal the title in 1989.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.


Monday’s game between Manchester City and Manchester United is being widely promoted as the biggest one-off game in Premier League history. For once, the hype seems justified: two intense rivals facing off with one knowing victory would all but assure the title; the other knowing that it would give it the edge in the title race with two games remaining.

Such direct match-ups this close to the end of the season are relatively rare – although how significant the game will seem in a decade’s time is largely dependent on the result. If United wins to stretch its lead to six points, it’ll be no different to its 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford on the third last game of last season.

A case could be made for Chelsea’s win at Old Trafford in 2010, which saw it leapfrog United, but that happened at the beginning of April; there were still five games to go. Similarly United beating Newcastle United at St James’ Park in 1995-96 was clearly hugely significant in the title race, turning a two-game blip into a major wobble from which Kevin Keegan’s side never recovered. But it came in March. In both cases there was still a long way to go; plenty of time for further twists and turns. This time, there really is a sense of finality.


1899 Aston Villa 5 Liverpool 0 (champions: ASTON VILLA)

Liverpool had shocked English football by offering an unprecedented £300 a year to Tom Watson to be their secretary. He had won three league titles at Sunderland and he soon worked his magic again signing the best Scottish talent – the wingers John Walker and Tom Robertson, the striker Hugh Morgan and the soon-to-be-club-legend Alex Raisbeck. By 1898-99 Liverpool were going for the Double. After losing an FA Cup semi final to Sheffield United, Liverpool went into their final game, away to second-placed Aston Villa, top of the table on goal average. Billy Garraty headed Villa in front after four minutes, John Devey soon lashed in a second, Stephen Smith and Fred Wheldon combined for a third, Jimmy Crabtree poked a fourth following a goalmouth scramble before Wheldon got his second. With less than half an hour played, Liverpool was five down. Villa claimed its fourth league title in five seasons and would add another one a year later. Watson would take Liverpool to its first title a year after that.

1911 Aston Villa 4 Manchester United 2 (champions: MANCHESTER UNITED)


Check out the players that can impact the Battle for Manchester.

United led the table by two points from Villa who had a game in hand, so when Villa romped to a 4-2 victory - Joe Bache, Harry Hampton, Robert Hassell and a Charlie Wallace penalty - to go top in a bad-tempered game in which both sides had a man sent off, the title seemed theirs. The decider, though, turned out not to be a decider. First, Villa stuttered at Blackburn Rovers, drawing 0-0 to give United a sniff. The, on the final day, Villa went to Liverpool and lost 3-1, while United thrashed third-placed Sunderland 5-1 to claim the title by a point.

1947 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Liverpool 2 (champions: LIVERPOOL)

English football had never known a season like it. As crowds flocked back after the war, the title race produced one of only two four-team finishes. An atrocious winter and multiple postponements, though, meant that not everybody was running at the same time, though. On May 26, Manchester United finished its season by beating Sheffield United 6-2, putting it level on points with Wolves, who had one game to play and a marginally superior goal average. Liverpool and Stoke City, also with a game to play, were a point further back. Five days later, goals from Jack Balmer and Albert Stubbins, who ran the length of the field to score, gave Liverpool a 2-1 win at Wolves. That left it a point clear, but Stoke still had one game left to play: a win at Sheffield United would give it the title. It wasn’t until June 14 that that game was played, a fortnight after Liverpool’s last league game. Liverpool played Everton at Anfield that day in a Liverpool Senior Cup game and, when news of Sheffield United’s 2-1 win on a mudbath at Bramall Lane was announced over the tannoy, gleeful fans invaded the pitch.

1953 Preston North End 2 Arsenal 0 (champions: ARSENAL)

A year earlier, Arsenal had gone to Old Trafford for its final game needing to win 7-0 to pinch the title from Manchester United on goal difference, and had ended up being hammered 6-1. This time, having only drawn at Cardiff in its third-last fixture, Arsenal went to second-placed Preston for its penultimate game. Preston won 2-0, pulling level at the top with a marginally inferior goal average. It then beat Derby County, leaving Arsenal needing to beat Burnley in its final game to clinch the title. It fell behind after three minutes, but goals Alex Forbes, Dough Lishman and Jimmy Logie helped Arsenal to a 3-2 win that sealed the title on goal average.

1972 Derby County 1 Liverpool 0 (champions: DERBY)


  • Who will win the Premier League title?
    • Manchester City
    • Manchester United

There has rarely been such a complicated end to a season, with Brian Clough’s Derby facing two games that could have been title-deciders in its final two matches. First, it lost 2-0 at Manchester City. That was City’s last game of the season, the winning leaving it a point clear of Derby, who had a game left, and Liverpool, who had two to go, and two clear of Leeds, who also had two games still to play. Then Liverpool went to Derby, who included a 16-year-old Steve Powell at right-back. The only goal came 17 minutes into the second half, Archie Gemmill twisting to create an opening and slipping through a pass that Alan Durban dummied, leaving John McGovern to score. Derby was top, but few gave it much hope, with bookmakers pricing them at 8-1 to be champions. Leeds needed only to draw at Wolves to win the title; and if it slipped up Liverpool’s superior goal difference meant a win for it at Arsenal would give them the championship. But on a fraught final night, with Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor listening down a phone line from a hotel in Mallorca, relaying updates to the rest of the squad, Wolves beat Leeds and Liverpool drew at Arsenal to give Derby its first title.

1989 Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2 (champions: ARSENAL)

There has never been such a finale and there probably could never be such a finale. Because of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool went three weeks without playing any league games, pushing back the end of the season to a Friday at the end of May. Having drawn with Everton in its first game back, Liverpool won four in a row to regain the league leadership and needed only to avoid defeat by two goals to clinch a second successive title. Arsenal, at one point, had been 15 points clear of Liverpool, but its form had stuttered, while Liverpool had gone unbeaten since January 1. Liverpool hadn’t lost by more than a goal at home in three years. Arsenal was a massive underdog. But after a cautious first half, Alan Smith glanced in a Nigel Winterburn free-kick to give Arsenal a 52nd-minute lead. Then, in injury time, a long ball from Lee Dixon was flicked on by Smith for Michael Thomas. He evaded Steve Nicol leaving him one on one with the goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. “It’s up for grabs now,” screamed the commentator Brian Moore as Thomas forced the ball home to complete the most dramatic denouement to a season there has ever been.  

Jonathan Wilson is editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and a columnist for World Soccer. He is the author of five books, including a history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, and a biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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