Ferguson In The Title Race

squeaky bum time in British English. NOUN. the tense final matches in the race to a league championship, especially from the point of view of the leaders. Word origin circa 2003: coined by Sir Alex Ferguson in an attempt to convey the tension experienced by those involved.

One of the best known features of a Premier League title race during Sir Alex Ferguson’s dynasty at Manchester United, was for the Red Devils to transform into a whole different animal after Christmas. They would get their worst displays and results of the season out of the way early doors when they were not as damaging, then as rivals faltered during the Ferguson named “squeaky-bum time”, United would hit their top stride, the winners mentality kicking into overdrive. 

This is how it is remembered at least, is it what actually happened? or an exaggerated myth repeated so often it’s become accepted as fact contrary to reality? In this piece I will revisit each of Fergie’s Premier League seasons to remember how his side’s form changed (or didn’t) each year after the presents had been opened.

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United had begun the first ever Premier League season carrying over an end of season hangover from the previous year where despite leading the table at Christmas, the Red Devils had been overtaken by Leeds, undone by a run in April which saw them play five times in 11 days. 3 straight defeats in that period put paid to hopes of ending a 25-year title drought. 

Ferguson’s side were bottom of the inaugural Premier League after 2 games and their first win didn’t come until gameweek 4 when they moved out of the relegation zone thanks to an 88th minute winner away at The Dell. This started a 5-game winning run for United, but if they thought they’d turned a corner with this spell, which took them up to 3rd, they would be mistaken as following this the Reds went seven without a win, 5 consecutive draws followed by back-to-back 1-0 losses to Wimbledon and Aston Villa, the latter whom were setting the early pace along with Norwich City.  4 wins and a draw followed to see United back up to 3rd on Christmas day. Also significant in that month was the acquisition of French striker Eric Cantona, who would prove to be an excellent early present for all associated with Manchester United.

On Boxing Day, United travelled to face Sheffield Wednesday who would be a key opponent for them that season. United trailed 3-0 with 25 minutes to go, but Sir Alex, famous for his “never give in” mentality commented to assistant manager Brian Kidd in that moment that “if we can get 1, we can get 10″. Due to the amount of chances United had created, the Scotsman acknowledged that that despite the 3-0 scoreline, he would still feel like congratulating his players if it remained the same at full time due to what he had considered an excellent performance. 

It would not stay the same however, as Brian McClair pulled one back in the 67th minute and then added his and United’s second with 10 still to play. Cantona levelled the game with 6 minutes to go and in the end United left disappointed that they weren’t able to win the game. They followed this up with 4 comfortable wins before losing away at Ipswich. In this period United hit top spot for the first time, but remained locked in a tight race with surprise challengers Norwich and Aston Villa with whom they traded the lead.

United were top after a 2-1 win at Anfield in early March, but 4 games without a win, including a 1-0 defeat at Oldham opened the door once more for the other contenders. A 3-1 win at Norwich at the start of April was significant in knocking them out of the race and from there they fell away. The Reds hit 3 goals in 21 minutes as the Canaries were blown away, but United were up against it once more 5 days later as they trailed at home to Sheffield Wednesday with only a few minutes left on the clock. Centre-Back Steve Bruce scored not once, but twice to famously turn the game on its head and give way to some of the most infamous managerial celebrations the Premier League has ever seen, with Brian Kidd leaping then dropping to his knees on the pitch. 

If it felt significant to the destination of the title that’s because it was. United finished the season with 5 more wins to in the end take the Premier League by 10 points ahead of Aston Villa. The final picture didn’t paint a true picture of the title race, as Villa lost their final 3 games as they felt the title slide away from them. Until those final matches where United had been able to finally open up a big gap with 7 wins from their final 7, it had been close all the way. It had been an unusual season and United had surely benefitted from coming up against challengers who like them had no experience of winning the title, rather than the likes of Liverpool, Leeds or Arsenal all who had endured very poor seasons. Their title rivals Norwich, who topped the table that year for 129 days which was more than anyone else, actually finished with negative goal difference despite their 3rd place finish, mostly due to heavy defeats away to Blackburn and Spurs, but United didn’t care about that, they’d won their first league crown for 26 years, and the future looked bright.                                         

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The 93/94 season would play out very differently but ultimately finish with the same result. United this time flew out of the blocks, setting a lightning pace with 13 wins from their opening 15 games. By the 30th March, a 1-0 win over Liverpool meant that United had only lost two from 34 fixtures, both 1-0 losses to Chelsea. This was until Blackburn Rovers fired a warning shot of things to come with a 2-0 triumph at Ewood Park. Jack Walker’s Rovers had kept United honest in their pursuit but in the end had to settle for finishing 2nd, 8 points behind Fergie’s men. This time United did their best work before Christmas, effectively laying all the ground work so all that was required was a steady second half of the season to stroll over the finish line.

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Going for their 3rd successive league crown, United fell to defeat 4 times before Christmas, but by keeping their draws down to a minimum, only picking up the solitary point twice, there was enough wins on the board to keep them in a strong position. It was Blackburn who sat on top for much of the season though. Despite losing home and away to United, in between those games Rovers won 11 from 12, drawing the other. 

Having rarely drew before Christmas, afterwards it was starting to become an unfortunate habit. A draw away to Crystal Palace was United’s 4th in 6 matches, but the tie is of course better remembered for Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick on a Palace supporter after receiving his marching orders. United’s talisman would not play again that season. A run of 3 0-0 draws from 4 played at Old Trafford would prove to be too damaging, had United been able to turn just 1 of those into a win, it would have been enough for them to win 3 league crowns on the bounce. Despite Blackburn winning just 2 of their last 6 games, and losing on the final day at Liverpool, United were unable to take the gift that was presented to them, as they failed to win at West Ham and missed out on the title by a solitary point.

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It didn’t take long for United’s title rivals for the 95/96 season to emerge. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United or “The Entertainers” as they were dubbed won 11 of their opening 13 fixtures. Manchester United couldn’t match that early pace but with 10 wins from their first 14 (during which time Cantona returned to the side), they kept the Geordies at a watchful distance. But a run of 5 without a win, including back to back defeats to Liverpool and Leeds on the eve of Christmas, meant that a 27th December win for Newcastle at Old Trafford would put them 13 clear at the top. 

Already trailing Newcastle by double-figures in points and goal difference, it had the feel of a must-win game for Fergie’s side. Win they did by 2 goals to 0, but Newcastle responded by winning their next 5. In this period United were battered 4-1 at Spurs and were held to a draw at home to Villa, meaning Newcastle were able to extend their lead to 12 points with 15 left to play. Going into the season defining game at St. James Park between the two title rivals, Newcastle slipped up away at West Ham and City, picking up just one point from six. Up to that point, Newcastle had won all 13 of their home games that season. If they could make it 14/14, they would open up a more comfortable gap again of 7 points, Manchester United with a win could close it to just 1 point. 

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Peter Schmeichel kept United in it with a host of saves and it was instead Eric Cantona who scored the game’s decisive goal in the 51st minute. The gap was extended back up to 3 the next time both teams took the field, with Newcastle returning to winning ways whilst United could only salvage a point away at QPR, thanks to a last minute Cantona goal. In this period Eric The King scored the one and only United goal of the game in 5 matches out of 6, adding 13 points to United’s tally with his goals alone. He also scored in the other game in this period, a 3-2 away win at Maine Road. In this time, the title race swung in Fergie’s favour as Newcastle lost 3 away games on the spin, most famously at Anfield, the 4-3 defeat still considered perhaps the most quintessential Premier League game ever.

A mid-April defeat for The Reds at The Dell however meant it wasn’t quite over yet. United followed this with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Leeds, so hard-fought apparently that it led Fergie to opine that it mattered more to Leeds players to stop United winning the league than anything else, claiming that they were cheating their manager by only performing against United and inferring they would return to their usual level when they faced Newcastle, their next opponent. After a 5-0 win at home to Forest, Ferguson went further still, suggesting that his just beaten opponents may even let Newcastle win in their soon approaching meeting, due to an upcoming summer testimonial for Stuart Pearce where the two sides would again meet. 

Keegan did not take kindly to such accusations and exploded after his side managed a 1-0 win at Elland Road. In what was the most infamous managerial rant this country has ever seen, Keegan memorably exclaimed the immortal line “I will Luv it if we beat them! Luv it!”

It was one of the first instances of “Fergie’s mind games” we had seen in England and never would it work better than here. United players watched in joy, as they felt with this loss of control Keegan had given United a psychological edge going into the final stretch. A few days later Newcastle dropped two points at Forest, meaning that if United avoided defeat at Middlesbrough on the final day, they would be Champions. They won comfortably by 3 goals to 0, whilst Newcastle drew at home with Spurs. Rubbing salt in the wounds, Keane said after the game to the Sky cameras that belief was always there despite trailing Newcastle by 12 points at one stage in the race: “We always knew Newcastle would slip up and luckily enough they did.”

The 95-96 season was a classic of the genre, having all the features associated with a classic Fergie title race. Second at Christmas, winning the head-to-head games with your rivals and winning the mind games during squeaky bum time to eventually end up as Champions.

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United began the 96-97 season with just 5 wins from their opening 12, a run of 3 straight defeats where 11 goals were shipped on the road to Newcastle and Southampton must have sent some alarm bells ringing. The team were as low as 6th in early December but a 5-0 win against Sunderland meant they spent Christmas Day in third, with Liverpool top. Arsenal and Newcastle had also managed to keep up with the less than spectacular pace being set and made up the rest of the title hopefuls. A run of 9 wins and 2 draws in 11 was the difference for United as none of the other sides had the consistency to mount a realistic bid for the Championship. United’s 75 points is the lowest ever for a Premier League champion, and that record will likely stand for a very long time. It was still enough to keep them 7 above Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool who all finished on 68. This title would be Cantona’s 5th and final league title in England and his 4th Premier League with United as he retired at the season’s end.

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The latest challenger to Ferguson’s throne would be Arsene Wenger who arrived at Arsenal in September of 1996, and would now be coaching his first full season with the club. Arsenal made a statement against United at Highbury with a 3-2 win, but it was The Gunners only win in 6 matches, and the Champions got back on track with a solid run of results to sit pretty at the top of the tree by Christmas. Soon after Christmas however United faltered with sloppy defeats away at Coventry and Southampton, followed by a home loss and draw against Leicester and Bolton. 3 wins at the start of March though meant United had a 12 point lead over Arsenal, who had 3 games in hand. 

A run of 8 games without conceding a goal was massive for Arsenal, as they won 7 of them, paying homage to their former manger George Graham by winning 5 by the scoreline of 1-0 to the Arsenal. One such result took place in mid-March with Marc Overmars scoring the decisive goal at Old Trafford as Arsenal recorded a double over their rivals. This cut United’s lead at the top with Arsenal still having to play catch-up with games in hand. Ferguson reached out for more mind-games, claiming he’d rather be in United’s position with the points already on the board than Arsenal’s who he confidently stated would slip up. 

Wenger did not bite however, and Arsenal kept on winning. A run of 10 straight victories gave Arsenal 45 points from a possible 51 between Boxing day and the title being wrapped up against Everton, as United and Ferguson had to taste their own medicine.

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United and Arsenal both started the 98/99 season slowly, with Aston Villa starting strongest. On Christmas day it was the Villains who led the table, Chelsea sat second with United and Arsenal following in 3rd and 4th respectively. Villa soon fell away, but Chelsea after losing on the opening day of the season didn’t lose again until the last day of January when they lost at Highbury. Chelsea would lose just three times all season, but drew too many, a run of 3 draws in April effectively ruled them out. United having lost 3 times before Christmas, didn’t lose again that season. Arsenal also lost 3 before Christmas and were unbeaten since then up until the penultimate game of the season when Leeds did their rivals an enormous favour by beating Arsenal 1-0. This meant that it was in United’s hands on the final day, and they took the title back beating Spurs 2-1, with what would be the first part of their historic treble.

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The 1999-00 season is considered United’s easiest title victory, and the end of season table backs that up, the Red Devils winning the league by 18 points, which remains a joint Premier League record. However it was not Manchester United, but Leeds United who sat top on Christmas day, 2 points above Ferguson’s team, albeit having played a game more. David O’Leary’s young side made an excellent start to the season losing just once in 14 matches before 2 defeats either side of the new year dented their dreams. In the end it was Arsenal who overtook Leeds in second position, but they could not get anywhere close to United who romped home in style winning their last 10 and scoring just shy of 100 league goals across the season. Combining United’s results after Christmas Day over the last 2 campaigns, they had played 41, won 30, drew 10 and lost just 1. 

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00-01 saw United’s third attempt at winning a treble of successive Premier League’s for the first time. From the moment they first took top spot in early September with a 6-0 home win against Bradford City, it never once looked in doubt. In fact, United would only once leave top spot again for the remainder of the season when they succumbed to a Thierry Henry wondergoal at Highbury. United would more than avenge this loss however when they blitzed The Gunners 6-1 in the return fixture. With the title wrapped up, The Red Devils lost their last 3 games but still took the league by 10 points.  

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Ahead of the 01-02 campaign, Ferguson announced this would be his final campaign as he intended to retire at the end of the season. The Scotsman has since acknowledged making this known at the beginning of a season was the biggest mistake of his career as it appeared to severely affect his players. An extremely poor first 15 games saw them win 6, lose 6 and draw the other 3. This saw United drop as low as 9th by early December. Form soon picked up to return to the top 4 but it was Bobby Robson’s Newcastle who led on Christmas Day. 

After a run of 8 wins however, Manchester United returned to the top and normal service appeared to have been resumed. Adding to the sense of normality, Ferguson made a u-turn on retirement and signed a new contract with the club.  United remained on top until late March when a home defeat to Middlesbrough saw them leapfrogged by Arsenal. Wenger’s side finished the campaign by dropping points in just one of their final 16 matches as they put a run together that nobody could match, including Liverpool who also finished excellently to place above United in the final standings. Adding to United’s pain was the fact Arsenal’s coronation was confirmed at Old Trafford, with his bitter rival Wenger securing his second league title with a 1-0 win.

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United didn’t make the greatest of starts to trying to win their trophy back, winning 2, drawing 2 and losing 2 of their first 6. A loss and a draw against City and West Ham respectively had The Reds in 5th by mid-November. Things improved significantly with 3 big wins in a row over Newcastle, away at Liverpool and at home to Arsenal, where with a 2-0 win they ended The Gunners run of scoring in 55 consecutive Premier League games. United soon wobbled again though and suffered 2 defeats either side of Christmas, as Champions Arsenal topped the Christmas tree. 

The 3-1 Boxing Day defeat at the Riverside would however be United’s final defeat of the season, as they forced relentless pressure on Arsenal. Wenger’s team kept them at bay until mid-April when United finally took top spot in impressive fashion with a 6-2 win at St. James’ Park. As the vital Arsenal vs United clash approached, Ferguson first coined the phrase ‘squeaky bum time’ saying: “It’s squeaky bum time and we’ve got the experience now to cope.” A 2-2 draw at Highbury was good enough to keep United narrowly infront going into the final lap, and it was Arsenal who wilted by losing at home to Leeds. By winning 9 of their final 10, the other being the draw with Arsenal, United took their 8th title in 11 seasons by a margin of 4 points.

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With 13 wins, 3 defeats and just 1 draw before Christmas, the draw coming in the unforgettable ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ United made a solid start to their defence and led the way on the 25th December. They stayed on top until mid-January when they were defeated away to relegation doomed Wolves. They could never regain top spot, as 9 straight wins for Arsenal between January and March saw them pull away from the challengers which also included Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea, recently backed by Roman Abramovich’s petrodollars. As we all know, Arsenal achieved the astonishing feat of avoiding defeat for the entirety of the season, whereas United were forced to settle for 3rd, 15 points behind Arsenal and 4 behind the new superpower on the block Chelsea. 

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The first half of United’s 04-05 campaign was littered with too many draws. One game they were able to win was at home to Arsenal however, an especially meaningful one as it prevented The Gunners from reaching a half-century of Premier League games unbeaten. Ferguson and his team had to settle for 4th place by Christmas though, as Chelsea now managed by Jose Mourinho, Arsenal and the surprise package of David Moyes’ plucky Everton side led the way. 6 wins on the bounce including an eye-catching 4-2 victory at Highbury lifted United into second place, but they suffered a very disappointing end to the season winning just 4 of their last 10. For the 3rd time in 4 seasons, United had finished outside of the top 2, this time a massive 18 points behind Champions Chelsea. 

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05-06 peaked for United in early November when Ferguson claimed his first victory over Mourinho in their seventh meeting. They could match Chelsea on this occasion, but over the season the West Londoners remained head and shoulders clear of the rest. They proved this by beating United 3-0 to retain their crown. Fergie’s team returned to the top 2, finishing a point above Liverpool but to return to the very top of the pile, big improvement was required. Since Mourinho had arrived in England, United hadn’t spent a single week in 1st place and a new dominant dynasty was threatening to replace that of Sir Alex. 

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Aware of how good they would have to be to stop Chelsea matching their achievement of 3 consecutive titles, United won 14 of the first 17 fixtures, drawing at home to Chelsea, the only defeat coming against Arsenal. Chelsea were not going to surrender their title lightly and between the 31st of January and 18th April, they won 9 from 9. However in that time, United managed to win 8 and draw the other. They were coping with Chelsea’s pressure. A derby win away at City meant that Chelsea had to win at the Emirates the next day or else the trophy would return to Old Trafford for the first time in 4 years. Chelsea could only manage a draw, as they finished the season rather limply, winless from their last 5. Chelsea lost only 3 times all season, but United and Ferguson had roared back to their very best to take the Premier League by 6 points. 

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The 07-08 season saw one of the better Premier League title races. United and Chelsea were ofcourse in there, with the slightly surprise addition of Arsenal. Surprising as they’d just sold legendary forward Thierry Henry to Barcelona, but led by young technician Cesc Fabregas, they were performing just fine without him. United aswell started impressively, with 8 consecutive wins between August and October, including a 2-0 home win over a Mourinho-less Chelsea, who sacked the coach just a few days prior to the fixture. With a derby day win over Tottenham, Arsenal topped the table on Christmas day, and would lose just 1 of their first 30 league matches. Chelsea would beat them in game 31, but in truth the wheels had started to come off a month prior, with the young squad deeply affected by the horrific leg-break suffered by striker Eduardo. 

United secured a big win over Arsenal in mid-April to record their 7th win from 8, but after losing away at the Emirates in Mid-December, Chelsea would not lose again for the remainder of the season, so United could not afford many slip-ups. They just about avoided a big one at Ewood Park, when a late Carlos Tevez goal at least secured them a point. Defeat at Chelsea the following week though meant there was no margin for error in the last 2 games. United held their nerve on the final day of the season to win at Wigan, whilst Chelsea drew at home to Bolton. This secured Ferguson and his team their 10th league title, finishing 2 points above Chelsea, and 4 clear of 3rd place Arsenal, who only lost 3 times all season. United would pile yet more suffering onto Chelsea by beating them in the Champions League final on penalties. 

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Liverpool would be fastest out of the blocks in 08-09 winning 8 from their first 10 including a win over United which was Rafa Benitez’ first league win over Ferguson in his 5th season. This win came during United’s slightly stuttering start with only 1 win being picked up from their first 4. The Red Devils were 3rd on Christmas day, before rattling off 11 consecutive wins, the run beginning on Boxing day. In early January, Ferguson fired his first shot in the war of words for the season, by claiming Liverpool’s lack of experience could end up costing them the title, despite them at that stage being top of the league.

Benitez responded in one of the most memorable press conferences in Premier League history with what became known as a ‘Rafa Rant’. 

In his conference ahead of his sides trip to Stoke, the Spaniard said: “I was surprised by what has been said, but maybe they are nervous because we are at the top of the table.  But I want to talk about facts. I want to be clear, I do not want to play mind games too early, although they seem to want to start. But I have seen some facts. On 1 November, they played Hull and Mr Ferguson had a two-match touchline ban and a £10,000 fine after confronting Mike Dean, the referee, for improper conduct. During the Respect campaign – and this is a fact – Mr Ferguson was charged by the FA for improper conduct after comments made about Martin Atkinson and Keith Hackett. He was not punished. He is the only manager in the league that cannot be punished for these things. I am not playing mind games, just facts. There are two options if we don’t want more problems with fixtures. One is the same as in Spain, the draw for the first part of the league is known, everyone knows which weekend. In the second half everyone plays the opposite, so you all know. So Mr Ferguson will not be complaining about fixtures and a campaign against United. Or there is another option. That Mr Ferguson organises the fixtures in his office and sends it to us and everyone will know and cannot complain. That is simple. We know what happens every time we go to Old Trafford and the United staff. They are always going man to man with the referees, especially at half-time when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking. All managers need to know is that only Mr Ferguson can talk about the fixtures, can talk about referees and nothing happens. We need to know that I am talking about facts, not my impression. There are things that everyone can see every single week.”

Liverpool then drew at Stoke before United beat Chelsea 3-0 the next day. In the post-match interview Ferguson responded by saying: “What he was saying was absolutely ridiculous. I think he was an angry man, I think he’s disturbed for some reason or another.” Liverpool were only able to draw in their 3 fixtures immediately after Rafa’s ‘Facts’ Press conference. The sides met in mid-March with United having assumed top spot. United took the lead from the penalty spot but it all went wrong from there, with Liverpool hitting their title rivals for 4 at Old Trafford. The gap at the top was cut further when United were beaten the following week at Fulham with both Scholes and Rooney receiving their marching orders. 

A decisive game in the title race came in United’s next fixture, a home match against Aston Villa. With 10 minutes to play, United were 2-1 down and heading toward a third successive league defeat until Ronaldo equalised. Young substitute Federico Macheda went on to hit a stoppage time winner. Liverpool were keeping a relentless pressure on them though, with the two sides trading the lead though with United maintaining a game in hand. United appeared to be feeling the heat when they fell 2-0 down at home to Tottenham, but 5 goals in 23 second half minutes spun the contest and put United back in the drivers seat. 4 days before that Liverpool had dropped two points in a thrilling 4-4 draw with Arsenal. This meant that United could wrap the title up on the penultimate weekend of the season by avoiding defeat at home to Arsenal. The game ended in a stalemate, to give Fergie and United their third successive Premier League for a second time, and the clubs 18th league title overall, which drew them level with Liverpool. 

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Manchester United lost 5 times before Christmas in the 09-10 season, which ultimately left them with too much to do although they very nearly did it. Chasing down Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea side for much of the season, United won 15 of their final 20 games, but ultimately a home defeat to Chelsea followed by a scoreless draw with Blackburn prevented United from winning an unprecedented four straight league titles. They took it right down to the final day, but ultimately Chelsea just about got over the line by virtue of a single point. 

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10-11 United didn’t lose in the Premier League until February, and they won all but one of their home games. West Brom were the only side to leave Old Trafford with anything that season, escaping with a 2-2 draw. Wolves were the first team to beat United that season, in their 25th game and though 3 more defeats followed Chelsea could only finish 9 points behind, their title defence undone by horrible results in November and December as United became the English club with the most league titles. 

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Appearing not so quietly on the horizon were the ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City, recently backed by the unlimited wealth of new owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group. They had finished 3rd the previous season, and this year showed their intentions early of going all the way. City won 12 of their first 14, and were unbeaten until the 15th game of the season. The most notable win ofcourse came at Old Trafford, when they ran riot hammering their hated rivals 6-1. United were knocked down but they weren’t out and they picked themselves up to get 13 points from their next 5, all 4 wins coming by a goal to nil. 

On Christmas Day, City led by 3 points, their win at Old Trafford the only thing to separate the sides by that point. Both sides wobbled shortly after, City losing in the dying seconds away at Sunderland, in between United losing home and away against Blackburn and Newcastle respectively. Their response was strong however, as they won 11 of their next 12 games, the only draw being away at Stamford Bridge where United came back from 3 goals down. 

City were struggling to hang in there, they lost at Swansea, came from behind to beat Chelsea, required an equaliser to get something from Stoke, and needed 2 goals in the final 5 minutes to salvage a point at home to Sunderland. They were unable to get anything away at the Emirates however, and the wheels had appeared to come off with the dismissal of Mario Balotelli, for whom the manager did not bother to hide his fury after the game. 

With 6 games to go, United led by 8 points. It appeared to be all over, but a surprise slip-up at Wigan in their first defeat of 2012 gave City a glimmer of hope once more. This became more than a glimmer when United surrendered a 4-2 lead at home to Everton to draw 4-4. The gap down to just 2 points, meant that a Derby win for City at the Etihad would put them back in the drivers seat. United seemed caught in two minds as to whether to go for the win or try to protect a draw, and in the end they did neither and were deservedly beaten 1-0. From there, City only had to hold their nerve in the last 2 games to be crowned Champions for the first time since 1968.

They won at Newcastle but found it harder going in front of their own fans against QPR. They trailed 2-1 despite the man advantage, and it looked like United were going to win it after all, as they were doing their job away at Sunderland. However two stoppage time goals, the first courtesy of Edin Dzeko and the other from Sergio Aguero saw City steal the title back right at the very death. It was the toughest blow ever dealt Ferguson in his time in management, as his local rivals had won the title in United-esque fashion, coming back seemingly from the dead in the title race to snatch it in ‘Fergie time’.

Before Christmas day: P17 W13 D3 L1 PTS 42 Pos: 2nd PPG: 2.5                After Christmas day: P21 W15 D2 L4 PTS 47 Pos: 1st PPG: 2.2

The first Manchester Derby of 12-13 came in mid-December. City were still unbeaten, whereas United had lost 3 times. However United were yet to draw and that meant they went into this game with a 3 point cushion at the top. That extended to 6, when that summer’s marquee signing Robin Van Persie scored a free-kick winner in stoppage time to earn United a 3-2 win. 

Between Christmas Day and the second derby of the season, United won 11 from 12, drawing the other at White Hart Lane. In that time City suffered 3 defeats. It meant that City’s win at Old Trafford would be for nothing more than pride, as United maintained a 12-point edge with 7 to go. The Noisy Neighbours would mount no great comeback this time, as their loss at Spurs meant that United could make official the return of the Premier League title by beating Aston Villa, which they did by 3 Robin Van Persie goals to 0. 

A few days before United’s final home game of the season, Fergie announced this was to be his last campaign in management after 26 years at the helm of Manchester United. He went out in fitting style, with his 13th Premier League title in 21 seasons, won by 11 points ahead of Manchester City, despite drawing his last ever game 5-5 away to West Brom. 

 Before Christmas day: P18 W14 D1 L3 PTS 43 Pos: 1st PPG: 2.4                After Christmas day: P20 W14 D4 L2 PTS 46 Pos: 1st PPG: 2.3

Manchester United finished the season higher than they were at Christmas ten times and only twice did they finish lower. Of the 7 times United topped the table at Christmas, they went on to win the league on 5 of those occasions. There was 14 seasons United weren’t top at Christmas, and they went on to lift the title in 8 of those. So Ferguson’s side more often won the Premier League having not been top on Christmas day. 

In 6 of United’s first 8 title wins, they weren’t leading at Christmas. This featured two of the 3 most memorable examples of a classic Ferguson title race. The first of course being the 95-96 race against Keegan’s Newcastle and the second being against Wenger’s Arsenal in 02-03. This was one of, if not the most impressive Premier League win of Ferguson’s career, as it came in between Arsenal’s double winning season of 2002 and their Invincible season of 2004. Arsenal had quite clearly more quality than United at the time, but through sheer force of will, Ferguson was able to wrestle this 2003 title from them. When Arsenal scored 4 in the opening 19 minutes away at Maine Road on the way to a 5-1 win, Ferguson demanded the radio commentary be switched off, whilst his side headed away to Bolton. There they needed a last minute equaliser to draw and were six points behind this seemingly unstoppable Arsenal side. 

Ruud Van Nistelrooy would score 13 goals in the last 8 games of the season however, playing a more than significant role in what was his only league title in England. It was to be one of Ferguson’s most against the odds title victories, as this time Arsenal could not match them in the final weeks of the season, despite being unbeaten for over 3 months after they had lost away at Old Trafford. 

Since Jose Mourinho’s arrival in English Football, only once did United win the league with a better PPG after Christmas than before it. That season being the 08/09 season, the other classically Ferguson title race, up against Rafa Benitez’ Liverpool. United had the chance to tie Liverpool on 18, who had the chance to move 2 clear of their rivals. United won 19 of their 22 games after Christmas, with late goals and comebacks in typical Ferguson fashion. 

There was a different Champion to the team on top at Christmas in 9 of the first 11 instalments of the Premier League. In the 18 seasons since, only 5 times has the team top of the Christmas tree not gone on to lift the trophy. Jose’s first spell at Chelsea in 2004 raised the minimum standards required in the first half of a season to be able to lift the big one at the end. Those standards have only gone on to rise since Pep Guardiola’s arrival in the Premier League. It no longer feels possible to do what Ferguson’s United did so often, which was to be fairly average for much of the first half of the season, before making up the ground in the last months. People will maybe point to Liverpool last season and say they almost caught City by being brilliant in the second half of the season. The only problem with that is, they were pretty brilliant in the first half too, they lost as many games before Christmas as they did after, one. And it still wasn’t enough. 

Liverpool have begun this season with 2 points from their first 3 games, which is one point more than United had in the inaugural Premier League that they went on to win by 10 points. It already feels as though with a start so bad Liverpool cannot win this title. In 4 of United’s titles win, they had won only single figure matches by Christmas Day. Liverpool had 15 wins by Christmas day in 18-19, and they still were unable to take the title. So there is something of a foregone era about United’s title wins, not just because of the club who was winning them, and how they have sunk since then, but also in the manner in which they won them.  

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