Don’t look back in anger, or indeed at all

At the end of every season, everyone tries to find meaning in their own team’s performance over the nine months. Did we fulfil expectations? How will we look back on this season in ten years’ time?

Listening on Sunday evening to BBC 5Live’s football phone-in, the home of knee-jerk reactions and misinformed opinions, one of the many morons to phone in argued that Alex Ferguson’s time was up. The loss of the title supposedly pointed to the fact that he was no longer an adequate manager for Manchester United. Now aside from the fact that it’s a stupid opinion to hold, we can probably assume that if Sergio Aguero hadn’t have scored his winner for Manchester City on Sunday in stoppage time to clinch the title, the caller wouldn’t have come to that conclusion. United would have won the league out of nowhere and Ferguson would have been lauded as having masterminded yet another triumph.

This exposes the absurdity of trying to conclude anything from success or failure of a season when the margins are so thin. One goal separated Manchester United from a ‘disappointing season’ and a 20th league title. One goal separated Spurs from their highest finish ever and ‘an underwhelming campaign’. One Jonathan Walters goal separated Bolton from different divisions. These different conclusions about how well your team has performed are false – there is nothing you can conclude about the quality of your team’s season right now that you couldn’t conclude prior to this last weekend’s final set of fixtures. QPR were still a very poor side for most of the campaign. Manchester City still had very poor patches throughout. Arsenal still have deep-seated problems. The respective success of all three is due to the very fine margins in sport.

It’s easy to be revisionist when watching sport. We are constantly driven to hyperbole concerning the current game or season we are watching, as we are wrapped up in the drama and narratives of the present day. Indeed, the 2011/2012 season was voted the best of the 20 seasons of the Premier League we have had. It is true that Sunday was an exceptional end to a season by most standards – the title race of 1998/1999 is perhaps the only campaign that could rival this season’s in terms of length and quality of race.

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98/99 was the season United won the treble – for which most people simply remember the late Sheringham-Solskjaer show in the Champions League final – but the battle United fought to be crowned domestic champions was exceptional. It was the famous United team of Cole, Yorke, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs et al, against an Arsenal side which managed to combine their famous British defence of the 90s (Winterburn, Adams, Dixon), just at their final peak, and the devastating European frontline of Bergkamp, Anelka and Overmars. The season was the culmination of what was one of the best Wenger-Ferguson narratives of the last fifteen years, epitomised not actually in a league game but in that year’s FA Cup SemiFinal replay. That Giggs goal settled one of the greatest English matches of all time at Villa Park of all places, back when the FA Cup used to be romantic.

Few also remember that the 98/99 title race was indeed a three horse race – the Chelsea side of Leboeuf, Desailly, Di Matteo and Zola were top at Christmas and lost only three times all season, let down by too many draws, finishing four points off the top on the final day.

What did perhaps set this current year’s title race apart was quite how many times each side threw it away. United had won the title when Mikel Arteta scored against City six weeks ago. Then City had won the title when Yaya Toure scored his second against Newcastle. United had won the title when Jamie Mackie headed in for QPR on Sunday. Then City had won it when Aguero wheeled away. Margins are too fine to make conclusions if this had/hadn’t have happened, things would have been differently. But when there are so many turning points in fifteen minutes of one match, let alone 38 games of each team’s season, one is tempted just to sit back, forget meaning, and watch Gary Neville go crazy