Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pennant Fever

For English soccer fans, one of the most boring seasons in recent history ended with a series of bangs.  First, Sir Alex Ferguson, who has absolutely dominated English football for the last two decades, announced that he was finally retiring.  Ferguson, who is one of the best coaches I have ever seen in any sport, had an incredible record.  In the early 1980's, he won the Scottish league three times with Aberdeen, which is like winning the Big 10 football championship three times with Northwestern.  When he came to Manchester United in 1987, the Red Devils had not won the English championship since 1967.  By 1993, Ferguson had changed that.  And then, for the next 20 years, the Red Devils never finished lower than third, winning titles in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013.  Manchester United also won F.A. Cup titles in 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2004.  Finally, Ferguson took United to the finals of the European Champions League in 1999, 2008, 2009, and 2011 -- winning it all in  1999 and 2008.

Ferguson did all of this while consistently being the most entertaining figure in English football.  He was like a more clever version of Bobby Knight -- constantly embroiled in controversies with the press and his fellow managers, always insisting that his teams play with great discipline and speed, but never going so far as to put his own career at risk.

His departure opens a new era in English football, much as the retirement of Bear Bryant opened a new era for the SEC.  For years, no one has been able to consistently beat Manchester United.  But starting next year, everything will be up for grabs.  It will be more entertaining for casual fans like me -- I grew tired of United's dominance long, long ago.  But even I will greatly miss seeing Sir Alex on the touchline.  His replacement -- David Moyes, who took Everton to a sixth-place finish this year -- will quickly find himself on a very hot seat.

Meanwhile, the second-place team, Manchester City, fired its manager.  You may recall that last year, City won its first English title since 1968, pulling out the championship in stirring fashion on the last day of the season.  Personally, I thought a lot of the credit for that title should have gone to Roberto Mancini, the City manager.  I thought Mancini did well again this year:  City finished second in the league and reached the final of the F.A. Cup.  But this was apparently not enough for the City management, who were undoubtedly frustrated with City's ability to advance from the group stages in the Champions' League.  Personally, I will be surprised if City finds a manager who does better than Mancini  -- no owner of an American team (with the possible exception of Jerry Jones) would fire a guy who just won the league last year and who came in second this year.  But it will be interesting to see who takes the job.

We should also spare a thought for the fans of Wigan Athletic, who have gone through a pretty traumatic year.  Since its founding in 1932, Wigan has been one of the foot soldiers of English football, spending most of its history slogging in the lower divisions.  The Latics never reached the top level of English football until 2005, and they haven't done that much since they got there.  But this year, they put together the following run in the F.A. Cup:

3rd Round:  Wigan Athletic 1 - 1 Bournemouth; Bournemouth 0 - 1 Wigan Athletic

4th Round:  Macclesfield Town 0 - 1 Wigan Athletic

5th Round:  Huddersfield Town 1 - 4 Wigan Athletic

6th Round:  Everton 0 - 3 Wigan Athletic

Semi-Final (at Wembley):  Millwall 0 - 2 Wigan Athletic

So with five wins away from home, the Latics reached the final for only the second time in their history.  And then they won their first major trophy ever -- stunning Manchester City 1-0 with a goal in injury time.  It was literally the greatest moment in Wigan's football history.  The next week, however, the Latics were relegated from the English Premier League -- making them the only team ever to win the Cup and suffer relegation in the same year.

Finally, congrats to Nick Hornby and Arsenal, who nipped Spurs for fourth place -- and a spot in next year's Champions' League -- with a 1-0 victory at Newcastle on the last day of the season.  It is the second year in a row that Spurs just missed advancing to the Big Stage.

So some late drama in what was otherwise a dull year -- but with United and City both rolling out new managers next season, we should see more excitement in the near future.  Here are the final standings (teams qualified for Europe are in bold; relegated teams are in italics):

1.  Manchester Utd:  28-5-5 (89 points)
2.  Manchester City:  23-6-9 (78)
3.  Chelsea:  22-7-9 (75)
4.  Arsenal:  21-7-10 (73)
5.  Tottenham Hotspur:  21-8-9  (72)
6.  Everton:  16-7-15 (63)
7.  Liverpool:  16-9-13 (61)
8. West Bromwich Albion:  14-17-7 (49)
9.  Swansea City:  11-14-13 (46) (goal differential of minus 4)
10.  West Ham Utd:  12-16-10 (46) (goal differential of minus 8)
11.  Norwich City:  10-14-14 (44)
12.  Fulham:  11-17-10 (43)
13.  Stoke City:  9-14-15 (42)
14.  Southampton:  9-15-14 (41) (goal differential of minus 11)
15.  Aston Villa:  10-17-11 (41) (goal differential of minus 22)
16.  Newcastle Utd:  11-19-8 (41) (goal differential of minus 23)
17.  Sunderland:  9-17-12 (39)
18.  Wigan Athletic:  9-20-9 (36)
19.  Reading:  6-22-10 (28)
20.  Queens Park Rangers:  4-21-13 (25)

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