The Defining Moment of Every Premier League Season
Twenty-one seasons have come and passed since the beginning of the Premier League era, and every one of them has produced unforgettable storylines that will remain with fans for the rest of their lives.
Who could forget Sergio Aguero's title-winning goal in 2012? Or Arsenal's run to invincibility? Or that free kick by Cristiano Ronaldo, or that overhead kick by Wayne Rooney?
A moment can be definitive for many reasons, be they dramatic, historic or just plain memorable. But in every case, they should sum up the season in some way.
With that in mind, we've selected a definitive moment for each of the 21 Premier League campaigns. Here they are, in chronological order.
1992-93: Manchester United Break Through, but TV Rights Take Center Stage
Manchester United won the title in 1992-93, the inaugural season of the Premier League, eventually finishing 10 points ahead of Aston Villa after a three-way challenge for much of the season. The title was Sir Alex Ferguson's first league triumph with United and United's first in 26 years.
United's successful title challenge received a boost with the arrival of French forward Eric Cantona from Leeds for £1.2 million in November 1992. One could argue that Cantona's arrival served as a catalyst for United's unprecedented run of success in the Premier League era, but despite Cantona's iconic status, that transfer is not the defining moment of the 1992-93 season.
The defining moment happened before the 1992-93 season began—and before the first Premier League match was played.
In May 1992, the fledgling league negotiated a television contract with BSkyB and BBC worth £304 million over five years. The deal would alter the way fans watched English football and the way clubs conducted business.
With the Premier League breaking away from the Football League, TV companies acted decisively to secure broadcasting rights. The result was, in the words of The Guardian, "an unprecedented windfall, which would help (Premier League clubs) lure some of the best footballing talent to the Premier League."
These days, those initial numbers seem quaint. In 2012, the Premier League negotiated a deal for domestic TV rights worth more than £3 billion per year, the richest in world football. Over the years, as more money has poured into the league, clubs have been able to pay players more and spend higher amounts on transfer fees.
The 1992 deal was the start of it.
1993-94: United Pull Away
Manchester United retained their title in 1993-94, completing a league and FA Cup double. Only a loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup final prevented United from claiming a domestic treble.
The final margin in the league was eight points, but United faced pressure from Blackburn Rovers in the spring of 1994. After losing to Chelsea in March, United saw their lead fall to three points after another defeat at Blackburn on April 2. Pressure built as Eric Cantona drew a five-match ban for being sent off twice.
The Red Devils recovered and pulled away with a run of four straight victories, including back-to-back 2-0 decisions over Manchester City and Leeds United. It wasn't a single moment, but the decisive run secured the title for a second consecutive year and kept Blackburn at bay for another season.
1994-95: Blackburn Win the League, but Eric Cantona Makes the Headlines
Blackburn weren't to be denied again the next season, when Rovers wrested the league away from Manchester United by a single point. Alan Shearer scored 34 goals to lead the league and Rovers claimed their first title since 1914.
But the 1994-95 season's defining moment again involved Manchester United.
In January 1995, United's Eric Cantona, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, assaulted a fan with a flying kick into the stands at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park. Cantona claimed the fan had directed racial insults at him, but his punishment was nonetheless firm.
Later, at a press conference, Cantona said only: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much." Then he rose and left.
Take your pick between the kick and the quote. Either could be the 1994-95 season's defining moment.
1995-96: Winning with Kids and an on-Air Meltdown
On the first day of the 1995-96 season, after Manchester United lost 3-1 to Aston Villa with a young squad, television pundit Alan Hansen famously said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson "can't win anything with kids."
Hansen turned out to be famously wrong, as Fergie's Fledglings won the title the following spring (along with another FA Cup), but his on-air gaffe narrowly misses out as our defining moment of the season. That honor instead goes to another gaffe, this one belonging to Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan.
Keegan's team had built a 12-point lead atop the table in January, but as Newcastle's lead slipped and Manchester United surged in the spring, Ferguson tipped the balance by playing one of his famous mind games. After Ferguson suggested Newcastle's opponents were not motivated to play hard, Keegan melted down on live television.
The full rant appears at left. For the precise moment at which the title race was lost, see the manic sequence in which Keegan practically screams ""And I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it."
1996-97: Calamity James
Manchester United won yet another league title in 1996-97, overtaking Liverpool late in the season. Liverpool had topped the table for much of the campaign but faltered down the stretch, with goalkeeper David James making a series of memorable errors.
First came a damaging 2-1 home loss to Coventry in which James gifted Dion Dublin a stoppage-time winner. Before the match, the Reds had trailed United by three points with a match in hand, meaning the title was still theirs to win.
Later in the month, trailing United by two points, Liverpool lost 3-1 at home to United, effectively ending their challenge. Once again, James made a mistake, missing a catchable cross that Andy Cole dutifully turned home for the final goal of the game.
1997-98: Adams Sums It All Up
The hunters became the hunted in the 1997-98 season as Arsenal erased Manchester United's 11-point lead to win the Premier League title (the Gunners also won the FA Cup to complete the double).
Manager Arsene Wenger brought a new attractive, attacking style to Arsenal, which produced a run of 10 straight wins. The 10th, a 4-0 home win over Everton, clinched the title with two matches to spare. The fourth goal, scored by captain and defender Tony Adams after a thrusting run forward, vindicated Wenger's methods and underlined Arsenal's return as a force in English football.
1998-99: Final Day Drama
Manchester United retook the title in 1998-99 on the way to a historic treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League. In the Premier League, United finished the season on a 20-match unbeaten run, and the title race came down to a final-day comeback against Tottenham Hotspur.
After Arsenal had lost 1-0 at Leeds in their second-to-last match of the season, United moved one point clear with a draw at Blackburn. On the season's final day, Spurs took a 1-0 lead at Old Trafford through Les Ferdinand before David Beckham equalized for United with a rocket just before halftime.
Andy Cole then chipped the keeper for the winner early in the second half, giving United their fifth league title in seven years. With Arsenal winning their final match of the season, the comeback was necessary to keep United atop the table.
1999-2000: Rampant Manchester United
No final-day drama was needed in 1999-2000 as Manchester United strolled to their sixth Premier League title by a final margin of 18 points. United closed the season with 11 straight wins and totaled 97 goals for the campaign.
On April 1, United demolished West Ham United 7-1 to take a 10-point lead over Leeds in the already floundering title race. West Ham—who would finish in the top half—scored first but Manchester United responded with three goals before halftime to take control.
Paul Scholes finished with a hat-trick, while Denis Irwin, Andy Cole, David Beckham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer added one goal each as United flexed their attacking muscle in clinically devastating fashion.
2000-01: Rampant Manchester United, Again
Arsenal closed the gap on Manchester United to 10 points in 2000-01, but Sir Alex Ferguson's men took home their third straight title and seventh of the Premier League era.
The distance between the sides—and the gulf between United and the rest of the league—was fully evident in February 2001, when United thrashed Arsenal 6-1 at Old Trafford. After United took an early lead, Arsenal briefly drew level with a flowing move finished off by Thierry Henry.
But the rest of the game, and the season, belonged to the hosts, who roared back to make it 5-1 by halftime.
Dwight Yorke, who had fallen to fourth-choice striker at United, hit a hat-trick, while Roy Keane, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham scored once each.
2001-02: Arsenal's Revenge
Arsenal exacted revenge for the previous season's massacre by clinching the 2001-02 Premier League title with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in May 2002.
Sylvain Wiltord tucked home the rebound from Freddie Ljungberg's initial shot to score the game's only goal 10 minutes into the second half.
Arsenal went on to win the FA Cup as well for their second double in four years.
2002-03: Mark Viduka Kills off Gunners
The 2002-03 season was Manchester United's chance for revenge, and the Red Devils gained it by overtaking Arsenal late in the season for yet another title.
By May 4, Arsenal trailed United by eight points, albeit with two games in hand. But Arsenal lost that match, a five-goal thriller at home to relegation-threatened Leeds, whose 3-2 victory gave United the title.
Mark Viduka struck the decisive blow, an 88th-minute winner that kept Leeds in the Premier League for another year.
Arsenal did not remain disappointed for long. The following season, playing Arsene Wenger's flowing football and inspired by Thierry Henry's 30 goals, Arsenal won the title without losing a single match.
The feat earned the 2003-04 Arsenal team the nickname "Invincibles," and invincibility was secured on the final day of the season with a comeback 2-1 win over Leicester City.
Henry equalized from the penalty spot early in the second half, before Dennis Bergkamp picked out Patrick Vieira for the winner midway through the half.
For another definitive moment, see the scoreless draw between Arsenal and Manchester United at Old Trafford the previous September. As we've seen, previous encounters between the teams had been decisive in the title race. This one, a bad-tempered affair that came to be known as "The Battle of Old Trafford," demonstrated that Arsenal possessed the fighting spirit and good fortune needed to win the league.
The conduct of Arsenal's players during the match drew heavy criticism, which served to unite the team for the rest of the season.
2004-05: The Special One
When he arrived at Chelsea in June 2004 to lead Roman Abramovich's oil-financed revolution, Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho held nothing back. Fresh off his UEFA Champions League triumph with Porto the previous spring, Mourinho declared himself "a special one."
"I have top players and I'm sorry, we have a top manager," he said.
He added: "Please do not call me arrogant because what I say is true. I'm European champion, I'm not one out of the bottle, I think I'm a special one."
He was right.
Mourinho managed an impressive collective of high-priced stars to the Premier League title the following May. The Blues allowed just 15 goals all season and bettered Arsenal's 90-point haul from the Invincibles season by five points.
Mourinho showed the first day on the job that he can talk the talk. That season, he walked the walk as well.
2005-06: Joe Cole's Magic
The 2005-06 title race had already been settled unofficially for several weeks, but Chelsea made it official in the best possible fashion—beating Manchester United 3-0 at home in April 2006.
Needing only a point to clinch the title, Chelsea instead routed United with goals from William Gallas, Ricardo Carvalho and Joe Cole's brilliant individual strike.
The 2006-07 season marked the breakthrough of Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who led Manchester United with 17 goals in the Premier League and took home PFA and FWA Player of the Year honors.
And yet, after Ronaldo's famous wink at the 2006 World Cup, there was some question in the offseason whether he and Wayne Rooney would be able to function in the same team together.
Any doubts were dispelled on the opening day of the season, when United, inspired by both Rooney and Ronaldo, whipped Fulham 5-1 at Old Trafford.
Rooney bagged a brace and Ronaldo scored once as the pair set the tone for the season.
2007-08: Irresistible Ronaldo
Manchester United won yet another title in 2007-08, their 10th of the Premier League era. This time Sir Alex Ferguson's men overcame spirited challenges from both Chelsea and Arsenal. (United also won their second Champions League of the Ferguson era, beating Chelsea in the final on penalties).
Cristiano Ronaldo dominated the end-of-season awards again, being named Player of the Year by both the PFA and FWA after scoring a league-best 31 goals.
In January, Ronaldo scored both goals as United beat Portsmouth 2-0 at Old Trafford. Ronaldo's second goal, a brilliant free kick from distance, summed up the extent to which his talent had become irresistible.
2008-09: Clean Sheet Streak
Manchester United retained their title in 2008-09, becoming the first English team to win three straight top flight titles two separate times.
Not that it was easy.
United started the season with one win from their first four matches and sat 15th in the table on Sept. 21. But the season gained steam after a 2-0 home win over Bolton on Sept. 27 and continued with an amazing run of clean sheets that spanned November to February.
In all, United kept 14 consecutive clean sheets, a league record, and conceded only 24 times in 38 matches. They tied the previous mark, held by Chelsea, in the return fixture at Bolton on Jan. 17, a match United won 1-0 thanks to Dimitar Berbatov's late header.
Coincidentally, the win sent United into first place for the first time all season. They did not relinquish the spot.
2009-10: Scoring Frenzy
Chelsea returned to the Premier League summit in 2009-10, clinching the title with an emphatic 8-0 victory over Wigan on the season's final day. That was enough to put Chelsea one point ahead of Manchester United, who beat Stoke 4-0 the same day.
That scoreline was no coincidence. Chelsea scored and scored and scored all season. And then they scored some more on the final day of the season to cap it off.
Under first-year manager Carlo Ancelotti, the Blues registered a record 103 goals in 2009-10. Ivorian striker Didier Drogba led the team—and the league—with 29 strikes, including three in the second half against Wigan. Meanwhile, the Blues also set a new English record with a goal difference of plus-71.
Manchester United had set the previous scoring record with 97 in 1999-2000.
After the Premier League triumph, Chelsea completed the double by winning the FA Cup final against Portsmouth.
2010-11: Rooney the Acrobat
Manchester United reclaimed the title again in 2010-11, and this one was historic. The title was United's 12th in the Premier League and 19th overall—the latter breaking a tie with Liverpool for the most in English football history.
The storylines abounded for United, who went 24 matches unbeaten to start the season. But another early-season development, the one concerning the future of England international forward Wayne Rooney at the club, threatened to derail the campaign.
In October 2010, Rooney requested a transfer from United (in 2012 he called the request a "mistake"). That was bad enough for United fans, but his rumored destination of Manchester City was even worse.
Rooney later changed his mind and signed a new contract with United. By the next spring, United were champions again—and Rooney had produced perhaps his signature moment.
In the Manchester Derby against rivals Manchester City in February 2011, Rooney converted an acrobatic overhead kick to give United a key 2-1 win. United went on to win the title by nine points over Chelsea and City, who were resurgent thanks to heavy investment from the Middle East.
In 2012, fans voted the goal the best of the Premier League era, an honor that left Rooney beaming.
"I grew up watching the Premier League so to be voted the best goal in the history of the Premier League is a great feeling," Rooney said. "I'd like to say a big thank you to all the fans that voted for me."
Buoyed by heavy investment from owners the Abu Dhabi Group, the current incarnation of Manchester City mounted their most serious title challenge to date in 2011-12. Standing in their way—naturally—were 12-time Premier League champions Manchester United, who held an eight-point lead as late as April 10.
City roared back into the race with six straight wins to close the season. By the final day of the campaign, the "noisy neighbors" needed only to beat relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers to win their first title since 1968.
B/R's Karl Matchett wrote an excellent summary of the dramatic final day of the 2011-12 season, and to understand fully the unbearable tension of all the events, it's worth your time to read the entire article. But for our purposes, all you need to know is this.
Heading into second-half stoppage time, City trailed QPR 2-1. Edin Dzeko equalized in the second of five minutes of stoppage time, and Argentine striker Sergio Aguero won it two minutes later. The goal came literally seconds after Manchester United had beaten Sunderland behind Wayne Rooney's lone goal.
If Aguero hadn't scored, Manchester United would have been champions yet again. Instead, his goal pulled City level on points with United—City had a superior goal differential—and the Etihad erupted.
It was a heart-stopping moment, one that no Premier League fan will ever forget.
“It has been 44 years since this club last had their hands on the title and everyone at City knows that is too long," manager Roberto Mancini said.
He added: “The supporters have never lost faith or patience—even in the last five minutes today—and we are so pleased that this season, we have delivered some history for them."
2012-13: Farewell, Fergie
Nothing lasts forever, not even an unparalleled footballing empire established over more than a quarter of a century by one of the game's true legends.
At times during his 26-and-a-half-year reign at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was fiery. At others he was ruthless. At others he was downright scary. Sometimes full of contradictions, Ferguson was above all a winner—and without a doubt, one of a kind.
Ferguson retired at the end of the 2012-13 Premier League season. His last match was a wild 5-5 draw at West Brom, and fittingly, Manchester United sent him out with yet another title, his 13th of the Premier League era and United's 20th overall.
The Premier League will never see another manager like him.