It was a time of Filbert Street, Highbury, Upton Park and the Dell. Sir Bobby Robson was guiding Newcastle United into the Champions League, while Dave Bassett, in one doomed final hurrah, was taking Leicester City back down to the Football League.
Leeds United, fresh from a European Cup semi-final, were one of Europe’s most exciting young sides, Manchester City were fighting their way out of Division One under Kevin Keegan, and no-one had heard of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The late George Harrison was No. 1 in the Top 40, New Labour ruled at Westminster and Old Trafford ruled the Barclaycard Premiership.
January 2002 was a fascinating moment in English football history. The Premiership (as it was then called) was still young, but suitably established to be contemplating its 10-year anniversary on the horizon, and the continental revolution Arsene Wenger is widely, and strangely unquestioningly, credited with ushering in had changed the game's face, pace and temperament. English football had become European, while European football was about to become conspicuously English, with a clutch of Premiership teams coming to dominate the latter rounds of the Champions League following the fallow post-Heysel years.
Meanwhile, a first-ever foreign manager for the national team had, after initial and predictable reservations, began to yield a tempered kind of excitement about the future, fuelled by a 5-1 win over Germany at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, which had moved Sven Goran Eriksson’s team to the brink of the World Cup finals in the Far East.
Marshalled by the metrosexual Metropolite David Beckham, and with Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand at the peak of their powers, England were desirable, consumable and utterly fashionable.
Notwithstanding the sleight of hand the past plays with our collective memory—the red-and-white-tinted spectacle we all keep in our breast pocket—football in England was burning with optimism in the snowy winter of 2002.
All this energy collected together to give the top flight perhaps its most intense, breathless title race in a generation, possibly of all time. It began in earnest on the night of January 22.
Liverpool, under Phil Thompson's temporary stewardship, having been held to a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Southampton three days earlier, travelled to Old Trafford for a midweek showdown with the champions Manchester United. The game looked to be petering out until, with five minutes left, Steven Gerrard slipped in Danny Murphy to lob the winning goal over Fabien Barthez and claw Liverpool to within two points of United.
The following night, fourth-placed Arsenal went to Filbert Street and beat Leicester 3-1, with goals from Gio van Bronckhorst, Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord. From that night until the end of the season, Arsenal and Liverpool were nothing short of relentless. Between January 22 and May 11 the two teams dropped just seven points between them in the league, collecting 86 out of a possible 93 and winning 28 out of 31 games.
In the process they knocked the champions United out of the race, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side ultimately finishing 10 points off the pace and outside of the top two for the first time in the Premiership era. The champions themselves, incredibly, won 19 of their last 24 games, but were undone by a horrible start to the season that saw them lose five out of seven in the autumn, before a 1-0 defeat to an Alen Boksic-inspired Middlesbrough at Old Trafford in March, effectively extinguished their challenge.
Robson’s Newcastle, who had topped the table for much of December, slipped out of the race following back-to-back defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool early in the spring. The Reds and the Gunners, meanwhile, fought each other to the top of the league, in what became a scintillating procession of merciless football.
At the start of February, Liverpool hit 10 goals in a week, dispatching first Leeds, for whom the good times were beginning to become derailed by the first bumps on a road that was to lead to oblivion, and then relegation-bound Ipswich, who were dismantled 6-0 at Portman Road by a goalscoring masterclass from Owen and Emile Heskey.
Here, in one afternoon, the enduring appeal of this short period in English football was encapsulated. Because the names Owen and Heskey have since become shorthand for ridicule and underachievement in our cultural vocabulary, markers for wasted talent and wasted optimism. But there was a time when these two were considered a property too hot to handle, and their mission to restore both club and country to former glories laced Saturday afternoons with a compelling subplot as the winter bit deep and bitter.
It was all apocryphal, of course. Even at his peak Heskey had been little more lithe and mobile than a garden shed, and Owen never really seemed to shed the aura of being a precocious youngster with the future in front of him but who somehow never arrived there. But after they scored four of England’s five goals in Berlin, England was ready to believe, and there was something warmly reassuring about watching them topple defences like skittles as Liverpool chased down the tile. Briefly, anything seemed possible, and the Owen/Heskey partnership seemed to endorse that in glorious technicolour.
And so Liverpool steamrollered on. Blackburn were dispatched 4-3 in a spring-time thriller, Newcastle and Chelsea were snubbed out at Anfield, and the towering presence of Sami Hyypia and Markus Babbel stood firm to grind out narrow wins at Sunderland, Fulham and Middlesbrough.
More free-scoring were Arsenal, who dropped points to a late Jo Tessem header against Southampton in early February but then never looked back. Dennis Bergkamp turned Nikos Dabizas inside out at St James’ Park to score one of the league’s iconic goals; Robert Pires audaciously eclipsed it with a delicious lob over Peter Schmeichel at Villa Park.
These were days when Arsenal knew how to un-pick the stubborn away-day assignments at Everton, Bolton, Charlton and the rest, coming up trumps at all three, galvanised by the sight of the finish line, rather than stalked by the spectre of failure as in later years. Patrick Vieira kicked and harried with balletic verve; Tony Adams and David Seaman, marginalised through injury, stood tall on the sidelines, silently demanding focus.
Toward the end, the pizzazz began to run out and hard graft took over. Late goals from Freddy Ljungberg and Lauren were needed to squeak past Ipswich and Tottenham at Highbury, while Ashley Cole’s goal-line clearance at 0-0 against West Ham would likely not have survived the age of video technology. Arsenal recovered to beat the Hammers with two goals in the final 13 minutes.
Three days later, after an incredible run of results that had stretched back three months, Thompson’s Liverpool blinked. After 12 wins from 13 the Reds fell to a 1-0 defeat at, of all places, White Hart Lane—Gus Poyet’s half-volley late in the first half opening the door for Arsenal to sweep in and finish the job. Two days later they won at Bolton, and Liverpool’s scintillating run came to nothing. Arsenal claimed the title with a goal from Wiltord at the home of the deposed champions on May 8.
And so ended a brief period of brutal intensity and glorious possibility in the Premier League Premiership. The next five seasons saw the title won either as one side collapsed or another cantered away with ease, and the Premier League has arguably not seemed to be so fibrillating with life at anytime since. Like the days of the four-stand English football ground, it feels lodged in an unreachable part of the past.