Integrity and the title run-in



With only four games to go in this fascinating Premier League season, Tottenham Hotspur were the form side at the top of the table and the only realistic candidate to stop Leicester City claiming an unlikely triumph. Then, on match day 35, Leicester trounced an abject Swansea City side 4-0 at the King Power Stadium. A day later, at White Hart Lane, Spurs, looking for their first championship in 55 years, slipped up at home to West Brom, drawing 1-1. With three games to go and only nine points to contest, Spurs were now seven points behind Leicester and the ball was firmly in the court of the men from the East Midlands.

Then, in round 36, Leicester went to Old Trafford and produced a championship-winning performance, picking up a point after being a goal down, and edging eight points clear of their rivals in the process. Typifying their season, it was unheralded captain Wes Morgan who nodded home the equaliser, not one of the lauded trio of Vardy, Mahrez or Kante. Spurs, once again playing a day later, went to Stamford Bridge to take on their bitter rivals. Nothing but a win would do, were the men from North London to keep their title dream alive.

What made Leicester’s rise to the top this season such an rarity, was the fact that for the first time in many years, it was popular amongst the neutrals. Envy and jealousy often precludes people liking the champions, assuming it is not their team of course. One Swansea fan, calling into a popular sport radio station after the aforementioned drubbing, even said he was happy to see his team lose to Leicester if it meant the Foxes would go on to win the league. Happy to pay God-knows-how-much and make a 370 mile round-trip to watch your team lose 4-0? Wow, he must really like Leicester!

It’s one thing when fans and pundits declare their admiration and desire to see Leicester win the league, however it’s another thing entirely when people with vested interests in the game, and the ability to change a match, pledge their allegiance to one team or another. Controversially, referee Kevin Friend was removed from refereeing Spurs’ game at Stoke because he is based in Leicester. The Premier League obviously thought, rightly or wrongly, that he would’ve been biased towards Stoke on that occasion and therefore relieved him of his officiating duties that evening. Eden Hazard, commenting to Chelsea’s official website in April, remarked: “We don’t want Tottenham to win the Premier League – the fans, the club and the players.” Cesc Fabregas echoed the words of his Belgian team mate on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football of the Spurs-Stoke game:”I don’t want Spurs to win it…I’d love Leicester to win the Premier League.”

Had Chelsea already played Spurs and Leicester home and away at the time of these comments, it probably wouldn’t have caused a stir. Like everyone else, they would’ve just been neutral observers. However, at the time they still had to face both, and therefore could potentially have had a real impact on the outcome of the league title. Of course, there are times in a season when a club has to look after number one and may take their foot off the gas in certain games ahead of a crucial Champions League or FA Cup tie for example. That is their prerogative. Every man for himself, look after number one. But to come out and openly state a preference between two opponents, given that you still have to play both, is outrageous and certainly leaves a question mark hanging in the air.

You’d like to think, despite these comments, that pride would kick in and that the players in question would perform in a manner befitting their status as professionals, but once an idea enters your subconscious it is hard to shake. In fairness to him Hazard did go on to say: “We have a big game next week against Tottenham and if we can beat them it will be good.”

In the end this proved to be a moot point. Spurs started the clash at Stamford Bridge impressively, taking a two-goal lead into the break thanks to efforts from Kane and Son, threatening to take the title race down to the wire. The ill-tempered affair, which drew no fewer than 12 yellow cards and saw several on-pitch brawls, was played in front of a fervent atmosphere, and the baying home crowd had something to cheer about on the hour mark when Gary Cahill pulled one back for Chelsea. The nervousness emanating from the Spurs players was palpable, and Hazard produced a moment of magic in the 83rd minute to draw the game level, thus ending Spurs title hopes and handing an improbable title to Leicester with a few games to spare. Hazard, Fabregas and company acted like professionals during the match with Spurs and one wonders how Chelsea’s season would’ve panned out had they shown the same drive and determination week-in week-out. The Leicester players, watching the match at Jamie Vardy’s house, were able to start their celebrations earlier than expected and thankfully the Chelsea-Leicester game on the final day of the season was to become irrelevant.

Sporting integrity was also called into question on the final day of the 1994/95 Premier League season, as both Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers were vying for the trophy. United were looking for their third consecutive title, after a 26 year wait, whilst Blackburn Rovers, backed by the wealth of steel magnate Jack Walker, were looking for their first league title since before World War I. Blackburn were two points ahead going into the last game but had an inferior goal difference, meaning that if United won Rovers would have to match them and bag three points. Both had tricky away assignments: United travelled to East London to take on West Ham at the Boleyn Ground, whereas Rovers were making the short trip to Anfield to take on United’s bitterest of rivals. Another twist in the tale was the fact that Blackburn were managed by an Anfield demi-god, Kenny Dalglish, the man who had lifted league title’s as both a manager and a player with Liverpool.

Twenty minutes into the final day Blackburn drew first blood, as Alan Shearer netted at Anfield to give Blackburn a one-nil lead. Eleven minutes later, down in East London, Michael Hughes put West Ham in front against United. At this stage, it looked like Rovers’ dreams would come true. However, in true football style, there were to be more twists-and-turns to the drama. Shortly after half-time, Brian McClair equalised for United and 1o minutes later John Barnes also levelled the scores at Anfield. In a short space of time the balance had swung, and now United were only a goal away from retaining the title. Ludek Miklosko’s inspired form in the West Ham goal, along with poor finishing from United players, meant that the game would finish one a piece, much to the delight of the Paul Ince-baiting Hammers fans.

Jamie Redknapp bagged the winner for Liverpool at Anfield although it was too late for United to benefit from the favour given to them by their fierce rivals. Despite losing on the final day, Blackburn Rovers won the title, and it would be captain Tim Sherwood, before he was the oft-ridiculed “Tactics Tim”, who would do the honours and lift the trophy at Anfield. A win-win for Liverpool fans, who not only got to see their team win on the final day of the season, and see Kenny Dalglish parade the trophy around the stadium, but they also had the bonus of preventing Manchester United from winning the title.

Gary Pallister, quoted talking to the BBC, recalls thinking at the time: “well Liverpool aren’t going to want to do Manchester United any favours are they?” He went on to say that Liverpool’s win spoke “so highly of the professionalism of footballers.” The integrity of the game, everyone giving 100% whatever the circumstances, is something we should cherish and hold dear, even if the idea is more realistic than the reality.

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