The final Sunday of the English Premier League season is typically a formality. With the champions already crowned, fans gather to celebrate their triumph, thank or berate their team based on that season’s performance, bid farewell to departing players, and enjoy one last escape to the park before they face a football-less void. Rarely is the day called “Championship Sunday,” for there is no championship to be decided. Instead, it has come to be more appropriately known as “Survival Sunday,” a day on which teams near the bottom of the table fight to avoid relegation. Fans of these bottom-dwellers nervously look on as their heart rate increases exponentially with every kick of the ball. For them, this one game will decide if their club will stay to break bread at the table of kings or if they will be subjected to the depths of English football’s purgatory.
May 13th, 2012, the final day of a tumultuous 2011-12 Premier League season, was anything but a formality. For the first time since the Manchester Blitz of the Second World War, the entire city of Manchester held its breath. Its two biggest clubs began the day tied atop the league table with 86 points. City held first place due to margin of eight in goal difference. Barring a massive United victory away at Sunderland, all City would have to do is beat relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers at home to win the title. A rare occurrence, this was both “Championship Sunday” and “Survival Sunday.” All the more rare, two teams fought their respective battles against each other. Queens Park came to Manchester that day knowing that they would avoid relegation if Bolton failed to secure a victory in Stoke. The Rangers could be the masters of their own destiny, however, if they were to pull off a miracle and win at the Etihad. Nonetheless, pundits favored City to win the league at home and assumed United would be on the outside looking in. On this day, as is tradition, all matches were played simultaneously to prevent teams any advantage from knowing the scores of other matches.
At the half, all was going according to plan. It seemed as if, after all these years, blue was to be the color. City led 1-0 thanks to a 39th minute strike from Pablo Zabaleta. In the second half, however, Queens Park had other ideas. Within three minutes, Joleon Lescott completely whiffed on a header and released Djibril Cisse toward goal. Cisse thanked him by converting to bring the score level. With the title seemingly slipping away, City relentlessly attacked the QPR defense with everything they had. In the 66th minute, the Rangers scored against the run of play as Jamie Mackie converted on a cross from Armond Traore. On a day that seemed destined for celebration, the Etihad had gone silent. Some fans began to cry as they felt the pain of the last 44 years encapsulated in one game.
In Sunderland, a podium is being assembled in the tunnel area. Police line both sides, swiftly making final preparations to secure the pitch and present the trophy to United. Across the footballing world, journalists frantically work to tear apart their pre-written pieces on City’s triumph and United’s despair, substituting one for the other. In Manchester, City’s Gareth Barry, substituted from the match, leans back in his seat and looks to the sky, pondering why the football gods have taunted him in this way. He sees a helicopter fly overhead at a high rate of speed, and immediately thinks that it is taking the trophy to Sunderland. Quite literally, he thinks he sees his childhood dreams flying away from him.
The match continues on agonizingly in Manchester. City cannot seem to catch a break. Silva missed just wide. Dzeko hit the post. Balotelli had a point-blank header snuffed out by the QPR keeper. Under four minutes remaining, City finally caught the break they were looking for when Edin Dzeko found free space in the box to head a corner down and into the goal. The players and fans didn’t celebrate. There was nothing to celebrate at all. There was no consolation prize for throwing away the league title. The only celebrations from the fans at the Etihad came from a sarcastic few. At least the match was on.
United’s match has ended, and they’ve done their bit. They are the Champions of England, or so they think. Just as the final whistle sounds in Sunderland, QPR have a throw in on City’s side of the field. It’s the 94th minute in Manchester, and United must wait less than two minutes before they can celebrate. QPR take it long, and Joleon Lescott rises above to head it down to the Dutchman Nigel de Jong, who dribbles the ball with pace 60 yards upfield. Like a race horse startled by the bell, de Jong gallops upfield without a plan in mind. Swinging his head from left to right, he finally finds Sergio “Kun” Agüero in the middle of the park and lays it off. Agüero receives the ball 35 yards from goal and turns to take the defender one-on-one. QPR’s back line holds firm, and their red and white uniforms consume the sky blue shade of City’s attackers. It seems as if the sky has been stained by the blood pouring from City’s hearts.
There’s to nowhere to go for Agüero. He’s done for. In the background, the crowd audibly gasps for breath and barely clings to life. Some have given up all hope, and others cannot watch. Many bury their heads in their hands hoping that this is all a dream, that City haven’t done a “classic City” and thrown away the title. Sergio takes a touch out to the left, and pings the ball with the outside of his foot towards the bullish Italian Mario Balotelli at the top of the box. The pass is slightly behind Balotelli, and he needs to stretch to his right to have a chance at it. The QPR defender dives in from behind, making contact with Balotelli and winning a piece of the ball. By some miracle or due to some divine intervention, the ball trickles only a yard from the City striker. The QPR defender falls to the ground, and an off-balance Balotelli turns and falls in one motion, all the while extending his right leg to poke the ball into open space in the 18-yard box. Mario will claim he knew what he was doing, but for a moment the ball seemed destined for nobody.
Out of thin air, Agüero comes rumbling into the box like a mad man. After laying the ball to Balotelli, he had slipped between two Queens Park defenders and kept his eyes locked on the ball. No matter where it wound up, he was determined to have it back on his feet. By this point, the QPR back line is confused and disjointed. Expecting Balotelli to go down and lose the ball, they all lost track of the Argentine. Cutting to the right with great speed, Agüero picks up the ball 12 yards out and takes one touch with his right foot. As he does so, the stadium goes completely silent. For a moment, the fans are gone and Sergio is back in a Buenos Aires slum. For a moment, there exists only a pitch, a ball, and a goal. Like thousands of times before, he has but one mission: to score. A QPR player, their last line of defense, lunges at Agüero and catches his left foot. To this day, the City striker claims he didn’t feel a thing. Instead of going down and trying to draw a penalty, he thrust onwards, gathered his feet, and struck the ball firmly with his laces. Paddy Kenny, the Irish keeper, could not keep the firecracker of a strike from sneaking between his outstretched left hand and the near post. United’s 120 seconds as champions were over.
As the ball strikes the back of the net, the Etihad stadium erupts into pure delirium. Out of the silence came the most deafening roar this earth has ever experienced. Agüero, having struck the ball with such force, spun around and ran off toward the corner flag. Unsure what to do, he ripped his shirt off and swung it violently over his head. Roberto Mancini, the Italian manager, ran around like a chicken without a head along the touchline until he found his assistants and embraced them. Arms outstretched, Joe Hart, the city keeper, ran in circles alone on City’s side of the field, forgotten in the celebration and completely unsure of what he had just witnessed. Within the Etihad and across the world, fans screamed with jubilation and complete disbelief. They had just witnessed a miracle. Strangers hugged each other, sons clung to their fathers and fathers clung to their sons. Never before have so many grown men cried. Across the world, millions of people had just heard British commentator Martin Tyler make the call of the century: “Manchester City are still alive here….Balotelliiiii….Aguer-oooooooo!!!…I swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again, so watch it, drink it in.” In so few words, Tyler captured the confusion and magic of the moment. In so few words, Tyler etched his name into history as an icon of the event.
That is the story of how a once-orphaned Ghanaian-Italian punk with a knack for the ridiculous, an Argentinian from the slums of Buenos Aires named after a Japanese anime character, and a survivor from war-torn Bosnia defied all odds to deliver the working-class people of East Manchester their first league title in 44 years. That is the story of how they became immortal. That is the story of football.
Here’s a side-by-side view of the final minutes of both the United and City matches:
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“Remembering Sergio Aguero’s Man City title-Winning goal, five years on.” SkySports.com, Sky UK, 10 May 2017, www.skysports.com/football/news/11679/10871583/remembering-sergio-agueros-man-city-title-winning-goal-five-years-on.
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