The institutional memory of sports is typically built one highlight at a time. That is the way we remember players and games and seasons — by what goes right. It is more pleasant that way.
Yet while this year’s Premier League season was full of goals — it is the first time since 1960-61 that two teams scored at least 100 after nobody cracked 90 a year ago — it still seems that the lingering moments of a season in which Manchester City won its second championship in three years may be recalled more for opportunities brutally lost than ones artfully seized. Liverpool. Chelsea. Arsenal. Manchester United. The disappointment was seemingly littered across Britain.
This is not meant to diminish City’s mastery. The blue side of Manchester will deservedly cluck on Monday after a 2-0 home victory against West Ham, a result that left City’s captain, Vincent Kompany, to lift the trophy as the Etihad Stadium fans basked in joy.
City spent only 15 days of the season in first place, though much of that was because they always seemed to be a game or two behind their opponents on the schedule (a result of the club’s deep runs in the Champions League, F. A. Cup and League Cup). When City finally pounced, there was at least a hint of surprise: had they really been there all along?
The truth is that of course they had. City scored stylishly and defended stoutly, which is a winning recipe in any year. But in most other places, City’s resurgence was only a second-choice story line.
Even City fans may agree that the tale of the year was Liverpool: a historic club with fans across the world and a history dotted with all manner of emotion was right there, right on the cusp of a stunning title, its first in 24 years. It had a star striker in Luis Suárez. It had a savvy coach in Brendan Rodgers. It had an icon, a beloved English captain, in Steven Gerrard.
For months it felt as if a miracle on Merseyside was in the works. But in the end, the moment it began to slip away was cold and raw: Gerrard, desperately seeking his first league title, stumbled, seemingly innocently, near the halfway line in a crucial match against Chelsea. Within seconds, Demba Ba was upon the unprotected ball and in on goal, scoring for the Blues in a stunning 2-0 victory at Anfield that sent the Reds spinning.
No one blamed Gerrard directly. Suárez, who is rarely shy about making clear his frustrations with teammates on the field, quickly found Gerrard after the game and told him there was no need to feel ashamed. “Steven is the player who least needs to start asking for forgiveness from any of us,” Suárez said in a recent interview. “He’s been a great leader. It was a mistake. It happened.”
Despite the outpouring of support for Gerrard, though, his error’s impact was unquestionable. Liverpool lost that day, then blew a three-goal lead inside the last 12 minutes of last Monday’s game against Crystal Palace. The resulting draw effectively, and swiftly, ended their hopes of a title.
Suárez cried. Gerrard, too, appeared to be broken up. But the Liverpool pair was hardly alone in their sorrow. The list of clubs and players to have staggered before them was long.
What was the worst miss? What was the most cruel moment? Was it Gerrard’s slip? Or was it Chelsea’s disaster at home against Sunderland, an afternoon that looked so perfectly aligned for José Mourinho’s ambitions only to ultimately be his undoing?
Then again, maybe the biggest disappointment this year was Arsenal. Yes, sure, there is the F. A. Cup final still to be played next weekend at Wembley. A victory over Hull City will give Manager Arsène Wenger a trophy for the first time since 2005, and anxious Gunners fans would say that is no small thing.
But this year promised more for Arsenal. The club spent more time in first place than any other, beginning the season with verve and vibrancy, raising hopes that maybe, just maybe, Wenger had mixed up the perfect potion. They were atop the standings in September. October. November. December. Even on into January.
Then, suddenly, they were gone. They lost, 5-1, to Liverpool. They lost, 6-0, to Chelsea. They lost, 3-0, to Everton, throwing a top-four finish into temporary doubt. Recovering to save that Champions League place was nice, but the chance for something more was in their hands. And then it wasn’t.
Manchester United fans, of course, never had their hands on anything (except, metaphorically, David Moyes’s throat). The transition from the Alex Ferguson era was an unmitigated disaster that was only made worse by the surges at archrival Liverpool and neighboring City.
There were other letdowns. Everton talked big about overtaking one of the top four in a year seen as wide open, but didn’t. Southampton had early visions of something special but faltered. Fulham finished 12th last year and had eyes on rising higher; instead they were relegated in 19th. Cardiff City won the second division going away in 2013 and will go right back there after finishing last.
The most uplifting story, perhaps, is Sunderland’s. The woeful days of Paolo Di Canio’s reign seem long ago, and Gus Poyet’s revival of the Black Cats was stirring. Sunderland beat Manchester United, beat Chelsea and tied Manchester City in a five-match unbeaten streak that pushed them from the cellar all the way to safety.
“Can I go another year like these seven months?” Poyet said after Sunderland’s Premier League status for next season was finally assured. “No. I’m strong, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want to have a heart attack. I don’t want to lose any more hair than I have lost already.”
After a season overflowing with missed chances, it was a sentiment to which so many fans all over England could surely relate.