The English Premier League Finals

An ending only Hollywood could envision


What follows here may be a bit long, and to those that don't follow soccer, even a bit confusing, but by the time you finish reading this you will see that something was not quite right about the English Premier League's final day of competition on May 13, 2012. This article is a work of four individuals - Michael Falkner, Matt Agosta, Ken Smith, and myself (though really my contribution was just in editing).

Before we get to that final Sunday of the season, the stage needs to be set. The English Premier League (EPL) is, for lack of a better term, England's NFL. In a country where soccer is king, the EPL is the league. However, it does not have its version of the Super Bowl. The title is won by possessing the best record (which is points based, not unlike the NHL's standings) come season's end.

Prior to the final games of the season, two teams were tied: the EPL's version of the New York Yankees, Manchester United, who've won the title in 12 of the last 20 years, and their crosstown rivals (in a way, akin to the Mets) Manchester City who haven't won a title since 1968.

As Matt Agosta (check out his blog here) pointed out: "The main reason Manchester United and Manchester City were neck and neck for the final game is because they were tied on points. This is very rare and is the reason the season's end was such a big deal because both teams had identical points going into the last game.

"If we go back to why they were even on points you'll see that Manchester United had choked to both Everton (a middling to not so great/average team) and Wigan Athletic (which is almost always at the bottom of the table). In the match versus Everton, Manchester United was winning 4-2, but somehow gave up two late scores to create a draw. Prior to that, they lost outright to Wigan Athletic 1-0. When Manchester United lost to them it was like the Packers losing to the Chiefs last year (sound familiar?). Those two strange games, the loss and the draw, pulled Manchester City and Manchester United nearly dead even before they played against each other April 30th."

In fact, Manchester United was leading Manchester City by three points in the standings (meaning they were up basically one win), yet Manchester City held the tie-breaker in the standing due to goal differential. This set the stage for their April 30th showdown. This game, as the New York Times pointed out, was watched by over 600 million people in over 150 countries around the world. As a comparison, Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots garnered just 1/3 of that worldwide viewership with a little over 210 million watching.

The numbers in the Unites States were strong as well. According to this article, "The live broadcast of the Premier League match now ranks as the most-watched EPL game on US cable television, smashing the previous record of 610,000 viewers who watched Chelsea against Arsenal from December, 2010 (ESPN2). According to Nielsen Ratings, the Manchester derby scored a 0.8 rating and had an average of 1.033 million viewers (832,000 television homes). This monumental achievement is even more impressive when you consider that 205,000 additional viewers watched the game on ESPN Deportes, which set a record for the most viewed Premier League telecast on the Spanish-language sports network." And remember, this wasn't even a championship game.

As Matt pointed out, "If United had beat Wigan or Everton, there's no way 600 million people watch that game. Manchester United would've been the number one team because they'd be ahead by five or six points with three games left....But the draw and the loss reek as something the league asked United to do because Wigan and Everton's teams this year aren't that great to justify a tie and a Manchester United loss. I think maybe United believed they could always beat Manchester City head to head or Manchester City might screw it up in the end and agreed to make it more interesting for the league's sake."

 This set the stage for the EPL's sudden version of Super Sunday.

From here, I'll let Michael Falkner (visit his blog here) take over and explain the situation:

I begin this post with a direct quote from the front page of this site:

“When a win seems too good to be true - it is. When an impossible turn of events change the course of a game - it is. When the story of an improbable underdog rises to the top like some sort of Hollywood screenplay - it is.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the final day of English Premier League as another example of just how true this rings. So true, in fact, that, when it was over, several commentators said there would surely be a Hollywood movie made about this day and this championship.

Manchester City and Manchester United were equal on points for the EPL title. If tied at the end of the season, the titlists would be determined on goal difference. Manchester City held such a significant advantage in this department (eight goals -- City with +63 to United‘s +55) that it was obvious that all Manchester City has to do was defeat Queens Park Rangers at home, and it didn’t matter what happened with Manchester United at Sutherland.

However, Queens Park Rangers had their own issues. Three teams from the EPL are dropped (relegated) to the secondary “Championship” tier. This is accompanied by an often team-crippling financial loss of television revenue and other revenue the twenty Premier teams receive on a yearly basis.

Two of the three relegated teams had already been decided. Blackburn and Wolverhampton Wanderers were already guaranteed the bottom two places on the table, hence there was only one more team to be relegated.

The relegation battle came down to two teams, with a third team only mathematically involved:

Aston Villa, with seven wins, seventeen draws, and thirteen losses. A total of 38 points, but with a goal difference of only -14. Since that was far superior to the other two teams involved, Aston Villa were reasonably assured of staying up.

Queens Park Rangers with ten wins, seven draws, and twenty losses. A total of 37 points, and a goal difference of -22.

Bolton Wanderers was the third team, with ten wins, five draws, and twenty-two losses. A total of 35 points, and a goal difference of -31.

Bolton Wanderers were playing at mid-table Stoke City. They needed to win outright to avoid relegation, and then only if Queens’ Park Rangers lost to Manchester City.

So the three relevant matches:

Manchester City home to Queens Park Rangers
Sutherland home to Manchester United
Stoke City home to Bolton Wanderers

As it was the final day of the season, all games and all second-halves kicked off at the same time, to reduce the possibility of mutually-beneficially-arranged results, which are common in soccer tournament group stages. Hence, if one game was at 20 minutes, they all are.

So we’ll walk through the timeline of everything that happened, and you’ll see why I believe this entire enterprise to be yet another stain on big-money European football.

12th minute: The first relevant goal in this discussion occurs at Stoke City. Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters has scored to put them ahead of Bolton Wanderers 1-0.

However, this goal is not without controversy. Robert Bishop, in the Coming Home Newcastle blog, said it best:

“The game was marred by controversy, as replays showed that Jonathan Walters appeared to knock the ball out of goalkeeper Adam Bogdan’s hands for the Potters’ first goal.” [no video of this play could be found]

20th minute: Manchester United go, provisionally, to the top of the table, as Wayne Rooney, in his last match until at least the knockout stages of the Euro 2012 tournament, scores a goal to put Manchester United ahead at Sunderland 0-1.

39th minute (1): Manchester City responds, and returns to the provisional top, with a goal by Pablo Zabaleta. Manchester City 1 - QPR 0.

39th minute (2): In the same minute, Bolton Wanderers scores against Stoke City, a goal by Mark Davies. Stoke City 1 - Bolton Wanderers 1.

First-half injury time (45+): Bolton score again! Kevin Davies with a wide-angle goal. Stoke City 1 - Bolton Wanderers 2.

And that’s how the first halves ended. Sunderland 0-1 Manchester United, Stoke City 1-2 Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City 1 - QPR 0.

At this point, QPR are relegated and Manchester City are champions, provisionally.

48th minute: Scare for Manchester City -- QPR have equalized. Djibril Cisse has scored to make the match 1-1. Manchester United back on the provisional top of the table.

With the exception of the controversy on Stoke City’s first goal, the day has gone relatively calmly. That ends here.

54th minute: Enter Joey Barton, the captain of Queens Park Rangers. Manchester City are advancing the ball, but not particularly threatening. All of a sudden, at about 53:32 into the match, Carlos Tevez of Manchester City goes down hard right at the edge of the penalty area. [see video below] The crowd sees it, but the referee does not. The linesman, however, has, and is raising his flag and motioning the referee over.

[Since youtube has a tendency to pull these clips - as it did with a couple associated with this incident - a better, HD version of this play which could not be embedded here due to user's request is available here].

As the announcer correctly points out, there are two problems. A serious foul has occurred, but is it inside or outside the penalty area?

As the linesman and referee confer, there is already the beginnings of another incident with Barton squarely in the middle. Barton later claimed on his Twitter that Tevez punched him in the head:

“Think a few people are forgetting Tevez started the fracas by throwing a punch to the head…?”

The elbow is clear, and Barton is sent off. Even had Tevez punched him, which appeared skeptical at best, the elbow is Violent Conduct.

What he does next goes from the bizarre to the outright suspicious. He gave his reasoning on his Twitter after the match as well:

“The head was never gone at any stage, once I’d been sent off, one of our players suggested I should try to take 1 of theirs with me…”

What happens next makes me wonder if a red card was not enough for Barton, in that he may have been trying to get the match abandoned.

At :43 in the clip (54:51 in the game), Barton has been served the red card, and deliberately kicks Manchester City player Sergio Aguero. That is a second act of Violent Conduct.

A few seconds later, he deliberately delivers a head butt to Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, and then starts an argument with coach Mario Balotelli before he is brusquely escorted from the pitch. He not only needs to be physically wrestled off the pitch by two team officials, but escorted by two English policemen as well.

Let’s take a look at the current situation:

As of this moment, Queens Park Rangers need to hold that tie to avoid relegation. Its captain has committed a minimum of three sending-off offenses (and probably a fourth for his exchange with Balotelli). The elbow could’ve been called a penalty. It appeared as if Tevez was on the line, which is considered inside the box.

A supposed professional footballer, on the day his club is in danger of a crippling financial blow by relegation to the Championship, has committed a blatant sending-off with no remorse, and there is no question as to whether there might be more to these actions than a heat-of-the-moment situation?

No one is coming out and accusing Joey Barton of, at minimum, attempting to throw the match to Manchester City (or worse, force relegation of his own side)?

What Joey Barton did here was nothing short of inexplicable madness, unless you take the possibility into account that Barton was a participant in a fixed situation. He was the captain of the side, even with a significant questionable past, both on and off the pitch.

In fact, a 2007 off-the-field incident ended a five year Manchester City! In 2008, another incident put him in jail for 77 days.

And now this supposed professional footballer may have singlehandedly relegated his team.

66th minute: But now things have gotten really desperate for Manchester City, as, a man down, Queens Park Rangers have taken the lead! Jamie Mackie with a goal to give QPR a 1-2 lead.

77th minute: Another controversy at Stoke City, and Jonathan Walters has squared the match with Bolton Wanderers from the spot at 2-2.

The goalkeeper for Bolton, Adam Bogdan, was in the center of it again, fouling Peter Crouch in the area after a terrific save.

Full-time at Stoke and Sunderland: Bolton Wanderers manager Adam Coyle is furious as two believed-spurious decisions have seen his club relegated with the 2-2 draw at Stoke City. I can’t find a single video of either incident, legally or on YouTube.

The second half at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland is a placid affair, by comparison. Sunderland 0 - Manchester United 1 is the final.

Meanwhile, at Manchester City: “City-itis” is in full effect, as word from Sunderland is that Manchester City, in fact, need two goals in second-half stoppage time to lift the trophy.

Largely due to the Barton incident, however, five minutes of stoppage time are added to the match.

And that’s when Hollywood took over.

91:10: A corner kick is awarded to Manchester City. A perfect cross finds Edin Dzeko about five yards in front of the center of the goal, and he converts for 2-2.

Watch this clip with the Manchester City-QPR game on the right  [the EPL has a tendency to rip these down from youtube, however, so only certain replays are available]. The questionable Manchester City goal is at 1:05. The second replay at 1:30 makes the point clearer.

How in the name of any legitimate enterprise can Queens Park Rangers allow Dzeko to be untouched and unmarked 5 yards from the center of the goal?

The story is, of course, “he lost his man”, but QPR has to know the situation, and, unless there was effectively zero stoppage time at Stoke City (which we know wasn’t the case, due to the 77th-minute penalty), there could’ve still been time for Bolton to make it 3-2.

93:20 (3:10 of the above clip): Bedlam, at the instant the Sunderland-Manchester United game ends, as you can see in the clip. Sergio Aguero, who was kicked in the back of the knee by Barton in the red-card aftermath, scores the decider (and announced as such by the British announcers) after a ball comes through a mad scramble in the box.

[I would add to watch the replay of this goal starting at the 4:05 mark. How--when the goalie had a clear view of the play and the shooter coming in at such a tight angle--did the QPR goalie not get his hands on that shot?]

“Hollywood ending!” was the common call of the announcers. Even the football studio show went bedlam over the goal.

The final is Manchester City 3 - Queens Park Rangers 2. Manchester City win the English Premier League title literally in the last minute on goal difference -- it‘s first in 44 years, preventing Manchester United from making it six titles in seven years, and the first title outside of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea since 1994-95, when Blackburn Rovers was the only team in the Premier League era before Sunday not of those four to win the title.

Queens Park Rangers only remain in the Premier League because of two believed-dodgy calls in favor of Stoke City.

Aftermath: Barton has been charged with only two counts of Violent Conduct, apparently the two after he was already sent off. Barton has admitted the one Violent Conduct charge on the kick to Aguero, but requested a personal hearing in denying the headbutt to Kompany. The standard ban for this is now up to seven matches, facing at least three more for the headbutt.

If he’s convicted of both, the belief is that the suspension will be in the area of the first ten matches of next season. No word on whether he’ll be with Queens Park Rangers at that point.

They completely ignore his argument with Balotelli, that three of the four incidents took place after the presentation of the red card, his failure to leave the field in a timely manner, and actions which bring the game of football into disrepute, both at the game and afterwords on his Twitter.

In closing: I have an open suggestion for the English Football Association.

In my honest opinion, Joey Barton should be banned for life on his record alone, but, before you do, you have to investigate the circumstances on which Barton did what he did. It truly appears to me that Barton had no regard for his club, nor any regard for English football, when he basically went crazy on the pitch.

He is either a dangerously unstable man or, more likely (and this is why this post is here), the match was tampered. There are several reasons and theories I have for the match being fixed:

Theory One: The match was featured on ESPN here in the United States, where I’m sure the EPL would like to expand it’s reach with. ESPN has had matches on ESPN for the last three years.

ESPN has limited contracts with the EPL for some of their games, and the battle is on with the United Kingdom ESPN network against the current holders of most of the material, British Sky Broadcasting Group, for a new contract in the EPL's home .

A “Hollywood Ending” like that would bring more interest in the EPL having a higher profile than FOX Soccer Channel or the regional networks can give it.

Theory Two: According to international match-fixing expert Declan Hill , there are already significant investigations and charges being levied in both Italy and Turkey as to match-fixing at the top flight. These charges often involve illegal Asian gambling syndicates, who are known to the author of The Fix to have tampered with matches on every conceivable level.

Theory Three: The FA itself. The English FA has not had a good season. Wayne Rooney’s suspension from the group stage of the Euro 2012 championships, John Terry facing criminal charges as the captain of the English national side for racism on the pitch, the FA sacking the coach which led the English national team to the Euro 2012 tournament…

They have not had a good year, and would like a good distraction -- except that Barton has added yet another mark to his legacy.

Too many things went on this day, May 13th, 2012, to believe this to be simple coincidence.

As a postscript to Michael's piece, it was reported afterwards that Manchester City earned over $97 million from television broadcasts en route to winning this championship - a new record. Fox Sports in the US carried 9 of the 10 games on various outlets (including FX, Fuel, and Speed Channel), labeling the day's worth of games "Survival Sunday." Fox has made significant investments in the league. However, it was ESPN2 that carried the Manchester City-QPR game. Oddly enough, when Manchester City won (in the overly dramatic fashion discussed above) ALL of the Fox Sports outlets which aired the other contests showed the trophy presentation to Manchester City.