On Sunday afternoon, Arsenal fans saluted their team – and vice versa – at the conclusion of a Premier League season in which they had significantly exceeded initial expectations by finishing runners-up, five points adrift of Manchester City, who thus became champions for the fifth time in six seasons. (It should be said that City played their last game, at Brentford, which they lost, with nothing riding on it.) The photo on the home page shows this display of mutual affection after the Gunners’ match with Wolves at the Emirates had ended in a 5-0 win for the home team.
Backtrack seven Sundays, to April 9, and one can readily understand why Arsenal fans felt disappointment as well as pride in their team. That morning they had instead led City by five points, both teams having played 29 matches. Arsenal were on track to win their first title since the ‘Invincibles’ season of 2004, until…until a 2-0 lead at Liverpool became a 2-2 draw, until the same thing happened the following week at West Ham, until they could only draw at home at soon-to-be-relegated Southampton. Six points gone in less than a fortnight. And then they got hammered 4-1 away to City. Of course, the optimists point out, Arsenal have the youngest starting 11 in the league and there’s always next season. But that brings no guarantees of a better season.
Dropping down a couple of divisions, we come to a team who 30 years ago lost the FA Cup Final on the last occasion it went to a replay. Lost it to Arsenal. That was Sheffield Wednesday, who this past season finished third in League One, behind Plymouth and Ipswich. In The Times on May 10, Martin Samuel wrote of the Owls: “Their 96-point total for third place was the highest ever amassed by a team in that position across the 92 professional clubs.” He added: “Wednesday’s players knew going into the season that only a top-two finish would guarantee promotion. Anyone who values fairness, however, can only wish them well.”
Two nights later, they were thrashed 4-0 at Peterborough (who had finished 19 points behind them in the regular season) in the first leg of their playoff semifinal. No team had ever rescued more than a two-goal deficit in playoff history. At Hillsborough, Wednesday made it 4-0 in the 98th minute, made it 5-1 in the second half of extra time, and then won the consequent penalty shootout, thus earning a most unlikely final against their near-neighbours from Barnsley, meaning that part of South Yorkshire descended on Wembley yesterday to decide who would be playing in the Championship next season.
The photo above shows some fans arriving in London before the action got underway. Once it did, it was frankly an underwhelming game until Barnsley had a player sent off, arguably harshly, after 49 minutes, whereupon for the most part until extra time they were the better team. We looked set for penalties. Until…
Thirty years ago, Wednesday lost that Cup Final replay when Andy Linighan headed home for Arsenal in the 119th minute. They won this playoff when Josh Windass headed home in the 123rd minute. Had his effort gone wide or been saved, we would have been going to penalties. The outcome was rough on Barnsley but, as Martin Samuel might perhaps reflect, it was also fair.