When Liverpool won a record 18th English top-flight crown in 1990, there were calls for Alex Ferguson to be sacked as manager of Manchester United. The Red Devils had finished 13th in the league and been left 11 shy of their dominant rivals on the title count.
The Old Trafford board nevertheless stood by the Scot, and he has repaid them with an implausible bounty. Indeed, the 2008/09 campaign ended yesterday with Ferguson having guided Manchester United to a third successive crown, which brought them level with the Reds, their runners-up this season, as the 18-time kings of England.
"It's a wonderful achievement," Ferguson enthused. "Liverpool were the greatest side in the land when I took over. We built slowly but I never thought we could get 11 titles. Never in a million years. My main aim was to win one. But now we want to progress further. We're going for the title again next season. It will make it more special if we get in front of them."
It's a wonderful achievement. We're going for the title again next season. It will make it more special if we get in front of them.
That will be no easy task, given that Liverpool, seemingly out of contention heading into March, turned what appeared a foregone conclusion into an absorbing race for a trophy United only secured in the penultimate round. Having ended Rafa Benitez's previous campaigns 37, 9, 21 and 11 points off the pace, the Reds took 31 points from their last possible 33 to finish just four from the summit. It was a run that was infused by a memorable 4-1 win at United, and inspired by FWA Footballer of the Year Steven Gerrard, who, from a novel deep-lying forward position, returned 16 goals and nine assists - the highest combined total in the league.
"We have to be proud because when you talk about 86 points, it's massive," said Benitez. "But it was still not enough to win the title. The Premier League is very difficult. We still have to improve, but clearly we have improved a lot. We have to be almost perfect if we want to win the title."
Xabi Alonso and, when free from injury, striker Fernando Torres also contributed handsomely to Liverpool's success. But while a minority of Benitez's troops were outstanding, a majority of Ferguson's vast army executed their sergeant's orders to perfection.
Indeed, Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo and the 35-year-old Ryan Giggs all made the six-man shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award, which was won by the latter, who, along with Wayne Rooney, pushed Gerrard close for the football writers' gong. Fullbacks Rafael, 18, and Patrice Evra also excelled, as did midfielder Michael Carrick, while the Theatre of Dreams faithful was also indebted to Carlos Tevez, who, despite being overlooked for one of the lead parts in Ferguson's play, certainly made the most of his cameos.
European joy, Tyne-Tees tears
Manchester United and Liverpool are not the only teams who can reflect on impressive campaigns. Everton and Aston Villa, who spent considerably less than the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, came fifth and sixth respectively to comfortably reach the 2009/10 UEFA Europa League; Fulham, who survived relegation by virtue of goal difference last term, ran home seventh to join secure a place in the third qualifying round of the same competition; and Stoke City, widely tipped for an immediate return to the Championship, capitalised upon the inimitable, inventive throw-ins of Rory Delap to finish 12th.
Relegation is a fate that had befallen West Bromwich Albion going into the final day, when the miracle Middlesbrough required to avoid joining them failed to actualise. Newcastle United, as it transpired, needed a point at Villa to survive at Hull City's expense. However, a 1-0 defeat condemned a club boasting two second-placed finishes in the Premier League, its third-biggest stadium, and celebrities such as Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Mark Viduka and Michael Owen to demotion from a division in which they had remained since achieving promotion from the second tier in 1993.
Coincidentally, that was the same year in which Ferguson won his first title with Manchester United. However, "never in a million years" did he believe Premier League hegemony was to ensue.
2008/09 Premier League facts and figures
UEFA Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal
UEFA Europa League qualifiers: Everton, Aston Villa, Fulham
Relegated teams: Newcastle United, Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion
FWA Footballer of the Year: Steven Gerrard, Liverpool
PFA Player of the Year: Ryan Giggs, Manchester United
PFA Young Player of the Year: Ashley Young, Aston Villa
Top scorers: Nicolas Anelka, Chelsea (19 goals), Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United (18), Steven Gerrard, Liverpool (16), Robinho, Manchester City (14), Fernando Torres, Liverpool (14)
Top assisters: Robin van Persie, Arsenal (11 assists), Dimitar Berbatov, Manchester United (10), Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal (10), Steven Gerrard, Liverpool (10), Frank Lampard, Chelsea (10)