PL25: Everton derail Man United’s title hopes in a game of madness

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a late in the season reminder that nothing in football can ever be taken for granted.

Now we’re talking.

Looking back for Football Fancast on the unforgettable matches that 25 years of the Premier League has afforded us has been a blast but to this point each seven goal thriller and miraculous comeback has lacked one critical detail – consequence.

Take, at random, West Ham’s 5-4 win over Bradford that was celebrated in these pages last month. What a game of football that was: packed with incident and iconic goals. But once the jaws had been picked up from the floor what were we left with? Three points for the Hammers, that’s what, and little else besides. The Bantams stayed up that season and one losing player even stated post-match that it had been a privilege to be part of such a memorable encounter.

Now though, with Easter gone and the season’s climax upon us, games anniversaried from here on in mattered. I mean really mattered. Before a ball was kicked and regardless of whether it ended 0-0 or 10-9 with a last minute winner courtesy of a half-way line belter.

Six years ago this week David Moyes’ Everton travelled to Old Trafford still hurting from a FA Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Liverpool. The defeat affectively ended their campaign with only a seventh spot up for grabs.

Everton manager David Moyes on the bench at Old Trafford

The Toffees’ hosts however had rather more at stake having contested the mother of all title races for the past nine months with a neighbour they still referred to as ‘noisy’ and still regarded as nouveau riche. To lose out to big-spending, bellicose City simply wasn’t an option and certainly not in what was widely expected to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s farewell season. If a blue moon was rising the 12-time Premier League champions were resolved to disrupt its trajectory for as long as humanly possible.

To that end they had already pulled back a mid-season points deficit (not to mention shook off a humiliating 6-1 derby reverse on their own turf back in October) and with arguably the inferior squad, managed to pull away in typically imperious fashion. With six games to go the Red Devils were eight points clear and nearly home and dry, but a shock defeat to Wigan made things interesting again.

Now, with four games to go the situation was clear – draw or lose to Everton (and see their hated rivals better relegation-haunted Wolves later that Sunday) and the following week’s derby would give City the opportunity to get their noses in front on the final bend. Win today though and no matter what happened at Wolves, United would enter the derby five points ahead with just three to play.

So nerves understandably became frayed when Everton’s January signing Nikica Jelavic looped home an opener after half an hour, a goal just as keenly celebrated in east Manchester as it was across one half of Merseyside.

Danny Welbeck scored for Man United against Everton at Old trafford

It was to United’s huge credit that they took this in their stride with Wayne Rooney levelling matters just before the break and then euphoria broke out in the Stretford End when Danny Welbeck brilliantly set himself up for a curled effort approaching the hour mark. That euphoria was greeted with songs about winning the league when Nani made it 3-1 moments later.

Tensions were now suitably eased but the singing and celebrations were still cut through with bravado because even when two goals down, Everton – who had nothing to lose remember – were clearly up for it.

In midfield a fascinating four-way duel was being duked out between Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick and their ex-team-mates Darron Gibson and Phil Neville and repeatedly the former United stalwarts were gaining the upper hand. This was evidenced mid-way through the second period when the ball was combatively won and spread out wide. The resulting in-swinger was met forcibly by Marouane Fellaini, a volley that De Gea did well just to get a touch on.

A mere two minutes later and the two-goal lead and precious breathing space was restored when Rooney (ye gods, how many players have these two clubs swapped back and to in recent years?) finished off a sweeping move and when Nani thundered a header against a post soon after the narrative was established for the remainder of the game. United were never content to simply win such meaningful fixtures but to win them with a swaggering style.

But then Jelavic prodded home his second and with seven minutes left on the clock that narrative was shredded like the home fans’ nerves. They couldn’t, could they? They wouldn’t?

They did. In the game’s late knockings Fellaini displayed some uncharacteristic nifty footwork inside of the United box and squared a perfect pass across for Pienaar who only had to redirect it goal-bound.

“A throw away,” was how Ferguson described his team’s collapse once it had been absorbed. “An absolute giveaway. I can’t believe it”.

His credulity was stretched even further three weeks later. Aguerrooooo.

What happened next?

Everton secured seventh along with a lifetime’s worth of gratitude from City supporters.

Manchester United saw a 13th title snatched from them in the most incredible of circumstances forcing Ferguson to postpone his retirement plans.