One of the many great things about watching Premier League soccer — indeed, all of English soccer — is their traditional handling of the season’s last day.
I’m sure the last day is interesting in all leagues and sports, but in England they have a cool way of doing it, plus there is more at stake than usual. The bottom line is that the entire league plays on that last day, at exactly the same time.
To understand why they do this, let’s first quickly review how they determine champions, and what else can be at stake on the last day.
The leagues and cups of English football are arranged in a pyramid, connected by promotion and relegation. So, at the end of the season in all the leagues, there is a champion determined by record over the course of the whole season — but also, the bottom three clubs have to drop down a league for the whole next season. That’s relegation. Promotion is simply the top three coming up from the league below.
There is a whole different competition at the top of the Premier League table, as well: Who will finish in the top four, thus qualifying for the European Champions League the next season? For that matter, who will finish 5th and 6th, getting into the Europa League? And in lower leagues, the top two teams are automatically promoted, but no. 3-6 go into a playoff.
In the Premier League, when all the games kick off at 3 p.m. their time on May 21, there could be a lot of stuff still undecided. Chelsea will probably already be champions, and as I write this, Middlesbrough and Sunderland are already relegated. Tottenham will finish in the top four, but beyond that? Two of Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United will not make the top four. Hull, Swansea, or perhaps Crystal Palace will also be relegated. And, if these questions get to the last day, there will be a lot of people paying a lot of attention to a lot of different games at once.
Why do they do it this way? To avoid teams colluding, more or less. Let’s say you’re close to relegation and your opponent is sitting in fourth place. Obviously, you’d both like to win, but losing would be disaster. Meanwhile, if another result earlier in the day has gone a certain way, it might benefit both of you to draw. And you might then spend 90 minutes kicking the ball around and not bothering the goalkeepers at all — hardly a sporting reaction, but it has happened.
To avoid that, they all play at once, which every English fan I have asked about this describes as “chaos.”
One possible scenario is a team doing what they needed to do, then having to wait a few very nervous moments to find out what happened elsewhere. That describes the last game for West Bromwich Albion in 2005. West Brom needed to win on the last day at home vs. Portsmouth, but they also needed Crystal Palace to not beat Charlton. With that in mind, skip ahead to 9:30 on this video, and enjoy. I love the fans in Birmingham cheering something they’ve heard about from London, the vibe of a game going on in front of thousands of people whose minds are elsewhere, and that awful 30 seconds after they had won but they didn’t know how it came out. It’s worth five minutes of your time.
The most famous example by far was the year that Manchester City took the title away from their bitter rivals, Manchester United, in literally the last two minutes of the season.
Here’s the setup: going into the last day of the 2012-13 season, City and United were level on points, but City were well ahead on the first tiebreaker, goal differential. So, it was simple: If somebody had a better result that day, they were champs. Same result? City are champs for the first time since 1968. United were at Sunderland, City at home to Queens Park Rangers, who were also trying to avoid relegation.
Skip ahead about 90 minutes. United are wrapping up a 1-0 win at Sunderland, but City, shockingly, are trailing QPR, 2-1 in injury time. Assuming United won, City had to win, or watch United celebrate again. I’ll let this video take it from here:
Just as an add-on here, it’s worth checking out the scenes from Sunderland that day, where the Sunderland fans, after hearing of City’s heroics, couldn’t help but taunt United by singing “Who are ya?” and “You’re gonna win fuck-all” and then doing City’s famous ponzan dance, locking arms and dancing with their backs to the pitch. After all, everybody but United fans really hate United!
The last day of the 2016-17 season has already happened for the lower leagues, and the Premier League probably won’t have anywhere near this drama. But there could still be a lot going on, so it should be worth watching.