It’s the 24th minute at Old Trafford and Tottenham have just taken the lead through Les Ferdinand. The fans around the stadium voice their condemnation – the Spurs fans, that is. This is the final game of their season and they have inexplicably travelled four hours up the M1 in the hope of watching their heroes lose. As for United, they still have FA Cup and Champions League finals to attend at the end of what is now considered their best ever season.
You might have thought the fans in white would be delighted to take such a rare lead at Old Trafford, where they have still not won in the Premier League. But such is the tenacity of the Spurs faithful’s animosity toward Arsenal that they would merrily thrust aside an unprecedented victory, should it quell the flow of the league trophy’s trajectory to the red side of North London.
And they would have their way too, as Beckham drew the champions level with a clinical finish before half-time and substitute Andy (not yet Andrew) Cole produced a moment of mesmerising individual skill to lob the keeper after the break. Despite encouraging (or discouraging, depending on perspective) efforts from George Graham’s Spurs players, the Red Devils held on for a prickly yet crucial victory. They clinched the first of their three trophies for the season and Spurs fans loitered afterwards to applaud their conquerors and rejoice in the Gunners’ despair.
The phenomenon of fans willing their team to lose habitually rears its ugly head at the business end of the season. In the English Premier League, more often than not, it involves Manchester United. Spurs fans may have offered a helping hand in 1999 but United were exposed to the trick’s drawbacks over a decade later.
In the penultimate game of the 2009/10 season, Chelsea travelled to Anfield with a one point lead over Man Utd at the top of the table. Incredibly, despite Liverpool sitting only 2 points off a Champions League place themselves, many of their fans yearned for defeat. They willed their team to miss out on Europe’s elite competition for the first time in almost a decade, in the hope of halting Manchester United’s title charge.
One might suggest that the players are well paid professionals who would consider anything but victory a neglect of their duties. That they would not give in to crowd pressure. At least, that seemed to be the case until the 33rd minute, when Gerrard, perhaps the most palpable embodiment of the Kop, rolled a careless backpass into the path of a lurking Didier Drogba who opened the scoring.
In doing so, Gerrard ironically won the league for Chelsea, the club with which he flirted during countless transfer windows. He also ensured the title would be withheld from United for another year as the blues marched on to a 2-0 victory.
One passionate Liverpool fan, Zach Goodman, 22, chuckles at the memory of the fixture.
He said: “I’ve been a season-ticket holder for 12 years and have never seen anything like it,” he tells me. “Obviously it hurt to lose, but when Gerrard gifted them that goal – you just have to laugh don’t you?
“I wouldn’t say I wanted us to lose as such, although friends of mine did. Let’s just say we went to that game in a win-win scenario. How could we lose?”
It can be argued that Spurs and Liverpool were, in each case, the underdogs. The Lilywhites had settled for their usual midtable malaise long before their trip to Old Trafford, while Liverpool had been trapped in an inexorable rut of poor form for months toward the end of Benitez’s reign.
But once the fans had turned, there was a sense of inevitability about the outcome. Liverpool’s home advantage was nullified by the wavering wisdom of the crowd.
This is by no means exclusive to English football, as was unashamedly demonstrated by a section of Marseille fans during their tie with Montpellier in the French Ligue 1. They even displayed a banner proclaiming “Let them win” – their players duly obliged, losing out 3-1 at home.
I quizzed lifelong PSG fan and ex-United star Louis Saha on the matter. He insisted the banner was laced with defeatist irony due to Marseille’s inexcusable previous form.
He said: “Losing 11 games in 12 is not something [ex-Marseille boss Didier Deschamps] wished. But it’s part of the rivalry for years, so nothing new there.”
Typically, a twitter storm was born with many users amusingly suggesting the banner was there from the beginning of the team’s atrocious run of form.
This was really about Marseille’s attempts to prevent Paris Saint-Germain from winning their first title since 1994. Marseille are generally considered the biggest team in the south, while PSG dominate the northern fan base. Hence the ferocious rivalry between the two. But the plot thickens – in 1999, PSG’s 3-2 defeat to Bordeaux denied Marseille the championship.
Andre Ayew claimed they would not throw the game to stop PSG from marching towards the title despite the fierce rivalry between PSG and themselves but didn’t hide his animosity toward the club.
“As a Marseille player, I will not be happy if PSG become champions,” he told RMC Sport.
He added: “We all know what happened in 1999 but we will not repeat history.” They did.
Ayew remarkably failed to score and Montpellier won the league for the first time in their history, despite the hefty sums PSG threw at the championship.
It is something that clubs battling at the top of the table are now accustomed to. To win the league, they may have to overcome the fact that their rivals will be gifted one or two games. It doesn’t necessarily balance out over the season, particularly for teams who only have one realistic shot at the title. Montpellier’s fiercest rivals, Nimes, were relegated last year to the third tier of French football. Unlike Marseille, they had no say in the title race.
As for Manchester United, who are there or thereabouts every year, it is to be expected. Yes, they were gifted the league title by Spurs but a decade later, luck would have it that Steven Gerrard got hold of the trophy and sent it to Stamford Bridge. And time will undoubtedly elect many more teams to lie down and enjoy defeat without so much as a whimper in reply.
By Andrew Gold