False starts

Posted by Miguel Delaney

The league table may never lie, but that doesn’t mean it is always the telling the whole truth. On the opening day of the season, in particular, it tends to withhold an awful lot of information.

Those first fixtures are often more akin to a knock-out match, such is the way that the one-off feel of the weekend can play such havoc but the results are still imbued with significance. Some have gone down in history. And, as much as that opening result can truly set a certain tone as well as condition much of the campaign, the reality is that they are still prone to a few too many ructions. One promoted side may exaggerate their quality due to the simple excitement at being involved; one genuinely fine team may just find themselves flat-footed. The English top tier has quite a history of utterly misleading opening days, which may provide some solace for the likes of Arsenal this week.

Chelsea 0-2 Carlisle United, 1974-75

For Bill Shankly, it was all too clear. Although the former Liverpool manager had just retired, and although you would have thought he had bigger things on his mind, he couldn’t think of anything grander than what happened at the club where he appeared as a player. "I would say it is the greatest feat in the history of the game, Carlisle United getting into the First Division of the English league," Shankly wrote in a book called The Carlisle United Story. "It is an unbelievable achievement." And it was about to become even more incredible. On the opening day of the season, at the home of a glamorous Chelsea side who had won the Cup Winners Cup just three years beforehand, Carlisle claimed a fine 2-0 win through Bill Green and Les O’Neill. Within three games, they were top of the table. Of course, it couldn’t last. The reality of the club's resources would soon assert themselves, and Carlisle ended up the season at the opposite end and relegated -- but not without a lot of memories.

Everton 1-4 Tottenham Hotspur, 1984-85

Have eventual champions ever suffered a worse start to a campaign? So many elements of this match now seem utterly improbable, particularly given the way the season ended. Everton may have lost by three goals on the day, but they would finish the campaign 13 points clear at the top of the table and with two trophies in the cabinet as they also claimed the Cup Winners Cup. It could even have been a unique treble, with only an extra-time Norman Whiteside goal denying Howard Kendall’s side in the FA Cup final against Manchester United. The result against Spurs is all the more surprising given that it was at home, where Everton only lost once more in a 42-game league campaign. That afternoon, however, proved to be Tottenham’s day. Invigorated by the introduction of new signing Clive Allen, the London side were rampant. Mark Falco equalised Adrian Heath’s penalty before Spurs ran away through two goals from Allen and one from John Chiedozie. Everton would soon do so much more than catch up with them.

Aston Villa 3-1 Manchester United, 1995-96

David Beckham scored for Manchester United in their 3-1 defeat against Aston Villa.
GettyImagesDavid Beckham scored for Manchester United in their 3-1 defeat against Aston Villa.

It remains one of the most remarkable results in opening-day history, and gave rise to an era-defining quote. Yet, what really seemed so consequential about it all on the day was that this Villa victory apparently confirmed so many of the genuine concerns that United had over that summer. Alex Ferguson had just sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis without purchasing any reinforcements and, for the first time since the 1990 FA Cup win, his suitability to the role was openly questioned. One Manchester Evening News poll even saw a majority say he should lose his job. He did more than just lose that opening game. In a dismal first-half performance, all of United’s perceived problems were exposed as a rampant Villa ripped them apart to lead 3-0 at half time. After just two titles, the dynasty that Ferguson was meant to be creating already seemed to be falling apart, with a gang of youth graduates unable to hold things together. Notoriously, Alan Hansen would declare that "you can’t win anything with kids". Quite the opposite. Ferguson, naturally, would have much more foresight, although everyone else got a glimpse of things to come late in the game as a young David Beckham powered in a long-rang strike. It wouldn’t be the last time. By the end, as the side matured and the influential Eric Cantona returned, United claimed a double. Within three years, that young side would be European champions. That opening day now seems little more than teething problems.

Chelsea 4-0 Sunderland, 1999-2000

Even in the seven years before Roman Abramovich took over, Chelsea had been a side notably growing in quality and cosmopolitanism. Every season brought another international star and greater progress. And, after Gianfranco Zola had fired them to a hugely impressive third place finish in 1998-99, the club embarked on a summer spree that seemed set to finally help them challenge for the title. Over £20 million was spent on the likes of Didier Deschamps, Chris Sutton, Gabriele Ambrosetti and Emerson Thome. It would, however, prove another false dawn -- not least on that opening day. In a sparkling performance, Chelsea absolutely battered just-promoted Sunderland 4-0 with goals from Zola, Tore Andre Flo and two from Gus Poyet. They would soon burn out. With Sutton struggling to score, Chelsea eventually dropped to fifth. Perhaps more interestingly, though, Sunderland would completely disprove that result by going on to finish seventh through the front pairing of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. It remains their highest league finish in the last 58 years.

Chelsea 4-0 Portsmouth, 2008-09

This, finally, was what Roman Abramovich had always wanted. Although his Chelsea had won the title and placed themselves as one of Europe’s elite teams, they hadn’t done so in a style he felt befitting his outlay. It was a factor in the initial sacking of Jose Mourinho and played a large part in the appointment of Felipe Scolari. On the Russian’s yacht in the Mediterranean, the Brazilian coach had promised "fantasy football". He would fulfil it -- but only for a brief period. Although Chelsea’s opening-day win over Portsmouth bore all the hallmarks of a team enjoying the optimism of the opening day, it would soon run out. By February, a series of stuttering performances would see Scolari lose his job. More than fantasy football, he produced one of the shortest managerial reigns of even Abramovich’s time in charge.

Honourable mentions:

Manchester United 4-1 Arsenal, 1989-90
Crystal Palace 1-6 Liverpool, 1994-95
Wigan 0-4 Blackpool, 2010-11
QPR 0-4 Bolton Wanderers, 2011-12

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