Huw Davies looks back at the most shocking opening results of the past 25 years.
Strap yourselves in for a rollercoaster ride starring Dion Dublin, cardboard fans and, since nobody’s reading this bit because it’s the introduction to a list feature, Robert Mugabe. We’ll get him in there somewhere.
Still here? OK, let’s go!
1. Arsenal 2-4 Norwich (1992/93)
In front of cardboard supporters, created to hide Highbury’s building works and allow future hacks to favourably compare the atmosphere to matchday at the Emirates, Arsenal and Norwich kicked off Modern Football with a cracker. All six goals were scored at the fake fans’ end, not that they showed much enthusiasm.
Arsenal had finished fourth the previous season, back when that meant precisely nothing, and Norwich 14 places below them. Unsurprisingly, the hosts led 2-0 at half-time. But the Canaries scored four goals in 15 minutes to win the game and start an inexplicable title challenge – indeed, they were one point off the top as late as the start of April.
Ultimately Norwich finished third with a goal difference of -4, which takes some doing, while Arsenal won both cups but wound up 10th, sandwiched between mid-table makeweights Manchester City and Chelsea. Of course, back then it was all fields.
2. Aston Villa 3-1 Manchester United (1995/96)
Hindsight suggests this wasn’t a huge shock, even if it was 3-0 at half-time. Villa had an attack led by Dwight Yorke and a defence boasting new boy Gareth Southgate and old man Paul McGrath, and they’d eventually finish fourth. However, Manchester United would eventually finish first, and they’d ended the previous campaign some 16 places and 40 points ahead of Brian Little’s Villans.
On this sunny August day, though, Alex Ferguson was without Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, Steve Bruce and Ryan Giggs, and compensated with an uncomfortable 5-3-2 formation featuring four full-backs. He’d sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis, and bought nobody. Hence Alan Hansen’s immortal words after this defeat: “You can’t win anything with kids.”
In his defence, Hansen’s point was that United’s performance without four key players (and David May) showed they lacked depth – but he was still wrong.
3. Coventry 2-1 Chelsea (1998/99)
On the opening day of the 1997/98 season, Coventry beat Chelsea 3-2 with a Dion Dublin hat-trick. But things would be different on the opening day of the 1998/99 season, right? Of course not. Why would we bring it up otherwise?
A necessary caveat is that 1990s Chelsea were not today’s Chelsea; at this point, they’d been champions only once in their history. Even so, they’d just finished fourth (despite losing 15 matches, one fewer than relegated Bolton) and were sent to Coventry with two of that year’s World Cup winners, Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, not to mention Gus Poyet, Roberto Di Matteo and player-manager Gianluca Vialli.
By the time Gianfranco Zola came off the bench, however, Dublin had scored again, so had Darren Huckerby, and Chelsea were 2-1 down. The game’s three goals all came in the first half, while elsewhere in that weekend’s Premier League ‘action’, seven matches were goalless at half-time, with four of them finishing 0-0. Thrilling!
Coventry eventually finished 15th, while Chelsea ended up four points shy of the title. Write off early-season games at your peril.
4. Middlesbrough 0-1 Bradford (1999/2000)
Bradford’s first top-flight campaign since 1922 began with Dean Saunders’ last-gasp strike giving them three points that would ultimately help secure safety. The hosts, meanwhile, had flirted with European qualification the previous season, and boasted such greats as Mark Schwarzer, Paul Gascoigne and, uh, Phil Stamp.
All right, so the result wasn’t as seismic a shock as others in this list. We just want to mention that, in the same vein as the previous year, six of the afternoon’s nine fixtures were 0-0 at half-time. Blimey, August used to be dull.
5. Wigan 0-1 Chelsea (2005/06)
Think not of what it was, but what it could have been.
At 4pm on Super Sunday, debutants Wigan faced Chelsea, managed by Jose Mourinho, bankrolled by Roman Abramovich, and runaway champions after racking up a barely credible 95 points in 2004/05. Chelsea’s starting XI had a spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Wigan’s starting XI had a spine of Mike Pollitt, Arjan de Zeeuw, Damien Francis, Alan Mahon and Jason Roberts.
Yet the Premier League new boys matched Chelsea blow for blow, and could easily have snatched the unlikeliest of victories. Instead, substitute Hernan Crespo – a symbol of the holders’ strength in depth – struck home a belter in the 93rd minute. “Oh no!” cried Martin Tyler, before adding, “...for Wigan!” juuuust soon enough to get away with it.
Without Martin's heartbroken wail, which you will have to supply yourself. But Jonathan Pearce's is pretty good too