United they stand

What won Manchester United their 10th Premier League title was their impressive team ethic and their non-reliance on individual talent, writes Ananth Krishnan.

With just 10 minutes to play on the last day of this rather remarkable Premier League season, absolutely nothing had been decided.

At the JJB stadium in Wigan, Manchester United, uncharacteristically, were looking nervous. News had filtered through that Chelsea had scored against Bolton at Stamford Bridge, and United were anxious, struggling to hold on to their slim one-goal lead . Emile Heskey had just narrowly headed over the bar from a couple of yards out. United knew they were just one goal away from triumph, and disaster.

And when the goal that marked this season’s denouement finally came, it simply could not have been more appropriate. It was, in the end, a strike from the boot of Ryan Giggs — the only player who has represented United in each of their title-winning seasons in the Premier League — that won the Red Devils their record 10th Premier League crown and 17th championship title.

For many, this has been Cristiano Ronaldo’s season, but no one more epitomises the spirit of the Manchester club than the 35-year old Welshman does. For 18 years, Giggs has been tirelessly running up and down the left wing for the Reds, playing with as much skill as enterprise and honesty. No space for diving antics or melodrama in the Ryan Giggs manual.

When Giggs came on to replace Ji-Sung Park with half an hour to play on that Sunday, he was, incidentally, equalling the great Bobby Charlton’s record of 758 appearances in a Red shirt. The last time United were involved in a title-race where ‘goal difference’ figured so prominently was when Charlton was marshalling the side, exactly forty years ago. On that occasion, however, United would lose the title on the last day of the season to Manchester City, but go on to win the European Cup for the first time. For United fans, with Charlton watching from the stands, symbolism all around at the JJB.

But as significant as Giggs’ goal was, in the final analysis, what won United their 10th Premier League title was their impressive team ethic and their non-reliance on individual talent. Giggs himself has been dropped from the side on several occasions this season, most notably in the Champions League ties against Barcelona. Where others would have whinged, Giggs silently carried on, putting in even his substitute appearances — as on Sunday — with his trademark professionalism.

In these past two seasons, Sir Alex Ferguson has quietly built up a squad with impressive depth, allowing him to make changes at will without affecting the balance of his team. When the Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic was out for a few weeks recently, Wes Brown stepped in with outstanding displays at centre-back. In midfield, United have been spoilt for choice with Carrick, Scholes, Hargreaves and Anderson — they would all walk into any Premier League side — vying for two places. The emergence of Anderson and Nani has been one of the biggest pluses for Ferguson this season. More than a few eyebrows were raised when United splashed out some £35 million on the two youngsters, but the performances of the Brazilian playmaker in particular have been outstanding.

Much has been made about the style and swagger of Ferguson’s team, but more than the stylish 4-0 and 5-0 victories that United enjoyed this season — and there were several — it was, in the end, the late goals and hard fought one-nil victories on the road that helped United retain their title. The late strikes at Tottenham and Liverpool were defining moments — these were games where United were second-best and simply should not have won, but somehow, from somewhere, the Reds found the net when other sides would not have. More than Ronaldo’s spectacular free-kick against Portsmouth, the image of Carlos Tevez determinedly scrambling, with typical exuberance, to bundle the ball over the White Hart Lane goal-line in the dying seconds of stoppage time, will live long.

What Chelsea would have given for the harmony United enjoyed — the West London side have had a terribly turbulent season, marked by the acrimonious departure of their popular manager Jose Mourinho. Chelsea have done brilliantly to drag on the title race for so long in the circumstances, and for this, much-maligned manager Avram Grant deserves credit. Chelsea have also suffered from an over-reliance on their stars — notably, captain John Terry, keeper Petr Cech and Didier Drogba. All three of them faced lengthy spells on the sidelines, and in their absence, the Blues stuttered.

All will be forgotten and forgiven in a fortnight, though, if Grant can revive his crest-fallen players in time for the European Cup final in Moscow, in Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s own backyard. But even if Chelsea win the final — and that is a big if — it’s hard to see Grant staying on at the Bridge, as much as he probably deserves to. It is this sort of unpredictability that has set Chelsea back, but whoever Abramovich decides to go with next season, the Blues urgently need to start re-building their side if they are to pose a genuine challenge next year. Didier Drogba already looks set to leave, and Brazilian defenders Alex and Juliano Belletti quite simply haven’t made the grade.

In the breathlessness of the title-race, it’s easy to look past the drama at the bottom of the table, but in a sense, it was just as remarkable a story. Fulham, Reading and Birmingham were all fighting for survival on May 11, with Fulham needing a win at Portsmouth to ensure their safety. Reading and Birmingham needed Fulham to drop points and win their respective games. The extraordinary dog-fight dragged on, with twists and turns, until the final whistle on that Sunday evening. With Fulham struggling to break Portsmouth down, Reading and Birmingham both sniffed a chance survival and put in impressive displays. Reading tore apart already-relegated Derby 4-0, and Birmingham overcame a tough Blackburn side at home.

But both their brave efforts would come to nought — and with less than 15 minutes left on the clock. Against all odds, Fulham found the goal they so desperately needed, with veteran Danny Murphy heading in an absolutely priceless winner. Fulham held on for a famous victory, ensuring their place in the top-flight next season. Roy Hodgson’s great revival is, without doubt, one of the great stories of the season.

When he took over in December, Fulham were way off the pace down in the bottom and relegation looked certain. But the Cottagers went on an improbable run of wins in April, ending their season with a stunning hat-trick of victories. An unbelievable end to an unbelievable season in the Premier League. Bring on August.