Chelsea vs Liverpool (2002/03)
In its build-up, this final-day fixture at Stamford Bridge was referred to as “the £20m match”, with the victors sealing a place in the lucrative Champions League. In hindsight, though, such a tag hugely downplayed the financial importance: Chelsea were in financial trouble, with players likely to be sold to balance the books if they lost.
Liverpool, behind Chelsea on goal difference, knew that only a win at Stamford Bridge would do. When Sami Hyypia scored with a deft header in the 11th minute, it looked like they might get just that.
Marcel Desailly equalised almost immediately, however, before Jesper Gronkjaer became Chelsea’s hero with a curled effort into the bottom corner.
2.15 for the Gronk’s crucial strike
The sting in the tail came just a few weeks later with the news that Roman Abramovich, who rather fancied owning a Champions League football club, had decided to buy Chelsea.
Rather than having to sell to survive, the Blues instead bought all of the players for all of the money, while Liverpool signed Anthony Le Tallec and Carl Medjani as the Gerard Houllier era stumbled into its final season.
Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid (2013/14)
Atletico, seeking their first La Liga title in 18 years, found themselves head-to-head with the only side that could deny them on the final day. Barcelona were three points behind Diego Simeone’s side, and knew that a win at the Camp Nou would do the trick.
For a while, it looked like they’d get just that after Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring with a quite ludicrous strike from an acute angle. But Simeone had fashioned an obdurate, mentally strong side – and in the 49th minute, Diego Godin’s header dragged them level.
Cue 40-plus minutes of resolute Atletico defending, Barça keeper Jose Manuel Pinto coming up for a corner in a desperate attempt to win the game – and Atletico getting the result they required to become the first side in a decade to break the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly.
Manchester City vs Luton (1982/83)
Manchester City only required a draw against Luton at Maine Road to preserve their top-division status for an 18th successive year. But on a glorious May day, even that proved a feat too far.
The home side put Luton under early pressure, which allowed Town keeper Tony Godden’s strong look (green top, blue shorts, orange socks) to get some well-deserved exposure. In truth, though, Luton were the better side throughout and peppered City’s goal.
It took until the 85th minute for them to make the breakthrough, however, with substitute Raddy Antic volleying home from the edge of the box to break City hearts and activate David Pleat’s pitch invasion/dad dance crossover.
Skip to 2.30 to avoid the fashion disaster and get to the money shot
Arsenal vs Liverpool (1988/89)
The most famous of the lot. A 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford meant Liverpool fell nine points behind George Graham’s Arsenal side on New Year’s Day, 1989. Yet Kenny Dalglish’s men kicked into gear in the second half of the season, topping the First Division table for the first time in mid-May.
This fixture had originally been scheduled for April 23, but was understandably postponed after the Hillsborough disaster on April 15. That pushed the game back to May 26, after the FA Cup final.
All Liverpool needed to do was avoid a two-goal defeat at Anfield against Arsenal on Friday, May 26, 1989. For a title-winning machine like the Reds, this appeared straightforward. But if the words “it’s up for grabs now” and the name ‘Michael Thomas’ mean anything to you, you’ll know it didn’t work out that way.
It was 0-0 at half-time with few chances, but Arsenal grabbed one just seven minutes into the second half and an Alan Smith header made it 1-0. That’s the way it stayed until the clock ticked past 90 minutes and into injury time. And then…
Sheffield United vs Wigan (2006/07)
Going into the final round of Premier League fixtures, Paul Jewell’s Wigan were in dire trouble: three points behind their relegation rivals, West Ham and Sheffield United. They ended the season with a winner-takes-all (or draw-will-do for Neil Warnock’s Blades) clash at Bramall Lane.
It started well for Wigan as Paul Scharner’s strike fired the Latics 1-0 up inside 15 minutes, only for Jon Stead’s header to level matters for Sheffield United on 38 minutes.
A David Unsworth penalty restored Wigan’s lead in the second half, however, and they held out for 40 nervy minutes to retain their top-flight place.
Sheffield United still could have survived, but Carlos Tevez gave West Ham an improbable 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Neil Warnock, rather than looking at his own side’s performances over a 38-game season, knew precisely who to blame: Rafa Benitez. The Liverpool boss had previously fielded a weakened side against Fulham as he prepared his side for a Champions League final.
Bayern Munich vs Schalke (1971/72)
Bayern were a mere point ahead of Schalke before their final-day showdown, and as such needed only a draw in what would be the first competitive match at their shiny new Olympiastadion filled with 80,000 supporters.
They did slightly better than that, though, sucking up Schalke’s early pressure before Gerd Muller (whose 40 goals that season remains a Bundesliga record), Franz Beckenbauer & Co. demolished their rivals 5-1 to secure the Bundesliga title.
Hereford vs Brighton (1996/97)
It’s only 21 years since Brighton were at their lowest ebb. The Seagulls’ owners had agreed the controversial sale of their Goldstone Ground, leaving Albion homeless.
Also, if they failed to pick up a point from their final Division Three game of the season away to Hereford, they would drop out of the Football League. The very future of the club was at stake. If Brighton got the draw, it would be their opponents who were relegated.
Hereford made the early running, taking the lead on 21 minutes through a desperate own goal from Brighton’s Kerry Mayo*. The home side continued to press at 1-0 up, and even had a couple of penalty shouts waved away.
However, the gods were with Brighton as they snatched a dramatic second-half equaliser through Robbie Reinelt. There was still time for Hereford’s Adrian Foster to fluff his lines when through on goal, but Brighton survived. In more ways than one.
* Fun fact: Kerry Mayo’s wife is also called Kerry