10 years ago to the day, the Premier League delivered the most dramatic moment in its history; the most iconic and incredible season finale.
“Agueroooooo!” legendary commentator Martin Tyler exclaimed, as Manchester City’s superstar striker sent the ball into Queens Park Rangers’ net with virtually the last kick of the 2011-12 campaign.
“I swear you will never see anything like this ever again,” Tyler added in an almost breathless rush, “So watch it, drink it in …”
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It was not a great goal. It was hardly even a good goal. There was no technical excellence or individual brilliance behind the moment. But in terms of impact on the beautiful game, few goals can stand alongside the Sergio Aguero strike that handed City a maiden Premier League title and ushered in a new era in English football.
Ten years on, City are set to unveil a statue of Aguero, the man who delivered their greatest achievement. And in honour of the occasion, Code journalist Adam Peacock convened a special podcast about the game, titled The Aguero Goal: Drama and Delirium.
He is joined by two men with understandably contrasting experiences of that sunny Sunday afternoon at the Etihad Stadium: City player Joleon Lescott and City-turned-QPR player Nedum Onuoha.
The season was already one for the ages. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were the defending champions, having won the league four times in five years. Manchester City had never won the Premier League – or even finished in the top three. Their last title in England’s top flight was all the way back in 1967-68.
But the 2008 ownership takeover by sheik Mansour, a multi-billionaire and a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi which boasts a wealth estimated at over $1 trillion, heralded a new era in the Manchester clubs’ rivalry. In the two years to September 2010, Mansour splashed a staggering £320m on transfers. In the following 12 months, they added almost another £100m on signings – including a club-record fee for Sergio Aguero in the off-season prior to 2011-2012.
By the start of December, City was undefeated with 12 wins from 14 games – scoring 48 goals and conceding just 13 in the process. Five points ahead of United in second, having beaten them 6-1 at Old Trafford – United’s worst loss since 1955.
Red Devils legend Paul Scholes emerged from retirement and soon inspired a United revival, just one of many twists and turns in the title race.
Always-controversial City star Mario Balotelli was sent off in a wild 1-0 defeat at Arsenal in April, just one of many wild stories involving the Italian – including setting his house on fire in October 2011 when he lit fireworks in his own bathroom. City’s chase for a first title in 44 years seemed over, as United led by eight points with six games to play. But they lost at Wigan and drew with Everton, and lost another Manchester derby.
Suddenly Manchester City had the lead entering the final day of the season – though that lead was only on goal difference.
Lescott, signed by City in 2009 as part of that $A700m-plus signing spree, told the podcast the team’s preparation was like every other week.
“The manager kept everything the same. I think the players wanted that anyway. The preparation was the same in terms of the training through the week, the level of detail that was given was the same and the players’ application was the same, no-one was getting carried away … The focus was: ‘you know what needs to be done. Just do your job.’”
City were facing relegation-threatened QPR at home, while United travelled to face Sunderland. As usual, every Premier League game in the final round kicked off the same time.
Queens Park Rangers defender Nedum Onuoha had spent 15 years at Manchester City, joining their Academy at age 10 and progressing through to the first team. “This was my home,” he told the podcast of City.
Mancini had frozen him out as soon as the manager arrived, and eventually sold him to QPR in January of 2012. Just a few months later, he was facing his former team and a manager he ‘had a real disdain for’.
“That week, I just kept thinking of all the different scenarios that could happen … What if I got relegated and we got battered? What if I got relegated on the field I used to call my home, and 40,000 people are singing and basically laughing at me … It was stressful.”
City went to halftime 1-0 up thanks to defender Pablo Zabaleta’s 39th minute goal – his only goal of the season. Over in Sunderland, Wayne Rooney had scored in the 20th minute for Manchester United.
That meant that all City needed to do to win the title was to hold onto their lead in the second half – a scenario which would also mean QPR would be relegated.
Lescott says: “It was like we’d done it in the first half. We expected to be dominant … it wasn’t a surprise we went in 1-0. Probably a surprise it wasn’t more.”
Three minutes after halftime, everything flipped on its head. Lescott made a poor defensive header, allowing Djibril Cissé to run into the box and score past Joe Hart. 1-1. And with United still leading 1-0, their fans were in ecstasy as they were Premiers-elect.
Seven minutes later, it was another City Academy product turned QPR player who turned the game on its head once more. Always-fiery Joey Barton elbowed City striker Carlos Tevez off the ball, earning a straight red card from referee Mike Dean. QPR were down to 10 men – but Barton tried his level best to have a rival sent off too. He kicked Sergio Aguero in the back of leg then tried to headbutt Vincent Kompany, before being dragged away by teammates down the tunnel.
Lescott says: “I know Joey was trying entice someone, but we were all pretty mature. The only player he probably could have (sent off) was Mario (Balotelli). I think Mario tried to have an altercation with him as he was getting toward the tunnel … It didn’t surprise me no-one else was involved from our side, because we just weren’t like that.”
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For Onuoha, Barton’s actions were simply unbelievable.
“He was always a good player … but some of the stuff he did was insane.”
He added: “We needed everyone, in fact we probably needed 12 men, realistically, to stop them. But to go down to 10 and for that to be you, as one of the key players in the team at that time? I was extra frustrated.
“If it was an unfair decision you’d rally around him. But for most of us we just thought: ‘What on earth is he doing? Why is he doing this now?’”
Somehow, despite being a man down, QPR did the unthinkable and again took the lead. In the 66th minute, Armand Traoré crossed the ball to Jamie Mackie, and the unmarked man made no mistake with his header.
City players began to panic. Lescott says: “That was when the panic start to set in … Now the thoughts are wild, like: ‘I can’t leave the house. I don’t want to go on holiday this summer.’ The Euros were coming, thinking ‘I don’t want to go’. I’m thinking at the time: ‘this is just me thinking this’, but having spoken to the rest of the team they were thinking the same things.”
City pushed on desperately, needing two goals to overturn the 2-1 defeat and claim victory – and the league title. Somehow, QPR held on again and again.
“At this point, Mancini had lost his mind,” Onuoha says. “He’s basically coming to the sideline just to curse at his players. That’s what he was doing. That’s his whole tactical thing, just tell them they’re all crap basically.”
Suddenly it was into stoppage time – a full five minutes of it. Hope was running out. City fans even started to walk out of the stadium.
Then, on City’s 18th corner of the match, substitute Edin Dzeko headed home. 2-2, two minutes into the five added for stoppages.
Onuoha says: “There was a sense of panic. Especially for me because I was supposed to be marking Dzeko, but like I had nothing left in my body so I couldn’t jump.
“For a bit more insight, I was at the club from (ages) 10 to 25, there’s one picture of me in the stadium, and it’s a pic of Edin Dzeko heading the ball directly over me.”
Over in Stoke, the full-time whistle blew. Bolton Wanderers had lost and would be relegated instead of QPR, regardless of the result against City. The QPR bench erupted in joy.
Many believe the QPR players on the pitch knew they were safe from relegation. But Onuoha says that’s not true.
“The way it worked, and this is why we get a bit of criticism, a few people think myself and others stopped trying because we knew we were safe. One or two people on the field might have known but they didn’t pass on the message, and the people on the bench didn’t pass it on either. So we weren’t celebrating or anything like that.”
In Sunderland, the full-time whistle also sounded. United had sealed their 1-0 win. They would be champions unless City could score again.
Then, as Martin Tyler said: “Manchester City are still alive here. Balotelli …. AGUEROOOOO!”
93:20. 93 minutes and 20 seconds, a time that will go down in City folklore. Balotelli – so nearly drawn into a fight with Barton half an hour earlier, had come off the bench to set up the winner. It was his only Premier League assist in 70 league appearances for City.
48,000 fans roared.
For Onuoha and his QPR teammates, who hadn’t heard about the result at Stoke that meant they were safe from relegation, it was heartbreaking.
Onuoha says: “If you look back upon the third goal, there are bodies on the floor distraught because we think we are going down. Most of us thought we’d blown it. After 38 games we’d blown it in the final second in the last game of the season.”
90 seconds later, the whistle blew. City had won the league. Fans streamed onto the pitch – and in the madness, a handful forgot which club Onuoha now represented, yelling at him: ‘we’ve done it!’
“I had to fight through a few City fans,” he says. “They’d gone so crazy with the excitement, they’d forgotten I didn’t play for them.”
He would be invited into the City change-rooms after the game, alongside another City-turned-QPR player in Shaun Wright-Phillips. He says there were: “beers in our dressing room and champagne in City’s … one is a sense of relief that we’ve earned the right to do it again – and the other side is jubilation.”
And despite his bitterness for the way Mancini discarded him so brutally earlier that season, he shook the manager’s hand.
A decade on, Lescott says the group that took part in that single perfect day for City still share a special bond.
“There’s a bond there that I doubt is (ever) broken. Run into, say, James Milner (now at Liverpool), all still close.
“Huge fondness for each other, we understand what we achieved then … soon as we see each other, it’s instant, it’s instant and good memories, good memories.”
A decade on, City stands on the brink of claiming the league once more as another classic title race – this time against a different rival in Liverpool – reaches its zenith. It’s unlikely that battle of titans could match the sheer insanity of 10 years on, but football fans can cross their fingers.