Stoke City, 1946-47

Usually a title challenge can be attributed to a star player or a catalytic manager. Seven decades after Stoke City came closest to winning the league, it remains a moot point in the Potteries how much it was in spite of the warring pair of Stanley Matthews and Bob McGrory.

The winger’s statue stands outside the Britannia Stadium today, a sign relations were repaired between him and the club, but selling their most famous figure with a few weeks of the season to go remains both one of the odder ways of pursuing silverware and an indication of the problems in the Stoke camp. 

Stoke’s surge had been a long time coming. World War II had put their plans on hold; it had also delayed a showdown with Matthews, who had requested a transfer before hostilities interrupted the football. He had spent much of the intervening period in Blackpool, buying a guesthouse there and, when football resumed, training on the Fylde Coast and returning to Stoke only for matches.

He missed some games because of injury, another after refusing to play for the reserves and still more when manager McGrory did not select him. Even when Matthews was recalled for a 3-1 win over Brentford, he discovered it was only because Bert Mitchell was injured. McGrory, he felt, had misled him.

Yet a focus on Matthews could obscure others’ efforts. Stoke’s side was cheap and homegrown, even by the standards of the day. While McGrory bought the goalkeeper – and future Test cricket umpire – Arthur Jepson from their neighbours Port Vale for £3,750, most had come through the ranks at the Victoria Ground. They were ‘Bob McGrory’s £10 team’, the nickname denoting the size of each player’s signing-on fee. At times, the Scot fielded a £110 side, composed of 11 locals.

They rallied after taking a solitary point from their first four games. They won their next six. By April, when the Matthews saga was coming to a head, his team-mates indicated they were not distracted by going on a run of seven straight wins.

The first was at Grimsby: one suggestion is that Matthews said he could not play because of a spate of Easter bookings at his Blackpool B&B, though in his autobiography, The Way It Was, he stated he asked to be rested for the first of four games in eight days. But after a 5-2 win, McGrory left him out for the next day’s victory over Huddersfield, despite saying he would restore him to the side. Matthews missed the win over Blackpool because he was on England duty. He only made one more appearance before being sold to the Seasiders, the only club he wanted to join, for £11,500; less than the £20,000 Stoke wanted, but a considerable sum for a transfer-listed 32 year old.

There were five games to go; Stoke won the next two and Matthews would have missed the following pair anyway because of another England call-up. That only left the last. The first league season after World War II also took place during one of Britain’s harshest winters. It meant Stoke’s final game, at Sheffield United, was postponed until June 12, after everyone else had completed their season. They kicked off in fourth, but the equation was simple: win and they would become champions on goal average.

“Sheffield United had nothing to play for, except pride and a £2 bonus, and yet they battled like demons in a deluge that threatened to swamp the pitch,” John Williams wrote in Red Men, his biography of Liverpool. It assumed an importance on Merseyside because, while Alec Ormston equalised for Stoke, the Blades struck twice, with the Stoke defender Jock McCue apparently slipping in the mud as Walter Rickett ran through to score the decider. Liverpool discovered they were champions when director George Richards announced it over the PA at Anfield, where they were facing Everton in the Liverpool Senior Cup final.

Joy at Anfield, but the recriminations continued in Stoke. Many of Matthews’s team-mates went on to fall out with McGrory, a stern Scot who could be a parsimonious disciplinarian and who they suspected was jealous of the more glamorous winger. Their sympathy seemed to lie with a man who had agitated for a move. The England international centre-back Neil Franklin later told the Evening Sentinel, “If Stan had not been sold to Blackpool, I am sure Stoke would have won the First Division Championship.” Matthews later argued he would have liked to stay at the Victoria Ground for the remainder of the season to help secure the title. He also claimed he had done everything in his power to make Stoke champions, writing in his autobiography, “I played 23 games for Stoke during 1946-47. Stoke won thirteen, drew five and lost five, scoring 41 goals in the process. According to the Evening Sentinel match reports, I had a hand in 30 of those goals, either by providing the actual pass or being involved in the build-up. As [Benjamin] Disraeli said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics but I feel those statistics are indicative of my contribution and commitment to the team and shoot holes in Bob McGrory’s view, expressed to players like Neil Franklin and Dennis Herod, that I was playing for my own ends and no longer doing the business as far as Stoke was concerned.”

Yet what the controversy perhaps camouflaged was the excellence of others. The centre-forward Freddie Steele scored 29 goals. Ormston chipped in with a further 20 of Stoke’s 90. Franklin anchored the joint second-best defence in the division. George Mountford, who took Matthews’s place on the right wing, scored the winner against Aston Villa in the penultimate game of the season. Several players perhaps played above themselves, but they could not sustain those standards and Stoke never came that close again.

Neil Redfearn, 1997-98

Relegation can be a reflection of players’ abilities. Or it can be in spite of their efforts. Neil Redfearn became a byword for teams beating a swift retreat out of the Premier League during his brief top-flight career. Barnsley went down in 1997-98 with Redfearn in their midfield, Charlton emulated them in 1998-99 and Bradford seemed on course to make it an unwanted hat-trick in 1999-2000 before, after Redfearn was exiled to Wigan, his team-mates conjured an unexpected escape. 

Yet Barnsley’s demotion represented an injustice: not, perhaps, to a team who came up short but to a worthy overachiever. Redfearn had spent a decade at the upper end of the second-tier with Crystal Palace, Watford, Oldham and Barnsley. He had probably been pigeonholed as a lower-league footballer, the sort who would have to win promotion to the Premier League to play in it. By scoring 19 times, he took Barnsley into the top flight for the first time, 99 years after they entered the Football League. Their fans chorused that it was just like watching Brazil, and so it might have been were Brazil captained by a trier from Bradford with a broad Yorkshire accent.

By 1997, Redfearn was a 32 year old whose first-team debut had come 14 years earlier. None of his first 645 career appearances came in the top division. He made up for lost time. He scored Barnsley’s first Premier League goal, against West Ham. He got their first winner, at his former club Palace. He skippered them to victory at Anfield.

He was captain, talisman, top scorer and the player who made the most appearances. Had more statistics been collated two decades ago, Redfearn would probably have led the way for Barnsley in many more categories as well. He was ubiquitous, nicknamed ‘Mr Barnsley’ and later voted Barnsley’s greatest ever player.

But he did not just stand out in the context of his colleagues. Redfearn reckoned he was on First Division – or Championship, in modern parlance – wages. He excelled against rather better-paid players. “I believe I finished the season as the best attacking midfield player in the Premiership,” he wrote in his autobiography. “That sounds boastful, I know, but I’m not being big-headed. I scored 10 goals in 37 games, more than any other central midfield player, and I scored those for a struggling side that had just been promoted from the First Division.”

They made an immediate return to the First Division, too. Reasons for relegation abounded: Barnsley had arguably the weakest squad and the poorest players in the division, Danny Wilson’s foreign signings failed and their defence was breached far too often. They let in 82 goals, including seven in 90 minutes against Manchester United, six apiece in matches with Chelsea and West Ham, five away at Arsenal and four each in meetings with Everton, Wimbledon and Southampton.

Perhaps it did not help that Barnsley played six games against Premier League opponents in reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals. Redfearn scored in the original tie and the replay against Tottenham. He set up both of defender Scott Jones’s decisive brace in the 3-2 replay victory over Manchester United.

But Redfearn himself attributed relegation to March’s return fixture with Liverpool. He had scored what proved Barnsley’s winner in their previous outing, a 4-3 victory over Southampton. Redfearn put Barnsley on course for a famous double against the Merseysiders by giving them the lead. By the time he drew them level at 2-2, Darren Barnard and Chris Morgan had been sent off. After Darren Sheridan picked up their third red card, Steve McManaman scored a late decider. “Instead of winning by a mile, we lost 3-2,” Redfearn wrote. “The result was shattering psychologically.” Barnsley only won one more Premier League game in that season and, thus far, in their history. Redfearn decamped to Charlton, to get relegated again but without replicating such excellence.

Matt Le Tissier, England B 5 Russia B 2, 1998

Matt Le Tissier was the patron saint of lost causes, a man who specialised in salvaging safety from improbable situations and scoring last-minute goals in spectacular style. What he could not rescue, it transpired, were his own chances of playing in a World Cup. A great individualist contrived to give an illustration of an extraordinary technical talent without persuading the one-man audience who actually mattered: Glenn Hoddle.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems Le Tissier’s chances of representing England in the 1998 World Cup in effect ended after the 1-0 qualifying defeat to Italy in 1997. Le Tissier was no more ineffective than Alan Shearer and Steve McManaman, the other members of the front three, but he was not protected by a status as a Euro 96 hero. It scarcely helped that Hoddle blamed Carl Le Tissier, the Southampton man’s brother, for leaking the team and removing the element of surprise about Teddy Sheringham’s exclusion from the starting XI.

But as part of the preparations to go France, England played what remains their last B team international. Russia were the opponents, Loftus Road the venue and Le Tissier, with five previous B internationals to his name, the most-capped player in what now looks a bizarre team picked by Peter Taylor.

It featured Euro 96 squad members (Les Ferdinand, Darren Anderton, Ian Walker, Nicky Barmby), future England players (Jamie Carragher, Trevor Sinclair, Kieron Dyer), random choices who looked decidedly over-promoted (Carl Serrant, Darren Williams, John Curtis and Wayne Quinn) and one man, in David Johnson, who would make his Jamaica debut just 11 months later.

For once, Southampton did not have a relegation battle to win but, just as Le Tissier scored a disproportionate number of his goals at the end of games, he had a habit of proving particularly prolific in the closing stages of campaigns. He was in form, having struck four times in his previous five games.

And after an unmarked Ferdinand headed England into the lead, he almost bettered that tally in the space of 90 minutes. He joined Stan Mortensen, Jack Rowley and Bedford Jezzard in the select group of players to register hat-tricks for England B; but for the woodwork, he would have scored five goals.

Few were as casually brilliant at finishing, marrying technical expertise with a laid-back demeanour. His first goal was a case in point, delivered with an easy swing of his right foot. Then, with six minutes remaining, he dribbled the ball into the penalty area, using close control to evade three defenders, before driving a shot into the far corner. Then, he controlled a left-wing cross with his right foot before unleashing a swerving shot with his left. “Absolutely beautiful,” said Terry Venables in the television studio; he had omitted Le Tissier from the Euro 96 squad, but that was after the worst season of his peak years. Two years on, he seemed to be finding form at the right time.

“I know I have got a reputation for playing in fits and starts, but this was one of my best 90 minutes,” Le Tissier wrote in Taking Le Tiss, his autobiography. “Everything went right. I scored a hat-trick, hit the woodwork twice and ended up with the captain’s armband for the last 10 minutes. I was besieged by the media afterwards. They were taking it for granted that I’d get selected.” He won the popular vote. Fans unveiled a banner that read “Please pick Le God, Hod.” But there was an early indication that not everything went right: Hoddle left Loftus Road before he scored his third goal.

Le Tissier looked to celebrate in idiosyncratic fashion. “I was pestering my mum to let me get a bag of chips but she told me I had to eat properly if I was going to the World Cup,” he wrote in Taking Le Tiss. Perhaps he should have had those chips after all. Not only did he not make the World Cup; he did not even make the 30-man preliminary squad. Hoddle did not tell him; Le Tissier, who grew up idolising the Tottenham midfielder, may be proof you should not meet your heroes.

“Did Glenn pick me? No way,” Le Tissier added. “I only heard when my brother saw the news on Teletext. There was a widely heard theory that Glenn had been hoping I’d fail in the Russia match. Then he tried making out that Russia weren’t that good. [But] if Russia were so weak, how come Darren Anderton and Les Ferdinand got in the squad?” His questions remain unanswered, the bemusement that “the best game of my career,” as he called it in the Daily Telegraph in 2014, was not enough proving a lasting regret. Le Tissier arguably never recovered. He only scored another 11 league goals, even if one, with a perfect sense of timing, was the last at the Dell. England scarcely profited in his absence. They duly exited the World Cup on penalties while a man who scored 47 of his 48 spot kicks for Southampton watched on at home.

Sheffield United, 2002-03

It is tempting enough to wonder what might have been when a club almost realises one aim. To come close on two fronts in the same campaign is rare; it is almost unheard of to have three near-misses. Sheffield United were podium finishers in four competitions in 2002-03. “We got nothing,” said Neil Warnock, who contrived to cost himself an individual honour. 

When the League Managers’ Association sent its members forms to vote for their pick of their peers, Warnock heeded his assistant Kevin Blackwell’s advice and gave his nomination, worth six points, to Everton’s David Moyes. Come the awards ceremony and it was announced that Sir Alex Ferguson had come third and that the top two were only separated by two points. In second, it was declared, was Warnock. The winner was Moyes. “Bloody typical,” said Warnock.

And yet the fact that such a divisive character – Warnock probably did not get the vote of either Gary Megson or Stan Ternent – polled so many votes was a sign of how good United’s season was. They reached the semi-finals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup. They finished third in Division 1, as it was then called, and progressed to the play-off final. They played 61 games, won 33, beat a Leeds side who had been Champions League semi-finalists less than two years earlier twice and had nothing tangible to show for a stunning season. Their triple-pronged challenge ended with three tastes of disappointment and three more referees experiencing Warnock’s wrath.

They produced something memorable from unpromising ingredients. They failed to win any of their first three matches. Theirs was a typical Warnock squad with a mixture of journeymen, scrappers and so many strikers that he could mix and match to form any combination of players who rarely proved prolific. But a midfielder did instead. Michael Brown’s previous seven seasons had produced 15 goals. His next 14 campaigns brought just 19. Yet in an extreme outlier, he struck 22 times. For one season only, he was a Championship Frank Lampard.

Another Michael, his fellow midfielder Tonge, scored both goals as United beat Liverpool 2-1 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. El-Hadji Diouf gave Gerard Houllier’s side an early lead at Anfield but, with the minutes ticking down, Chris Kirkland handled outside the penalty area. Referee Alan Wiley booked the goalkeeper. “He bottled it,” Warnock wrote in Made in Sheffield. “If our goalkeeper, Paddy Kenny, had committed an offence like that, he would have been straight off.” Michael Owen duly scored an extra-time winner and “their dopey Swiss centre-half” Stéphane Henchoz spat at Warnock, the United manager claimed.

But there was still the FA Cup. The Blades faced Arsenal in a semi-final at Old Trafford. It is a day largely remembered outside Sheffield for an extraordinary save from David Seaman, making the 1,000th appearance of his career, to deny Paul Peschisolido an equaliser. Warnock was more energised by Arsenal’s goal. He thought Sol Campbell fouled Wayne Allison in the Gunners’ box before, with Arsène Wenger’s side breaking, the referee Graham Poll collided with Tonge – “had he been a footballer, a yellow card would have been flourished for obstruction,” Kevin McCarra wrote in the Guardian – and Freddie Ljungberg went on to score.

Warnock took it with typical equanimity. “I went berserk,” he wrote. Or, as he said at the time: “Poll was their best midfielder in the goal. You saw him coming off at half-time and at the end. He smiled so much he obviously enjoyed that performance. The manner in which we have lost the game was an absolute disgrace.”

Poll later admitted that by smiling, “I got it horribly wrong.” Warnock was later fined £300 – “that’s 300 whole pounds,” Poll wrote in Seeing Red – and banned from the touchline for four games for his comments about him and Steve Bennett.

Bennett officiated at the Millennium Stadium in the play-off final, which United had reached in extraordinary circumstances. After a 1-1 draw at the City Ground, they went 2-0 down in the second leg of the semi-final against Nottingham Forest, before staging a four-goal comeback.

They faced Wolves. “Wolves set out to kick us off the park in the opening 10 minutes,” Warnock wrote. “They went after Michael Brown and caught him with two whoppers… I waited for Steve Bennett as he was coming off at half-time and told him he was a disgrace.” Warnock was duly sent to the stands. Brown missed a penalty as Wolves went on to win 3-0. Even Warnock admitted they were the better side on the day.

But the self-defeating element about Warnock’s rants, apart from costing him £300, was that the acrimony deflected from United’s achievements. They showed the commitment and resolve his best sides featured, but allied fighting spirit with an ability to attack. They took on more talented teams and troubled them. Warnock used a comparatively small budget wisely and made fine use of substitutions. It was almost enough to carry them to at least one Cup final or the Premier League. Almost.    

Liverpool 2008-09

There was a paradox at the heart of Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool. A defensively-sound, tactically-obsessed coach fell firmly into the bracket of the managerial control freaks. Yet his two major trophies at Anfield came courtesy of 3-3 draws and subsequent penalty shootouts. There may have been two more but for still more anarchic occasions that finished 4-4.

Those same scorelines came in successive games, bringing 16 goals in eight days, against Chelsea in the Champions League and Arsenal in the Premier League, and ensured Liverpool joined the ranks of the great nearly teams. In many ways, they were better than the 2005 Champions League winners, better than the 2001 Uefa Cup winners and better than the 1990 Division One winners.

More pertinently, perhaps, they were four goals better than Real Madrid over 90 surreal minutes at Anfield and three better than Manchester United four days later. They thrashed the most successful club in European Cup history and the previous Champions League winners. They were the best team in Europe, according to Uefa’s coefficient which reflected a five-year period including two final appearances and an unforgettable triumph. To some, they looked it on the pitch, too. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent the game was changing and that Liverpool, once again, were on the wrong side of history. Barcelona would go on to win that season’s Champions League, Pep Guardiola’s passing principles replacing Benítez’s counter-attacking as football’s most fashionable philosophy. The Spanish league would supplant the Premier League as the world’s strongest, its superiority rubber-stamped when Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso were lured to Madrid that summer. Liverpool were on the brink of something: decline, under the ruinous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett amid the rancorous end to Benítez’s reign.

Yet none of that seemed certain in the heady days of the spring of 2009 when Liverpool won 10 of their last 11 league games and demolished United to record their biggest win at Old Trafford since 1936. “It sent a shockwave through England… we had humbled the champions on their own territory,” recalled Benítez in his book Champions League Dreams. They vanquished Real with a display that even the perfectionist Benítez deemed: “Almost perfect… the finest European performance of my six years at Liverpool.”

It was a sign of Liverpool’s excellence that they could beat Real in the Bernabéu with Steven Gerrard confined to a late cameo – Yossi Benayoun replaced the captain and scored the lone goal instead – but the second leg saw the Merseysider at his most dynamic and destructive as they won 4-0. His partnership with Fernando Torres was never better. Zinedine Zidane, whose track record of pre-eminence qualified him to comment, described Gerrard as the best player in the world; before long, the debate was reduced to a duopoly, Messi and Ronaldo.

Instead, Gerrard was voted Footballer of the Year. It was Liverpool’s lone trophy of the season. Benítez’s Champions League dream died a little when Chelsea, accustomed to encountering defiance and experiencing defeat at Anfield, won 3-1. Liverpool went 2-0 and 4-3 ahead in the second leg at Stamford Bridge but this, ultimately, was not a comeback of Istanbul proportions.

Then Arsenal arrived at Anfield in the Premier League. Andrey Arshavin had only scored two goals for the Gunners but trebled his tally with a quartet on a surreal night. Liverpool, once again, drew 4-4. United pulled clear of them.

It was the sixth time in nine games Liverpool had scored at least four goals. They had been scintillating and superb, but it counted for little in the world of downbeat realism Gerrard inhabited. The captain, in My Story, cited earlier home results and the criminal charges levelled at him as reasons why it was in vain. “We drew at home against Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull,” he wrote. “Those eight dropped points ruined our title hopes in a season clouded by a court case and a bizarre rant about facts.”

Liverpool’s point-per-game average was slightly higher after Benítez’s prepared speech about Sir Alex Ferguson but Gerrard nevertheless rued his manager’s attempts to win the verbal warfare – “It was a disaster” – and results in January and February. Liverpool’s lack of strength in depth was highlighted when they lost at Middlesbrough with Martin Skrtel pressed into service at right-back and Nabil El Zhar starting for a team without Torres.

It was one of only two league defeats. No side has lost as few and failed to win the league. Liverpool scored the most goals, had the best goal difference, beat the eventual champions home and away, took maximum points against the top three and, in all competitions, lost only five of 55 games all season. They glimpsed greatness. They were soon sent spiralling downhill instead.

Blackpool, 2010-11

“The singing’s over, the fat lady has finished singing and I don’t like her tune,” said Ian Holloway. “I’ve got to swallow it.” It had seemed an uplifting, anthemic song. It ended in a minor key. His Blackpool side had been relegated about half an hour earlier.

Their last game was a microcosm of their season. Confronted with opponents with vastly greater resources and far more pedigree, Blackpool nevertheless sprung an upset. They took the lead at Old Trafford against Champions League finalists through the former Northwich Victoria forward Gary Taylor-Fletcher. The established order eventually restored. Blackpool’s porous defence proved too poor. Manchester United won 4-2.

They were eighth at the end of December 2010. They had only lost one of their last five games. They were strangers to the relegation zone during what may forever remain their sole Premier League campaign. They went down with 39 points, a total that would have ensured safety in 13 of the last 14 seasons. Not in 2010-11.

Events conspired against them. Holloway was surprised by the strength of the side Sir Alex Ferguson fielded on the final day, rather than resting players ahead of a Wembley date with Barcelona. Roberto Martínez sprung an act of escapology as Wigan, 2-0 down and seemingly relegated at half-time in their penultimate match, won their last two games. Wolves won two of their last three.

With a week to go, Blackpool re-enacted the 1953 FA Cup final, beating Bolton 4-3. But it proved their only win in the last 11. They reached 32 points by the end of February. “Last year, that would have kept us up,” Holloway noted when Tottenham, fresh from defeating AC Milan in the San Siro, were beaten at Bloomfield Road as Brett Ormerod became the first player to score in all four divisions for the Seasiders.

Not that overcoming Champions League quarter-finalists was the only oddity. Blackpool defeated Liverpool home and away. They played a brand of football that seemed ridiculously naive, eschewing orthodox wisdom that promoted clubs had to be defensively sound by overloading in attack. They indulged Charlie Adam, allowing him to spread cross-field passes; many ended up in the stands, but the better ones looked good on the highlights and helped secure him a nomination for the PFA Player of the Year award. Their recruitment policy seemed based on desperation. They cut costs and corners.

They were tipped to be the worst team in top-flight history and began the season by briefly going top of the division. “My job is to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Holloway reflected at Old Trafford on the final day. Nine months earlier, their Premier League bow came after a week that began with suggestions Holloway would resign. Three days before their trip to Wigan, Blackpool had not made a single signing. Holloway then made seven in 72 hours. “The summer’s been hideous,” he said. “We bussed in a lot of players.” Marlon Harewood went from being a trialist to the man who set up their first top-flight goal in 39 years and scored the second. Blackpool won 4-0 at Wigan. “I think I’ll retire now,” said Holloway.

He conjured hope from unprepossessing circumstances. His forward line was populated by graduates from non-league. Blackpool took the novel approach of loaning players who could not get in lower-division clubs’ first XI. Luke Varney could not get in the Derby side but made 30 Premier League appearances and got a decider against Liverpool. DJ Campbell had been relegated to League One with Leicester and represented three clubs the previous season. He had never played in the Premier League. He had never scored more than 11 league goals in a season for any one club. He delivered 13 for Blackpool. Only five top-flight footballers outscored the former DHL van driver. Blackpool scored as many goals as fifth-place Tottenham. They did so on a minuscule budget.

A wage bill of £25 million was 50% smaller than any other in the division; their wage ceiling was thought to be just £10,000 a week. The story was less heart-warming than it first appeared. Blackpool posted a profit of £32 million, the second biggest in the division, that season, while majority shareholder Owen Oyston took £11 million out of the club, via a company he owned, in the biggest ever remuneration of a Premier League director.  There was rather less investment in facilities. Blackpool did not pay for undersoil heating, meaning three home games had to be postponed in a bitter winter. They had a temporary stand that shook. Far too many things at Bloomfield Road did not work.

It was a great effort: by Holloway, his coaching staff and the players he had begged, borrowed or brought up from the lower leagues but not by his board. And for many of those players who made the improbable seem very possible, the reward was suitably Oystonesque: a 50% wage cut after relegation back to the Championship.

Gareth Bale, Inter 4-3 Tottenham, 2010

They stand apart in Champions League history, the two men to have scored hat-tricks and still lost. Both demonstrated brilliance in 4-3 setbacks but whereas Ronaldo’s treble for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 2003 still took them through on aggregate, Gareth Bale merely had the match ball to show for his one-man display against Inter in 2010.

And whereas Ronaldo had scored both goals in a World Cup final the previous year, Bale had been seen as a jinx, the man who went winless in his first 24 league starts for Tottenham. He might have been loaned to Birmingham but for injuries, while Nottingham Forest thought they could tempt him to the Championship. His fortunes had begun to change before Spurs arrived in Italy in October 2010, but he accelerated to prominence on a day when his team were depleted, defeated and, initially, destroyed. 

“The scoreline does not flatter Bale, but it does flatter Tottenham,” wrote Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. “The game was over after 13 minutes and seven seconds.” His manager Harry Redknapp, in his post-match press conference, branded it “Our worst nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did.” Tottenham were three goals down within a quarter of an hour and operating with a man fewer. Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was sent off in the eighth minute. Luka Modrić was duly sacrificed so Carlo Cudicini could come on.

By the break, they were four adrift, on course for their heaviest European defeat. By the end, there were reasons to believe that, with a little more stoppage time, they would have salvaged a draw. Those reasons were found in Tottenham’s No. 3 shirt, in itself a sign that a few months earlier Bale was seen as a left-back as much as a winger. Unleashed further up the flank, he showed a capacity to score goals that barely required any involvement from his team mates.

He had never scored a hat-trick in his senior career before. He did so in 38 minutes against the defending European champions. First came a 50-yard solo run before he rifled a shot past Julio Cesar, who barely moved. He surged away on the counter-attack again, beating Javier Zanetti, 16 years his senior, for a second time, before angling another shot across goal. Teed up by Aaron Lennon, he then drilled in a third effort at the far post.

Pace, directness and precision of shot: it formed a deadly combination. The unfortunate Zanetti had begun the night by becoming the oldest player to score in the Champions League. He ended it suffering for his sense of duty, making desperate efforts to cover whenever Maicon was caught out of position. The notion the Brazilian was the best right-back in the world took a battering – still more so when a rivalry was renewed at White Hart Lane – along with Inter’s aura of invincibility, already dented by José Mourinho’s departure. Rafa Benítez’s inability to halt Bale was apparent when the rematch proved the first of five defeats in nine games. Beating Tottenham was deceptive, in theory one of Benítez’s best results at Inter, yet bringing hints of his downfall.

A reputation was elevated in defeat. Inter already had an interest in signing Bale. “We have followed him in the past; you can see why,” said owner Massimo Moratti. “Now? After those three goals, he will cost a lot more.” A world-record sum, it would transpire. Presciently, Samuel mentioned Bale in the same sentence as Real Madrid, albeit in the context of Cristiano Ronaldo.

But one of the finest hat-tricks in defeat almost did not happen. Redknapp considered replacing Bale to save him for another day, while his half-time instructions to his charges were purely to play for pride. “In the end I left him on as we had nothing to lose,” Redknapp later recalled. It was to prove a decision that changed Bale’s career. Two weeks later, he destroyed Maicon again at White Hart Lane. Five months after that, he was voted PFA Player of the Year. Two years later, he was signed by Real Madrid. And after four seasons at the Bernabéu, he had won the Champions League three times. The path to Spain began in the second half at the San Siro so, from a personal perspective, his feats were not in vain. But they still did not change the outcome. Tottenham lost. 

Shay Given, Newcastle 1-5 Liverpool, 2008

Sometimes when a player delivers an outstanding performance and leaves the pitch in tears, they are of joy, indicating an achievement, perhaps a career high. When Shay Given produced perhaps the best display of his 12 seasons on Tyneside, it brought the recognition he would have to leave. He had had enough of trying to act as rescuer for a regime he no longer believed in.

When Liverpool visited St James’ Park on 28 December 2008, for neither the first nor the last time Newcastle seemed in a state of crisis. Mike Ashley had just abandoned his attempts to sell the club. Joe Kinnear’s appointment had been unpopular and his reign was proving unsuccessful.

That impression would have been cemented rather quicker but for the Irish goalkeeper. After half an hour, Guy Mowbray, commentating for Match Of The Day, said: “It is Shay Given 0 Liverpool 0.” Christmas, it seemed, was a time for Given. He had begun a one-man display of defiance by thwarting Dirk Kuyt before making two terrific saves from Steven Gerrard and two more from Lucas Leiva.

He finished his afternoon stopping the Brazilian for a third time. In between, he had also made stops from Sami Hyypiä and Ryan Babel, although the Dutchman scored at the second attempt. It was a valiant effort in a lost cause as Newcastle were carved apart in open play while their marking tended to be conspicuous by its absence at set pieces. It was a thrashing, despite Given’s damage-limitation exercise.

“If you lose 5-1 and the keeper gets man of the match, it is not a good day at the office,” Given told Martin Hardy in his book Tunnel of Love. That initial verdict was underpinned by understatement.

“It could have been more,” Given added. “We were totally outclassed on the day. The gulf was massive between the clubs.” He was not placated by his manager’s praise. “Shay Given proved that, without a shadow of a doubt, he’s the best keeper in the Premiership. He made some magnificent saves,” Kinnear said after the game. If Given was reluctant to leave his line, he could be an extraordinary shot-stopper. His agility and reflexes were apparent time and again. So, too, were others’ shortcomings. 

“Even Newcastle manager Joe Kinnear cannot blame the referee for this one,” wrote Colin Young in the Daily Mail. “His team were hopeless.” Kinnear blamed absentees instead, citing the seven players he was missing.  He was without Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins, Habib Beye and the suspended Sebastian Bassong.

Given’s mind was occupied by other missing men. “I felt the club was selling the best players,” he told Hardy. “I didn’t feel there was any ambition there any more.” And so, four days later, he issued a statement saying he was considering his future. Kinnear duly responded by insisting that Given was staying at St James’ Park. “Why should we jeopardise our chances in the position we are in?” asked Kinnear, before his own logic was disproved when, within a month, Given was a Manchester City player, lured south by Mark Hughes and a cash-rich club demonstrating the ambition he felt Newcastle lacked.

 His heroics against Liverpool came in his 458th game for Newcastle. Jimmy Lawrence’s club record of 496 was in his sights, but the Irishman would only make a further four appearances. And without him to compensate for Newcastle’s many failings, they were duly relegated, as Kinnear had implied they might be.