Looking back: 2012/13 and the end of an era

The season of 2012-13 is for me and probably most United fans, one that sticks in the memory as one of the most entertaining and successful campaigns I have witnessed. However, it is also remembered for an end of an era that 5 seasons on gets even more painful to remember. This, of course was the season, Sir Alex Ferguson brought the curtain down on his 26-year tenure at Old Trafford. The season of memories, is how I like to describe it, from start to finish, from transfers to goals, it had the lot and maybe the club’s decline since has hugely exaggerated how good things once were.

The season would start with a bang before a ball was even kicked. We would witness 2 cult heroes depart the club, with Dimitar Berbatov and Ji Sung Park leaving for Fulham and QPR respectively. Berbatov unfortunately never quite reached the potential we had hoped but was a joy to watch at times and a hattrick against Liverpool, a quite brilliant one at that, will always leave you in United good books. Park was a crucial member of Fergie’s squad for years, completely underrated to all but the one man who was most important, Sir Alex always called upon him when he needed it in the big games and he almost always delivered. But these departures were not the bang I was eluding to, nor was it the exit of a certain Mr Pogba to Juventus. It was of course, the steal from under the nose of Arsene Wenger, the £24 million signing of Robin Van Persie. It was one of those transfers that made you watch Sky Sports news on loop for hours to check it was true, waiting for the pictures of him in United red, finding it hard to believe that United had managed to get Arsenal’s most important player let alone at the price they did. But they did and what a master stroke it was from the gaffer, possibly his greatest bit of business as the Dutchman became the difference time and time again as the season went by.

On the football front, the season was full of goals at both ends, dramatic finishes and some controversial decisions that were not always in our favour, but ultimately finished with us picking up our 20th league title and allowed Sir Alex to leave the English game on top of it, just like he predicted all those years ago.

The opening two months of the season saw an opening day defeat at Goodison Park, but then a run of wins, with plenty of goals. The first Van Persie hat-trick away at Southampton probably the highlight, but his quite brilliant left foot volley in his first outing at Old Trafford never really got the plaudits it probably deserved, even now I wonder how he got the ball where he did and for me one of the goals of the season. We went on to defeat Liverpool at Anfield, another Van Persie winner, before losing at home to Spurs in yet another 3-2 thriller. During this time, our League Cup and Champions League campaigns got underway. In Europe, our progression through the group was as simple as it gets, matched with Galatasaray, Cluj and Braga, United were already through as group winners before two defeats to finish up.

Back in the league, we moved into a period that was one of the turning points of the entire season. October and November saw yet another win against Arsenal at home with RVP firing the winner against his former club, but prior to this game though was 1 of 2 that really stick in my mind for this period. We travelled to Chelsea, who along with City, possessed the biggest threat to the title. As we know, Stamford Bridge is never the happiest of hunting grounds, but we took an early 2 goal lead only to be pegged back by now United hero, Juan Mata and Ramires after the break. Then came the first pieces of controversy, Chelsea would be reduced to 9 men, Branislav Ivanovic being dismissed before Fernando Torres receiving a second yellow card for diving. The game was already reaching boiling point, when, with 15 minutes or so to go, Javier Hernandez popped up, like he did so often, to put us back in front. However, the controversy continued as it became apparent, the goal came from an offside position, adding even more fuel to the ever-growing fire at Stamford Bridge. It was a huge result, coupled with the Arsenal result a week later, it really gave the team the belief that they could retain the title they so cruelly lost a year earlier.

The other significant win and yet another 3-2 away win, was away at the champions in early December. We had managed to claim 3 straight wins following a shock defeat at Norwich, probably our worse performance of the season, which had built the confidence heading into the derby. We were 3 points clear at the top heading into the game, a point would have been a great result, heading into a Christmas period that looked kind on paper. Just like at Chelsea, we went into an early two goal lead following a double from Wayne Rooney. There was very nearly a third following a disallowed Ashley Young strike, but from then we were to come under extreme pressure. Yaya Toure got them back in the game before the constant attacks finally saw Pablo Zabaleta score with around 5 minutes to go. 2-2 would have been a disappointment considering the 2-goal lead, but something Fergie would have taken prior to kick off, but this was United, typical United. In injury time, against the run of play, we managed to conjure up a free kick on the edge of the box. It would have been easy to shut up shop, take it to the corner but not this season. Up stepped Robin Van Persie, with an aide of a deflection to scramble the ball into the back of the net to set off huge celebration. The game was marred by shameful antics following the goal, with Rio Ferdinand struck by an object thrown from the crowd and other supporters trying to invade the pitch. Mario Balotelli’s substitution was something not to be forgotten either, following a typical Mario act, needlessly backheeling the ball to a United player, resulting in Roberto Mancini swiftly removing the Italian. That day at the Etihad saw us take a huge step towards the title, although it was only December. We would go on to record an 18 game unbeaten run with 16 of those resulting in wins.

Back in Europe, we were very unfortunate to draw Real Madrid in the knockout stages, after finished runners up in their group. This obviously meant the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford in the second leg. The first ended in a 1-1 draw, a great result for United following a Danny Welbeck away goal, only to be cancelled out by who else but Ronaldo. United were well placed to qualify, especially following a Sergio Ramos own goal at Old Trafford gave us the lead. Then came a decision that would infuriate the whole of Old Trafford, none more so than Sir Alex, one that would turn the tie in Madrid’s favour. Nani was controversially sent off for a high footed challenge into the chest of Alvaro Arbeloa, but Nani only had eyes for the ball and was not even looking in the direction of Arbeloa. There is no doubting it was dangerous, but he was not intentionally going to hurt anyone, he was simply trying to bring the ball down on the rise. The rest is history, the players would go on to lose their heads and the game, inevitably ending with Ronaldo grabbing the second for Real and his second of the tie. To his credit he refused to celebrate in front of the fans that still adore him, but none the less, Fergie’s European aspirations were over for one final, disappointing time.

By the time City arrived at Old Trafford on April 8th, the title was all but won, 15 points clear of the rest, the defeat had no real significance on our stroll to the title. Just 2 weeks later that stroll was completed following a memorable 3-0 victory of Aston Villa at Old Trafford. The season of memories continued, the game was as one sided as it gets, especially in the first half witnessing a hattrick from RVP. But it was the second of the three that resulted in the goal of the season and arguably one of the greatest in Premier League history. A Rooney floated ball over the top of the Villa defence landed perfectly in front of Van Persie, most would have taken a touch or 2, maybe 3, but not the Dutchman who is renowned for his love of a volley. I will never forget, sitting in my living room, watching the ball drop over his shoulder only for RVP to strike a left foot volley into the net, I simply stood and applauded along with those there to witness it in the stadium and probably across the planet. Certainly, one the best goals I have ever seen!!

So, the title was clinched for the 20th time and for Fergie, his last. The tribute paid to Sir Alex in the last home game was one I will always remember and never has the word legend been so fitting for someone in the game. Of course, Sir Alex would go out in the only way Sir Alex could with a 5-5 draw at West Brom, remaining entertaining to the end. His stock was almost at its highest in 2013 as he had built yet another successful team to fight off his biggest challengers. But never has someone’s stock risen so highly without even being present to do so. The seasons following his retirement resulted in a decline in United’s success and appeal across football and have highlighted how great he actually was. Of course, a little mention for another departure that season, all be it a second time it was witnessed, Paul Scholes would also finally wave goodbye to the game. It was a season full of goals, entertainment, success and sadness, a new era was around the corner and for most, it was something that they had never witnessed before. Great memories were formed in 2013, I for one hope that more will be formed very, very soon.