On the final day of the 1946-47 season, Liverpool went to Wolverhampton Wanderers needing a win to overhaul its hosts and clinch the title. Wolves dominated, but after 21 minutes it was Liverpool who took the lead through Jack Balmer. The pressure continued from Wolves but, eight minutes before halftime, came the decisive moment of the season. A long ball put Albert Stubbins–who would later appear on The Beatles's Sgt. Pepper album cover–in behind Wolves captain and center-half Stan Cullis, and he ran on to add a second. Wolves pulled one back in the second half, but Liverpool held on for the win.
Afterwards, there was only one question. Why had Cullis, who had announced his retirement shortly before the game and who wept at the final whistle, not pulled Stubbins back when he had the chance?
“I suppose I could have done,” he said, “but I didn't want to go down in history as the man who decided the destiny of a championship with a professional foul.”
And so, with an act of sportsmanship from a player who would go on to become one of the post-War managerial greats–and following a weather-induced, two-week delay for a Sheffield United-Stoke match that confirmed it mathematically–Liverpool won its fifth league title and its first in 24 years.
Liverpool faces Wolves on the final day again on Sunday. This time the drought stretches to 29 years, and while Liverpool requires some help again to end it, it will have to happen in both simultaneous and improbable fashion. This time, Liverpool must not merely beat Wolves but also hope that Manchester City somehow slips up at 17th-placed Brighton–and that, frankly, seems unlikely.
Brighton has won only two of its last 17 league games, although it has drawn three of its last four to confirm its Premier League status and remove its level of desperation on the final day. City, meanwhile, has dropped only three points in the second half of the season. If it wins on Sunday, it will have won 14 in a row, which would be a Premier League record had it not extended the previous record to 18 last season.
This has been a fascinating title race, but it has been atypical. This has been two relentless foes staring each other down. There has been tension, but neither of the two contenders has dropped a point since March 2. There has been a lot of talk of how often the lead has changed hands, but that’s been a function of scheduling rather than the narrative twists that might stem from fluctuations of form or teams losing their nerve.
In one sense, of course, that’s deeply worrying. That Liverpool might accumulate 97 points, the third-highest total in Premier League history, and not actually win the league would be crushing for them, but if that sort of tally were to become common, it would be very bad news for any sense of competitive balance in the league. This season, two sides were relegated before Easter and the bottom three between them picked up a solitary point against the top six. Add in the fact that roughly one in six games now features a side having 70 percent possession or more–as opposed to one game in the entire season 15 years ago–and the picture is of a league becoming increasingly stratified.
On the other hand, the football has been extraordinary. whatever advantages a team may enjoy in terms of resources, they still have to use them. City is on course for 198 points over two seasons, losing just six games in that time, a staggering level of consistency. There are very good reasons for concern about the scale and source of its wealth, but it has deployed that advantage extraordinarily effectively. There is a danger of underappreciating City because its brilliance has become so familiar, because it so often scores early and then controls games. It’s an indication of City’s excellence that its games very rarely feel dramatic.
Liverpool’s season has been very different. Whereas City hasn’t scored a result-changing goal later than the 72nd minute, Liverpool has managed five winners in the last 10 minutes of games, in addition to Daniel Sturridge’s equalizer at Chelsea. That Liverpool has lost just once this season has seemed at times more a result of force of will than anything else–as was seen with Divock Origi’s late goal at Newcastle last Saturday.
But then on Monday, just as City seemed to be running out of ideas against Leicester, Vincent Kompany produced an implausible winner. Pep Guardiola’s method may be about maximizing percentages, but sometimes even it needs somebody who hadn’t put one of his previous 36 shots from outside the box on target to have a pop from 25 yards.
Between them, City and Liverpool have produced Sunday’s final-day denouement, the first Premier League title race to go the distance in five years. It should be City’s title, the first time it has ever retained the championship, but the past week has been a reminder that nothing in football can be taken for granted. And Liverpool has the memory of 72 years ago to act as inspiration.