Man City 3-2 QPR was arguably the greatest Premier League game ever
“Manchester City are still alive here. Balotelli… AGUEROOOOOOO….” It was THE defining moment of the 30 year history of the Premier League, and you would be hard pressed to find any football fan unable to mimic Martin Tyler’s iconic words on Sky Sports after Sergio Aguero’s fairytale strike on 93 minutes and 20 seconds vs Queens Park Rangers won his side the Premier League for the first time in their history at the expense of bitter rivals Manchester United.
Nobody who watched events unfold on that dramatic day will ever forget where they were or who they were with. Yet there was so much more to the whole occasion than just that split second of magic from Aguero. With contributions from former City centre-back Joleon Lescott, celebrity supporter Ricky Hatton, their club photographer at the time Sharon Latham and ex-QPR midfielder Shaun Derry, this is the story of May 13 2012 – ten years on – as you’ve never heard it before.
Going into the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. City and Sir Alex Ferguson’s United were level on 86 points at the top, but the former’s vastly superior goal difference meant that realistically they just had to get a win to guarantee finishing top of the pile in England for the first time since 1968. Their opponents QPR, however, also had everything to play for. Mark Hughes’ side sat two points above the drop, meaning if relegation rivals Bolton beat Stoke they would need a draw to ensure their safety.
Huge pressure for both sides, then. Yet Lescott, who had built a formidable partnership at the back with captain Vincent Kompany, insists there were no nerves ahead of the big kick-off. “We had plenty of experience in that dressing room, so no one was getting carried away,” he recalls. “We didn’t do anything differently in training, and there were no special words from the manager Roberto Mancini. We simply had a job to do, and treated it like any other game.”
Derry, however, has a different version of events as he recounts the view from a QPR perspective. “We had given ourselves a real fighting chance on that last day following some impressive results. We’d beaten Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal at Loftus Road, and the week before we won against Stoke with a late goal to give us an unbelievable opportunity to stay up.
“What gave us a big lift was getting off the bus at the Etihad and seeing the Premier League trophy in the corner. You knew that they thought it was going to be a foregone conclusion, and that gave us a bit of hope. When you see that and recognise that everyone in the stadium thinks it’s done and dusted, it kind of sparked us into life. When the game started and it was clear we weren’t going to just roll over, you could start to smell the nerves from the stands.”
Tensions ran high as Joey Barton was sent off
Despite Derry and QPR’s bullish outlook, it appeared all was going to plan for the hosts when veteran full-back Pablo Zabaleta scored with a somewhat fortunate finish five minutes before half-time to seemingly get the title party started. Yet the ground was silenced just after the break when Lescott himself made a huge error by heading the ball straight into the path of Hoops striker Djibril Cisse, who finished with aplomb.
But just when it looked as though the tide was turning came the most bizarre moment of the day. QPR’s notoriously combative midfielder Joey Barton tussled with Carlos Tevez off the ball, leading to him being shown a red card. Rather than leaving the pitch immediately, however, the now-Bristol Rovers manager totally lost his head, attacking Aguero and doing his best to try to get the City players wound up. Both parties were left far from impressed with his actions.
“I’m not a fan of his, and I remember just trying to get on with things,” says Lescott with disdain. “That was Joey being Joey, and he was trying to entice our players but I think he underestimated us. We didn’t want to get involved in that nonsense.”
“We were stunned by what Joey did that day,” admits Derry. “It was a poor reaction from someone who had been playing really well. We always knew that Joey had that capacity to hit the self-destruct button. Nonetheless, it didn’t actually change our gameplan a lot because we were sat so deep anyway, and in fact it may have galvanised us.”
Indeed, incredibly, despite their man disadvantage, QPR completed the most unlikely of turnarounds when Jamie Mackie finished off a devastating counter-attack with a superb diving header to totally rock the champions-in-waiting. With United winning at Sunderland, it meant the Sky Blues’ long quest to finally end years of red dominance in the city was on the verge of being put on hold once more, and utter despair engulfed the ground.
Shaun Derry celebrates with Jamie Mackie after his goal stunned City
In the stands, one well-known face had had enough. “I was in a box, and when it went 2-1 I stormed up to get myself a beer and started sulking,” boxing legend and lifetime City fan Hatton remembers. “I had given up, to be honest. City always seem to do things the hard way, and it looked as though we were going to bottle it once again.”
Closer to the action, Sharon Latham had a job to do. Now working with Noel Gallagher, Sharon had made history at the time by becoming the first-ever female official club photographer in the Premier League when she joined City. “My role that day was to be pitch-side and to pick up the reaction from those on the bench such as Mancini and his coaches,” she explains. “He was normally quite stoic and calm, but on this occasion he was absolutely full-on and totally emotional. As the game went on you sensed the apprehension and the feeling of ‘oh no, here we go again’. But I had this gut feeling that we were still going to win all the way through. Don’t ask me how, but I had this vision.”
As the clock ticked down towards full-time, pure misery seeped into the stadium. But Eden Dzeko’s towering header offered hope in the 92nd minute, while almost simultaneously the full-time whistle went at the Britannia Stadium: Bolton had only managed a 2-2 draw with Stoke, meaning QPR would be safe regardless of their own result.
Then came the moment which will still be talked about centuries from now.
“I didn’t even see it hit the net!” reveals Lescott on Aguero’s goal. “I wasn’t near it because me and Vinny were rotating going up and I was on the halfway line. When I realised it had gone in I just remember turning to the bench and seeing delirious faces that most people wouldn’t recognise – coaches that spend every minute of the season while you’re there, who work longer hours than the players. Many of them had been at the club for decades and hadn’t witnessed much success, and I just grabbed them. It was utter chaos.”
Aguero’s goal led to extraordinary celebrations
“That moment was so unbelievable and important that if I’d missed anything I would have been mortified with myself,” Sharon adds. “But I was crying to myself while taking photos. I captured the moment when Mancini jumped onto his assistant Brian Kidd as that goal went in and that is my favourite picture from the day (see below). I also got the players on the bench like Gareth Barry and James Milner hugging. Those moments are captured in time. All I wanted to do was run around celebrating but had to be professional.”
Meanwhile, Hatton had, fortunately, re-emerged from the bar following Dzeko’s goal. “When Mario Balotelli got the ball I shouted ‘blast it!’ It’s a good job he didn’t because the pass to Aguero was brilliant.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever cried at a football match. I burst into tears. I’d had enough rubbish over the years watching this lot, and then to win it like that – talk about a rollercoaster. Liam Gallagher was a couple of boxes down from me crying as well, and said ‘we going out tonight then?!’”
It was one of those rare moments in football where both sides were delighted with the eventual outcome. Yet Derry suffered more emotional turmoil than most.
“I and the rest of the players furthest from the dugout had no idea we were safe,” he says. “After the Aguero goal I collapsed on the floor crushed. I thought that had put paid to our survival hopes. You’re so engrossed in the game that the noise and atmosphere doesn’t really play a part.
“The point I found out the good news came when I was still on the floor and Mackie came over and said ‘don’t worry, we’re safe anyway.’ It was an unbelievable feeling of relief.”
Roberto Mancini embraces Brian Kidd
Cue scenes of pandemonium for both teams, with the celebrations going on long into the night. “The experience in the dressing room was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Sharon says. “We’d had an FA Cup win, but this was our home and it was unbelievable. I can still hear the chanting and singing. There’s a picture I took of Yaya Toure and Joe Hart hugging and everything around them is moving really fast (see below). That’s a lovely shot. Mario Balotelli was just being silly as ever too. I think they’re some of my favourite photos.”
“After the whistle in the dressing room there were celebrations but also plenty of emotion,” Lescott remembers. “A lot of the lads took some time to themselves to truly appreciate what they’d done. We just enjoyed it together. It was more a week of celebrations than a night.”
Hatton, meanwhile, couldn’t resist the opportunity to get involved.
“Me and Liam got invited to go to the Manchester town hall for the celebratory party with the players, staff and their wives. We weren’t with our girlfriends so we decided to take each other! We had some beers and a chat with Mancini, Balotelli and Kompany, who has been a friend of mine for a good few years. To win the league like we won it, to go out with Liam Gallagher, who has always been one of my heroes – it couldn’t have gone any better. It was a very heavy night. I woke up and just when I thought I could have a lie in, Liam rang up saying ‘fancy going on the team bus with the trophy?’ and I thought ‘oh, here we go again.’ Obviously, I went.”
For QPR, the real celebrations came the day after. “Initially we were absolutely drained,” says Derry. “That was until we sat down on the bus and made our way back to London and the party started. We met at Jamie Mackie’s for sausage sandwiches at 11am the next day and took the celebrations to the boozers in Chiswick, where it got pretty messy.”
Sharon captured Joe Hart and Yaya Toure sharing a moment
A decade on, we have still not seen anything even close to what we witnessed on that fateful day in east Manchester. So how do our four central characters look back upon it now?
“It has to be regarded as the greatest Premier League moment ever,” claims Lescott. “Even if a team like Everton were to beat their rivals Liverpool in that same last-gasp scenario, it would only be the second time it’s been done. It has to be seen as the best because it’s the first time anything like that’s happened.
“I actually hate watching it back. I did something with Micah Richards, Kompany and Zabaleta for the club in lockdown where we did a review of the game. They agree that it is too nerve-wracking to watch again, even though we know what’s going to happen. The outcome is good, though.”
“Overall I just feel massive pride to have been involved,” Derry reflects. “It was a remarkable game, and that last five minutes provided every emotion possible within football. My son fondly enjoys reminding me that I only touched the ball about 11 or 12 times in the whole match! Whatever the case, it was a privilege to be there and play a part in history.”
Sharon left City a few years later, at the same time that Pep Guardiola took over. “That game has to be the highlight of my time at the club,” she says. “I had a responsibility for the world to see these pictures and witness just what had gone on, and like to think I did a good job.
“I play a video I took on my phone in the dressing room now and again if I’m ever doubting what I’m doing and it always makes me feel good about myself once more.”
“Beating Kostya Tszyu in front of my home fans was probably the best feeling of my life… but if anything pushes it close, it is the Aguero goal,” Hatton laughs. “I’ll definitely drop him a little text on the day of the anniversary to say ‘Happy ten years, Serge’. He will forever be a legend at this club.”