In the second of our two-part series, we look at how the coronavirus pandemic could have affected the course of football in any given season during the 2000’s.
Following the news that Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi had contracted COVID-19, the Premier League, the FA and the EFL took the decision to suspend all football on 13 March. While it was a necessary action to take, it has thrown the 2019/20 season into disarray.
With mass gatherings unlikely to be permitted for the foreseeable future, there are massive unanswered questions about when the current campaign will recommence and finish – or whether it will at all.
There are suggestions that, if it is to be the latter, then there is a possibility that the league table as it stands will be regarded as the final standings. That means Liverpool would win the Premier League title while Leicester City qualify for the UEFA Champions League, Sheffield United potentially miss out on Europe despite an excellent campaign, and Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich City are relegated.
The ramifications for some of the clubs in the top flight, particularly those down at the bottom, would be huge if such an decision was taken (and would likely result in legal action from those in the dropzone).
That scenario got us thinking: what if every season in English football ended on March 13 due to a similar situation? What if a pandemic on this scale happened in 1993, 1999 or 2006? What would the Premier League table have looked like in those seasons? How would football history have been altered?
You can read part one here.
What if the coronavirus pandemic happened in the noughties?
The next decade begins just as the last one ended – with Manchester United on top. The real benefactor of the league’s early finish is Ipswich Town, who are on their way to the Champions League after finishing third. Sunderland are also going to Europe after finishing fifth.
In 2001/02 United steal another league title from Arsenal, now managed by their former boss Alex Ferguson, while Bolton Wanderers are headed straight back where they came from after finishing 18th with 30 points, just behind that season’s Champions League winners Ipswich on goal difference, who narrowly avoid becoming the first team to win the competition and be relegated in the same campaign.
The Gunners return the favour on their bitter rivals a year later by winning the title with a five point advantage in March and ending six years of United domination, which is sweet redemption for Ferguson. But the real divergence comes on the opposite side of London; Chelsea have to settle for fifth, meaning no Champions League football.
That also means a certain Russian billionaire no longers finds them as attractive an ownership proposition as he once did, turning his attention elsewhere. He looks to third-placed Newcastle United and fourth-placed Everton, two big clubs with bags of potential who will both be in Europe’s premier competition next season.
After careful consideration, Roman Abramovich purchase a majority shareholding in Newcastle, lured by their larger stadium and the fact that they are unencumbered by a sizeable rival in the same city, unlike the Toffees. He immediately makes Bobby Robson manager for life and they embark on the club’s most successful period ever.
Meanwhile at Chelsea, the financial difficulties the club had been experiencing heading into the summer are only exacerbated and with the threat of administration hanging over their heads they sell almost all of their best players. The Blues are relegated the next season, while John Terry goes on to become Captain, Leader, Legend™ at Arsenal.
Fergie signs Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting Club in Lisbon and the Portuguese winger immediately strikes up a brilliant partnership with Thierry Henry, leading the North London outfit on their Invincibles campaign in 2003/04, which sees them go unbeaten for 27 games.
The big underdog story of the campaign, though, comes from Charlton Athletic, who qualify for the Champions League under Alan Curbishley, while Portsmouth’s fairytale comes to an abrupt end when they’re relegated.
The following season, nine years after their first Premier League triumph, Newcastle wrestle the title from the grips of the Man United-Arsenal duopoly thanks to the millions pumped into the club by Abramovich. Alan Shearer finally gets the glory at his boyhood that he so desperately wanted. Acknowledging that he still has a couple of seasons left in his legs, he chooses to retire now anyway as “nothing could possibly top this feeling”.
The Magpies retain the crown in 2005/06 with Hernan Crespo, who has replaced Shearer as their main striker, scoring 29 goals in 29 league games. He apparently “loves it up north” and his accent has even developed a disconcerting geordie twang.
In a strange turn of events, Spurs finish in the top four two points ahead of Arsenal, a disaster for Ferguson and his side. But he uses this as an opportunity to reinvigorate the squad and rethink his approach to the game. He decides now is the time to sell Henry and places his faith fully in Ronaldo to be their main goal threat.
Louis van Gaal’s Army come roaring back in 2006/07, however, winning the title for the first time in five long years, while Arsenal finish in third place 17 points behind. Sheffield United manage to survive in their first season in the top flight, much to the delight of Neil Warnock, while West Ham United are relegated after finishing dead last. Carlos Tevez is deemed a flop and “not worth the hassle”, returning to his native Argentina, never to be heard of again.
After a short period of rebuilding and tinkering with his tactics, Ferguson believes his Arsenal side are ready to challenge for the title again – and he’s right. His decision to play Ronaldo as a lone striker pays off handsomely, as the prodigious talent provides 20 goals and provides 15 assists in his best season to date, guiding the Gunners to top spot and Fergie’s fifth title in 2008.
Man United, meanwhile, win the Champions League for the second time in a decade under Van Gaal, who is getting the very best out of Wayne Rooney as his number 9. They go onto win the Premier League title the next season, the Dutchman’s eighth since arriving in England in 1997. He claims one more title before retiring into the sunset as Man United’s greatest ever manager.
Premier League honours:
Man United – 5
Arsenal – 3
Newcastle United – 2