In 2012, the Premier League ran a series of awards to commemorate the first 20 years since the top tier of English football was relaunched and rebranded.
I was among those invited to join a panel to debate nominations for some categories and winners for others. Some of the awards were straightforward (Sir Alex Ferguson for best manager) and others more contentious (Ryan Giggs for best player). The award for best team went to Arsenal’s “Invincibles” of 2003-04, reflecting not just their excellence but also a split between those voting for either of Manchester United’s Champions League-winning sides.
One of the hardest decisions concerned an award for the best season. How could we begin to evaluate one season above the other 19?
My preference was for 1995-96 — a view based on several immediately recollectable matches, a gripping title race between Manchester United’s new-look young team and Newcastle United’s “Entertainers” (with Liverpool’s “Spice Boys” sporadically threatening to turn it into a three-horse race) and a swaggering mid-1990s zeitgeist that was encapsulated by star performers as diverse as Eric Cantona, Alan Shearer, David Ginola, Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright, Matt Le Tissier and Juninho.
In the end, though, the panel opted for 2011-12, which at the time was building up to the most astonishing conclusion. Some of us queried about possible recency bias, poor performances on the European stage (Chelsea excepted) and whether such an award might be just a little too convenient. (“The Premier League, 20 years old and better than ever”. Who would have thought it?)
But Richard Scudamore, who was the league’s chief executive, suggested the standard of the competition was at an all-time high and, more persuasively, that this was the first time in 20 seasons that the title race, the battle for Champions League qualification and the relegation fight had all gone down to the final weekend.
And by the time the dust settled at the Etihad Stadium the following Sunday, it was hard to reject the notion that, yes, 2011-12 had been a season like no other.
Ten years on from the moment known variously as “Agueroooooooooo!” and “93:20”, the Premier League is now reaching the end of its third decade. There are no “30 seasons” awards happening just yet — perhaps later in the year — but it would be interesting, not least to find out who would win the award for best player, given that Giggs’ name was a quiet but notable omission from the first 16 inductees to the league’s hall of fame.
The best season? Well, say it cautiously, but… 2021-22 might just end up as part of that conversation. And not just because, with Liverpool chasing Manchester City to the wire in the title race, Arsenal and Tottenham battling for the fourth Champions League spot, Manchester United and West Ham United scrapping over Europa League/Conference League qualification and Burnley and Leeds United fighting for their lives at the bottom end of the table, eight of this weekend’s 10 final matches have something serious at stake.
Such tensions and complexities are to be savoured; an enthralling title race is vastly preferable to the type of procession we have seen unfold so often in recent years in the Premier League and indeed across Europe, with competitive balance damaged by ever-increasing financial inequalities.