On the final Saturday of the season, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini signed autographs and posed with fans for pictures.
Less than 24 hours later, the Chilean was being thrown into the air by his jubilant players underneath him, the unlikeliest Premier League champion.
A year ago to the day many of those players walked off the famous Wembley pitch as losers, to lowly Wigan in the FA Cup final. Many said then that manager Roberto Mancini should be given another year but no one in Manchester cares about the Italian's whereabouts today.
City's title victory signaled their second in three years; the start, perhaps, of a dynasty in the Premier League but, in truth, their second one was very different to their first.
This is a different kind of City. The noisy neighbors, as once dubbed by a rude, naïve Sir Alex Ferguson, beat United two years ago in the most narrow of circumstances, goal difference. That year City were abysmal for over three months on the field while allowing the petulant Carlos Tevez to stay in Argentina, the immature Mario Balotelli to continue to disobey team rules and the mouthpiece Mancini to comment far too aggressively on far too many topics.
City were champions but didn't stand for what they felt they should stand for. Enter Chief Executive Ferran Soriano and Director of Football, Txiki Begiristain.
For a year, much like they did at Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard before getting Pep Guardiola, they watched and took it all in. Last season City never looked like winning the title, falling behind by 12pts by the end of February and by 15pts at the end of March. They lacked width, had no real identity and creative players like Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri looked lost.
Enter Pellegrini. City needed a manager who would never be bigger than the club, whose calmness and belief in his players would help the team on the pitch.
His first test regularly came away from home. In September he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in disbelief when his team lost at Aston Villa. They'd played three away games and won none of them. By the fifth away game, at Chelsea, City's latest setback was called a crisis by the media. The team was, supposedly, not a good side away from home but Pellegrini knew just how incorrect that statement was.
Results are crucial, of course, but losses at Cardiff and Aston Villa should have been victories and City were outstanding in the second half at Stamford Bridge before Joe Hart lost his mind for a second and allowed Fernando Torres to score a late winner.
Pellegrini kept his head and believed in his team. Quietly results started to match performances, yet it would be months before City would be top again.
On the morning of April 21st, City woke up nine points back of Liverpool. In 21 days the season would be over and they had five leagues games remaining to Liverpool's three. A win against West Brom that night started a run of five straight victories that culminated in a much-deserved title.
It is easy to say City bought another trophy but this Premier League powerhouse is not at a level, yet, where they are easily unlikeable.
Their style of play has to be admired, dictated by genuine world-class stars like David Silva, Yaya Toure and, when healthy, Sergio Aguero. Right now City is responsible for bringing such wonderful talents to the English game. It is clear their place at the top table of English football is here to stay but, so far, their inconsistencies have meant they haven't always laid claim to the giant throne. Until now. Smart, shrewd leadership has made its way from the boardroom to the dugout and on to the pitch. Noisy neighbors? More like ruthless, quiet assassins led by a real gentleman in Pellegrini.
Champions League Qualifiers
Liverpool's season had a cruel, unfortunate final act dubbed ‘the collapse' by some but it is all too simple to say that without Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea and the ‘Cyrstanbul 3-3' the Reds would have won the league. It was a year that Liverpool locked up talisman Luis Suarez and then spent the rest of the campaign showing him just why he should stay. Just quite what the striker decides to do next is anyone's guess, after all he did turn his back on the club last summer after they had gone out of their way to support him in his darkest hours. Thankfully, for the club, Suarez, and the sport, once he returned from his suspension in September, dark days disappeared and the Uruguayan shone brighter than any other player in the league, on his way to matching Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer on 31 league goals.
Chelsea's year was, naturally, all about Jose Mourinho. He started the season proclaiming ‘this is a team of kids, it is not a team to win tomorrow' and he spent the season proving himself right. He also remolded the side, making them much more difficult to break down, while selling on Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne, Tomorrow came and went for the Blues and next season, with presumably one very good new striker, they will be much stronger, not least in central midfield where the likes of Nemanja Matic, Ramires, Marco Van Ginkel, and possibly, Paulinho can take over games at a level that Eden Hazard and Willian did this year.
Arsenal spent more days than any team at the top of the table but were out of the title hunt with two months to go. Again. The Gunners blew away many teams in the bottom half of the league, helping them race to 22pts through the first nine games. Arsene Wenger still kept his job despite three humiliating performances away from home at the teams above Arsenal and after allowing the club to go through the entire campaign with one legitimate striker. Of the 20 teams in the league this season, only Everton and Newcastle have spent (net) less than Arsenal in the past five years. Some feel the club continues to overachieve based on this but for a team that is supposed to be big, surely it is time for the club to find a man who puts pressure on rich owners to spend more money and take such a fantastic club to a position it deserves.
Europa League Qualifiers
Everton finished fifth under the magnificent Roberto Martinez after another entertaining season on the pitch and a tremendously smart campaign in the transfer market. The same could not be said for Tottenham who threw away the season the moment Andre Vilas Boas was sacked. This wonderful club, that has had so many flamboyant, skillful artists play for them lost its way this year and end the season without a real manager or identity.
Hull City, under a calm Steve Bruce, were welcome arrivals to the league and never looked in danger of dropping down to the Championship. Their successful season was rewarded with a spot in the FA Cup final and although their league campaign took a turn for the worse late in the season they should be applauded for targeting Premier League caliber players who helped them stay up.
The good, the bad and the ugly of mid-table
Manchester United finally had the season all the detractors dreamed of. Their worst campaign for 25 years hit rock bottom in April when David Moyes was sacked. It was time, after far too many woeful performances, but at least he showed just how poor many of United players are. No matter which Scotsman was in charge at United, it was clear changes were needed and now it will be interesting to see what the Glazers do after being backed into a corner, one where piles of paper are stashed in a box labeled ‘bad contracts'.
Southampton finished a wonderful eighth place and brought a fresh, vibrant attacking style to the league. Many of those behind it were, surprisingly, English and the national team manager Roy Hodgson could do worse than send Mauricio Pocchetino a bottle of his favourite red wine for helping some of his players improve dramatically over the cause of a season.
Stoke City moved on without Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes rescued his career as they finished a record high ninth, just ahead of Newcastle United who, unlike Stoke, had a tumultuous campaign.
It is hard to take club chairman Mike Ashley seriously anymore. Many of his decisions form a moronic pattern. He didn't change the name of the stadium this season but the hiring of Joe Kinnear was a disgrace, as was the latter's interview, soon after, on national radio where he mispronounced many of the players at his team. It was like a scene from a comedy show. The episode continued for the Magpies as they spent no money on players, sold their best player in the final week of the window, didn't replace him, let go of Kinnear, watched their manager head-butt an opposing player and then saw the team fall to pieces, claiming just 16pts from their last 19. As the season ended, this proud, historic club, supported by brilliant football fans, who deserve far more, was in the gutter.
For Ashley, of course, it was a successful season as they made lots of money and finished mid-table. Many clubs would have swapped with Newcastle but, in truth, all ten teams in the bottom half of the league were below average.
Crystal Palace were the best of the rest, a remarkable climb from the mess Ian Holloway had left them in. when they had just three points at the end of October. “We didn't keep the same spirit, with some of the new lads coming in, some of their attitudes I am finding very annoying. Someone else can come in and make that right,” said Holloway as he resigned. Pulis came in and did exactly that.
The Relegation Battle
The race to mediocrity and the prize of safety that came with it was long, exhausting and very frustrating for many other teams who battled with their own identities.
Swansea let go of Michael Laudrup and appointed Garry Monk to get back to the way Huw Jenkins demanded, Sam Allardyce bored his own fans towards safety with a brand of football they disliked. While outsiders told them to be thankful for survival, the intelligent fans, paying good money to watch their beloved Hammers, hit back with hours upon hours of evidence in their favor.
Sunderland performed a miracle, winning four in a row in late April and early May after losing five in a row in late March and early April. Aston Villa, one of just three teams in the bottom ten who didn't change their manager, actually went backwards after a dreadful season that was even worse than last year. This once big club has paid a heavy price for previous manager's spending money freely and is fortunate to still be in the top flight after three woeful campaigns in a row. Spare a thought for their home fans, who've now watched just 15 wins from their last 57 home games during that stretch.
West Brom fans knew too well just how bad ‘the Villa' were but had an even worse season, finishing just one spot off the bottom three after finishing eighth just one year ago. The sacking of Steve Clarke in December seemed premature and his just over one point per game ratio wasn't bettered by his successor, Pepe Mel, who took over a team in 16th and finished 17th.
Down into the Championship went Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff. All had very different stories of woe. Cardiff, forced to play in the wrong colour all season, were in shambles under owner Vincent Tan, Fulham copied the QPR model for signing too many players and having no identity while Norwich, quite simply, couldn't score goals. No one wants to see their team relegated but, quietly, some Norwich fans will surely be excited at the prospect of playing at a level next season that they will be able to cope with, where they can express themselves and remove the brake that seemed to stunt their progress during their three-year existence in the Premier League. The sport is, after all, in the entertainment business.
No matter which side you supported the 2013/14 Premier League certainly did bring entertainment. In the end it came down to a battle between two clubs who scored over 100 goals!
In a sport that can be often over regulated, shackled by tactical systems and ‘parked buses', two North West teams exploded with wonderful precision making the hardest thing in the game look easy, time and time again. Kevin Keegan's Newcastle was once the reference point for an attacking team in the historical world of the Premier League. They wouldn't have come close to handling these two.