The inside story of Manchester City's first Premier League title

From breaking curfew on nights out in Los Angeles to Roberto Mancini shouting ‘f*** you’ at his ‘cocky’ stars during QPR win, the inside story of Manchester City’s first Premier League title and Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp Hollywood moment

  • It’s eight years since Sergio Aguero’s goal clinched Man City’s first EPL title
  • The Argentine netted against QPR with seconds left, overtaking United at the top
  • It’s an unforgettable moment which has proved the catalyst for City’s dominance
  • But parties glued team together before City ended 44-year wait to be champions
  • Shaun Wright-Phillips even held up QPR bus after the game to see City lift trophy

The actual defining moment, the most spine-tinglingly bewildering single piece of action in Premier League history, was choreographed seconds beforehand. All seemingly lost, Manchester City supporters busy thumping seats in anger, Edin Dzeko equalises with 92 minutes on the clock. Sergio Aguero sprints back to the halfway line and shouts over to Mario Balotelli.

Manchester United had won at Sunderland but this title race was not quite done yet. One more goal. Aguero knew that, telling Balotelli to assume the No 9 role for the remainder of stoppage time, that he would drop deep to hunt for possession. Then the one-two would be on to pick a way through the stubborn back nine of Queens Park Rangers.

Mercifully, Balotelli actually agreed and the rest is best soundtracked by either Peter Drury, Martin Tyler or Guy Mowbray. Balotelli’s solitary assist in English football: an ingenious, largely under-appreciated piece of patience. The goal that defines Aguero as a footballer. Without that divine intervention, City players wonder whether the club would have had the capability to go on and achieve everything since. The heartache of bottling it may have proved too much to bear.

Sergio Aguero scores at death to earn Manchester City their first Premier League title in 2012

‘We had been a bit cocky beforehand,’ Micah Richards says. ‘But really the feelings was mixed. Everyone was saying, “we’ve got QPR, we’ll p*** this”, but you could also tell people weren’t their normal selves. Deep down it was nerves.’

Nerves turned to dark despair as the minutes flew by. City blew a half-time lead, secured by Pablo Zabaleta, to find themselves 2-1 down in injury time against a 10-man QPR battling for survival. The game appeared up as news filtered through of United’s victory in the north-east, as groans grew louder and with more exasperation at every wayward cross.

Roberto Mancini spent much of the second half in an aimless daze, screaming ‘f*** you, f*** you’ at his players. The bench was in a state of disbelief before one of disarray on 93 minutes, 20 seconds. A first title in 44 years won on goal difference in the final second of the final game to pip their bitter crosstown rivals.

City fans were left in despair after Jamie Mackie’s diving header gave QPR a 2-1 lead

Celebrations were understandably manic. Kit man Les Chapman had paced between the dressing room, players’ lounge and warm-up area throughout the second half, watching the action on monitors, before darting up the tunnel as Aguero’s strike met netting. Joe Hart refused to let a teary Gael Clichy go. Nigel De Jong punched the tunnel wall in relief before the trophy lift, a patch that is now glass for corporates to peer through.

Up in the stands, some members of staff went mad for different reasons. City had not wanted to arrange a team party for fear of jinx in the days prior, so a small committee took it upon themselves to organise one on the quiet at the town hall. ‘They effectively had about 50 grand’s worth of party riding on the game,’ one source says.

Eventually, captain Vincent Kompany took himself to the gym for a period of reflection ahead of City’s first night of the rest of their existence.

Edin Dzeko rose highest to head in City’s equaliser as the clock ticked into stoppage time

Those with intimate knowledge of that squad say that to truly understand the reasons behind City’s triumph – beyond the obvious wealth pumped into the squad – we must be aware of Los Angeles the summer before. Putting it mildly, City’s pre-season tour of America’s west coast was fairly lively.

City would train hard, double sessions in the sweltering heat, before being left to their own devices from late afternoon. It is then when the foundations for their success were laid.

Halfway through the trip, Chapman asked one player how he was enjoying California. ‘It’s the best stag week I’ve ever been on,’ came the reply. ‘Friendships were formed that fortnight,’ Chapman said. ‘That was the story of the season for me – the team spirit. Things like that bond people together.’

Aguero removes his shirt after scoring the winning goal in the final match of the season

Even now, nine years on, there is a reticence by some in divulging too much. Sanctity of a dressing room and all that. There remains a belief that to this day, Mancini is unaware of the majority of what went on.

‘Let’s say we enjoyed it to the fullest,’ Richards says. ‘It’s Hollywood! I genuinely believe LA made us win that league. Clichy had come from Arsenal and was flabbergasted. You know what Arsene Wenger was like with diet.’

After training, players would gorge on burgers and doughnuts on the quieter evenings. Explore Venice Beach and the rest that LA offers on the others. One member of the squad claims he has never witnessed an entire team enjoy themselves as a group quite so much before or since. Richards reveals a tale of that tour’s final night, when at least five went out, tracksuits over clubbing gear until a safe distance from the hotel.

City supporters celebrate as players bundle on top of the goalscorer at the Etihad Stadium

‘Curfew was midnight,’ he says. ‘We had a friend in LA and went out until about two-ish. We weren’t all big drinkers, so let’s sneak out and see what we can do.

‘When we were coming back we found out that Mancini was downstairs in the lobby with all his staff. We had to sneak through the back door, climb up some ladders and go through the back. Somehow we didn’t get caught. We talk about that story all the time. We probably would’ve lost the manager’s trust if we’d been caught.’

Crucially, the players in question all worked closely together on the pitch in the subsequent campaign. ‘It made me trust them a lot more,’ Richards adds. ‘That bond. You wanted to go that extra yard for each other. Yaya Toure had come from Barcelona (the year before) and I couldn’t get two words out of him. By the end of that season I was going to his house for parties.’

During a nerve-wracking second half, City manager Roberto Mancini was in a frenzy, shouting ‘f*** you’ at his players. But the Italian erupted after Aguero scored the golden goal

The club was a whirlwind at that time. Carlos Tevez, who had not toured, dominated the back pages with an on-off move to Boca Juniors and stripped of the captaincy. They remained in big-money pursuit of both Samir Nasri and Aguero, the latter blistering his foot after training in boots too small for him.

Balotelli’s attitude came into question, Mancini branding him ‘unprofessional’ for attempting to backheel when clean through on goal during a friendly against LA Galaxy. The manager was also demanding a clearout of perceived deadwood that never truly materialised.

After a final friendly win over Inter Milan in Dublin before the title charge, the Daily Mail read: ‘City looked a little sluggish in America but the manager looks to have brought his team to the boil perfectly.’ That appraisal certainly stood the test of time.

Captain Vincent Kompany prepares to lift the trophy in front of a euphoric Manchester crowd

Aguero lifts City’s first top flight title in 44 years next to team-mate Mario Balotelli

The drama of that season went until the last second and had been unrelenting on and off the pitch. Tevez was placed on gardening leave for almost six months after refusing to come off the bench during a Champions League tie at Bayern Munich. ‘The manager was told he had to come back. There was never an ounce of animosity from any of the other players,’ Chapman says. ‘None at all. They loved him. Ask any of them about his impact. They would’ve died for each other, those lads.’

With Tevez in Argentina, Balotelli racked up £300,000 worth of damage at his property after setting off fireworks in the bathroom on the eve of a Manchester derby. After ringing a member of staff for help and uncertain why the house alarm would not cease to blare, Balotelli was asked what had actually happened. ‘Well, the bathroom’s on fire.’ Had he called the fire brigade? No. City put him up at the Hilton hotel in town, the team winning 6-1 at Old Trafford a day later and Balotelli scoring twice. The “Why Always Me?” afternoon. Perhaps that weekend best illustrates the season.

Amid all this, they kept winning in one of the greatest title races ever. Mancini left Kompany to take the final 30 seconds of team talks, bonding sessions extended to go-kart racing at Warrington and Belle Vue. The victories kept being ticked off, United at home – secured by the head of Kompany – with three games to go the real seismic night when power began to shift in this part of the world.

Aguero holds the glistening Premier League title during City’s open bus parade in May 2012

But there lay QPR on the final day, a team that likely required a positive result to survive and one, bizarrely, stacked with individuals who had close ties to City. Mark Hughes was Mancini’s predecessor. Nedum Onouha, a City fan, had been a ballboy at the Etihad. Joey Barton, eventually sent off, came through the academy. So too Shaun Wright-Phillips, who had only left the summer prior.

‘We’d seen a hell of a lot at that club,’ Wright-Phillips explains. ‘To be in that position… initially I’d either have to upset City or get relegated with QPR. It was so weird.’

Bolton’s failure to beat Stoke meant QPR were safe no matter what, a result secured seconds before Aguero’s stunning injury-time winner. The QPR defence were actually unaware they were safe, Paddy Kenny’s back four dropping to the ground in unison as the Etihad’s roof came off.

‘QPR stayed up, and I helped in some way to make that happen, and then to be in Manchester to see City win the league, it worked out perfectly for me,’ Wright-Phillips says. ‘Not many people know this but when they actually got to lift the trophy, I was watching by the coach down the side tunnel before we travelled back. The gaffer said it was OK. I just didn’t want to miss it.’

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