There is a very fine line between hope and delusion and this is no more evident than on the opening day of the new football season…
Fans up and down the country are susceptible to ‘first game fever’ as logical thought is lost in a heady mix of August sunshine, beautifully manicured pitches, new kits and, of course, expensive summer signings.
Every football fan loves the opening day; the optimism it brings, the belief it provides, the chance it gives for supporters everywhere to put all that has happened in the past 12 months well and truly behind them and move on while believing, if they dare, that this could be the start of something special.
So here is just a selection of some of the more memorable games that have kicked off top flight football down the years that have not always been followed-up by the most successful of seasons – proving, if we really need it, that one swallow does not make a summer.
Everton 4 Newcastle United 0 (1988/89)
During the 1980s both Liverpool and Everton regularly tussled for the league title, who could forget the incredible 1985/86 season when the Howard Kendall's side narrowly lost out to their city rivals.
The Reds had stormed to the championship in 1987/88 Everton felt the need to act fast in order to win the trophy back from their neighbours.
Colin Harvey had spent big during the summer of 1988, bringing in Tony Cottee for a British record £2.2 million, along with Pat Nevin, Stuart McCall and Neil McDonald – and 41,560 fans packed into Goodison Park to see how the new boys got on in their first game.
Evertonians were not disappointed either as Cottee scored on his home debut after just 30 seconds of the new term after Graeme Sharp's initial effort had been saved. Cottee grabbed his second on the half hour following some fine work from Peter Reid.
Former West Ham striker, Cottee, secured a debut hat-trick just after the hour mark after receiving Nevin's perfect pass and taking the ball round Newcastle's debutant ‘keeper Dave Beasant before slotting home from a tight angle. Strike partner Sharp completed the scoring two minutes from time as the hat-trick hero turned provider.
As it turned out neither Merseyside club won the title that year but they would meet in an emotional FA Cup final at Wembley just weeks after the tragic events of Hillsborough on 15 April – where the Reds came out on top again in a 3-2 win.
Sheffield Wednesday 3 Tottenham 4 (1994/95)
The 1994/95 season had not got off to the best of starts for Tottenham, with the North London club having the book thrown at them for financial irregularities by their previous owners. They were fined £600,000, deducted 12 points and expelled from the FA Cup, although then Chairman Alan Sugar eventually managed to get the last two punishments overturned in exchange for a heftier fine.
On the field, however, things were slightly more positive with manager Ossie Ardiles favouring an all-out-attack policy, something that was more than evident when his Spurs side travelled to Sheffield Wednesday for their opening game of the season.
Twice Tottenham breached the Wednesday defence in the first 30 minutes with strikes from Teddy Sheringham and Darren Anderton, but Wednesday were a different side in the second-half and drew level thanks to Dan Petrescu and a quite brilliant top corner own goal from Colin Calderwood.
However, Ardiles’ side found another gear again late in the game to all but seal victory thanks to goals from Nick Barmby and new acquisition Jurgen Klinsmann – the German performing the first of his now notorious swan-dive celebrations in front of a furious home crowd.
David Hurst set up a grandstand finish thanks to a long-range effort, but seven goals were enough for the day as the visitors took all three points. Both sides would enjoy mid-table finishes that season, however, with Spurs ending the campaign seventh and Wednesday 13th.
Liverpool 3 Arsenal 2 (1964/65)
Not only was this opening fixture of the season contested by two of the biggest sides around, it was also the very first game to be covered by the BBC for their new show; Match of the Day.
Liverpool had won the title the year before and ran out at a sun-drenched Anfield in front of 47,000 fans to the sound of The Beatles’ “She Loves You” blaring in the background.
Those present at the ground, as well as those watching later on television, saw Roger Hunt and Gordon Wallace give the home side a deserved 2-0 lead, before Joe Baker and Geoff Strong levelled for Billy Wright’s North London men.
But just seconds from time, an own goal by future Gunners boss Don Howe handed Bill Shankly’s side a winning start to defending their title. Even so, despite the good opener they would only finish seventh that year, a huge 17 points behind Matt Busby’s legendary Manchester United side.
Aston Villa 3 Manchester United 1 (1995/96)
Following something of a last day collapse which allowed Blackburn to take the Premier League title from under Manchester United’s noses, Alex Ferguson had overseen something of a summer clear-out with Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis all leaving the club.
With no obvious big-names coming in to replace the big-name departures – plus suspensions and injuries ruling out the likes of David May, Steve Bruce, Andrew Cole, and ‘King Eric' Cantona – Ferguson thrust a side containing a raft of young academy players into the action for the 1995/96 season, which kicked-off at Villa Park.
Brothers Gary and Phil Neville and Nicky Butt all started against Aston Villa, with David Beckham and John O’Kane introduced in the second half for a United team not only uncomfortable in a new 5-3-2 system – that Fergie quickly dropped – but also an awful grey kit that was also binned mid-season.
Villa, who would eventually finish fourth that season, ripped United apart in the first half with goals from Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and Dwight Yorke settling the game before Beckham gave United hope with a glorious goal late – providing the footballing world with its first glimpse of the abundant talent that was to make him a superstar.
Alan Hansen’s infamous, ‘You can’t win anything with kids’ remark on Match of the Day that night is probably more well-documented than the game itself. However, the pundit was forced to eat his words nine months later as United went on to win the ‘double’.
Middlesbrough 3 Liverpool 3 (1996/97)
Big spending Middlesbrough’s opening game of the 1996/97 Premiership season against Liverpool signalled the start of probably the most exciting campaign in the club’s history, if not the most fruitless.
Boro had stunned the transfer market when Brazilian megastar Juninho arrived the previous year but now he was joined by compatriot Emerson and recent Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli as Bryan Robson, backed by Chairman Steve Gibson, attempted to spend their way to success
And it was one of the new boys who served up a treat at the Riverside Stadium that sunny afternoon as Ravanelli’s hat-trick immediately endeared him to Teessiders – as Liverpool took the lead three times yet were forced to share the spoils.
After defensive shortcomings had left them chasing the game three times, Ravanelli came to the rescue to earn Middlesbrough a thrilling 3-3 draw which led to even the most pessimistic Boro fans believing this could be the start of something special.
Ravanelli went on to score an astonishing 31 goals that campaign as Robson’s side reached both the League Cup and FA Cup Finals – losing both – and were relegated, despite outscoring almost half of the teams in the division.
Manchester United 4 Arsenal 1 (1989/90)
Defending champions Arsenal arrived in Manchester having won the title in the most dramatic circumstances the previous May; but it was hosts United who were stealing all the headlines on the opening day of the 1989/90 season.
Just 24 hours before the game the Red Devils had reportedly been bought for £10 million by businessman Michael Knighton, who wasted no time in running out on to the sun-drenched Old Trafford pitch to lap-up the adoration of the United fans, not to mention to show off his ball juggling skills.
Some woeful Arsenal defending allowed Steve Bruce to open the scoring after just a couple of minutes before David Rocastle equalised; Arsenal showing the spirit one associates with champions against a determined home side.
Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and then debutant Neil Webb – the latter recently signed from Nottingham Forest for £1.5m – chipped in with goals to make it 4-1 to United, who also missed a penalty for good measure.
It was something of a false dawn for United, though, who lost three of their next four fixtures and failed to win a league match from November through to March that season – with only a successful FA Cup campaign saving manager Alex Ferguson from the sack.
As for Knighton, he failed to produce the cash for what would have been the deal of the century and ended up buying Carlisle United.