When Arsenal's Michael Thomas latched on to an Alan Smith flick in the last minute of the 1988-89 title decider with Liverpool, his game and league-winning goal inspired an award-winning book, formed the basis of two big-budget films and guaranteed Thomas a place in football folklore.
Tomorrow afternoon, with the English Premier League title race being pushed to the final day of the season for only the fifth time since its inception in 1992, the scene is set once more for drama. But few fans are expecting any. Chelsea, the league's leaders, and Manchester United, a point behind them in the table, finish their seasons on home soil, with the London club playing Wigan and United hosting Stoke. Simultaneous kick offs; simultaneous victories - one would expect.
Yet it would be somewhat disappointing if, in a year that has seen the chase for the championship take more twists than a Lionel Messi dribble, spectators were dealt a final day that delivered the expected outcome. And therein lays the debate: does the fact we have witnessed one of the most unpredictable Premier Leagues in history necessarily mean it has been great viewing? Does the fact the title contenders are dropping points and a team like Wigan can beat Liverpool 1-0 at home, but lose 9-1 to Tottenham away, indicate the league is weaker or stronger? Has this been the best or the worst season ever?
The arguments, much like a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick, can bend both ways. What is not up for debate is that Arsenal's 'Invincibles' side of 2003-04 would never have capitulated like they did to Blackburn earlier this week; the Manchester United treble-winning team of 1999 would have certainly fared better than a 1-0 defeat at Burnley; and a Jose Mourinho-led Chelsea would undoubtedly have defeated the Wigan side that beat Carlo Ancelotti's men 3-1 at the DW Stadium. England's top teams, the critics consequently claim, are evidently weaker: never before have the top four teams lost so many league matches.
Their argument is strengthened by Premier League teams' poor performances in the Champions League. For the first time since 2003, England did not have a representative in the semi-finals of Europe's elite competition. But does that prove the league is weakening, or only that its top teams are being matched by great sides of Italy and Spain, France and Germany? The 2009-2010 season marks the first time in six years that among the three Ballon d'Or nominees - Ronaldo, Messi and Xavi - not one plays for an English club. And this year's Champions League final pits Inter Milan from Italy against Germany's Bayern Munich. England may boast of being home to the greatest football show on Earth, but the game's primary protagonists are plying their trade elsewhere, this season at least.
The Premier League continues to be popularly labelled as the best football league in the world and its mid-table sides - and indeed the relegation-threatened teams - are doing it a service by playing at a higher standard than ever before. Roberto Martinez's Wigan may take a hiding every so often, but they are capable of moments of brilliance. Burnley, under Owen Coyle, performed admirably. And Portsmouth, for all their well-documented administration and financial issues, continue to play with an unrivalled passion and belief - despite having been all but relegated for the majority of the year.
It would appear that the gulf in quality across the league has diminished - Liverpool, for example, have lost nine games more this season than last - but the unpredictability, and thus entertainment factor, has risen dramatically. This campaign, for instance, has already featured more goals than any season in the past decade. And while the title race may appear to be about to fizzle out on the final day and the teams facing relegation have known their fate for some time, the race for that lucrative fourth place both prolonged and improved the excitement of the league. Sceptics will argue that a fight for a league position could never rival a battle for silverware, but with the financial incentives that come with a place in the Champions League, Wednesday night's deciding clash between Manchester City and Tottenham was billed as a play-off worth around £50 million (Dh282.5m).
Daniel Levy, Tottenham's chairman, is well aware of the importance of his club's triumph: in a summer when he is canvassing for shirt and stadium sponsors, Tottenham have just planted one foot on the domestic game's grandest stage. Finance is fast becoming a more sought-after commodity than silverware, and Spurs have taken a giant step forward in their quest of both. Transfer fees, spiralling salaries, bonuses, investment in infrastructure; it is all commonplace in the Premier League, but few clubs can afford to be foolish with their funds. With the exception of Birmingham City, every club in the league has outstanding debt - a debt that Uefa recently found to equate to 56 per cent of the total for all the clubs in Europe.
With clubs increasingly desperate to remain in the top flight, chairmen throw money at the problem hoping to survive. But we have witnessed in recent years the effects of overspending: former Premier League clubs such as Watford and Sheffield Wednesday have come precariously close to administration, while sides such as Leeds United, Crystal Palace and Southampton, having failed to keep the tax man sufficiently happy, have plummeted from grace.
The argument could then be "Is it worth winning Premier League status at all?" The answer remains a resounding yes - it just depends on how you deal with it. The Championship play-off that will take place on May 22 and decide the third club to be promoted to England's top tier (the first and second-placed clubs go up automatically; the next four slug it out for that coveted third spot) was reported by football finance experts Deloitte earlier this week as being worth approximately £90m.
"In financial terms, this match offers the winning club the most substantial prize in world football," said Paul Rawnsley, the director of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte. "It is a prize that provides the opportunity for sound investment and strengthening the foundations of a club for years to come." And now, with Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, proposing to extend parachute payments, teams that return immediately to the Championship have an even better chance to comfortably cope.
At present, the League provides relegated teams with £22.4m over two seasons. But Scudamore wants to extend the payment process to four years, providing an increased sum of £48m. The inflated payments would be covered by the Premier League's increased revenues from international broadcast rights. The temptation for managers and chairmen, of course, is to spend the majority of their Premier League income on strengthening the squad in order to provide a sustained fight over the course of the season. Few promoted clubs show an interest in building improved training facilities and youth academies - in other words, a legacy.
And that is what the Premier League's harshest critics highlight: with the influx of wealth coupled with the plethora of foreign stars, the grassroots game is suffering. Much is made of teams such as Arsenal and Liverpool's lack of young home-grown players and how it impacts the national team. Between Arsene Wenger's team at Blackburn on Monday and Benitez's side against Chelsea last weekend, only four Englishmen were involved, three of whom were aged 29 or above.
With the World Cup little more than a month away, the Premier League's influence on the England side will soon be spotlighted. There are concerns that, because of an extended season that has seen many players play more than 45 games, key individuals may suffer from fatigue. Likewise, figures such as Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson have all had spells on the sidelines and may be struggling for fitness. And how will the English players adapt to the slower pace of an international tournament after nine months of the hectic harrying and hassling of the Premier League? Only time will truly tell.
Just about the only thing we can conclude with certainty as we come to the end of the season, with its apparent levelling of quality, is this: it has been enticingly entertaining. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org