A season in a day: The 2023-24 Premier League told from Stanley Park to San Sebastian

The Athletic UK Staff

After 380 games and 1,246 goals, a Premier League season packed with drama, football of the highest quality and plenty of conspiracy theories ended with Manchester City as champions for a fourth straight time.

On the final day, The Athletic sent seven reporters to cover the places and themes that made the season what it was. From City’s Etihad Stadium to Jurgen Klopp’s farewell at Anfield, the shadow of Everton’s new stadium to Manchester United part-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s pub, we reflected the realities of being a Premier League underdog like Luton Town or worse, a VAR official. We even travelled to Mikel Arteta’s home town, San Sebastian… where they were largely watching cycling.

This is the story of the 2023-24 Premier League season, told in a day.

Jordan Campbell in Mikel Arteta’s hometown San Sebastian

San Sebastian has become the Silicon Valley of elite football managers but it does a good job of hiding it.

Forget streams of Arsenal jerseys filling the streets and posters of the local boy done good, Mikel Arteta. It’s almost a ghost town on Sunday. Walk into the two sport bars in the neighbourhood, Bar Pepe and Bar Campus, and you hear the clattering of cutlery and Giro D’Italia commentary.

Here, there is only one allegiance and that is Real Sociedad. Arteta spent only six months of his senior playing career here before switching to Barcelona but caught the eye at local youth club local youth team Antiguoko. Still, to watch the final-day drama you have to head to any one of Irish bars situated in the old town of the city.

One of the few bars not prioritising the Giro D’Italia (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

The Belfast bar only has one screen and so the place that Brits have flocked to is the Garagar pub around the corner, which has more than a dozen people crowded in the middle of the bar swinging their necks left to right to take in both screens showing the two games.

Daniel Taylor at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium

One thing really stands out: there’s a lot more light blue than usual in City’s stands. The sun is shining and everyone seems to be wearing City’s colours. They are here for a party. They don’t want to sound too presumptuous just yet — but, come on, West Ham United look like obliging opponents, losing 15 of their last 17 games at this stadium. Somewhere, hidden from view, the Premier League trophy is waiting to be presented. One more win for Pep Guardiola’s team and the party can begin for real.

The pre-match party was in full swing at City (Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Oliver Kay at Anfield for Jurgen Klopp’s final game as manager

At Anfield, it’s not going to be quite the glorious finale Liverpool’s supporters had in mind a couple of months ago, when there was heady talk of Klopp bowing out with a trophy double, a treble or even a quadruple. But their outgoing manager is guaranteed the warmest of send-offs.

Fans flock to the Klopp mural on Burnand Street, just around the corner from the stadium, for photographs. Supporters from the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuwait and Australia talk of their desperation to be here to say goodbye to Klopp.

Supporters from across the world gather at the Klopp mural (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

Inside the ground, an impassioned pre-match rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone takes place against the backdrop of a mosaic saying “Danke Jurgen, YNWA”. It’s going to be emotional, in keeping with the journey that has brought them to this point.

Michael Walker on the other side of Stanley Park

From the blue side of Stanley Park, you could just about see red smoke from the flares at Anfield. Attracting rather less publicity, there were games at Goodison Park as well yesterday. Everton Football College were staging two under-16 semi-finals and the boys from Huyton, Knowsley and Toxteth were gathering outside in the sun as Sean Dyche’s team limbered up at Arsenal.

This is Everton broadening their recruitment and giving these boys a chance. Everything at the club feels about the future.

Omar Garrick in the Bricklayers Arms, Luton

Despite Luton Town’s impending relegation from the Premier League, the Bricklayers Arms — a short walk from Kenilworth Road — buzzes.

It is a testament to the spirit and togetherness manager Rob Edwards has created at the club, still mathematically if not realistically in with a chance of survival on the final day, and one that has reverberated throughout the town.

Rachel Hopkins, the Labour MP for Luton South and a supporter of the football governance bill the Conservative government has introduced this season in attempt to better police the running of the game, is enjoying the sunshine: “Everyone is happy because the club has brought everyone together this season,” she says. “There’s no sadness.”

Alison Taylor is retiring after 38 years as the landlady of the pub and is talking about her attendance at the recent end-of-season awards. ”It’s sad, but it’s been the highlight of my life and I’ll always be supporting them forever,” she says.

Tom Burrows at Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s pub, The Grenadier

Tucked away down a pretty mews street in wealthy Belgravia, a short walk from Buckingham Palace, The Grenadier is a quintessentially British boozer.

Walking along the cobbled street, Wilton Row, to the pub, there’s a parked-up Jaguar and a young couple opening the doors to their Ferrari.

Outside the pub, there’s a moneyed and well-dressed clientele, with jolly accents, mixed in with tourists visiting London.

There are no TV screens showing the football, no chatter about the upcoming matches or the drama that’s about to unfold.

The ceiling of Ratcliffe’s pub (Tom Burrows/The Athletic)

Sat here, in this peaceful and picturesque setting where the ceilings inside the pub are papered with banknotes, you’d never know it was an important day at the end of the Premier League season.

Peter Rutzler on VAR watch

Ten Premier League games, all at the same time, and a League Two play-off final thrown in too. Stockley Park is going to be busy on the final day, and feeling the heat…

VAR has been a divisive topic for five years but it is firmly under review today after The Athletic revealed in midweek that Wolverhampton Wanderers tabled a motion of no-confidence in its use. Premier League clubs will decide on its fate at next month’s AGM.

So how will VAR fare with its future on the line? Will it sway any prospective voters? Or condemn itself to relegation from the top flight?

Nottingham Forest supporters in fancy dress before the game away to Burnley (Matt McNulty/Getty Images)

Nottingham Forest fans seemed to be on board the ‘VAR out’ bandwagon — at least before kick-off. Supporters arrive dressed as referees, with others wearing a mask of Stuart Atwell — the ‘Luton-supporting’ villain of their defeat by Everton last month.

Daniel Taylor at the Etihad

“Are you watching Arsenal?” is the song of choice at the Etihad Stadium. Or it was until West Ham realised they were allowed a turn at attacking, too. Mohammed Kudus’ overhead kick has made things interesting after Phil Foden’s double had put City utterly in command. I mean, they couldn’t, could they? Well, no, probably not. City should have been four or five up bearing in mind their superiority for the first 40 minutes.

And yet, Guardiola’s team have had a problem keeping clean sheets all season. The celebrations have been put on hold and, suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a bit of anxiety. The half-time whistle has come at a good time for the team at the top of the league.

Jordan Campbell in San Sebastian

“YAAAAAAA-!” screams Jimbo, an Evertonian watching alongside his Arsenal mate Freddie, who are here studying.

It’s 1-0 Everton and his shout is cut off when he realises the daggers being drawn at him from 12 different directions.

The pub goes flat but, 12 minutes later, Freddie, who had his head planted against a wooden beam, is now charging to the far end after Takehiro Tomiyasu rifles home the equaliser.

Freddie, left, and Jimbo (Jordan Campbell/The Athletic)

Tables of fans dotted among locals start chanting ‘ARRRRRRSENAL!” as they jump to their feet but then the man sporting a Man City cap at the bar lets out a grumble. Kudus has scored an overhead kick.

“COME ON! That’s karma for you screaming!”, says Freddie to his mate.

Under Arteta, Arsenal missed out by five points last season having fallen away in the final stages but the 42-year-old has taken City to the final game this time.

Arteta is one of four of this season’s Premier League managers to come from the province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque country, which was home to Xabi Alonso, who has led Bayer Leverkusen to an unbeaten season in Germany. Another, Julen Lopetegui is about to take over at West Ham.

“Sports here developed out of daily work, what they had around them: lifting stones, involving animals, using your hands. The values of competition came from daily life,” The Athletic was told this season.

Another fan on holiday informs his girlfriend that they are no longer leaving at half-time.

Oliver Kay at Anfield

Liverpool are cruising at Anfield, 2-0 up against Wolves, who have had Nelson Semedo sent off for violent conduct after the VAR sent referee Chris Kavanagh to the touchline to review the full-back’s late challenge on Alexis Mac Allister. Another one to compound Wolves’ dislike of VAR — though they can’t have too many complaints about this one.

Mac Allister and Jarell Quansah have scored the goals, and Liverpool seem to be playing with an energy and freedom that briefly deserted them when the pressure was on in the run-in. And the atmosphere? Upbeat. It’s a love-in — not just for Klopp but with songs for so many of the players who have defined this Anfield era, Roberto Firmino, Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Divock Origi et al.

Michael Walker on the other side of Stanley Park

Two miles away from Goodison at Bramley-Moore dock, the future rises brick by brick. Everton’s new stadium looks impressive from whatever angle you see it, but it feels like there are about 777 questions surrounding the club, its finances and its future.

At ground level on Regent Road the lone pub opposite the new ground has Everton on one screen and Liverpool on another. There’s a split audience. The noise and colour of Anfield contrasts with the subdued feel coming from Arsenal and it’s 16 minutes before there are comments of “great save” towards Jordan Pickford as he denies Gabriel Martinelli.

Everton’s new ground is a reason for optimism but their future is also uncertain (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

The next noises off are gasps as Dominic Calvert-Lewin hits a post and then Idrissa Gana Gueye gives Everton a surprise lead. The watching Blues cannot quite believe it – then they see the wild deflection Gueye’s free kick has taken – and there’s a certain sense of order restored when Tomiyasu equalises soon after. But for an opening 45 minutes at the end of a season like this, the locals were content.

Tom Burrows at The Grenadier

The Grenadier pub was bought by Ratcliffe in 2022, one of Britain’s wealthiest men (fourth according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List) who, through his INEOS company, completed his purchase of a 27.7 per cent stake in Manchester United this year after paying $1.3billion.

Since the deal was approved, Ratcliffe and INEOS have taken control of Old Trafford’s sporting operations, while he has mapped out his long-term vision to create a ‘Wembley of the north’ and to knock city rivals Manchester City off their perch as part of a three-year plan to restore United to the summit of English and European football.

While this has generated plenty of headlines and restored some optimism for United fans, it’s been another largely underwhelming season on the pitch.

As pub-goers chatter and clink their glasses, United are goalless away at Brighton. But there’s no talk about Mainoo, Casemiro or Fernandes here, instead conversation centres on jobs, mortgages and summer holidays.

Omar Garrick in the Bricklayers Arms, Luton

Locals are discussing what the club has achieved, having been in League Two only five years ago.

“People had us down by December. I remember the opposite. We had a chance of staying up. If only we had the depth,”says Nick Dale, a Luton supporter.

In reality, Luton, Burnley, and Sheffield United have posted the worst combined points total for relegated sides since the Premier League’s inaugural season in 1992-93.

Still, excitement surges when Luton appear to score in the 30th minute through Tahith Chong, only for the goal to be ruled offside. “We’ll score, don’t worry,” says Alison.

Rachel Hopkins and, right, Alison Taylor (Omar Garrick/The Athletic)

Her faith is soon rewarded as Carlton Morris equalises from the penalty spot, but Fulham quickly regain the lead. “Story of our season,” she sighs.

Peter Rutzler on VAR watch

It doesn’t take long for VAR to dish out some revenge on Wolves. On 28 minutes, Semedo goes flying into Mac Allister and referee Chris Kavanagh books him. The VAR, David Coote, is having none of it. He sends Kavanagh over to the monitor and he changes his decision. It causes a stir.

How does Gary O’Neil take it? “VAR doesn’t even pause it right,” he says later. “There’s no way VAR need to get involved.” Not well, then.

At Burnley, Forest fans launch into chants of ‘F*** VAR’, which is mirrored by the soon-to-be VAR-free Burnley contingent. The system is not used in regular EFL games.

VAR prepares to upset Wolves once more (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

But lo and behold… those chants are immediately given a positive spin from the Forest end when VAR allowed Chris Wood’s second goal to stand after being judged offside. Funny old game.

Daniel Taylor at the Etihad

It is a stress-free ending. Rodri’s goal to make it 3-1, close to the hour mark, makes sure of that. A VAR decision rules out Tomas Soucek’s late effort for handball and that effectively is that: it isn’t long before a celebratory Blue Moon is sweeping round the stadium and the stewards are gathering at the perimeter boards to try (unsuccessfully) to stop the supporters from running on.

At one stage, with the game still going on, Erling Haaland, Ruben Dias and a few others have to go over to tell one section of fans to keep to their positions. But everyone knows what is coming. The final whistle goes shortly afterwards and it isn’t long until the entire playing surface is filled with celebrating fans.

Jordan Campbell in San Sebastian

Arsenal fans refuse to watch the City game for the most part until they can safely say they kept up their end of the bargain by finding a winner.

They live in the hope that no news was good news but when Rodri strokes the ball home from the edge of the box, the voice of the one City fan can be heard dictating a text message for his wife to send to his mate at the Etihad.

“Ask him if it’s too early to do the Poznan. P-O-Z-N-A-N. Poznan. Question mark.”

It looks like he may well have released the white smoke too early.

“Am I forever blowing bubbles? Am I?” shouts Arsenal fan Nathaniel, sprinting to the far end — pint in hand — after news that West Ham have pulled it back to 3-2 late on.

Dejection sets in when it became clear the goal has been disallowed by VAR.

It is the final nail in the coffin but, after Kai Havertz scores to win the match 2-1 for Arsenal, a round of applause greets the final whistle in recognition of their efforts in coming so close. Arsenal have finished as one of the best second-placed Premier League teams ever.

“It’s the hope that kills you” says Freddie, as talk turns to City’s 115 Premier League charges (all of which they deny, all of which remain unresolved) and the sense among Arsenal fans that they are fighting a force altogether more powerful than just a football team.

Oliver Kay at Anfield

It’s all over at Anfield, where Liverpool have beaten Wolves 2-0. More memorable than what happened on the pitch is the loud rendition of Klopp’s chant, based on The Beatles’ I Feel Fine, which reverberates around the ground throughout the closing stages of the game.

It is quite something. Even Sir Kenny Dalglish is clapping along in the directors’ box, while Klopp’s wife Ulla is left wiping tears from her eyes. They’re going to miss this place.

Michael Walker on the other side of Stanley Park

The disbelief at seeing Gueye score for Everton is matched when Arsenal’s winner is allowed despite what looks like a handball. But Isaac and George are generally pleased with what they have seen from Everton. “We played pretty well,” George says. Only two clubs — Luton and Arsenal — scored against Everton in the last eight games.

He is adamant that “Sean Dyche has kept us up,” and that the stadium across the road is going to be “incredible”.

George feels a sense of injustice about the points deductions and mentions Manchester City’s 115 charges — “and Chelsea!” And Isaac says “it’s the inconsistencies — and they didn’t factor in the mentality part of having to play for nearly three months with a 10-point deduction.”

Everton, twice, and Forest made Premier League history this season as the first teams to be punished with points losses for breaching the league’s profit and sustainability rules. Others are in danger of following them.

Neither wants to see promising young defender Jarrad Branthwaite sold and George says the player “wants to stay another year.” But Dyche had said on Friday that it is “likely” Everton “have to sell, we have to be open to that.”

Tom Burrows at The Grenadier

There is no reaction in the cobbled courtyard as Manchester United take the lead via Diogo Dalot and then wrap up the game when Rasmus Hojlund nets a late winner. It’s not enough to see them leapfrog Newcastle United, as they finish eighth — their lowest top-flight finish since 1989-90 — and miss out on European football entirely.

For United, attention now turns to Saturday and their FA Cup final against champions City, the final chance to salvage their disappointing campaign.

Don’t expect many of The Grenadier pub brigade to be at Wembley next weekend.

The Ratcliffe-owned Grenadier in London (Tom Burrows/The Athletic)

Omar Garrick in the Bricklayers Arms, Luton

When Alfie Doughty scores for Luton in the 55th minute, a supporter breaks into a chant: “We’re proud of our club”.

And they are, but as the final 10 minutes approach, Alison reflects on the season: “I’m glad it’s over”.

Luton have lost for the 24th time in 38 Premier League games to finish 18th, conceding 85 times. Burnley are relegated back to the Championship after finishing 19th. Sheffield United, in 20th and last, have lost 28 times, conceded 104 goals and equalled the worst goal difference in Premier League history, -69 set by Derby County in 2008.

Leicester City, 1,000-1 champions in 2016, Ipswich Town and the winners of a play-off between Leeds United and Southampton will replace them next season.

Peter Rutzler on VAR watch

At Brentford, VAR sends Jason ‘Mad Dog’ Tindall into a rage. He wants a penalty for a foul by Bryan Mbeumo on Lewis Hall. It’s judged to be outside the box, although it was a tight call. Newcastle score from it anyway through Bruno Guimaraes. But that’s not enough to stop ‘F*** VAR’ chants sweeping across west London.

At Bramall Lane, Andy Madley is spared some blushes as his odd red card for Sheffield United’s Andre Brooks is rescinded. Oh, and just as there may have been some final-day drama injected into the title race… VAR goes and spoils it all. Soucek’s goal at the Etihad is ruled out (correctly) for handball. Bah humbug.

At least Michael Oliver didn’t incur the wrath of Sean Dyche. Everton’s manager instead laughs as Oliver decides not to rule out Havertz’s goal for a Gabriel Jesus handball in the build-up, despite heading to the monitor where decisions almost always change.

Oliver Kay at Anfield

Before the main event, there’s a guard of honour and presentations for midfielder Thiago Alcantara and defender Joel Matip, who will leave Liverpool when their contracts expire this summer, and for seven members of the club’s backroom staff: Andreas Kornmayer, Ray Haughan, Jack Robinson, John Achterberg, Vitor Matos, Peter Krawietz and Pep Lijnders.

But ultimately it’s all about one man. After a deadly hush, Klopp bounds out of the tunnel and onto the pitch for the final time, wearing a red hoodie with “I’ll Never Walk Alone Again” on the back. He looks demob-happy.

Grabbing the microphone on the halfway line, he says he’s “in pieces”. But also that he feels “so happy — about the atmosphere, about the game, about being part of this family, about us.”

Klopp embraced his time on the microphone (John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

He calls Liverpool’s supporters “the superpower of world football” and says that “honestly, for whatever reason, I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like an end. It feels like a start.”

And then, hilariously, he starts chanting the name of his successor: “Arne Slot, la la la la la”, to the tune of “Live is Life” by Opus. He repeats that he will “never walk alone again” — before being encouraged to produce one last flurry of fist-pumps in front of the Kop, which he does, to rapturous acclaim. It’s one hell of a send-off.

Michael Walker on the other side of Stanley Park

Dyche has called this his “most difficult season” as a manager, but Isaac and George both think last season was worse — “because we as a team were worse.”

And 777 Partners?

“You can only read bad things about them,” Isaac says. “Regardless, we are limping into the stadium; but as long as we limp into it with two working legs, we’ll be all right.”

The game ends without recrimination or drama — Evertonians have had enough of that this season.

Jordan Campbell in San Sebastian

There is disappointment in the Garagar but there was an air of acceptance even before kick-off.

Apart from one stern ‘f*** off’ at the sight of City’s fans invading the field, these were a group of Arsenal fans admirably focused on their own team.

Not that the landlord cared, as he switched the channel to the Real Sociedad game before Michael Oliver had even dropped the whistle from his mouth.

“Our team!” he stated, drowning out the complaints of disgruntled Arsenal fans. In truth, you sensed they had already envisaged this ending.

“Our time is coming,” is the message.

Daniel Taylor at the Etihad

Or is it? Ultimately, the best team won the league. And who would bet against that team making it five in a row next year. Guardiola has stated he is staying on. So who’s going to take it off them? Arsenal, perhaps. Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs? Don’t bet on it. Manchester United? Come on, let’s not be silly.

Manchester City: the Premier League’s best team (OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

It feels like a stretch to imagine any other club is in with a realistic shout. Project Pep has become a winning machine. This is just the latest evidence. And, realistically, it will remain that way unless one of two things happen. One is Guardiola saying adios, the other is why (for the umpteenth time) ‘115’ will inevitably be trending on X very soon.

(Top image: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic, Images: Offside/PA Images)

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