Monday, May 14, 2012

They think it's all over...and it is. Almost.

Since Christmas, Britain has experienced snow, April showers and autumnal winds. In March temperatures reached the 20s, prompting people to "flock to the beaches" (i.e. publicity-seeking, bikini-clad nubiles braving Brighton's pebbles for The Sun). In May, the coats, scarves and hats have come out again, while there has been a drought in the midst of torrential rains. Peversely, non-greenists continue to maintain that nothing is wrong with the climate.

Another group of perennial dismissers are those who run football. Pompous suits, all. You can hear them trumpet away on topics such as all-seat stadia ("No, no, no! No need!"...until a Hillsborough or Heysel comes along) or goal-line technology ("No, no, no! No need!" everyone says it's a good thing and FIFA's 'leadership' agree that it should be 'investigated').

The same breed of besuited mandarins is also responsible for ensuring the final weeks of the domestic football season in England plays out like the local weather. Last weekend the FA Cup Final took place - as much the season's finale as The Community Shield is the "Traditional Season Opener™".  However, no sooner had Chelsea lifted the trophy they were following a dejected Liverpool up the motorway to play them again just three days later in a league fixture originally scheduled for the lunchtime of Cup Final Saturday.

Normally Cup Final Saturday is so sacrosanct that nothing, not even weddings, funerals, Papal coronations or Simon Cowell, would schedule against it, let alone other football matches. That didn't seem to bother those in charge who thought it OK to sneak in a lunchtime fixture for TV viewers in Malaysia, pushing the Cup Final to the positively unholy kick-off time of 5.15pm so that ITV could get a bigger audience for the only show with an alleged title, Britain's Got Talent.

Order, I'm pleased to say, was restored over this last weekend. With officially the final Barclays Premier League matches kicking off simultaneously at 3pm on Sunday, there was one more afternoon of nail biting before settlement of what has been, on balance, a good season. Since last August we have watched two parts of Manchester jostle for the top spot -  old money versus new, a wily Scot versus a scarf-wearing Italian, a team mixing the very young with the exceedingly old against a group of apparent mercenaries with a fireworking-launching lunatic amongst them.

I'm glad Manchester City won it. It helps to shake the tree every now and again. Over the years, Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle and Chelsea have disrupted the patterns of dominance by Manchester United and Arsenal. It's good for the game for a team to wipe hubris off the face of the incumbent.

City have endured a lot over the years, not least of which having a neighbour like United, a team who have 'bought' the title so often simply by being bloody good, having - annoyingly - the best manager of all time, and generating money to bring in the best players as well as develop them.

Manchester City - like Chelsea - have applied their newly-minted wealth but, as we all know, you can have all the money in the world but that doesn't buy you a team,  or team spirit. Roberto Mancini has achieved that, against the odds perhaps. What he has to do now is prevent any implosion. Don't forget, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1995, buoyed by the money of steel magnate Jack Walker. Today they are contemplating life in the Championship next season. Despite being now bankrolled by a group of Indian poulterers.

If you're looking for further evidence of a great season, however, I wouldn't bother looking below the two Manchesters. With the exception of Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea have staged pretty dismal seasons - taking everything into account - in their pursuit of a third or fourth place and a tilt at next year's Champions League. Arsenal have dribbled (in the baby/elderly chap sense) their way through another potless season, coming third. Perhaps Arsenal should consider themselves proud to finish ahead of Spurs and Chelsea, but...well, really. Do bronze medalists ever get remembered?

Their London rivals can hardly look proud, either. Tottenham were doing alright until their manager's head was turned by an England job he didn't get, while Chelsea's season only really took off when the manager's job was taken away from him.

But let's not forget Newcastle. Hats should be darkening the skies of Tyneside for Alan Pardew's side this season.

A team built with a fraction of the money Roberto Mancini had to spend at Manchester City, they just got on with it, demonstrating resilience and a delightful propensity to entertain, usually against the traffic.

Despite three relatively poor final games, to end fifth and to have come as close as they have to an even higher finish - including a spot in the Champions League next season - deserves a lot of credit, and Pardew in particular, the LMA Manager of the Season award.

Same goes to Everton, yet again. Season in, season out, David Moyes seems to perform the footballing equivalent of a Biblical miracle by keeping Everton in the top half of the table, despite being, by Premier League standards, the proverbial church mouse in the fiscal standings. But not only did Moyes lead them to seventh, but they finished above the case of irritable bowel syndrome that Liverpool were this season.

These are dark days at Anfield, and you get the sense that the night of the long knives - which has claimed director of football Damien Comolli and PR chief Ian Cotton - may not be over as Kenny Dalglish and his No.2 Steve Clark head to Boston to explain to the club's owners what went wrong this term.

The claim about Season 2011-12 does have some credence, of course, and not just because of the Manchester head-to-head. Fulham, West Brom under new England manager Roy Hodgson, Swansea under rising star Brendan Rodgers (who managed to take Liverpool's scalp on the final day of the season...), the remarkable, promoted Norwich, Martin O'Neill's recovering Sunderland and perennial battlers Stoke all produced spunky performances to regularly test the mettle of the big boys up top.

Down at the other end lie the inevitable casualties. Blackburn just weren't in it all season, with the unpopular Steve Kean undermined by a hateful crowd and irrelevant ownership. Wolves just lost the plot - but they'll be back, they usually do -  and Bolton, sadly, simply weren't contenders. Yes, Fabrice Muamba's recovery was nothing short of miraculous, but that was the only marvel in an otherwise underwhelming and underperforming run of games that ends 11 straight years in the top flight.

And what of those teams who hovered over the trap door? Aston Villa, that proud and noble Birmingham institution, slid execrably almost out of the top flight, recording just 10 wins all season-long. Alex McLeish has now paid the price. True, he had the fans against him from the moment he arrived at Villa Park from the other side of Birmingham, but then he knew he'd have his work cut out, and give supporters something to get behind. He didn't.

QPR can consider themselves lucky, on the other hand. For all the money they've been given, 17th position is an abject outcome.

Mark Hughes is a good manager, even if his teams are a little rough around the edges, but he has sailed close to nonchalance this season, apparently unworried by everything, even as descent back into the Championship loomed nearer.

Perhaps his preparations for next season will commence with a revision on the wisdom of granting the captain's armband to the self-appointed Plato of Twitter, Joey Barton. On the last day of the season he revealed his true colors as a player unnaturally blessed in the dark arts of the psychopath. Time for a rethink there on both sides.

So, yes, on balance it has been a good season. A new name on the trophy and another reason for Liam Gallagher to be insufferable.

And what about Chelsea? I know, I haven't mentioned their league performance at all. Frankly it only really started on March 4 when Roberto Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas. They deserve to come sixth. I know they've transformed under Di Matteo, and I know they could have finished fourth or higher as a result, but then that would be a joke. No, sixth is the right outcome for this season.

As for their fortunes in the Champions League - different story. Being the superstitious football fan that I am, I'm not going to tempt fate by calling Saturday's final in Munich. But maybe - just maybe - things might go well against a demoralized Bayern Munich, trounced 5-2 in the German Cup Final on Saturday in what was - please note - the final game of the season. As it should be...

No comments:

Post a Comment