To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the Premier League ran all manner of polls to try and decide, in its uniquely revisionist style, which had been the most exciting season in its history. We could debate what it says about the culture of modern football that last season was voted the most exciting of the lot, or that this vote was taken before the session had even ended.
There is certainly a powerful case to be made for the last minute histrionics at The City of Manchester Stadium a couple of weeks ago providing a layer of drama that will be difficult to equal in years to come. Once the dust had settled, though, the 2011/12 Premier League season may come to be remembered as the season when the shrieking became rather too loud for comfort.
There was no detail of last season that wasn’t too insignificant to make somebody furious for one reason or another. Whether the discussion was of the financial models of its various clubs, an apparent evening out in the quality of the clubs below the top two in the table, racism, sexism or the occasional appearance of family pets or poultry on pitches during matches, there was a constant hum of noise which accompanied this season, the sound of people getting angry and other people getting angry with those people for getting so angry in the first place. It was a season in which, in some respects, professional football became a caricature of itself, yet very few if those associated with this hysteria seemed able to see this for themselves.
Some of the biggest matches of the season carried a cartoonish quality about them. When Manchester United beat Arsenal by eight goals to two in August, it might have felt as if this was some sort of glorious freak result. Few could have predicted what would follow on the pitch, at least. United themselves would come to suffer one of the greatest humiliations that Old Trafford has seen in recent years when Manchester City visited and put six goals past them on their own turf. It was a result – and a margin of victory – that would come to take on more than merely a symbolic importance by the end of the season.
Arsenal, meanwhile, stuttered through the autumn with calls for the head of Arsene Wenger beginning to grow. They had regained their composure by the spring to have sufficient poise to be able to come from two goals down at home to Tottenham Hotspur to win by five goals to two and in doing so prove that, for all the talk of high excitement, thrills and spills, normal service, over the long term, still has a tendency to resume itself in the Premier League. Arsenal finished the season on third place in the table, much as we might have expected before a ball was kicked.
Yet even these bouts of breathlessness couldn’t top the issue would come to cloud this season in a way that no season has been in recent years: racism. If the scales fell from the eyes for any significant number of people over the course of the 2011/12 football season, it was in respect of the idea of English football culture being somehow “past” racism was an absolute, utter myth. Stories of alleged racial abuse on the pitch pock-marked the season, with vicious circles of accusation and counter-accusation starting with every fresh allegation.
Again, some of this took on an almost cartoonish quality, whether in the form of Liverpool players wearing t-shirts in support of Luis Suarez after his indictment by the Football Association or Chelsea supporters singing “Anton Ferdinand, you know what you are” after the Queens Park Rangers player made allegations against their club’s captain. The Suarez story eventually reached some sort of denouement - Kenny Dalglishs reaction to it was arguably a contributing factor in his dismissal a couple of days after the end of the season – but the Terry case lingers on like a bad smell, with its court case having been scheduled for after the European Championships.
The cult of the manager also rose new and absurd heights throughout the course of the season, with appointments, sackings, protests from supporters, ridicule and exaggerated praise, all of which never quite seemed able to manage to follow the plot narratives that we might have expected. Chelsea had taken a gamble in hiring Andre Villa Boas, only to see the team’s form slump. Villa Boas was sacked and the team’s form in the league continued to flat-line, ending in their lowest Premier League position for a decade. Somehow or other, though, the old stagers in the team managed to pull themselves together and win both the FA Cup and become the champions of Europe for the first time with Roberto di Matteo, previously sacked from his last job at West Bromwich Albion, in charge of the team. At the time of writing, it remains unknown whether he will be offered the position on a full-time basis.
At the foot of the table, meanwhile, three very different visions of how to treat a manager took up the three relegation places. Bolton Wanderers, shocked by the suicide of a former player, the Wales manager Gary Speed, and horrified by the near-death experience of Fabrice Muamba during their FA Cup match at Spurs, stuck by their manager Owen Coyle to the end and may flourish in the Championship next season as a result of this. He certainly represented his club with consummate professionalism throughout some dark and difficult times. Bolton supporters could certainly be forgiven a desire to put this season well and truly behind them.
Blackburn Rovers, on the other hand, gave the impression of being steered by an invisible hand, with manager Steve Kean obstinately clinging onto his job – he was even given a contract extension in the middle of their calamitous season – through relegation and beyond. As the supporter protests at the club built up, some in the press chose to castigate those angry at the way in which their club was being mismanaged, but the protestors were proved right in the end. A couple of good victories – at Old Trafford and at home against Arsenal – couldn’t paper over the overall deficiencies of the team and Blackburn Rovers were relegated, quite possibly to an uncertain future, with barely a whimper.
The final relegation spot went to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were rudderless enough to sack Mick McCarthy without any apparent idea of who should succeed, leaving his former assistant Terry Connor to flounder along until relegated in bottom place in the table. Molineux was also subject to protests over the course of the season, and these were also to be seen at Villa Park, where the appointment of Alex McLeish had only added to the sense of decay hanging over the fortunes of Aston Villa. The club managed to steer itself clear of relegation, but McLeish, whose style of football and – to a lesser extent – previous affiliation with Birmingham City left him little wriggle room in terms of results, also paid with his job once the final ball of the season had been kicked.
Elsewhere, the cult of the manager could be seen in two very different extremes at Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. At Anfield, Liverpool supporters stood four-square behind Kenny Dalglish as the club endured one of its worst league seasons in living memory. Winning the League Cup provided a fig leaf and European football for next season, but those continuing to defend his second spell at the club increasingly came to resemble contortionists as the season wore on.
At White Hart Lane, meanwhile, the cheerleading came from the press. Spurs started the season excellently but tailed off in the spring, as manager Harry Redknapp became increasingly assumed to be the next England manager. In the absence of anything other than baseless speculation that Redknapp was a shoo-in for the job, it would seem more likely that Spurs simply found the season to be catching up with them and Redknapp, of course, ended up missing out on the position that he cherished to Roy Hodgson anyway. The battle for fourth place in the table – which ended up, due to Chelsea’s Champions League win, irrelevant anyway – only really succeeded in masking the size of the gap between second and third place in the Premier League, anyway. Nineteen points seperated Manchester United and Arsenal in the end.
Whether Spurs will be able to challenge again may come to depend upon whether they can hang onto their key players without the promise of Champions League football next season, and we can certain that there will be vultures circling. Newcastle United, meanwhile, had a stunning season under Alan Pardew and finished in fifth place, bringing a welcome return of European football to St James Park. It was an achievement that few foresaw at the start of the season and perhaps caused many to review their opinions, not only of Pardew but also of the clubs owner, Mike Ashley.
Hodgson himself was the manager of one of a clutch of clubs that performed well above pre-season expectations. West Bromwich Albion enjoyed a comfortable mid-season table, along with Fulham, Everton, Norwich City & Swansea City. Norwich and Swansea in particular defied apocalyptic pre-season predictions and completed their seasons in mid-table and with no little style (Queens Park Rangers, taken into new ownership on the eve of the start of the new season, managed to scrape their way to safety by the skin of their teeth), but possibly the most startling performance of all of these clubs came at Everton, where David Moyes overcame discontent amongst the clubs support at a lack of investment in the team to end the season in seventh place in the table, one place and four points above Liverpool.
This in itself was a symbol of the amount of work that any new Liverpool manager will have to do in order to turn that club back into contenders for a place back in the Champions League. At the time of writing, the Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez is the favourite to succeed Kenny Dalglish at Anfield, and there can be little doubting the achievement in his dragging of that team away from the relegation battle at the foot of the table. Whether Martinez has the skill-set to go further is a question that may be answered at Anfield next season, although it is worth pointing out that others may yet come into the equation for this still vacant position.
Once the hysteria has died down, though, the 2011/12 season may well be remembered as that season when, albeit by the tiniest of margins, the oligarchs got what they wanted. The champions of both England and Europe are clubs whose success – whether over the last couple of seasons or cumulatively over a longer period of time – was funded by the ultra-wealthy. Perhaps the ultimate victories of Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich are a sign of the times, of a world in which the richest will continue to get richer at the expense of everyone else. With Didier Drogba having left the club, Chelsea may well have to spend heavily to bring in a striker as capable of impacting upon a match as the China-bound Ivorian was and other players in their squad are also approaching their sell-by date. Whoever their new manager is will likely find repeating this seasons European achievement to be a very tall order.
Setting aside any concerns how it was achieved, though, it was difficult not to be pleased for those Manchester City supporters who have been put through the mill more than once by their club over the last few decades, although whether the well-wishes that they received this at the end of this season will be as great should they repeat the feat next year is obviously open to considerable question. On the pitch, though, City were sometimes thrilling and occasionally infuriating, and their title win was just about deserved. For the sour taste that the antics of Carlos Tevez may have left in the mouth, there were plenty of decent people who put in great seasons for the club – Vincent Kompany was a superior ambassador for Manchester City both on and off the pitch over the course of the season, for example. The oligarchs, meanwhile, will face off against each other in the Community Shield in August.
So, the tightness of Manchester Citys ultimate margin of victory will probably be used – possibly relentlessly – to “prove” that there is no issue regarding competitive balance within the Premier League, but 2011/12 was a season that ended with four familiar names qualifying for the Champions League and hoovering up all of the domestic trophies. What remains to be seen is whether Financial Fair Play rules will seriously affect the hegemony at the top of the Premier League, whether creative accounting will render the best of Michel Platini’s intentions all but useless or whether they will merely entrench the position of “biggest” clubs in each country at the top of their respective leagues. As we may reflect with the twentieth anniversary of the league that pushed the commercialisation of English football into hyperdrive, it can be difficult to tell what the long-terms effects of such changes might be until it’s too late to do anything practical about them.
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