As the full-time whistle blew on the Premier League season, I wasn’t scrambling for my laptop and my big book of witticisms and wry observations concerning the last nine months of top division football. Instead, I was in the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, pondering over the blink of an eye that constitutes a human life through the medium of gawping at a series of rooms decorated with the skeletons of the monks that inhabited it for three hundred and seventy years or so. ‘We were once like you. Soon you will be like us,’ was the cheery motto of the place. It makes you think. And it made me think about the fact that I’d knowingly booked a long weekend abroad which meant that I would be absent for the gushing crescendo of the Premier League season. It had been booked a couple of months or so ago, and under differing circumstances I may have been frantic at the idea of missing out on this particular climax. As it was, though, it didn’t really matter. Manchester United had already won the league – not mathematically, of course, but we already knew this was coming a couple of months ago – whilst two of the relegation places had also effectively been decided since the new year, no matter what Harry Redknapp repeatedly told journalists who refused to call him up on his misplaced self-confidence.
As you may have already read elsewhere, the 2012/13 season was the one that finished almost exactly the way in which most people had expected, before a ball was kicked in August. Okay, there were a couple of minor surprises, but even these weren’t the cataclysmic events that we might have hoped for. Few would have expected Manchester United to canter to the title in the apparently effortless way in which they did, whilst Newcastle United’s relative slump towards the bottom end of the middle of the table was unexpected. Manchester City were humbled into second place in the table, whilst Chelsea ended up nowhere near the top of the table but did end up with the consolation of a European trophy, Arsenal won nothing for the eighth season in a row, ended their season doing precisely the bare minimum that would have been expected of them in August and celebrated as if they’d won every tournament they entered at the start of the season, and Spurs might as well amend their motto to read ‘Audere Est Perficere Quintum’ (with all due apologies for the cod Latin employed there) – ‘To Dare Is To Finish Fifth.’
If anything, the season that has just finished will be remembered as the end of a number of eras, the most notable of which was, of course, the retirement of Sir Alex of Ferguson after twenty-six years as the manager of Manchester United. This came as a colossal relief to a sports press that may have been somewhat panic attacks stricken at the fact that most of the interesting end of season stories were taking place some distance from their usual comfort zone, and his retirement was treated with a degree of overkill that put that which followed, say, Luis Suarez biting someone at work or Sunderland hiring a manager with Mussolini tattoos who claims not to be a fascist firmly into the shade. Manchester United supporters were left with the sort of hangover that one might expect after a twenty-six year long party (the first five years or so of which were the equivalent of turning up at a rave at eight in the evening and wondering whether now is too early to start scarfing down lines of ketamine), but the good news for their supporters is that their club has the means to continue trampling everything that comes before it underfoot and that if David Moyes does contrive, somehow, to fail in the job, they’ll have a ready-made scapegoat who they haven’t known for long enough to grow that attached to in the first place.
If Manchester United’s announcement of Ferguson’s retirement was a masterclass in stage management and stealth, the departure of Roberto Mancini from Manchester City was curious, largely because it was so badly handled by a club whose owners have put so much stock into being seen to do ‘The Right Thing’ since they took it over. News of Mancini’s departure from the club started to filter into the public consciousness on the morning of the FA Cup Final, which may or may not have had a direct effect on the mood of the players prior to their match against Wigan Athletic but can hardly now be considered to have been, well, helpful. There followed a mournfully silent couple of days whilst the world awaited the inevitable, and with nature abhorring a vacuum as much as it does, this time was filled with idle gossip and speculation before what was, by the time it was finally announced, the least surprising press release of the season was finally issued. Mancini may have had the last laugh with his full page advertisement in the Manchester Evening News, but much as at up the road at Old Trafford, the Manchester City steamroller is likely to keep rolling on.
Then there was Chelsea, who had finished the 2011/12 season as London’s first ever European champions, a sticking plaster big enough to entirely obscure the fact that they had only finished the league season in sixth place in the table by the end of that season. Roberto Di Matteo, however, was hired as the club’s manager in a curiously – and arguably uncharacteristically, for Roman Abramovich – whim-like manner during the summer, and he only lasted for as long as the club stayed in that competition. Rafael Benitez was appointed to replace him on an interim basis – insert your own ‘as if there’s any other sort at Stamford Bridge’ joke here – and immediately, really immediately, found himself the target of the ire of the club’s supporters for, depending on who you believed, some sort of slight while he was the Liverpool manager, not being good enough to fill Chelsea supporters’ sense of entitlement, or, umm, being Spanish and a little on the tubby side. He finished the season having taken the club to the highest league position that it could reasonably have managed, considering the position it was in when he took over and having delivered the only European trophy that he could have managed from the point at which he took over.
Herein lays a significant problem at the heart of the Premier League. On the one hand, not everyone can succeed to the extent that supporters would wish, and it often feels that the supporters of all clubs feel as if theirs should be the ones to buck that trend. The mathematics of this don’t add up, of course, and the ensuing hysteria that is forthcoming when this lack of fundamental understanding becomes apparent is similar in tone to fingers scratching down a blackboard. Arsenal were in crisis when they were in fifth place in the table. They finished fourth and celebrated as if they’d won the title. Aston Villa had their obituaries written during the winter and then rallied to the lower mid-table position that we might have expected in August. At the top of the table, everybody thinks they deserve a place in the Champions League, yet only four clubs can do it, and at least one or two of those places are effectively sewn up before a ball is kicked at the start of the season. At the other end of the table, meanwhile, Tony Fernandes was so certain that Queens Park Rangers deserved to hold onto their place at the top table that he allowed Harry Redknapp free reign over the company cheque book throughout the month of January. He failed, and now those big wages have to be balanced against an income feathered only by parachute payments rather than the fill benefits of a vastly plumpened television contract.
Ultimately, the Premier League will start next season in a curiously uncertain position. It markets and prices itself as a premium product. Of that, there can be no doubt. But can a premium product in a sporting environment afford to be as stultifying as the last few weeks of the season that has just ended has been? If increased revenue means increased inequality – and it has done in the past – the likelihood of the biggest getting bigger still while the rest watch them disappear into the distance remains a distinct possibility. There were many moments of joy to be had this season, but few of them came in the league that has a stranglehold over the vast majority of money and attention that flow through English football at present. It may be that there are no hints that the Premier League can take from Wigan Athletic winning the FA Cup, Swansea City beating Bradford City in a League Cup final mercifully devoid of the chest-beating and bombast that accompanies so much modern football, or the life-affirmingly frantic ends to the season in all three divisions of the Football League. It may be that these were a combination of freak results and that football below the Premier League will return to normal next season, but if it doesn’t turn out to be this way and the Premier League continues to congeal on the basis of who has spent the most money, it may well be that the image of the self-styled Best League In The World continues to suffer reputational damage. And as the summer starts, talk has already turned to how the the biggest can consolidate their positions… by hoovering up the best playing assets of the rest.
There are ways in which the Premier League could deteriorate further, of course. It could end its collective negotiations for television rights – see La Liga for an example of the disastrous effect that had on anything like competition – or it could revert to thinking aloud about gimmicky concepts like Game 39 – note the coverage given to the idea of Chelsea and Arsenal playing off for third place if they finished the season with identical records for a hint to the extent to which that particular corpse is still twitching – but this was the season in which the pure drama was to be seen elsewhere, and it is to be hoped that the uncertainty of this summer, brought about by some big leaps into the unknown by some of the division’s biggest players, leads to a more entertaining season than we have witnessed this time around. Top division football has for several years had a question mark hanging over it, one of whether it is the sheer brute force of money or personality that drives those who succeed in it. If the answer turns out to be the former, we can expect more of the same, but if it does turn out to be the latter then we may be in the middle of a transitional period for the Premier League, and that may be no bad thing at all.
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