It was most refreshing to see 2013 become the year in which football finally started to move away from the hysteria over managerial movements, controversial on- and off-pitch incidents, minute scrutiny on even the tiniest perceived slight or indiscretion, ridiculous transfer fees and generally threatening to disappear forever up one of those particular proverbial arseholes at any given moment. EXCEPT THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN, DID IT.
This year feels particularly unnerving and not least because Arsenal are top of the league and Liverpool look quite good. Some things haven’t changed, like Man United eking out points when they don’t really deserve to, while some things have gone back to the way they used to be, like Chelsea being boring as hell under Jose Mourinho and Fernando Torres looking useless following mini-comeback number seven, or eight, or whatever he’s on now. But – and we’re principally referring to the 2013-14 season so far here – most things have changed; changed a lot, changed for the worse and changed bloody quickly.
Nevertheless, the biggest event of the year was probably Fergie leaving United. As we wrote in Sabotage Times, it was profoundly unsettling for a generation of United fans who had known nothing but winning and arguably just as unsettling for a generation of football writers who now had nothing to do but act if David Moyes’ job depended on every single game United played. It’s probably fair to say that they stoked each others’ fires a little on this one – for every report of crisis, there was a United fan saying something along the lines of ‘I’ve stayed quiet long enough’, or ‘I’ve supported the man up to now’ in OCTOBER and demanding Moyes be relieved of his duties and presumably themselves be drafted in to replace him. Using Fergie as an irate Scottish stick with which to beat his successor was a little unedifying, to say the least.
Fergie is mainly missed for his consistency. United aren’t above financial woes and bastard owners of course, but they won a lot, enabling Fergie to manage his relationship with the owners from a position of strength, and everyone sort of knew that was how things would pan out (which is fine if you're the biggest club in the world, but pretty difficult for everyone else, as we'll see). But alongside the new dawn at United, the second biggest story of the year was probably the publication of Fergie’s bloody book. As everyone combed through that for controversy and potential fall-outs to report on anew, things stopped seeming a little more uncertain across football and rather began to descend into utter bloody chaos.
Chaotic mostly at United, where the lack of freshening of the title-winning squad reflected an affliction that befell City under Mancini (and which was a significant reason United were able to saunter to the title last season). But there were also significant examples of the dangers of over-freshening, such as at Tottenham, and of inappropriate and unnecessary over-freshening, such as Chelsea, who, as it may have been mentioned elsewhere, could use a decent striker rather than 73 attacking midfielders. Spurs, in particular, may have waved their competitiveness goodbye this season by sacking the manager, thereby (as we’ve mentioned in a previous post) having to do all their transitioning – integrating new players AND a new manager, Tim Sherwood – all at once. Not only that but Sherwood is a NEW new manager. Tricky or what.
Sherwood shares something of an identity with Malky Mackay (don’t worry, we’re getting there) – that of a ‘good football man’. We have nothing against good football men, of course. They just rarely seem to hang around for long, particularly in the face of ambitious owners, chairmen, directors of football and so on. Ages ago, when we used to write pieces for this blog, we wrote a piece on football men. And when Mackay was sacked, the football world was up in arms, quite rightly, about the manner of his dismissal.
There are two quite unsettling aspects of this. One is the seemingly impenetrable character of Mackay as a ‘good football man’, which led to staunch defences from all and sundry with that particular soundbite at the crux. Now this is not aimed at Mackay in particular, but there are many ‘good football men’, most of whom finish playing, race through their coaching badges too quickly and end up job-hopping on their reputation as players. Gareth Southgate reckoned as much on Football Focus the other day and it made us think: Why the rush? And is it detrimental to the development of the game – and to an extent, British talent – if their coaches and managers are on a tried and tested carousel of employment rooted in their own experience. Of course there are exceptions here, but the hundred-mile-an-hour, all tempo Premier League is benefiting as a spectator sport. Whether British football is keeping pace with the wider football world in the meantime is unclear. We would suggest not. The World Cup should be interesting.
The second unsettling aspect is that actually, at Premier League level, no-one cares if its keeping pace or not. We've talked about this from a player development point of view before, of course. But equally it's the owners of the clubs – we’re looking at YOU, Vincent Tan – that don’t care. The fact that Tan was so far up the shortlist of MANAGERIAL candidates to take over at Cardiff frankly beggars belief. The fact that Tan essentially does whatever he wants, and probably will pick the team over the New Year as David Kerslake couldn’t want the job less if it comprised taking an onion to a prom full of apples, is also pretty staggering. But ultimately, the worst part is that it is actually totally up to him. I’ve not been able to find much about a breakaway Cardiff City, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Nutcases are increasingly running football clubs. When I used to feel the need to explain that I don’t support a Premier League club as such, it was with the fact that the Premier League is more like going to the theatre (in terms of quality and cost), whereas Macclesfield are the club I feel more a part of. You know, like it’s an actual CLUB. We’d contend now that for everyone, even those who are fans of their clubs, the Premier League is like going to the theatre or cinema, in that you’re (figuratively) so far removed from the action and can find out about all of it in such detail across so many media, that it’s more like a soap opera than ever.
This isn’t solely a Premier League issue anymore either. Ian King’s roundup of 2013 summarises the pertinent woes of Coventry and the progress of Portsmouth and Wolves more succinctly that we would be able to here. He also points out, quite rightly, that there were bright spots – Wigan’s win in the FA Cup was enough to gladden the hearts of all, even us two cynics, as were Swansea’s league cup victory and Bradford’s incredible run to the final in equal measure. Also, Mesut Ozil came to the Premier League and a bloody ray of sunshine he has been and all.
The heartbeat is still there, of course, but it's weak. The gap between clubs that are companies and companies that have clubs attached is widening. The Premier League is well marketed and a great product – no one can dispute that. The entertainment is as good as ever, even if it does have the knock-on effect of no-one ever being able to win an accumulator ever again. There will always be good football and sensational players to watch, but the underlying events of 2013 have made it feel that we are doing so from farther away than ever.
Thanks for reading in 2013 - we haven't posted much, so we appreciate it. And the rumours are true, there is a book on its way early in 2014. So even if the football's crap, at least that's something to look forward to. Happy New Year!