BY MARTIN CLOAKE
So is this the most extraordinary Premier League season ever? One where all the certainties of elite financial domination have been smashed and football is once more truly competitive and absorbing? Or is where we find ourselves after the first half of the season just a blip before the football universe’s financial masters reassert themselves?
The truth is that we won’t know until the end of the season, until the game is played out. But it is also true that the very existence of that state of not knowing means there has been change.
It’s necessary to be very careful here. One of the trickiest conundrums of any journalistic endeavour is to look for what is there, rather than what you want to be there. So some may give greater emphasis to signs that the old order may be breaking down because that’s what they want to see, while others may play up signs of a re-emergence of the status quo because they are so closely wedded to their critique of elitism and competitive failure at the top of the game.
I may fall into one or the other trap, but I wanted to give making an informed assessment a go because what is, I believe, without doubt is that this issue is the talking point of the Premier League season so far. I believe that strongly because one football cliché, one that was always irritating, has now been made all but redundant. It is no longer, I’d argue, possible for anyone to seriously talk about “teams we should be beating”.
That phrase was trotted out by players, managers and commentators to reinforce the fact that the elite top four to six clubs should always beat those below them. Who, now, are the clubs the mighty “we” should beat? Stoke City? Crystal Palace? Watford? Bournemouth? Leicester City? Norwich City? All those clubs have pulled off results they “shouldn’t” have. The fact is that, this season, every club – with the exception of Aston Villa who appear to be quite spectacularly embracing ineptness – looks not just to have a chance of pulling off a result, but has done so.
It may be argued that is due to the hugely enjoyable implosion of Chelsea and the almost as entertaining inability of Manchester City’s salary-heavy superstars to deliver. But those two occurrences in themselves give some hope that success and access to vast financial reserves are not as inextricably linked as many had feared.
In fact, fear – or the absence of it – may well be part of the explanation for some of what has been so good about the season so far. It’s been both liberating and exhilarating to watch Leicester, Palace and Bournemouth, for example, play with verve and ambition – pacey, imaginative, exuberant football from teams trying to win rather than not to lose. Is it possible the burden of expectation at the elite clubs fills the boots of those expensive stars with lead? Is the fear of failure so great that the ability to succeed is diminished?
How refreshing, too, it is to list the names of those players who have caught the eye, Vardy, Mahrez, Kane, Dier, Alli, Wilson and realise that there is not a galatico among them – rather young players given a chance to flourish free from hefty price tags.
The quality of the football has helped, but it’s the breadth of competitiveness that has really stoked the appetite. More fans believe their team can really win, there is little of the certainty that, back in Jose Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge, led some old school Chelsea heads to complain that knowing they weren’t going to lose at home was taking the edge off. It sounds daft – why would we not want our team to win all the time? But the fact is, victory tastes all the sweeter the tougher the competition. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, then the central element of the sporting event is gone. As Danny Blanchflower once said in his early career as a pundit when asked who would win the game he was at: “I don’t know, that’s why they are playing each other”.
Back in the day Alex Fynn, the Saatchi’s man employed by football to give it some marketing magic and whose ideas were twisted into what we now know as the Premier League, spoke of ‘event games’. He was arguing for regionalisation, putting the view that events were largely games between local rivals or the few games that meant something competitively. This season, for many fans of many teams, more games are events. Most of us have been through the stage where we turn up more out of habit than hope or expectation, and yet this season many more fans are turning up at many more matches that really mean something. It’s all to play for.
Of course, much of this talk of a new order could look redundant by the end of the season. The old order has plenty of time to re-establish itself. The money could really come into play in the January window. The depressing correlation between the size of the wage bill and the finishing position could return. Arsenal and Manchester United, playing football that is unattractive on the eye but still racking up points, could be the top two, Manchester City could still suddenly click and reclaim the title, Chelsea could make the top four – although that would be something.
But the point is that, at this halfway stage, that doesn’t look as nailed on as it usually does. Leicester could win the title, or finish top four. Tottenham Hotspur are in with a shout. Crystal Palace or West Ham or Watford or Stoke could finish top six or even scrape into the top four. All scenarios as possible as the elite ensuring the same old show. And that is fact. That is what has already happened. And that is why this season in the Premier League really is a bit special.
I should say I’ve been a bit careful on the subject of Spurs, who I support. I realise that the prospect of my club winning the title does not, to many, look like the elite being broken. But, as I’ve been reminded forcefully over the years, Spurs haven’t won the league for a very long time, and third is the highest finish the club has achieved in 30 years – and then only twice. So for me, top four or the top would do very nicely and would undoubtedly represent a superb change. Especially because this is a young team, and great unit rather than a collection of stars, that plays good football as a result of that traditional virtue of being coached well rather than bought in. But I’m not going to dwell any more on the possibility of my team winning the title. I’m not superstitious, but I also don’t want to tempt fate.
But unlike Paul Gascoigne, who once said he doesn’t make predictions and he never would, I will take a chance and make a few predictions. We’ve not seen the last of the surprise results, of the thrill of the unexpected. The phrase “teams we should be beating” will become even more ridiculous. And the megabucks of the big boys will not mean they scoop up all the talent just to deprive opponents of it. Much as the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, maybe Arsenal too, may want to buy Vardy, Mahrez, Kane, Dier, Alli or Wilson, the clubs for whom they currently play have no pressing need to sell. Because here is an unexpected consequence of football’s money boom, of the concentration of riches at the top. Because even this season’s bottom club will, by dint of the prize money on offer, be able to compete with some of the biggest names in Europe for players.
We didn’t see that coming, most of us. Of course, football hasn’t suddenly become equal. Wealth is still concentrated at the top and trickle down is as phoney a theory in football as it was elsewhere in the economy. Just ask Coventry City and Northampton Town and Hereford United and…
But, like it or not, what we have now is a top division that is more competitive than it has been for years, due in no small part to the way the vast riches it attracts are shared between all the clubs. NFL it ain’t, but maybe what’s happened this season will cause a few, if the phrase can be used in the circumstances, pennies to drop in the game’s upper echelons. Competition is not, it would seem, the enemy of commercial success as many clubs seem to have thought. It’s actually good for it.
Maybe this season is a blip. Maybe it will be back to business as usual next year. But, at the risk of doing what I warned against at the beginning of this article, I think the change may be deeper.
Let’s sit down again at the end of the season and chew this over again. Let’s see how it all pans out. You can take me to task for my naivety if necessary. I promise not to crow ‘I told you so’ if the season turns out how I said, (think? hope?) it might. And if that Spurs title win does happen, I may need a few days afterwards. There could be beers.
But for now, just do this. Sit and think of how many ways this season could turn out. How many ways are still possible. And when you finish making the list of possible outcomes, tell me that’s not more fascinating than you ever thought the Premier League could be. Go on.
MARTIN CLOAKE – @MartinCloake