I can remember finding 1985 too modern-sounding a year for me to be alive in it. 23 years on…
What would you have predicted about the next quarter-century of football, given 1985 as a starting point? The big theme of the year was hooliganism, even before Heysel. No one at the time had any clear idea of how to deal with it, let alone end it altogether. So, I’d have predicted a growing maelstrom of violence around the game. Another theme was bankruptcy. It was a period where many clubs were flirting with financial disaster, when crowds were declining and other sports were beginning to erode football’s TV dominance. 1985’s top sporting TV occasion was the Snooker World Final. I’d have expected the League to contract quite dramatically as large numbers of smaller clubs went to the wall. In the event, only Aldershot did, and look who’s back this season.. And at the top of the tree, one saw the scene going on identically forever: Liverpool the top club, and everyone else just circling helplessly in their wake.
Nor would I have forseen the massacre of the second-raters in the First Division of 1985. Gone Southampton, QPR, Ipswich, Coventry, Norwich. I was 16 in 1985, and these clubs seemed to have been around forever.
So when I turn to the season ahead, I’ve no confidence at all in any of what follows. Except in one thing. At the end of last season, “my team”, who I started supporting because I accidentally turned on the telly in 1976 and found them losing a match, won the Champions League and the Premiership. How much less that sounds to my ears than Liverpool’s First Division title and European Cup of 1977, yet how much harder it is to achieve. I found myself not caring one way or another last season. When Euro 2008 turned out to be one of the best tournaments of all time, I remember thinking “I used to enjoy this game, and this was why.”
In my twenties and early thirties, when change happened, it was easy to see it as necessary modernisation or long-delayed reform. But then at about age 37/8 the world seems to “set” in the mind, and further alteration feels more and more like mere vandalism. Luckily for me, I’ve seen this change coming and know it for what it is. So when I learn that MUFC have bought a pair of Brazilian twins, I know not to trust all of the inward sagging I experience. And I cast my mind back to the time when all of the modern stadia and all of the greatest players were in Spain, Italy and the Bundesliga. The Premiership threatens to turn Barca into a last-payday club.
The Premiership Title
My heart says Arsenal. After their grand efforts last season, I do hope so. But it’s hard for a club that is actually planning ten years ahead and is going through a necessarily parismonious phase of its development. A feature of football life since the ’60s has been the way West Ham consistently develop the best young players, but then lose them just when the reward seems nigh. This isn’t quite the Arsenal picture at the moment – Wenger has had his most successful close season in many years – but while the stadium remains a financial drain, and not the cash cow it will eventually become, the comparison is there.
Chelsea have the squad to succeed, but not the structure as things are. A change in attitude from Abramovich would be a great help. The Scolari appointment was hugely risky, and my hunch is that it’s going to be no more successful than Avram Grant’s (new definition of unsuccessful there, by the way..). But what it does do is provide a clean page for the club. They have to come back after an absolute Leeds of a season, and a new and self-assured manager can only help with that.
Courtesy of the Ronaldo transfer target, I am so deeply tired with my own team just now. Isn’t everyone? I almost look forward to post-Ferguson decline. If Rooney is played in a consistent position I might change my mind. Is that what bringing in the unheroic Berbatov is all about?
Liverpool’s close-season transfers remind me of mid-80s Manchester United in so many ways. For Barry – if it happens, and I hope it doesn’t because O’Neill is a man you play under, not leave – and Keane read Gary Birtles and Peter Davenport. Does anyone feel any taste of narrative about Liverpool at the moment, any sense of a strategy being executed, an empire being built? I just don’t feel any interest at all from Benitez in catching the top three – plenty in crafting a way once more through the Champions League, of course, but not in taking a Premiership title. Perhaps it’s mere realism, the knowledge that before the new stadium is built, that just can’t be achieved.
As last year, the real stories are going to come from the middle of the table. Hull and Stoke would do well to soak up as much cash this year as they can, and buy for a promotion charge next season. The third relegation spot is a cursed and dismal place and can speak for itself in nine month’s time. And when it does speak for itself, I expect it’ll say “Blackburn.”
No, the real battle of 2008-9 is between Portsmouth, Manchester City, Sunderland and Everton for the title of most promising side to win nothing. Four British managers, one near the end of his career, one just setting out but doing well, one in a club he’s rebuilt from near-ruin and Mark Hughes. It’s actually interesting, and very hard indeed to call. Sunderland are probably a season behind the others in terms of development, but there is actual development going on, which is more than can be said for e.g. Liverpool. Portsmouth have a new and hugely enthusiastic forward pairing of Crouch and Defoe, which must, surely, be capable of 30-40 goals, and there’s a really solid side behind them already familiar with itself and full of confidence. Everton have had a difficult preseason, but there are some good youth players ready to come forward, and David Moyes has a track record of overcoming lack of money and talent that’s truly second to none in the League. The best use-what-you’ve got boss in the division. And Mark Hughes, at the drama club with its own Abramovich: Ericksson’s left him a transformed team, and if – big if – he can survive his boss, then a cup is not out of the question. Personally, I don’t think it was a wise move for him – if there was ever a time to take a leaf out of the Martin O’Neill book, that was the time. Ambitious young managers need a Derby, a Forest, an Ipswich – a place to rule – not footballing madhouses like City. At least he’ll have one of the best fanbases behind him.
(UPDATE: Hughes’s problems might be about to multiply.)
And the rest..
As for the FA Cup, another like last year, please. It’s significant that when MUFC lost their treble chance in that bizarre semi-final against Portsmouth, the season actually became more, not less, interesting. A recap, then, everything that made last season worthwhile: