Looking up and down the list of Premiership clubs for the forthcoming season, it’s hard not to feel lowered by a sense of pre-emptory anti-climax. Between the twenty of them, there are perhaps three or four interesting narratives. Of course, looking for narrative structure in a list of names isn’t just other-worldly in its own terms: it’s making the same mistake that the highlights programmes always fall into as soon as they stop letting the football tell the story. Any regular listener to 6-0-6 knows that by mid-season there’ll be fifty to a hundred little plots underway, more than enough to power three or four hours of telephone conversation every week, and that’s without considering Talk Sport. And yet…
Great stories make for great seasons, especially if they are about your club and the genre is the right one – preferably success in the face of adversity, say, rather than tragedy or disaster. The greatest – and, in real world terms, also the worst – football narrative in England was Manchester United’s road to Wembley in 1958 in the aftermath of Munich. More recently, and from better places, we’ve had the year Manchester United finally won back the title, propelled by refereeing and the refusal to be denied; we’ve had Liverpool’s premature and credulity-stretching Champions’ League victory; we’ve had West Brom’s thrilling relegation escape; we’ve had Arsenal’s unbeaten season. Above all, from my point of view, we’ve had Jose Mourinho’s first season at Chelsea. I name that my favourite because Mourinho knew the value of narrative and will use the word in the sense I’m employing here: he told his team the story of their season – that this was their year, and took only a matter of weeks to convince them. At the end of the season, he gathered his squad around him and asked them why they were Champions – an attempt to programme in a story for the future, which worked insofar as the title was concerned.
So where are this year’s narratives coming from?
In a normal season, one could turn to the promoted clubs in the hope that they’d be showing intent, but that just isn’t the case this year. Reading are losing their best player, and their chairman wants to sell; they have an excellent manager who prefers less limelight than the Premiership allows. Wigan have raised the bar of “successful first season” horrifyingly high. Sheffield United give the impression that, for them, the great effort was in getting up, and now all passion’s spent – I’m reminded of the feeling around the Ashes-winning team or the England Rugby World Champions as those sides, and I just had to squeeze them in somewhere, collapsed in a relieved heap after the ultimate victory. Watford might just come up with something – because Adrian Boothroyd is a very interesting man, someone I want to come back to here. But I really mean that “might just”. So might have Birmingham, last year (how did a Steve Bruce side surrender themselves like that? Oh to have been a fly on the wall – well, oh to have been on the staff, actually, because I think I could have helped them).
Chelsea’s story is now one outside of the Premiership, I fancy. My basic hunch is that Mourinho has been just sickened enough by the obvious corruption around him to make this a last hurrah, and that, with Shevchenko in the Champions’ League. They might complete their hat trick of titles, but, like Manchester United in 2002-3, it’ll feel like it happened in an empty room, early one morning, with no one else around.
Manchester United – just aren’t a football story at the moment. If you’re interested in whether or not Rooney and Ronaldo are going to fight (I wonder what Manchester Buccaneers, who pretended they were brothers, makes of it?) you might want to go elsewhere. I’m not convinced that there’s a story of another great team being built here; there might be one of a team holding itself up through sheer determination way beyond what should be the limits of the talent available to it, but that’s not quite what I mean by narrative in this case. Neither is another final season for Alex Ferguson. In the event that he’s replaced by Martin O’Neill (I suspect O’Neill is holding out for the post) then this all changes. (And can I recommend United Rant’s excellent Manchester United nicknames page? EIH is especially clever, if also cruel).
And Liverpool, will Liverpool, and no they won’t; this isn’t Clough at Derby or Forest for all that Benitez is a good manager. There’s an enormous will for Liverpool’s next run at the title to become a story, but I suspect that they have one more large dip to undergo before that happens.
Middlesborough and Charlton echo, a bit, for me. Where did everybody go? It’s as though the series ended without the last few episodes being shown. McClaren became England coach, without any of the sense of elevation that marked Bobby Robson’s departure from Ipswich, and it isn’t really clear what comes next. “Progress”, one assumes, that word that’s had to come in to compensate for mid-table anonymity. I don’t mean to be rude, but Boro’s progress to the UEFA Cup Final had the same feeling to it that you get in a board game when you keep rolling sixes. As for Charlton, their success under Curbishley – who, in the end, just left, just went – was of a genuine, sophisticated kind. The limit to their achievement was so blatantly psychological, such a glass ceiling. It was always something to watch for: would they, this time, break through it? But now the gut feeling about them is all about decline.
Everton, Manchester City and Fulham have stories mapped out for them, but not the kind I mean – these will have that random, wheel-of-fortune feel to them familiar from Edwardian Working Class memoirs. I really don’t want to watch City in particular, as I’m predicting the steady unravelling of Stuart Pearce as a coach. Pearce deserves better than City, as a man and as a coach. There just seems to be something insubstantial about the club, wired-in disappointments. Why does that have to happen to him? Everton are in a world of their own, and Fulham are stuck with players who don’t care (I know, I saw them last season, and it was meat and drink for the unmotivated-young-rich-playboy brigade) and a coach whose chairman can’t help but hopelessly undermine him at every turn.
Bolton, Newcastle, Villa. You might be interested in how Big Sam responds to his England disappointment, but I think that story won’t get going until the season after the one coming. He has a choice – but he also has a fixed date for his retirement, and that last might not leave him enough room now to take him to where his genuine talent could go. Newcastle are the classic example of a club whose inner narrative has disintegrated. After Keegan, the question was, can we push on to the title? And a succession of capable coaches, who’d won trophies elsewhere, trooped through, backed with money. And then another saviour, Robson, and so much more nearly, nearly, nearly.. and then panic, and then a kind of left-behind-in-1975-Saigon feeling as they go into the new season. Villa? No, although the last time I remember thinking that, they won the title and then the European Cup.
Isn’t it all very melancholy? I find it so; it isn’t just with the World Cup that I have a sense of something led up to that, in the end, didn’t happen, and then it all went away leaving no kind of promise behind.
It’s not all like that.
Take Portsmouth. Old ground, old manager, old-style fans, old-style players. Portsmouth absolutely embody everything – just everything – that this website preaches against. How can it not work? they’ve even got the kind of overseas player that once only existed in those strange daily football/soap comic strips in the tabloids, in Pedro Mendes. For all that Milan Mandaric is thinking of bowing out, there’s such an intense happiness radiating out of Pompey at the moment that one starts to think about unexpectedly great seasons, September table-toppers, League Cups. It’s the last chapter in the classic footballing Phoenix story, and I predict a spectacular, positive ending.
And Spurs – with a proper manager, who has an interesting and very English project underway. I don’t think last season was a false dawn, this time. I think it’s all real – the near-miss last year, and then – next year – at last – a top four finish and the Champions League after that, perhaps a real title challenge. Clubs do wake up, from time to time (see Arsenal under Bertie Mee, from the days when Spurs were very much the top London club) and we’re going to get to watch one again.
And then.. Arsenal. This is what rebuilding a team actually looks like. I’ve been commuting to Cambridge every fortnight to meet my professional supervisor. The train runs past both Highbury and the Emirates Stadium. For all that Highbury is, was, probably one of the best two (with Villa Park) of the pre-Taylor Report “old” grounds… as the Emirates Stadium joins it in your field of view, Highbury suddenly looks dreadfully tired and old. The young team that Arsene Wenger has assembled – again! – has itself a backdrop, and Fabregas, Toure (plus, and let’s hope, his excellent brother who had such a good World Cup with Ivory Coast), Henry, Hleb, van Persie, Reyes… I could go on, but you can catch my drift from the names alone.
If there is to be a story from this new season, it will be Arsenal’s, a young team coming into their own, free in their new stadium from the shadow of the Invincibles. It won’t be an English tale. But that’s another story.