The Year of the Goodbye

Footballing hegemony has been disrupted, and the future is here at last. How will the Premier League reinvent itself as the landscape changes?

Goodbye

Has any season of football ever been so dominated by the word farewell? Ferguson. Moyes. Scholes. Mancini. Neville. Carragher. Owen. Petrov. Ferdinand. Terry. All have said goodbye to something, whether it was a career, a club or a country. For most fans, the bracing nature of this collection of high-profile departures will have only been rivalled by the existential terminus of a game of Football Manager, when you realise that Cherno Samba, aged 62, has stepped down as England manager, and you have wasted your life. You are also wearing only pants. Where did the time go?

As the last Premier League season wheezed to a close, Sky Sports aired an advert wielding the most futuristic sentence ever known to mankind: ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match – available in 3D!’. Just imagine being 12 years old and hearing that collection of words without wondering when one might also hear of commercially affordable moon-rockets, teleportation devices and fat-free everything. Yes, now we can finally breathe that crisp space-age air, look in the opposite direction to Tony Pulis, and cry that the future is here! Whatever next?

We have already witnessed glimpses of the future’s fibre optic nodes taking insidious hold of the game in the form of featherlight boots, moving advertising hoardings and Ray Winstone’s looming, monolithic head. Bald men cover their scalps with hair – actual, growing hair! – while others talk furtively of ‘superinjunctions’, whatever they are. People in the game talk to each other via the internet in full public view. Tottenham have a defender who doesn’t like football – is that even allowed? They all wear those tiny bibs under their shirts that monitor their heart rates. The rubicon has been crossed, and the present has become the past, while the future becomes the nearly-present, soon to become the past again, freeing up vital futurespace. The Premier League somehow seems shiny and new again, as long as nobody ruins it.

These sweeping changes have given the top flight a timely blood transfusion, which will provide impetus to a competition that has become jaded and tired. English football’s ruling elite must address the issue of its own stasis, having become bloated by its own sense of self-worth. Sky’s perpetual bombast can no longer mask the paucity of truly world-class players, nor the surfeit of mediocre teams clogging up the fixtures like so much arterial sludge. Meanwhile, our friends from the Bundesliga are busy downing protein shakes before hitting the gym once more in flattering muscle vests. The virility of our new German overlords means there has never been such pressure on the Premier League to evolve since its conception in 1992. The imperative to move on has never been greater.

And yet moving on will be the challenge for the vast majority of the league’s participants next season. An unusually large number of clubs were touched by drama, mutiny or downright crisis at the close of the campaign, and the summer continues to prompt much navel-gazing, chin-stroking and soul-searching. In facing the prospect of no longer being The Best League In The World, there can be no room for more of the predictability that stymied 2012/2013. The biggest shocks of last season did as much to promote failure rather than success. Manchester United’s easy canter to the title went virtually uncontested. Swansea’s Capital One Cup final win came against League Two’s Bradford City. Newcastle’s dismal collapse was surprising, but they were saved by being just one of ten teams still fighting relegation in the closing weeks.

The raft of abdications that coloured the final months of the Year of the Goodbye have already thrown up a set of pre-ordained plots for teams to adhere to. Manchester United have a legend to replace. Manchester City and Chelsea will be tooling up big in the transfer market. Arsenal will continue to grind out the points through the self-flagellation. Tottenham will attempt to bring in the world-class striker that might prevent them from banging their head against the glass ceiling. Liverpool’s upward momentum will only be boosted should they retain a Luis Suarez fuelled by a misplaced sense of injustice. Everton and Stoke have to face change after years of enviable stability. Sunderland will have a full season to see what their manager is made of. Southampton will have a manager less dependent on an interpreter.  Aston Villa will see a youthful club invigorated by a dramatic late dash away from the trapdoor.  Newcastle, still flushed with a late-season influx of talent yet to gel, will give their manager at least the first few months to prove exactly what great season plus awful season equals. The three promoted Championship clubs will seek to prove that they’re not too excited to be there to prove that they’re not too excited to be there.

This leaves a handful of clubs for whom the summer so far has been no more than a frustrating procession through Thorpe Park on a staff training day: West Brom, Swansea, West Ham, Norwich, Fulham. The same teams that took up places 8-12 slap-bang in the middle of the hierarchy have all been curiously absent from the close-season clear-out hullabaloo. West Brom, Swansea and West Ham rest their hopes on the retentions of Romelu Lukaku (doubtful), Michael Laudrup (possible) and Andy Carroll (success!) respectively, if they are to follow respectable seasons. Fulham were disappointing but they can at least continue to look to Dimitar Berbatov for some inspiration.

We are left with Norwich, a yellow and green symbol standing in dull monument to the Premier League’s median. Poor, average Norwich. They have a smashing new kit. They’ve signed Rocky Van Wolfswinkel, the footballer with the most exciting name since Orgasm Dynamite-WrestleMania hung up his boots. But that really is about it. They are the opposite of what next season should mean, and unless that changes they will be left behind. Right now it would seem perfectly plausible that they might be the unwilling recipients of slow-motion, melancholy hand-waves of their own come next May’s video montages. That will only happen if they fail to grasp the chance to fill the emergent gaps with something new. There is no script for them to follow and no expectations to burden them. Fly or die. Seize the day. Something in latin.

Of course, this sentiment doesn’t apply solely to Norwich, as so much is yet to happen. We are yet to witness the closure of the annual tabloid carnival that is the summer transfer window, rife with its frenzied machinations and arcane puppetry. For once, this may prove to be not just a tedious distraction, more a tantalising prologue for the coming season. Which teams will be paralysed by their own motion sickness as they fail to adjust to the changing environment?

In 2013/2014, England’s twenty best teams have the opportunity to restyle themselves from a more aspirational template. Now is the time for teams to evolve, to reinvent. Next season, more than any other, the corridors of power will have that newly-buffed back-to-school gleam, and for the first time in a long time there is some extra room for manoeuvre. The hegemony has been disrupted. Next season can change it all. Just please, for the love of Cherno Samba, put some trousers on.

Darron Gibson and the SHOOOT/Shank Redemption

Gibson

There is a hard luck story involving Darron Gibson and Twitter. While at Manchester United, the midfielder was urged to sign up to the social media network by his team-mates, only to be hounded off by belligerent fans. The popular theory has it that he received such a relentless torrent of abuse from fans of his own club that he disabled his account within two hours. The reality, however, was somewhat different. He actually received a modest number of messages that day: hostile though they may have been, we’re talking a dozen or so, rather than the hundreds that may have been implied by tabloid schadenfreude. So while Gibson may well have felt chased away, presumably having received a pop-up message on his BlackBerry each time someone tweeted him, the problem can really be surmised by deducing that Gibson just didn’t know how to alter the notification settings on his phone.

This anecdote would serve as a fitting epitaph for his Old Trafford career – eager to impress, lacking the equipment to do so, provocatively thin-skinned. He would join Everton in the January 2012 transfer window, nine months after the Twitter mini-deluge. A rudimentary internet forum browse-about for both clubs at the time would reveal contrasting responses from the two camps, with United fans delighted to offload some deadweight, and Everton fans deeply underwhelmed.

Gibson has always been difficult to appreciate, with his pathological propensity to SHOOOOT, unusual spelling of his christian name, and curiously balding head like an anti-Zinedine Zidane. But there is also an admirably stubborn sense of self-belief. In September he withdrew from the Republic of Ireland squad for games against Oman and Kazakhstan in protest over a lack of involvement at Euro 2012. Prior to that, he once scoffed at the notion of moving to “a club like Stoke” after Giovanni Trappatoni urged him to seek first-team football for the good of his international career. A £4million move to Sunderland fell apart when he failed to agree personal terms, before he joined Everton six months later for less than a quarter of that sum.

Presumably he’s now happier at a ‘club like Everton’, where he has sired one of those unlikely viral statistics that sweep amongst football fans every so often like a winter vomiting bug. As of January 1 2013, Gibson had played 50 Premier League fixtures for both United and Everton and lost only four of them – and just once for Everton, after he was withdrawn early through injury against West Brom. Such curious facts can often betray reality, but perhaps there is more to Gibson than those vociferous United tweeters would have admitted. Phil Neville welcomed the Irishman’s transfer at the time by declaring it “one of the snips of the century”. Andre-Villas Boas has cited him as “a player of immense talent”, and Everton fans have been won over by his passing range and honest graft.

Such comments still seem anomalous, and the idea of Gibson as anything other than a laughing stock is entirely at odds with the reputation he’s acquired. Much has been made over the years of Alex Ferguson’s history of mis-steps in the transfer market, but such discussion tends to focus on players bought rather than sold. In the mid-to-late Nineties, Ferguson had a knack of cashing in on mediocre players by exploiting a post-Fergie Fledglings premium – the utterly forgettable likes of Jon Macken, Terry Cooke and Mark Wilson all commanded fees in excess of £1 million. In recent years, it has been suggested that Ferguson may have developed a worrying tendency to release the wrong talents, with former United youngsters Gerard Pique, Guiseppe Rossi and Paul Pogba all thriving in La Liga and Serie A. Having unfairly been written off as another dud from a production line still judged by the spectacular 1992 vintage of Beckham, Giggs and Scholes, Gibson appears to be defying expectation by showing signs that he could subvert the notion that the only way to go from Manchester United is down.

Phil Jagielka has described Gibson’s precise worth to Everton, hailing his understated “quarterback” passing ability: “Gibbo is massively important [and] not what you’d describe as a Fancy Dan sort of player”. This is a comment which illustrates his value amongst his new team-mates, while perhaps clarifying what failed to distinguish him amongst his old ones. At Old Trafford the Fancy Dan is king, and it seems somehow appropriate that Gibson is winning over fans at the same time that Michael Carrick, a similarly understated and metronomic midfield presence, is finally receiving wider acclaim for his role at United. Gibson’s failure to supplant Carrick, himself a divisive figure, in the United team, would’ve been viewed dimly by the Irishman’s many detractors.

Chances are, however, that critics of what Gibson brings to the table may well take a similarly dim view of Carrick’s oeuvre, hard as it might be to appreciate. Eric Cantona once damned Didier Deschamps with faint praise by describing his French team-mate as a ‘water carrier’. Nowadays, players of that ilk are simply called boring, or worse, simply inept. In an age where we are spoilt by the state-of-the-art duelling of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the all-time greats, it has never been more offensive to be boring.

What Gibson needed most is exactly what Everton has given him. He needed the opportunity to demonstrate the value of his consistency, as Jagielka notes: “If you filmed his role in the team and watched it back there’d be some fantastic passes, great tackles and some clever football.” This groundswell of opinion has spread to YouTube, where one Everton fan has taken the trouble of doing just that, compiling clips of Gibson’s touches in games against Tottenham and Manchester City to illustrate his quality. It is a testament to his reinvention that his imminent return from injury is being seen as a potentially key factor in Everton’s push for a top four finish. Whether they manage it or not remains to be seen, but nobody will doubt that Gibson has done his bit.

In any event, he would eventually rejoin Twitter on September 24th 2012. He received a warm welcome from Everton fans, and currently has over 60,000 followers.

Everton vs Manchester United – As It Happened

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Last week Robin Van Persie shocked the world not just by leaving Arsenal to sign for rivals Manchester United, but by revealing that he frequently has schizophrenic, cross-generational discourse with ‘the little boy inside him’.

As it turns out, the little boy inside Robin Van Persie was screaming this week not only for Manchester United, but for Ruud Gullit Sitting On A Shed. Here is an exclusive minute-by-minute report on his United debut versus Everton, from the perspective of Van Persie’s inner child.

My First Game For Manchester United

By Robin Van Persie (age 8)

1 minute – I’m not playing so I’m sitting on a bench with lots of old men. I wish I had my Pogs with me.

12 minutes – Mr. Berbatov keeps saying nasty things about me and he thinks I can’t hear him but I can. I try and tell the manager, but he pretends he can’t hear me. I miss Emmanuel Frimpong, he was my best friend. Berbatov looks like a vampire!

25 minutes – Alex Fergie is a scary man but he has soft white hair and is very nice to me and lets me bounce the ball in his office.

32 minutes – I get scared because I just saw that I’m inside a man! Urgh, all I can see is guts and blood, oh my god this is horrible! Leighton Baines is playing well he is good at football and haircuts.

38 minutes – Mr Berbatov still hates me so I do him a drawing and give it to him so he will like me.

I thought this would cheer up Berbatov but he was still unhappy at me. I did not understand what he said so he wrote it down for me and he said I was a horrible little PUSTULE and that he could crush me with one hammer blow but I do not know what this means??

45 minutes – Forgot to bring pocket money for a drink, but the kitman gave me a bottle of Lucozade for free anyway!!!!

49 minutes – Leon Osman hits the bar, and that is good because he looks like the man that gave me the big injections that time and it hurt a lot 😦

57 minutes – The man with the fluffy hair has scored a goal, and it gets very loud and it makes my ears hurt, and I nearly start crying but I tell Anderson that I look sad because my mum is dead, but she isn’t, and then I feel really bad, and that just makes me more sad so I think about my comics.

68 minutes – I am allowed to join in, and they all let me take a corner as soon as I come on! I kick the ball hard with my foot, and it didn’t hurt or anything. I have new boots and they are very shiny.

70 minutes – I scream a lot for Manchester United, but also, I scream for…. ICE CREAM! Nobody gets me any though, and it’s so unfair because everyone liked me when I said I would leave my friends and play here and now they’re all horrible and won’t let me do anything.

72 minutes

List of things I scream for, by Robin Van Persie (age 8):

Man Yoo
Ice cream (NEOPOLITAN! Without the vanilla bit)
Staying up past bedtime
Summer holidays
Ben 10 

90 minutes – We lost the game and we are all told off, but I’m not sent to bed early and I am given another bottle of Lucozade!! This is the best place ever, EVER. IDST. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂