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