Letting The Monsters In

 

Gutted m8

Gutted m8

“This does not fucking slip now. This does not fucking slip now. Listen. Listen. This is gone. We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again. Come on!” – Steven Gerrard, April 13, 2014

Within weeks of this rousing team-talk, Liverpool’s unlikely Premier League title bid had collapsed with the sad majesty of a dynamited building. Their captain will feel the pain more than most, given his unfortunate contribution to the capitulation. While his ironic slip against Chelsea was seized upon in a frenzy of tweeted GIFs, perhaps the real moment the title went astray was when Gerrard gave that team talk in front of Sky’s television cameras.

It was not so much their victory against Manchester City as the reaction that proved the turning point, and provided the season with its biggest story, the definable moment upon which memories of ten months will hang. Prior to that victory anyone associated with the club kept the rubicon at arm’s length. The unthinkable could not be thought, lest fate be tempted. There was a notable silence to Liverpool’s implausible quest, a refusal to acknowledge the magnitude.

But then came the change, the moment when the doors were opened to the twin monsters of pressure and fear. With just four games left, Liverpool were officially challenging for the most improbable of league titles, and it was just too much, too late. Gerrard’s speech was too vast, rousing far too much rabble, finally granting permission to a straining support to believe at last. Liverpool fans draped a banner on the wall of the club’s Melwood training ground, exhorting the mantra: WE GO AGAIN. Opportunistic vendors flogged premature celebratory t-shirts proclaiming Liverpool league champions. Alan Hansen spoke with misguided certainty on Match of the Day of “when Steven Gerrard lifts the trophy”.

After that speech, they played with restraint, on edge and anxious. They made hard work of a routine win away at Norwich before Gerrard’s most literal and figurative of slips against Chelsea. Allowing Crystal Palace to fight back from a three-goal deficit was the ultimate shat bed, the warring concepts of living and dying by the sword bludgeoning each other beyond recognition. What was left was the bones of a dream, a sobbing Luis Suarez hiding his face away from a camera that his captain tried to palm away. The season should have ended there, cutting to black at the sight of Gerrard’s hollowed face, a haunted physiognomy in emotional stasis, like Tony Soprano looking up from the menu one last time, leaving us to wonder what might happen next.

Instead, we’ve witnessed Gerrard’s address confirming its place as the most stirring moment of football oration since Kevin Keegan declared that “I’d love it if we beat them”. Ultimately doomed, the Newcastle United manager’s cry to rally the troops was to be remodelled by history’s winking eye as a harbinger of failure yet to unravel. Just as Keegan’s on-air meltdown has become an unwelcome monument to his career, so too might Gerrard become synonymous with an outburst of passion that subsequent events failed to validate. Gerrard will surely be remembered for more than just the portentous grandstanding of his post-City speech, but then Keegan was named European Footballer of the Year twice – ask your kids what they know of him.

What does the future hold for Gerrard? Will a Vine of his Chelsea stumble play out on his iTombstone, in an endless, macabre loop? Perhaps, decades from now, he will emulate Keegan further by quitting the England management post in a Wembley toilet. For now, the only thing to do would be to realise that he’s cradled such magnitude before. The trio of cup final victories one honeyed season under Gerard Houllier. The ‘Gerrard final’ FA Cup win against West Ham. The Miracle of Istanbul. These are memories to keep him warm, as he wrestles with the implausibility of how he came so close to pulling one more rabbit from the hat before it scampered off, leaving him floundering in a puddle of tears and schadenfreude on the Anfield turf.

This coming season more will be expected of the late-career quarterback renaissance, but surely he cannot give more than he gave last term? An Indian summer was coaxed from him by the promise of untold bounties. The hope of an elusive league title to round off a fine playing career, still addled by the asterisk denoting the one glaring omission from the honours list. He has already expressed his belief that he has at least one more season playing at such a level, and has retired from international football to allow himself more recovery time between games. But this time around will be different. Chelsea are rebuilding, Manchester United are getting their act together with a manager that fits, Arsenal are tooling up big in the transfer market. Gerrard, among others, helped Liverpool fans dream, but it may yet take a while to seize a similar chance again, especially with Suarez now gone.

Gerrard’s speech will be remembered as another example of sport’s natural drama being augmented by the bombast of narrative. Sky Sports will see to it that it is hailed as another contribution to history, the latest victory for the pervasive influence of the television camera. The same as the one Gerrard once kissed in triumph, the same as the one he turned away with a rueful, protective hand. The camera used to love him, but sometimes love, like all things, can die. Somehow, the story of last season came from the story that did not happen.

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.

The Manchester Derby – As It Happened

Ruud Gullit Sitting On A Shed is the sort of site that never shies away from the big games. In the past, we’ve bought you detailed minute-by-minute reports of the Old Firm derby from the perspective of the match ball, as well as coverage of the Merseyside derby via ScouseBot 3000. Tonight saw Manchester United and Manchester City fight it out for the Premiership crown they both crave, like right greedy bastards. Naturally, we were all over it, and anyone that says we weren’t is lying.

Our latest minute-by-minute report comes to you from my Dad, fresh from an argument, who politely points out that he hates my Mum for her relentless mind games and the spiteful venom that emanates from her very soul. While I listen to my Mum crying in the bath as I worry that this is somehow all my fault and the other children will bully me for not having a proper family, I hand over the reigns to my Dad, who needs to CALM DOWN. Dad, seriously. Cool it. (You can use my laptop if you want, but just do a half-decent write-up on the game, I can’t really be bothered now. I’ve already written an intro for you, but obviously delete this bit in brackets first.)

Dad enjoying a family holiday at Butlins, Minehead.

Hello! Clive here. This is good, isn’t it? I will let you know what happened in the match tonight if you just bear with me as I am new to this, and I’ve been a bit emotional lately.

1 minute – Kick-off. AND IT’S GO, GO, GO! (Murray Walker joke there! Shame he’s dead.)

4 minutes – United will fancy their chances here. They’ve got a good away record, which certainly doesn’t surprise me. It’s not like I’m one to be shocked by the prospect of someone playing away with 11 other men. Isn’t that right Janet, you WHORE?

10 minutes – United are looking very comfortable here. I’m sure they’d feel as tense and anxious as I always do if their wives were all medicated up to the eyeballs every waking hour. I’ve told you a million times, depression isn’t an illness, it’s a type of sadness, Jan!

17 minutes –  Great tackle from Gareth Barry there. He has his critics, but he always works so hard. Is trying so bad really? At least it shows that he’s interested. That can really mean a lot to some people. Or apparently not enough, like when I drove for four bloody hours to go visit your family, only to find they weren’t in because YOU got the dates wrong, you silly old moo, and all you did was moan as if it was my fault somehow.

30 minutes – Nice shot of the Manchester City banner to Sheikh Mansour there. I have my own one in my house. It says : “YOUR DIVORCE LAWYER THANKS YOU, JANET SHED!”.

45 minutesGOALS! Vincent Kompany smacks in the ball with his enormous head. By the look on his face, that goal was better than sex. I’ll have to take his cum-face for it, since I’ve forgotten how that feels due to my non-existent sham of a sex life. A man has needs! (Sex needs)

Half-time – Can’t believe it’s half-time all ready. Where does the time go? In my case, it goes into the crushing duopoly of a loveless marriage and a hateful existence. Off for a pie.

46 minutes – United will have to improve in this half if they want to keep their grip on the Premiership trophy. They lack that extra bit of quality in the final third, and it’s something they might need to address in the summer. They’ve got some good youngsters coming through, but I do worry about their futures. Just like my own kids, they leave me feeling disappointed and hollow. Maybe some experience in the Carling Cup next year might help? If we do get divorced, I guess the equivalent for me and my kids will be taking them to parents evenings. No-one likes going to those. The League Cup of parental responsibility.

52 minutes – Wayne Rooney’s struggling tonight, which is surprising as he’s scored more goals this season than I’ve had hot dinners. And I mean that literally, as my wife is a terrible cook. Isn’t that right, dear? Cooked for Cliff Richard when you were at college, did you? BOLLOCKS.

65 minutes – Ryan Giggs is 37-years-old and is still vital to Manchester United. I’m 52 and I’m made to feel absolutely useless, day in and day out. If Giggs proves anything, it’s that age can bring it’s own intrinsic qualities, and it’s not just about the youngest swinging dick in town, even if he does run his own business and is called Pablo and has a holiday villa in Portugal and is better than me and this is rubbed in my face every day by my own wife. It also proves the preserving quality of pilates.

75 minutes – It’s all kicking off on the touchline between Ferguson and Mancini. Not sure what triggered it, but sometimes an argument can be a healthy thing. Maybe they’ll feel better for it in the morning? It never works for me, but whatever. Perhaps they’re just more caring than most.

82 minutes – An ambitious effort from Yaya Toure goes wide there, but still, it’s nice to see someone with a bit of ambition around here isn’t it? Not like when a certain someone gave up her night classes in French.

88 minutes –  City are minutes away from buying their first title! No doubt they’ll be looking for more new players in the summer, but I’m afraid these fans just don’t realise the value of money. No one does these days. Piles of debt and for what? More misery and despair, with the added anxiety of bills to pay at the end of it. This applies to both my life and the point I was just making about the game there. FUCK YOU, JANET!

Full time – City win, and surely the title is now theirs! It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. I remember when I had dreams. It was bloody ages ago.