Football in England this year has taken a bit of a kicking. The standard has generally been seen to be lower than in recent seasons. The worst Manchester United side in living memory may still win the title. In Europe all English clubs with the exception of Chelsea’s miraculous run to the Champions League final have underperformed. The England team have been an omnishambles built upon a clusterfuck. Not to mention the allegations of racism against John Terry and Luis Suarez that have cast a slur on their reputations and been very upsetting to witness.
But has the football in the Premiership been entertaining this season? My god it has. Manic scorelines reminiscent of the Victorian era when football consisted of little but dribbling mixed with the old one man offside rule have been en vogue. 8-2, 6-1, 5-3, 5-2, 4-4 are scorelines of games that have been exceptional and the sort of games you will remember in several years’ time and not for ten minutes after the final whistle.
This has been entertaining, dramatic and exciting to watch as a neutral while being thrilling though perhaps slightly vomit inducing if you’re a nervous fan struggling to cope with the twists and turns of a goal laden game. Yes it is reflective perhaps of a lapse in the standards of defending, with no defence in the Premiership giving the impression of being the sort of tight, organised outfit that is consistently capable of keeping out top sides like Mourinho’s Chelsea used to. But it’s been darned good to watch and darned good to talk about in offices and playgrounds and on the internet.
Does it matter if the standard is a bit lower? I think it matters if we see this for several seasons running. If in five years’ time English clubs are struggling in Europe and England’s UEFA coefficient is in trouble while we have continued to see poor defending and a glut of goals then there would be a sense that football is becoming more artificial, less of a true contest between attack and defence and more a contest between attack and more attack. Mourinho memorably complained after Arsenal beat Spurs 5-4 in 2004 that the match wasn’t proper football and was ‘a hockey score’. I’d say Jose should lighten up a bit and enjoy the entertainment.
But were this season to be a one-off in terms of the number of goals scored and the amount of thrilling games I’ve seen, then I don’t think it matters hugely that the standard perhaps isn’t as high as a few seasons ago when English sides were the class of Europe. We have seen about half a dozen of the fantastic games you would usually see only three or four times a season. While some of these like the Man City 6-1 win over United and the United 8-2 win over Arsenal were freakish results which had you gasping in shock and sparking those jokes that are a feature of Twitter and Facebook, some games like Arsenal’s 5-3 win over Chelsea, City’s last minute 3-2 win over Spurs and United’s 4-4 draw with Everton that may decide the league were close games filled with superb goals and thrilling action.
Also there are the goals. This season has seen sensational strikes going in left right and centre. Whether it’s Luis Suarez lobbing John Ruddy from almost the halfway line, Papiss Cisse scoring a set of beautiful goals culminating in that astonishing second goal against Chelsea and the feeling of shock and pleasant surprise when Peter Crouch turned into Mark Hughes and Marco Van Basten meshed into one to volley home so sweetly against City. All three could win goal of the season in any other season. And as much as the standard of defending has lapsed, the greatest defence in the world wouldn’t stop Crouch’s volley or Cisse’s dipping half-volley.
Another pleasant aspect at least for the neutral has been how smaller clubs have humbled the bigger clubs. Between 2006 and 2009 the top four was filled with Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool every season. This season though Manchester City, Spurs and Newcastle may infiltrate the top four and shove out more established clubs. And while Man City’s new found wealth means they’re in the top echelons of British and European football to stay, Spurs and Newcastle with considerably smaller wage bills have beaten Liverpool, look set to beat Chelsea and are an Arsenal collapse at West Brom away from beating them as well.
Now of course fans of those clubs will be unhappy at their clubs underperforming but I would guess the wider public are more than happy to see the likes of Spurs & Newcastle, who through being well run and playing good football are eclipsing larger, more bloated rivals. While Liverpool’s struggles may have devastated their fan base, the rest of the country had a right good giggle at their plight. Chelsea’s struggles under Andre Villas-Boas had a similar effect. Even Tottenham and Arsenal having crazed, bipolar seasons where both sides have switched between superb football and a ghastly rotten mess have thrilled and humoured the footballing public.
Along with the goals and the action, I write this article a few days before the last day of the season with six of the ten fixtures having money, reputations and more at stake. The title, race for the top four and battle to avoid relegation are all still in the balance. The last time we had a title race so close heading into the final day was in 1999 when United were a point ahead of Arsenal with the pressure of winning the Treble on their shoulders. Never before on the final day has the title race, relegation and the battle to make the top four all gone to the final day.
There have been some unfortunate episodes though. The racism allegations against Luis Suarez and John Terry were an unsavoury return to the bigotry of the 1970’s and 80’s and also sparked some fairly despicable behaviour from fans unhappy their players were accused of racism. Anton Ferdinand and Patrice Evra being so vitriolically abused for the heinous crime of allegedly being racially abused was disgusting and showed the worst of fan behaviour.
Before I’m accused of bigotry myself for talking about how great this season has been while racism has made an unwelcome return to newspaper front pages, every season has its controversies. Football wouldn’t be the same without them. Whether it’s Eric Cantona kung-fu kicking a fan, fan hooliganism, players and managers breaking contracts, cheating on their spouses, having their hands caught in the till or even drink and drugs having their wicked way, football is not all sweetness and light.
However football still can be enjoyed and should be enjoyed. It can even be a force for good. Not to mention how off the field the football community was superb in supporting the friends and families of Gary Speed and Fabrice Muamba after the tragic occurrences that befell those two individuals. The sleaze and scandals in football are unpleasant and need to be stamped out. But fans should still enjoy what they watch week in week out. Football, goals, tackles, great dribbles, great feats of skills that may never be caught on camera but will stay in the minds of fans and aficionados for years to come.
This season has had great goals, great games, a great finale in prospect with plenty of hidden gems in there as well. Whether it’s Mario Balotelli’s crazy antics, Hatem Ben Arfa’s wonderful dribbles, Wigan pulling off the most aesthetically pleasing escape from relegation ever seen or Norwich and Swansea with little money and even fewer expectations finishing comfortably mid-table, there has been a lot to smile about. This season has been a cracker and is one to be savoured deliciously before we sample the delights of Euro 2012.