Monday 10 June 2024

End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points)

Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crystal Palace, really. Brighton must await the Premier League introduction of Eastbourne Borough before living a derby that doesn’t necessitate the naming of a motorway. 

Once again, the manager is front and centre, Roberto De Zerbi waving goodbye to the fans on the final day, ending his season and a half tenure due to differences with the board. 11th in a season of Europa League football is no mean feat, especially without Encisco and March for the bulk of the season and Mitoma for the second half of it, not to mention the summer sales of Mac Allister to Liverpool and Caciedo to Clearasmudlake Chelsea for £100,000,000 (Caceido becoming the latest player to score from the halfway line at Stamford Bridge and not win MOTD’s Goal of the Season.)

Evan Ferguson scored a hat trick early on but that proved a false indicator for this season at least, Welbeck still popping up as the biggest goal threat. Anyone who’d’ criticiser Brighton for not “kicking on” from their top six placing and FA Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out appearance last season needs to wise up. Like their made up rivals, they have established themselves as part of the Prem furniture while progressing. Of course, it can all change quickly. Who will come in to steer the ship? The full-time Chelsea manager before Poch is still available…

12th: Bournemouth (48 points)

Just a few weeks into the season under new manager Andoni Iraola, when The Cherries looked as flaky as they’d ever been during their stays in the Prem over the last calendar decade, the ever in-the-moment Alan Shearer compared their struggle to the resurgence at Wolves under Gary O’Neill, who’d been replaced by Iraola in the summer: “It’s looking like a pretty embarrassing decision”, big Al grimly observed.

Well, I appear to have reached Bournemouth before Wolves in this club-by-club rundown of positional standings. Well done again, Al! 

Notwithstanding heavy defeats at Man City and at home to Arsenal, it would have been tempting of course, to pillory the employment of a Johnny Foreigner over One of Our Own, much like the dismissal of Nigel Adkins for the Argentinian Espanyol coach Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton in 2012-13 just as Bournemouth’s south coast neighbours were appearing to hold their own back in the Prem. Little did we know that one day Pochettino would rise to the heights of leaving Chelsea by mutual consent.

Yet, the 6-1 defeat at the Etihad in November was followed by a 7 game unbeaten run, the highlight of which (probably) was a 3-0 win at Old Trafford and also included a hat trick at Nottm Forest by Dominic Solanke, emerging as a 20-goal Premier League striker just when it seemed he was destined to always take second Billing. The form table put them behind only City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Iraola was suddenly spoken of as one of the Brat Pack of Basque region managers/coaches now in the Prem, alongside Guardiola, Arteta and Emery. Summing up Bournemouth’s season on the final Match of the Day, Shearer sternly conceded that they’d “had a good season after the controversy of Gary O’ Neill losing his job.” Oh, Alan! 

13th: Fulham (47 points)

Still no Wolves, eh?

A second successive consolidation in the Prem for the West London inoffensives. Does this move them out of the 'yo-yo club' category? How long is a piece of yo-yo string? 

Marco Silva found a way to compensate for losing main man centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic to the blood money league - Rodrigo Muniz weighing in with 9 goals - while fatefully keeping hold of midfielder Palhinha, who'd seemed destined to go to Bayern Munich before the August window shut. The Portuguese midfielder reportedly had a change of heart when Harry Kane arrived at the Allianz Arena, his about-turn grounded in the sudden belief that Fulham now had a better chance of winning a trophy for the first time in their history than Bayern adding to their 11-years-in-a-row Bundersliga domination or any cup at all they entered.      

Theoretically, Fulham decided the title race, taking four points off Arsenal, fortunately catching the runners up in their two periods of uncertainty. The 2-2 at The Emirates was followed by a 5-1 tonking at The Etihad (international break in between), Silva receiving his latest in a flurry of red cards when protesting about the routine injustice that most teams face against the champions. City then beat Fulham 4-0 in a May stroll. 

Will Silva’s side make it a hat trick of spells in the Prem at the end of next season? Same as all the clubs in this mid-lower section of the table, this may depend on how bad the promoted/returning clubs are. 

14th: Wolves (46 points)

Wolves! Welcome! 

Of course I’m not mocking you, Wolves, I’m mocking Alan Shearer. I have a lot to thank Wolves for: for being there, ravaged by injury, when Arsenal needed a tonic after defeat by Munchen preceded by defeat by Villa: for being a goal down at home to Spurs in the 90th minute and winning 2-1: for forcing through a vote to end VAR. Gary O’Neill was the acceptable face of the moaning manager, and I enjoyed the thrill of him taking on the PGMOL in seemingly every game where the last farcically bad decision by a ref or VAR, or a non-decision was overshadowed by the next. He got a bit addicted to it in the end, seeming to search out the injustice, but really you couldn’t blame him for being on high alert. If Newcastle and Manchester United tried to contest the monopoly of injury misfortune, then Wolves had no company under the lone rain cloud. 

There were, though, bright spells. Mathias Cunha looked a very important asset for any club in this zone just outside the danger zone, one that scores goals regularly and with the promise of doing it for a few seasons yet. Sarabia looked decent up front too, while the ball-carrying exocet missile Pedro Neto engineered goals and wins, including against Man City. The shot hamstrings look to be a problem, which may see him leave for a bigger club where he can be used more sparingly and crafted. Ait Nouri wowed as a defender with silky touches, one of the very best players around that sounds like half of a Jimmy Nail number one hit in 1992. 

O’Neil did at least have a big smile on his face when they won at Bournemouth in October, scoring a late winner through another goal threat, Hwaang Hee-Chan, after Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook had been sent off 9 minutes after half time at 1-1. This may have been a rare case of Wolves being on the right end of a refereeing decision, but they must also be accountable for their improper treatment of Barcelona academy product Nelson Semedo, who after five seasons believes he is still part of a club partnership at Camp MoliNou. If you're reading this, Nelson, you ain't ever going back.     

15th: Everton (40 points)

The Toffeemen reached the benchmark 40-points that famously avoids relegation (unless you're West Ham Utd) despite a fluctuating 8 points being shaved off their total thanks to Financial Fair Play breaches. In the same way that news of Manchester City being investigated over 115 charges last season galvanised their title charge, the injustice felt by the legally-savvy Goodson faithful generated an upturn in form. A literal low point was a 6-0 loss at Chelsea, though coming out on top of a Merseyside title decider seemed to be the fans highlight. Manager Sean Dyche was typically sacrosanct throughout the whole affair. "These are the harsh realities of existing in an industry where you don’t have Manchester City’s lawyers”, he allegedly said. “This is a situation I’ve inherited, not one I invented. We’ve all got firefighter suits on. But with many hoses. We have more than one fire extinguisher at this club. I understand it’s not 1985 anymore, or 1987, or even 1995. We’re not naive. Please don’t call us that. There’s room to improve, it’s about progression. We’re doing everything we can with the extinguishers available. If they want to take our life-preserving equipment away, we as coaching staff and players can’t control that. I’m not a miracle worker. I’m Sean Dyche. A worker”, he allegedly added.

16th: Brentford (39 points)

Five months without Ivan Toney, three without Bryan Mbeuno, a whole season without Rico Henry, weeks without Ben Mee and yet Thomas Frank’s team have secured a fourth season in the Prem. They somehow found the goals and kept the discipline to stay competitive. It’s no mean feat, and one that doesn’t get mentioned much. Perhaps they like it that way, staying in the shadows, keeping their head down. They gave Arsenal two tough games and even worked out how to get Neal Maupay to score a couple. Maupay’s clownish beef with Villa goalie Emiliano Martinez at the Community Stadium was a rare moment of hilarity in the Premier League. You’d think Martinez would be more grateful, Maupay having caused Bernd Leno’s long-term injury that brought Martinez into the Arsenal team and an FA Cup winners medal at the end of that 19-20 season, leading to his move to Villa and subsequent Champions League football next season. 

17th: Nottm Forest (32 points)

Mike Baldwin, played by Johnny Briggs, once implored the Rovers Return regulars to “get a lifeboat” for Tommy Harris “before he drowns in self-pity”. Fortunately for Nottingham Forest, the puncture-ridden dinghy’s of Burnley, Luton Town and Sheffield United ensured they kept afloat.

The four points deducted for FFP breaches wasn’t the driver for the babyish displays of paranoia that deflected from some promise during the season. They gave Arsenal a fright at The Emirates on the opening day of the season, would have drawn 0-0 at home to Liverpool had it not been for the visitors reaping ‘good process’ karma in the 99th minute and had the chances to get a result against Manchester City (comments by Guardiola that Forest would have scored had it not been for the dry pitch were sad and petty.)

Not so good was the legal talk following Ivan Toney repositioning the ball at a free kick and the owner taking to Twitter to blame ungiven penalties at Everton on the VAR operator, Stuart Atwell, being a Luton fan. Employing ex ref Mark Clattenburg as Director of Refereeing Against Us wasn’t exactly a gladiatorial move either. Maybe it was all to generate an us against them mentality, maybe they don’t care how they come across? 

Dismissing Steve Ovett for Nuno Espírito Santo was a surprising move a couple of years after Spurs have given up on the ghost after just three months there, his last impression in the Premier League. He did slightly better than Ovett, though seemed quite smug about achieving survival at the end of the season. 

18th: Luton Town (26 points)

If you’d have told me at the beginning of the season that Luton Town would be relegated…well, yeah, most would have believed you. That it seemed at one point in the season that they might have the resolve and the guile to stay up is a big compliment to them. They had both of those things, but sadly, and understandably, not the squad depth. Injuries at the turn of the year piled up, and of course they had all the emotion of dealing with captain Tom Lockyear’s heart-related collapse at Bournemouth.  

The Hatters gave the ‘big boys’ something to think about, only losing to the last header of the game, 4-3, at home to Arsenal, drew 1-1 with Liverpool and, also at Kenilworth Road, narrowly lost to Man City. There was also a stirring 4-4 comeback at Newcastle. Ross Barkley, in a deeper lying position, reminded of us his quality, 30 years old and displaying consistency that was always said to be his downfall. The fans’ song for him, Ain’t Nobody Like Ross Barkley, is one of the best we’ve heard for years. 

Adebayo up front was building a reputation as a striker to be feared before becoming one of the injury victims, but without that regular/semi-regular goalscorer on top of the many absences, even a manager as cool as Rob Edwards couldn’t turn the tide. They will be back in the same division as their local rivals (albeit not in the same county) Watford next season, but the regard for those two clubs should be contrasting. Edwards, like most managers, has recently been Head Coach at Vicarage Road, and also like most of them was given only a couple of months to prove himself. Watford will delight in their drop, just as they had dropped from the Prem the season before, but Luton’s spiralling down the league and out of it, and then surge all the way back up it (a bit like Watford in the eighties) should only be applauded. 

19th: Burnley (24 points)

101 points last season in The Champ under Vincent Kompany, just 24 for the non-Dyche-Prem team this, scoring half the number of goals. Perhaps the best thing you can say about this Burnley side is that it is not a Sean Dyche Burnley. Not that that's a bad thing of course -  sometimes there's beauty in dealing with harsh realities. But the evolution has begun and they are on the right track, which sounds like a Dychian thing to say, but we can assume that the adjustment will continue under whoever replaces Kompany, who has gone to Bayern Munchen, which may suggest that the curse of Kane will not be lifted any time soon, but that's not Burnley's problem, and in any case it's actually nice to see a huge club taking a bit of a risk on potential (it worked for Chelsea with Villas-Boas due to sacking him and giving the job to Roberto Di Matteo, who won the Champions League and was then himself sacked the following season, a situation that was replicated with Thomas Tuchel, who then went to Bayern Munchen and has now been replaced by Kompany...what a fun merry-go-round we live in.) 

If I'm honest, I'm struggling to think of any Burnley players other than James Trafford (the goalie who ended the season in reserve), Jay Rodriguez and Aaron Ramsey (and I only know of him because I thought it was the Arsenal one for a while.)

Good luck The Clarets next season!   

20th Sheffield United (16 points)

What’s the record for lowest ever points total; Derby with 8? Watford 15? Sunderland 15? Either way, it’s a good job Sheff are prudent with their FFP business. They conceded 104 goals, 4 more than the famous Swindon achievement of 100 goals in 93-94. Or maybe that was more than a century, ‘over a hundred goals’? Does it even matter? Man City have won 7 out of 8 Premier Leagues and that doesn’t mean anything. 

Sheff were one of only three Prem teams to sack their manager this season, when normally it’s into double-figures, although Watford being in the division below could explain that, as well as the cost of compensating managers as FFP began to show some balls. Chris Heckingbottom was replaced by the man he replaced, Chris Wilder, who doesn’t seem likely to hit anywhere the heights of 19-20. Accusing a fourth official of eating a sandwich reminded me of the time Phil Brown of Hull City whinged to journalists about the suspended or injured Cesc Fabregas wearing a leather jacket and jeans. 

Coming up from the Champ for next season are Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Southampton, two of whom were in the Prem last season, so perhaps Sheff could be back the season after next, along with at least one other of the two in front of them. Or maybe the series of Right Hammerings - 8-0 at home to Newcastle, 6-1 at home to Arsenal, a 2-1 embarrassment at Spurs - will encourage a season or two of transition before they are ready, in common parlance, to ‘go again’.

Monday 27 May 2024

Premier League review, club by club Part 1 - 1st-10th

‘You’ll never win the raffle if you don’t buy a ticket’, somebody once said. I don’t know who, but it was first heard pre-National Lottery, or at least when the National Lottery was in its infancy, or relative infancy; these days people would most likely replace ‘raffle’ with ‘lottery’.

This isn’t to say raffles are moribund, like the Pools and Bob Carolgees. The school disco, for one, is a guaranteed source of despair for hundreds of primary age children when their number/s don’t come up, denying them a Little Miss colouring book to justify the £1-a-strip outlay. For a number of consecutive years, my first son would greet the end of a winless raffle by growling while ripping up every one of his unsuccessful tickets, oblivious to the bewildered audience looking his way as I laughed through the mortification. 

By now you may have directed your eyes back to the title of this piece, to confirm that you are actually reading about a review of the outgoing Premier league season, club by club. Don’t worry, we’ll get onto it, I just wanted to talk about losing raffle tickets to explain, in a very Peter Beagrie way, why I haven’t seen even one Premier League match this season (while still insisting I have the credibility to judge all the teams in it.) In my privileged position as an Arsenal Red member, I entered all the ballots for tickets for my friend and I that fell outside of the Category A ‘big games’ (you’d actually have had to have to won the lottery to be able to afford those); that’s 14 ballots. Every time came that dreaded ‘unfortunately…’ email. ‘We recommend that you continue to enter the ballot for future games’. Quite. Otherwise there would be 0 chance, right? I haven’t actually seen a Premier League game since April 9th 2022, when Arsenal lost to  Brighton & Hove Albion managed by Graham Potter. This is the only time I’ve seen Leandro Trossard score at The Emirates. 

Still, I’ve watched MOTD (most weeks, though often not all of it) and there’s been a few live games on terrestrial telly, so I’m at least as qualified as Dion Dublin to make public opinions. 

Ok, let’s do it in order of Prem finishing places…

Champions: Manchester City (91 points)

One day, someone as obviously intelligent as Kevin De Bruyne might realise to his horror that he gave all the best years of his talent and soul to a club owned by people who marginalise women and imprison gays and pollute the air with fossil fuels. “This beautiful club” proclaimed KDB after a milestone goal this season, as beautiful as an institution can be if you turn a blind eye to its foundations. Perhaps he might be lucky enough to get to Pep Guardiola’s age and still stay blissfully ignorant. PG, after all, hasn’t worn that yellow ribbon in support of oppressed Catalans for some years now. 

2nd: Arsenal (89 points)

Runners up two years in a row, and will be a decent bet to make it a third, just like Arsene Wenger’s trio of next besters between 98-99 and 00-01. Wenger’s team eventually won the league and FA Cup double in 01-02, and perhaps this awaits Mikel Arteta’s clinical beasts in 25-26 if PG announces his retirement at the end of the season or something. I wrote them off as early as August after dropping points at home to Fulham. It was an odd time, back when Gabriel was on the bench and Thomas Partey at right back, prompting one of those many wizened BBC Sport followers to declare that Arteta was “trying to be too clever.” A comment that came from ‘Scooby Stu’. Other home London derbies cost them, drawing with Spurs (again 2-2) and losing to West Ham 2-0, Moyes’ men having three shots, one a saved penalty. The three-act awarded goal at Newcastle was another blow, though the Villa defeat at The Emirates in March felt like the killer. It came after the CL quarter final against Bayern Munich, while that weekend City played Luton at home, dropped KDB, Foden and Silva and won 5-1. The initiative was back with them and it wasn’t being relinquished, obviously. 

Undefeated against 1st and 3rd, winning both at home and enough points gained to have won half of the Premier League titles, yet, in the cold light of day, not enough enough. 

3rd: Liverpool (82)

I didn’t want Liverpool to win the league (as much as I don’t want anyone to other than my own team) or for Klopp to have a fairytale end to his Anfield story, even though I like Klopp, simply because I didn’t think they were worthy. It’s perhaps a nonsensical point, no team wins the league by accident, not even Leeds in 91-92. They were always going to organically drop off eventually if they weren’t up to it. It is also perhaps an unfair view. Surely a title in Klopp’s last season with one of his weaker sides would have been a David Pleat poetic justice-type event considering the seasons they amassed over 450 points and still came 2nd. One measly defeat, courtesy of one ball a millimetre shy of crossing the line not sufficient to take the trophy in 19-20. This time out, up until the African Nations Cup, Salah was in typically sensational form but returned with an injury and barely a shadow of himself, culminating in a touchline row with Klopp while about to come on at West Ham. Jota and Gakpo and Nunez threatened to keep the momentum going but, two seasons in, the £64 million Uruguayan still hasn’t broken out of the erratic finishing that Salah himself and before him, Luis Suarez, quickly overcome with dramatic results. Perhaps he still will, though in his best days he is generously labelled an ‘agent of chaos’, which is spin for ‘couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo’. Except for at Newcastle in August, where the Reds’ 10 men came from behind to win, which was an early highlight of the season. Has been nice to see Klopp smiling again of late. The charm and charisma and whole-face belly laugh had seemingly been drained of all life by the darkness of City, but his legend is secured. More points gained than Leicester City in 15-16.

4th: Aston Villa (68)

I was a little surprised when Unai Emery’s arrival at Villa Park in January 2023 was greeted with such optimism by the supporters, as shown on MOTD 2; had they not seen how his tenure had unravelled so bleakly at Arsenal? Well, clearly they knew better. Or perhaps there was a sense that anything but Steven Gerrard was a level up, sitting as they were one point above the relegation zone. Of course, in between times, Emery had won a fourth Europa League, adding to the three with Sevilla, and by the end of that half season in Birmingham, Villa bagged a top seven finish to enter the Europa Straw Hat, Bean bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s My Trousers League (as won by West Ham, therefore adding to the lustre.) True, an opening day 5-1 pasting at Sandro Tonali’s Newcastle might have had many betting that the vampiric Patridge had reached another early Premier League peak, but sadly this proved unfounded. With the inexhaustible Ollie Watkins coming good on the previous season’s promise to actually hit the ball at the goal occasionally, the ferocious team ethic had a cutting edge that kept them clear of a Tottenham side who are in transition (again.) For me, the question mark over Emery is how he deals with it when things take a turn.

5th: Tottenham Hotspur (66)

The last two ‘previews’ have seen me witter on about the managers, one in his first full season, another in his last. In this entry, I’ll start with Ange Postecoglou, who arrived in the summer at Spurs as an anti-appointment to the previous trophy-hoarders (at other clubs), Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. At least, that isn’t quite the truth, seeing as Ange had just won the league and cup with Celtic, it was just that that seemed almost like not winning a trophy. An Australian with experience only in his homeland, Greece and the Scottish league, one theory was that Daniel Levy had run out of money paying off Pochettino and Nuno Espírito Santo and Mourinho and Conte. But Spurs didn’t lose their first game at Brentford, then beat an already unravelling Man U 2-0, and when a Maddison-Son inspired jolly at Burnley saw them hit top spot on Match of the Day, an otherwise respected Guardian columnist mentioned the league title in the same sentence as his team/one of his teams. Another respected Guardian writer cited Maddison as potentially the signing of the season. Highlights of their rise to the top of the table after 10 games included a 2-2 draw at Arsenal, a 113th minute winner at home to Sheffield United and another last-gasper at home to Liverpool thanks to “good process”.

Then came the inevitable medium-term injury to Maddison, and one to Bentacaur (caused by Matt Cash’s calculated late lunge, resulting in a yellow for the offender and weeks out for the victim) following on from two senseless red cards at home to Chelsea for the otherwise cool-headed operators Romero and Udogie, seeing them lose for the first time. The magic box of Spursiness was opened up, treating onlookers to the latest unravelling delights as they gradually slid down the table. But not too far. Even if, in the same sense that Arsenal’s pursuit of City was just a trick of the light, Spurs ran into a false wall whenever the chance to catch or pass Villa was offered up, 5th and Europa League under a manager who has traditional Spurs principles, and speaks well with sound values (among them a distaste for VAR and the potential for referee announcements of decisions “Oh my God!”) puts them in a far better world than in recent seasons. Not that you’d know that speaking to some of their Romero-headed fans. 

6th: Chelsea (63)

Feeling instant disbelief at a Chelsea manager being sacked seems a bit like one of those unhelpfully ingrained preconceptions in childhood that, as an adult, you  have to shove aside to let common sense in. Chelsea only lost three games from January-May under Mauricio Pochettino, who guided a mish-mash (but not Poch-botch) piñata-selected  squad through a much-mocked, oft-hilarious season to a top six finish and European qualification (albeit for - thanks to Man United’s FA Cup Final win -  the Europa Straw Hat, Bean Bag, Whoops Mrs Miggins Where’s my Trousers, Itsy Bitsy, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini Vase); amidst the rubble, there were signs of hope: 4-4 and 3-3 draws against Man City, 2-2 at home to Arsenal, 6-0 at home to Everton, an assertive performance and unfortunate late defeat to City in the Cup semi final and, of course, the stellar season from the delightful Cole Palmer, 22 goals and all. So of course Chelsea sacked Poch in a bid to start all over again with someone else. How often does this have to happen before it’s no longer a shock reflex?

7th: Newcastle United (60)

Never will someone like Keiron Trippier realise that there was anything wrong with giving the last few years of his career to people who specialise in executing people and imprisoning women for promoting equal rights.

8th: Manchester United (60)

Ah, there you are! Why so far away, I never thought I’d find you?!

Eighth is the lowest United have finished in the Premier League, although they ended lower under Sir Alex Ferguson, 11th in 89-90 when they won the FA Cup in his third season, as Ten Hag has won it in his second. At the time of writing, Ten Hag is still the manager but we live in different times now. A kamikaze season has followed Ten Hag’s first campaign, when two defeats in the opening two games was followed by a win against Liverpool and, further down the road, a successful ousting of Ronaldo, a League Cup Final win, a third place finish and the resurgence of Marcus Rashford. The worthiest successor to SAF had apparently arrived (I’m putting the phone down, Jose.)

Then this season happened. There had been snapshots of disaster even in the previous season, 4-0 at Brentford, 7-0 at Liverpool, and though they escaped Anfield this time with a 0-0 despite absorbing 30 shots at their goal - a sign of things to come without always the clean sheet - there were home defeats to Bournemouth, West Ham and Fulham and a 4-0 drubbing at Crystal Palace. There were 14 defeats in all, with a -1 goal difference. No stand-out league triumph to stem the blood flow this time, although they were perhaps hard done by at Arsenal in September, Alejandro Garnacho’s injury time  ‘winner’ ruled out for the most borderline of offsides and then Declan Rice and Gabriel Jesus scoring twice in quick succession. Perhaps that’s how these things turn, which seems to have been the point Ten Hag has repeatedly been making, although strangely through the prism of a nondescript penalty area challenge on Rasmus Hojlund rather than the Garnacho moment. That and the injuries. You have to consider the injuries but personally I double-down here because Arsene Wenger was never allowed that excuse, it was always his fault when half the squad was injured. In fairness to Ten Hag, he doesn’t seem to have been allowed it either. Is it the style of play causing the injuries or the injuries determining the style of play? My Arsenal fan experience kicks in too, when I read the criticism and mocking they get, which is phenomenal. Ten Hag does his best to deflect, looking every inch in his roll-neck the 70’s crime boss, claiming that his mob’s total massacre was part of the plan, that letting Championship side Coventry City come back from 0-3 to 3-3 and then, it seemed 3-4 until the VAR overturned a Garnacho-esque offside was just how he saw it pan out in his mind. I have to say they provided so much entertainment in the Cup though; aside from the Coventry semi and the uplifting defeat of City in the Final, the game plan of allowing Liverpool unlimited space and possession in the quarter final finally worked (somehow) with a last minute 4-3 win. I was delighted to see it, as I was the win against City, which perhaps says where United are right now. Another last-minute 4-3 came shortly after the semi, losing at Chelsea thanks to Subbuteo defending. They have good young players, Garnacho, Mainoo, Rashford on his day; Fernandes is the talisman. Hojlund didn’t quite take the league by storm, as he threatened he might midway through the season. “Another injury”, Ten Hag would argue. Perhaps he deserves another go next season.

9th: West Ham United (52)

There is no such doubt about the aforementioned Moyes’ Weat Ham future, he is out, ten years after being out at Old Trafford, to be replaced by Julian Lopetegui, formerly of Spain, Real Madrid and Wolves. Moyes will be pleased with his contribution to the East Londoners, relegation avoidance in his first spell, and in the second, 7th place and a European trophy in the Miggins thing. The fans seem pleased too, to see him go. A top half finish isn’t enough, there just wasn’t enough of the academy about Moyes’ philosophy, leaning as it does more towards the Allardyce way of thinking. There have been glimpses of excitement when Kudas, Paqueta and Bowen have combined, although given some of the footage of Paqueta’s yellow cards, we may have seen the end of that budding trio. Bowen’s 22 goals is the stand out achievement, will be interesting to see if it garners interest or, as with Son Hoeng Min at Spurs, he is destined to produce the numbers for the same upper middling London club.

10th: Crystal Palace (49)

Where would Vieira’s Palace be right now? As good as bang mid-table? Steve Parrish will consider that uncertainty vindication of the route that has led to Oliver Glasner’s arrival from Eintracht Frankfurt. Parrish will be hoping that Glasner can some day repeat his Europa League success with Frankfurt at Selhurst Park. Not that Parrish gave Europe much consideration before. Roy Hodgson’s ill-health worked out well for him and Palace. It also coincided with the return to fitness and form of Eze and Olise, and an entirely unexpected monster run of form from Jean-Phillipe Mateta, who ended up with 16 goals and setting up 5 compared to half the amount of goals in his previous three seasons. A freak anomaly or a sign of things to come? 11 years now, Palace have played consecutive seasons in the Premier League. 

This concludes Part 1 of the AFONI’s Premier League review, club by club.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Any Given Season

 In the Match of the Day (2) studio, following defeats for both Liverpool (1-0 at home to Crystal Palace) and Arsenal (2-0 at home to Aston Villa) on a possibly fatal Sunday for the ‘three horse’ title race, ex Manchester City goalie Shay Given declares a “special mention to Manchester City” for being six games away from a fourth league crown in five seasons.

Arsenal’s 31 points from 36 since the turn of the year will become merely a footnote, just like Liverpool’s one defeat in 2018-19 and their 54 points from 57 in 21-22. These expressions of rage against the machine aren’t enough to topple it. You have to hand it to the dominant beast for using their resources super efficiently, and Given is well within his rights to applaud them. Perhaps we don’t show enough appreciation to those that have the means and ways to rule so relentlessly. But tell you what, let’s do something about that right here! Yes, seeing as City’s latest domestic prize is being celebrated before its even been won, let’s give some “special mentions” to their equivalents: stand up for the Jeff Bezos as Amazon Prime look set to close down yet another independent bookstore; three cheers, please, for Vladimir Putin, odds on to continue his reign of terror whenever the next election will be; and big up that Doctor Marten boot about to crush those ants.

By now, you may have detected that this post has taken on a somewhat passive-aggressive tone, and special mention to you if you have, because it has. But of course, like most, I am not a fitting lecturer. Given’s praise for City will have gone down well with many because it is around this time of year that the Blue Moon brigade suddenly start to became popular, standing (alone) in the way of way of clubs with more developed hate-bases trying to wrestle the title from them. This season, for instance (and purely accepting Given’s medal-handing as a guide), people won’t have to suffer the over-celebrations of the Arsenal players and supporters who it has been so much more fun to routinely mock over the last decade or two; and others won’t have to endure all those ex Liverpool players smugly pontificating over another This Means More triumph while their self-entitled fans reach new unbearable levels. Manchester City can’t bring out the intense emotions in people that others can, but they are reliable like a hush-hush, wink-wink local MP getting you off a speeding ticket. 

But as I say, I’m not one to talk. Did I enjoy Newcastle United beating Spurs 4-0 on Saturday? Yes, I did. I would be a better person if I didn’t, but I’m not. Going much further back, ten seasons ago in 2013-14, did I want Liverpool, at the expense of City, to end their unexpected charge towards to the league title by securing the one trophy for Steven Gerrard that had eluded him? No. Was I relieved that he fell over the ball against Chelsea in the third last game of the season to bring City - and Mourinho’s Chelsea - back in? Yes. My thinking back then was that if anyone was going to win the league other than the Oligarch or Abu Dhabi lot, then it was Arsenal’s right, having run them the closest since the post-Highbury thrift era had been ushered in alongside the new money elsewhere. 

I am no more than a part of the problem. My disappointment and confusion over Manchester United fans being happy about City beating Arsenal to the title last season was misplaced. I am no better than them. I can boycott as many tournaments as I like, but when it comes down to it, it’s my own interests that rule.

So special mention to the human condition.

Saturday 24 February 2024

A potted history of potty grudges.

 It’s been three months and seventeen days since I last read The Guardian. Not bad, even if I do say so myself. I was a five- articles-a-day man -  often sneaking out from the family to click on a sixth - but I’ve subscribed to a patch-up publication to help with the withdrawals and haven’t lapsed.

This is the sort of thing that happens, they say, as you approach 50 and edge closer to retirement; the lean away from the Left and the twist to the Right. The gradual, then bitter opposition to immigrants and Trans rights. The new sympathy for those poor, put-upon millionaire Tories. The sudden need to put too much milk in tea. Some of this is nonsense of course: no one is edging closer to retirement these days. 

No, it’s nothing personal against The Guardian, I have long been waging vendettas against a range of newspapers, television programmes, sporting tournaments; some for personal reasons, some credible. I was in my twenties when I finally quit The Sun for good. I think I’d had at least one other go at walking away until, one day in 2002, sitting in my work canteen, I seethed inwardly at the final straw and then folded up my printed copy and pushed it aside. What was it, you ask, that finally brought me to the light: the objectification of women? The shameless terminology used to describe other nations? the continued championing of Kelvin ‘The Truth’ McKenzie? A belated realisation that I was feeding in daily to Rupert Murdoch’s evil empire? Was it all four of those compelling factors? No, I was outraged by the negative reporting of Arsenal’s 1-1 away draw at Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. 

Without going into details (Arsenal went down to 10 men in the second half when Ray Parlour received the second of two questionable yellow cards, allowing The Sun reporter to go on about the club’s disciplinary record under Arsene Wenger rather than praise the team for hanging on to their 1-0 lead until the very last minute, and not mention at all an unpunished foul just before the equaliser on Robert Pires that almost certainly stopped a second goal for the Gunners), my mind was made up for me, it wasn’t even a decision anymore, but suitably for a matter involving The Sun, a no-brainer. 

I moved on to The Evening Standard, less maverick maybe, but a safe pair of hands - although it’s availability wasn’t always reliable, sometimes bringing disappointment when the shop near my work hadn’t received delivery of the afternoon/evening’s editions by the time of my lunch break. On one occasion, I went up to the girl behind the counter and clumsily asked “Do you have any Standard’s?” Hopefully she’d noted my regular purchase of the paper and didn’t take offence. 

I know that I read the Standard for at least five years, as I recall the time that they too, nearly lost my custom after the 2007 League Cup Final. My favourite columnist was Matthew Norman, who though was a Spurs fan and made clear his issues with Wenger, was professional and skilled enough not to let it cloud his output (although of course I don’t know know what was edited out.) But then one day he wasn’t (in my view) and I refused to buy his paper for three days. A part of me believed (as apparently it does now) that my amnesty had shown them who was boss around here. When I handed my pennies to the girl at the shop on day 4, I was half expecting to read an apology.

I only stopped reading The Standard later that year when the first of my three children came along. My son’s arrival coincided with many things being dropped from my life, and reading a newspaper was one. There simply wasn’t the room to bring something else into the house among the sterilised bottles and nappies and baby wipes, or the time with all the baby signing and the existential angst. 

I would, though, live to turn my back on another publication. The existence of something called the internet allowed newspapers to be read online, and somewhere along the way I found The Guardian, or more accurately The Guardian football section, bringing me excellent feature writers twinned with a morality that chimed with mine, and no doubt further educated it. For 13 years - or 3 World Cups/European Championships - I’d found my home. Of course there were wobbles here and there, but the addiction or habit had forged a strong foothold. 

Until that November of 2023. 

What on earth could I have found so offensive in the inoffensive? The judgement of an Arsenal match, you wonder. My, aren’t I so predictable? The Guardian itself may have played a part in the betrayal I felt. I’d learned through them the horrors evident in repressive Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle that carried three acts of injustice in the goal alone, I was in no mood, even as late as the Wednesday following the Saturday match, when one of the regular columns criticised Mikel Arteta’s criticism of the referee/VAR. I was self-aware enough to understand that this column often cited “tin-hatted fans”, and that my subsequent Ferguson/Redknapp-like strop amounted to such a slur. But as Arsenal prepare to face Newcastle today in the return fixture at The…in North London, I am almost proud that my pettiness has lasted so long. 

Back in my GCSE year, I woke up to the sounds of Radio 1 DJ Simon Mayo, who unlike fellow Spurs fan Matthew Norman, wasn’t restrained in sharing his feelings on Arsenal, regularly fitting a Tony Adams donkey noise into the breakfast show and slating George Graham’s team even as they raced to the title that 90-91 season while Tottenham plunged further into financial irregularity and mid-table. I kept listening because my self-esteem was low enough to invite respect for Mayo to the point that I hung around waiting for his validation. The one time he said anything nice about Arsenal, the morning after their 3-0 win over champions Liverpool, I went in to school with the proverbial spring in my step. How sad. After that it was normal service resumed, and I even listened the Monday morning after Spurs beat Arsenal 3-1 in the first ever Wembley FA Cup semi-final and Mayo had Gary Lineker on as a guest. 

Mayo was also horrible to the listeners who phoned in to play the breakfast show games, and the sadly late Dianne Oxberry, the lone voice of reason and warmth alongside Mayo and the man-child news reader Rod McKenzie, ticked him off for being sarcastic and disrespectful. My dad chuckled at the “jumped up, little…” though Mum, distant from football and level-headed, considered my choice of Mayo as my ‘one free kill’ a waste because he was “so insignificant.” I am comfortable now, recalling Mayo’s laughably prudish lecture on Top of The Pops right after the Divinyls performance of I Touch Myself, and I smirk at his righteous indignation when rebuking Danish actor Sofie Grabol for unknowingly swearing on one of his more recent shows. I didn’t listen to it but read Grabol’s recollection in an interview. Mayo is not so much Alan Partridge, more Dave Clifton. A dosser and a dwad. 

I don’t know what the alternatives were, Radio 2 wasn’t then what it is now - and maybe I should have just got up out of bed - but the me now wouldn’t give Mayo one breath. Nowadays, because of that internet thing, you can find lots of people feeling how you are feeling about your team and the people who hate them. I pretty much use Arseblog as a counselling service. I don’t go anywhere near the danger zones of Sky Sports and Talksport FM. I did, though, expect better of The Guardian/a small part of its football section. 

So when, hot on the heels of the St James’ Park fallout, a rival comes along to offer me a cut-price deal, I will happily move on and take my custom elsewhere. I have a right not to agree with the man who is not agreeing with the manager of my team, and just as I take umbrage with that freedom of speech, I will activate my freedom of movement. Before Saudi Arabia come for it. 

Thursday 15 February 2024

Mocking all over the world

 The second half at the London Stadium was just a few minutes old on Sunday afternoon (11.02.23) when viewers and listeners were treated to the most compelling evidence yet of a new trend that is definitely growing amongst match-going fans in the Premier League. Definitely a new trend? Well, I’ve had to go back in the edit and delete Upton Park as West Ham United’s home, but don’t let that discredit my claim. 

Leandro Trossard of the Woolwich Arsenal had just directed a shot wide of the West Ham goal, and this was immediately followed by the customary cry of collective mocking from the East End flash Harrys. It was the usual noise of this sort, the one you also hear when a waiter drops a tray of glasses, the one that used to be 'Wahey!' but over time has lost the w and the a, and gained an r at the beginning (this version has now usurped 'aggggh!' as the lead insult of choice, but what will never change is that mis-directed shots and sliding cutlery will always fall prey to a certain section of the public hard-wired to find other people’s misfortune incredibly amusing.)

Of course, the Trossard baiting in itself isn't unusual, but the context here warrants examination; in short, the scoreline at the time of it:  West Ham United 0 Arsenal 4.

If anyone was ripe for ridicule in that moment, it wasn't Trossard, a player who'd already scored a vicious, bending third for Arsenal in a first half where all four of the goals for the visitors up to then had come. People on the wrong end of a 0-4 reverse at home to London rivals, now I can see the humour in that, but more to the point, I would expect the natives to have observed Trossard's latest assault on their goal with this restlessness that the media types go on about. I would expect to hear the strains of disgruntlement, or even the discontent of silence, maybe even see concerned head-shaking (although not on the radio.) What I wouldn't expect to hear is a goalscorer in the opposing team who are four goals up having the piss taken out of.

Unbelievable, you cry, but wait, the same thing happened to Bukayo Saka in Arsenal's win at Nottingham Forest two weeks before. He'd already scored as part of a two-goal lead over the hosts, but then obscurely was ribbed for narrowly missing a third for the away side.  In this instance, it may be churlish to investigate Forest’s home support, who are quietly becoming some of the most ‘interesting’ in the Premier League (particularly as Stoke City are no longer in it.) Take their barracking of the very same Saka in an FA Cup game three years ago, when they chanted “You let your country down!” after his penalty-against-the-post that saw Italy take the Euro 2020 (aka Euro 21) trophy against England at Wembley six months before. How, I wonder, would one of Forest’s most famous ever players, former captain and manager, Stuart Pearce feel about that chant?

I hasten to add that it isn’t just Arsenal players receiving the mocking-while-winning experience; I have recently and frequently been affronted on behalf of other teams, too. What ever happened to the kind of face-covering despair so regularly expressed by, for example, Newcastle United’s fans from the late winter to spring of 1996? 

I blame these world and European tournaments, where fans in the stadiums are shown flitting between sadness and joy, one extreme emotion replacing another by virtue of noticing themselves on the big screen. Many will argue that this is another virus we have picked up from those pesky other countries, the disturbing revelation that losing a football match might not be the end of the world. Honestly, it will be half and half scarves next.

Or might it be that fans are capable of evolving too? We hear about these modern day managers bringing in their counter-pressing and passing lanes and cycle hubs and XG's of 120, but is it unreasonable to consider that the paying mugs, once labelled hooligans, now derided as customers, can just as cleverly put strategies together, all too aware that outside the stadium there is even more darkness, with interest rates and energy bills and bloody Thatcher, and that if they can find a spark of joy in the other team’s wing half narrowly missing his sixth goal of the game after just three minutes, they will rightfully take it. 

Monday 5 February 2024

Howe-away the lads!

 Tempting as it is to snigger when Newcastle United complain  about anything these days, their supporters’ protest during the home 4-4 draw with Luton Town (Saturday 3/2/24) that highlighted a succession of late evening away kick offs, at least have an ounce of credibility about them (certainly more so than Eddie Howe’s moaning about being forced to comply with Financial Fair Play rules.)

Of course, sympathy may swiftly be beheaded when you consider that United’s new-found attraction, bought and paid for by the murdering PIF regime of Saudi Arabia, is at the heart of these televised dates, and to cry foul at a Premier League who allowed your club’s shiny new owners to pass their fit and proper persons test seems a bit inconsistent (though Geordies, by their very nature, are inconsistent, Alan Partridge might have said.)

Speaking more generally, it’s obviously unreasonable that a North East team’s fans should be expected to regularly turn up to a match one day and travel back the next, but then, sadly, reason has little to do with elite football in this country. And of course it’s not just them who get the wrong end of the deal. One of their recent 7pm kick off travels was to Fulham in the FA Cup, but this game was just three three evenings since the West London team were playing at Liverpool in a semi final second leg of another cup competition. Old school football bloke might say they should just get on with it like in the proper days, when there were 12-player squads and men were men, but couldn’t the game have been played on Monday or Tuesday? Chelsea, who court marginally less compassion than Newcastle, played Aston Villa in the Cup on Friday, three nights after their own second leg semi of the Carabao Cup. Why not Saturday or Sunday? 

Questions, reason, anger: they will, for all the logic behind them, count for nothing in the end. Take Jurgen Klopp, who has announced his intention to leave Liverpool at the end of the season; a man who has won everything in the club game, a legend, huge personality. Yet for all his on-pitch success he has got nowhere with the comments he’s made about senseless fixture schedules and nation-state clubs. There will have been wry smiles at FIFA and UEFA and at the Premier League when his decision to step down became public. Another giant overcome. Even someone like Klopp is just passing through. Collecting trophies and being mugged off. The authorities just ride it out, knowing it will be someone else’s turn soon. Protesting just becomes part of the story. 

Wolves played Chelsea on Christmas Eve. There were dissenting voices, but people still went and watched, tuned in. That we won’t see a Christmas Day match is only because of the threat Julia Donaldson brings. Newcastle fans can protest long into the night of their next midweek fixture in the capital, but it’s as futile, and in their case as unjustified, despite the semblance of common sense, as Howe’s other moan about injuries. These things are happening to everyone, and your own greed will eat you in the end. 

Monday 22 January 2024

Come on feel the Moyes

Bramall Lane, Sunday Jan 24 2024, and West Ham boss David Moyes isn’t someone who wants to pin two late dropped points on referee Michael Salisbury.

“I’m certainly not going to talk about refereees, that’s for sure, I don’t want to get myself in trouble.”

Righto, Dave, let’s see how you get on.

“You should ask the referee and see what they think.”

Well done for sticking it out, Dave.

“We have got to a stage where we are settling for a level of officiating where we are all shrugging our shoulders and saying OK.”

Shrugging our shoulders, yep.

“We are shrugging our shoulders and seeing what they are going to do. We don’t know what they are going to do.”

Still shrugging our shoulders, okey dokey. Not even the Glenn Hoddle “scratching our heads”, but just a teenage type of apathy greeting every questionable decision against the ‘Happy Hammers’. Wonder who “they” are?

“We’re disappointed, we feel as if things have gone against us.” 


“We’ll only blame ourselves.”

Very noble, Dave, fair play to you. 

“But ultimately we could look at other people as well.”


When it wasn’t put to Moyes by reporters that Vladimir Coufal’s red card might have been a few weeks in the making seeing as, you know, the right back went unpunished for an assault and battery on Wolves defender, Jeanricner Bellagarde at the London Stadium last month (a case of on-pitch and video negligence that former Ham striker, now pundit, Ian Wright, called “pathetic”) he also opted not to talk about referees. 

End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points) Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crysta...