Bang. Darkness, then light. Nothing – then everything at once. That was how it all started, with the totality of all there ever was and all there ever will be exploding into being. The original New Normal. Suddenly, there was everything to play for and forever to play it in.
Football is many things, most of them contradictory. Gloriously simple yet monstrously convoluted. Big-hearted yet small-minded. We see the greed of kings, despots and CEOs, all cash-rich yet morally bankrupt; we see social mobility and the decency of the everyman; we see every semitone of light and shade between the two.
But for all its inconsistencies, there remains a through-line. It is everywhere. It is all the time. At least it was until that ghoul entered from the east – a half-eaten bat in one hand and a “NO BALL GAMES” sign in the other – and took a gigantic steaming hangover piss all over the world’s collective chips.
Then there was nothing once more, and like in the beginning, the universe felt claustrophobic, tense and volatile. It stayed that way for a while. Our hair grew as our numbers shrank. Spring became summer, while the world felt gripped by nuclear winter. Then the game erupted into being again, bursting into the empty space with more matches, more incident, and more substitutions than we could comprehend.
A complete absence of football gave way to an overwhelming superabundance. But while the grass was green and the ball was round, this wasn’t the game we had known before. Players’ shouts echoed around empty stadiums as fans were forced to stay at home. For some teams, the lack of atmosphere coupled with a loss of momentum and match fitness proved too much. Sheffield United and Leicester City had their hopes of Champions League football dashed in a relentless run-in. There were missed opportunities for both. Woulda, coulda… shudder.
Even Liverpool, who left the Premier League looking like a butcher’s slab from August to March, dropped more points (10) in nine post-lockdown matches than they had in the previous 42 Premier League games (9). It meant they ended their historic campaign with a measly 99 points.
“We run because we want to, not because we have to.” That was how Jürgen Klopp described the work ethic of his side in the wake of their trophy lift last Wednesday. Not only has he marked himself out as one of the game’s greatest managers, but as one of its finest orators too, apt considering that – without a title rival – this season has been something of a monologue for Liverpool.
His aphorism was as accurate as it was poignant. His players give every last drop of lactic acid to Liverpool Football Club, barrelling about the pitch as though they were on the marching powder rather than the isotonics. Nowhere is this commitment better personified than in their captain, Jordan Henderson. For much of his career, Henderson has been maligned. A figure of fun, almost. Alex Ferguson turned down the chance to sign him before he joined Liverpool, citing his running style as a factor and later describing Kenny Dalglish’s acquisition of the midfielder as a “sub-standard buy.” A decade later, he has won the lot and been named the FWA player of the year to boot.
He is one of perhaps five dead certs for England’s starting 11 at the time of writing. His teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold is another, while Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and to a lesser extent Marcus Rashford all look likely to form the bedrock of Gareth Southgate’s side for the delayed European Championship next summer. Sterling and Rashford have both enjoyed the most productive season of their respective careers in terms of goalscoring, and their on-pitch exploits have been matched by their well-publicised and hugely commendable dealings off it. That footballers seem to be becoming more active in socially conscious initiatives can only be a good thing.
Away from the opulence of the top four, Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth will play their football in the Championship next season – in just a few short weeks, in fact. Over the course of this campaign, VAR joined sex, politics and religion on the list of things you should never talk about on a first date lest the starters be used as projectiles. On the South Coast, it will be a particularly touchy subject with the system’s failure to overturn a blatant goalline technology error in Aston Villa’s draw with Sheffield United playing a huge part in Eddie Howe’s side’s relegation.
But while their indignation is certainly righteous, Bournemouth have looked every bit a Championship side treading water in the top-flight over the past 11 months, splashing pitifully and gasping for air as they won once in 12 matches before the final day. There was a time when Eddie Howe was the darling manager of the Premier League, a perpetual overachiever who would surely be at a top-six club within a year or two. But his time never came. While his career is far from over (he was the third-youngest manager in the Premier League this season) it does look as though another young English manager has missed the boat.
The same cannot be said for Frank Lampard. In his first season as a manager, he took Derby County from 6th to the dizzy heights of 6th in the Championship. After Maurizio Sarri left Chelsea for Juventus, Lampard was named boss of his former club. Star power and an incomparable rapport with the fanbase played a large part in his premature ascension, a luxury which the likes of Eddie Howe have not had. To his credit, Lampard has managed a 4th place finish in trying circumstances – Eden Hazard, arguably the league’s best player before his departure, finalising a long-awaited move to Real Madrid before the start of the season and with Chelsea unable to replace him due to a transfer ban.
Lampard has blooded homegrown talent on a level we have not seen at Stanford Bridge since Roman Abramovich swept into London on a gust of oil fumes. Yet still, only three teams in the league (Manchester City, Wolves, Arsenal) have given fewer minutes to English players.
Two places above Chelsea, Manchester City’s passturbation reached a weary climax, Guardiola’s side losing nine games in total and finishing 18 points behind the champions. Their football has been otherworldly at times this season and they might still win the Champions League, but there is no doubt that they have fallen well short of the standard we have come to expect from them.
Their problems are relatively similar to those endured by England. The absence of a top-quality centre-back (with Aymeric Laporte out for most of the season) has short-circuited what is otherwise a high-performance machine. John Stones started just 16 games all season, with midfielders Fernandinho and Rodri both preferred to him in defence. With Arsenal – another team who have had major issues in this area – and Chelsea reportedly interested in the 26-year-old, it might be time for Stones to attempt a career revival away from the Etihad.
In the same position, Harry Maguire has had a mixed season with Manchester United, playing every minute of their Premier League campaign but making a number of high-profile errors in the process – an occupational hazard in the age of playing out from the back. All in all, he has attracted a disproportionate degree of criticism due to his £80 million price tag. Only Manchester City and Liverpool have conceded fewer goals than United this season, and Maguire deserves credit for helping them to a very respectable 3rd place finish.
Leicester, Spurs and Wolves made up the chasing pack for the top-four, with the first two guaranteed Europa League football next season and Wolves waiting on the outcome of 8th place Arsenal’s FA Cup Final this coming weekend. Jamie Vardy won the golden boot for Leicester and hit 100 Premier League goals in the process. At 33, the raw-boned former factory worker’s story is approaching its final chapters, but what a tale it has been.
It will not be that kind of charming fairytale – though you can bet it will be spun as such – if Newcastle United’s takeover by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund comes to fruition. Under Steve Bruce, the Magpies have had a steady season, finishing 13th when many expected them to be fighting the drop. But the club has been stuck on a rolling boil for years now with the fanbase desperate to see the back of owner Mike Ashley who they see as responsible for their stagnation as a football club.
Ashley is not a pleasant man. His nefarious business practices as owner of Sports Direct and House of Fraser are well documented; Newcastle United fans are well within their rights to detest a man whose opportunism has played a significant part in the economic decline of their homeland, the post-industrial North East. But for all his faults, he does not behead journalists, he does not systematically discriminate against women, and he has not been condemned by Amnesty International. Newcastle United deserve new owners, but they deserve better than that.
“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightening shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, down cast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shaped Iliads and Odysseys for you; and, what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life.”
J. B. Priestly may have been writing in 1929, but his words carry just as much if not more weight in 2020. For well over a century, football has served billions as an escape from drudgery, loneliness or pain. It isn’t called the beautiful game because of its conformity with some arbitrary aesthetic standard, but because of its almost psychedelic capacity to add some colour to what can be a very grey world. In its absence, life was monochrome and scary.
This season was the longest there has ever been. In the deepest depths of the pandemic, football became the light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. Covid-19 isn’t gone, and it’s clear we are in it for the long-game. But as football returned, so too did a pastiche of normality. VAR is still shit. Arsenal still can’t play out from the back. Football is still football. We’re just glad to have it back.