There is, as you may have gathered, quite a lot that leaves us concerned, unhappy or downright angry about the game today (as always). But, despite it all, there is so much that raises a smile, so many reasons why what’s wrong with football is worth caring about. In the spirit of the season, rather than the usual setting the world to rights, we’ve decided to remind ourselves of what is, already, right with the world.
Most obviously, if you ignore the team on top (and José Mourinho does seem unduly concerned when other people talk about Chelsea) the Premiership has been a competitive division. At the time of writing Manchester United have edged into second, but it has been fantastic to see Wigan spend the longest time this season as the top north-west team, having already accumulated nearly enough points to stay up. And any misgivings that anyone may have about the sense of perspective and entrepreneurship of owner Dave Whelan is surely offset by the fact that Paul Jewell is unique among managers in citing Leon Trotsky as a hero.
West Ham, too, have bucked the trend of newly promoted sides and Alan Pardew is already owed some handsome apologies. Stuart Pearce – another manager we had doubts about – has not produced as attractive a team, but by his presence on the sidelines (and occasionally on the pitch) has added to the sum of human happiness in his time at Manchester City. Martin Jol also appears, from uncertain beginnings after Jacques Santini’s resignation, to have produced a Spurs side heading in the right direction.
Pearce is not alone in having provided laughs. The south-coast sitcom at Fratton Park and St Mary’s, the bastard child of Never The Twain and Allo, Allo, has kept all neutral observers entertained all year (even if we feel rather sorry for the miscast Alain Perrin), the highlight being the press conference at which that classic odd couple Clive Woodward and Harry Redknapp pledged their mutual respect. Other boardroom pleasures have included the goings-on at Hearts in a suddenly competitive Scottish Premier League, with what is now a three-horse title race not involving Rangers. There was also the TV footage of the Glazers in the directors’ box at Old Trafford looking alternately pained and perplexed during the goalless Champions League draw with Villarreal. Wayne Rooney’s sudden fondness for sarcastic applauding of referees, in the manner of a disgruntled bus passenger taunting a driver after they’d been let off a stop later than requested, was a welcome development, too – proof that even multi-millionaires barely emerging from their teens still have the common touch.
Of course Rooney has provided plenty of more deliberate thrills. With England, the watchword has been “expect the unexpected”. The defeat to Northern Ireland in September was, arguably, their worst defeat ever outside a World Cup finals (step forward, USA 1950). The hysteria that result provoked was followed by a near equal and opposite reaction after friendly success in Geneva. In between, England won a third consecutive qualifying group for the first time since the 1950s, but we were more excited by the efforts of Ivory Coast, Togo, Angola and Ghana in qualifying for the World Cup for the first time, as did Trinidad & Tobago (featured elsewhere).
The cups, like international football, remain vibrant. Several non-League teams did well in the first round of the FA Cup, while lower-division sides have shone in the Carling Cup. It is worth restating that football outside the top flight is incredibly popular, compared to previous English trends or the rest of Europe. It is also competitive, with relegated Premiership sides failing to dominate the Championship, while in League One the four promoted sides have surpassed hopes, never mind expectations. And while fans of Torquay, Stockport, Macclesfield and others will be less happy, it is good to see Rushden, run by their fans, clinging on to League status and pulling in close to 3,000 as they defy their position as hot favourites to slip into the Conference. But, as Doncaster’s success shows, what used to be regarded as the end can be a new beginning.
There is, in fact, so much to delight in. Who could fail, at this time of year, to smile at the false rumour, faithfully reported by some of the press, that Manchester City’s Kiki had a brother, Kris Musampa, who was considering a move to England? And so, to adapt a line from the introduction that the late John Peel provided for a WSC compilation, merry Christmas and goodwill to all men (list of exceptions sent to genuine students on application).
From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month