Now that our best-known footballers are immersed in celebrity culture, with its attendant personal managers, press spokesmen and image consultants, they keep wanting to tell us how they feel. The players signed by Manchester City seem especially prone to baring their emotions. Earlier this summer, Gareth Barry explained his decision to leave Aston Villa by way of an open letter to the club's supporters in a local paper. Carlos Tevez has insisted that he opted to move across Manchester because he didn't feel wanted at United, the £150,000 a week being offered by City had nothing do with his choice. Then it was the turn of a player City failed to tempt.
Some football clubs are immune from the global recession. One is Real Madrid who seem to be set on buying up the best players from the main Champions League rivals, another is Manchester City who are apparently prepared to pay Samuel Eto’o a basic £250,000 per week. If Eto’o’s potential employers can afford that sort of salary is of course entirely their business, although it might also be reasonable to wonder just how much money anyone needs to earn. In view of the huge amount of money sloshing about in the sport, you could also wonder why anyone would feel compelled to top up a handsome salary with extra undeclared income. The answer might be that they do it because they can.
In these turbulent times for their club, let’s spare a thought for the silent majority among Newcastle United fans. “Passion” has long been deemed to be a key attribute in English football, whether it’s shown by players, managers or supporters. For several years now, Newcastle followers, or at least a subsection of them, have been seen as the epitome of the committed fan whose life revolves around their club. Thus the arrival of Alan Shearer as manager was greeted on television and radio by blethering idiots hailing the return of the saviour. Many supporters questioned the wisdom of appointing a novice but their views couldn’t be summed up in a crass soundbite so we didn’t get to hear from them.
Aston Villa fans won’t want to be reminded of this but they have set a record this season. No club with as many points as they had at the halfway stage has finished lower than third since the Premier League began. Those who had hoped to see the top-four cartel broken up will have to wait – and their patience may be tried for several more years yet. But football is still subject to some quite sudden change, none more startling than what has taken place at the bottom of the Championship.
How times change. In March 2006 Darren Bent received his first England cap while playing for Charlton, who were the epitome of a solid mid-table Premier League team. Three years on, Charlton are close to sealing relegation to the third level for the first time in 30 years – and Bent’s latest call-up, the result of an England striker injury-list to which his name would soon be added, prompted consternation in the press.
It’s been 36 years since two English clubs played each other in the UEFA Cup. Villa and Spurs would have met in the last 16 this year had they got past CSKA Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. Instead, they fielded under-strength teams – Spurs in both legs, Villa in their away tie in Moscow – with the same outcome, a 3-1 aggregate defeat. Spurs were knocked out in front of 30,000 at White Hart Lane, Villa were watched by 300 of their fans who’d travelled 3,200 miles for the privilege of getting an update on the progress of the reserve team. Four days later, Man Utd too rested players for the resoundingly awful Carling Cup final in which they nonetheless beat Spurs’ first eleven on penalties. At the same time an almost entirely different Villa team to the one in Moscow conceded two goals in the last four minutes to draw with Stoke. It didn’t seem like much of a return for effectively opting out of what would have been their best run in Europe for over a decade.
Setanta got a record audience figure for the Premier League match between Liverpool and Everton on Monday, January 19. This fact was reported in the following day’s press, although there was not a word about it in the Murdoch-owned papers. At one level this is understandable – commercial rivals can hardly be expected to acknowledge one another’s existence. But even though the match at Anfield had a direct bearing on the title race – Liverpool would have returned to the top if they’d won – there was scarcely a mention of it on Sky Sports News at any point on that Monday night.
On successive days in December, the sports pages carried several pictures of excited young fans reaching out to touch players. Firstly Japanese children in Ronaldo replica shirts greeted Manchester United when they arrived in Tokyo for the Club World Cup. The following day Blyth Spartans fans celebrated the FA Cup second-round defeat of Bournemouth; it’s unlikely that their green-and-white shirts are available anywhere other than the club shop and a couple of stores in Blyth town centre.
Anyone browsing the job sections in the broadsheet press of late may have noticed an advertisement for the post of chief executive of the Football Association. The current holder of the post, Brian Barwick, leaves officially at the end of the year, although he has had plenty of time to improve his putting technique since the summer, when he was relieved of most of his responsibilities by FA chairman Lord Triesman.
It was no surprise that Harry Redknapp’s appointment as Spurs boss a few days later met with almost universal approval in the press. Most football journalists seem to love Redknapp – while many managers treat reporters with varying degrees of suspicion, he’s affable, talkative and funny, a constant source of good copy. In among the many phone calls he apparently made in the hours after his departure from Portsmouth around midnight on Saturday was a characteristic quip, reflecting on the £5 million compensation agreed with his ex-employers: “Pompey couldn’t sell a player in the window so we sell the manager.”