“We obviously can’t compete with the money Manchester City have so there’s no point trying. We’ve got to succeed some other way.” So said a Premier League chairman in late September. But this wasn’t a pragmatic view from someone at a club that would be happy with a mid-table finish. It was Arsenal’s Peter Hill-Wood, whose comments were reported on the day that his team went top after a win at Bolton. The Arsenal board are bucking the current trend by actively discouraging interest from outside investors, in their case Alisher Usmanov from Uzbekistan, who owns a 24 per cent stake in the club.
So, quite a lively month for Manchester City. Midway through August the club appeared to be in crisis, with owner Thaksin Shinawatra refusing to return home to Thailand to face a corruption trial. If he were convicted in his absence, the Premier League would have faced an unprecedented test of its notoriously obtuse “fit and proper persons” test. There were stories of the club operating on a hand-to-mouth basis with former chairman John Wardle having had to loan Thaksin £2 million on several occasions to pay wages. A shock home defeat to Danish UEFA Cup opponents was followed by a 4-2 mauling at Villa Park.
Anyone who has managed to stay awake while reading reports about Frank Lampard’s contractual wrangling may have noted a comment by his agent that negotiations with Chelsea been going on “for two years”. Nuclear non-proliferation treaties have been wrapped up quicker. So what have they been discussing for all this time?
Euro 2008 will be remembered fondly, not just in Spain. There was a lot of good football as a series of teams discovered the virtues of positive play over cautiousness, and there was some glorious drama. Russia disappointed in the end, but were deserved semi-finalists. Turkey’s progress to the same stage was more remarkable; they ran out of luck while putting in their best performance, against Germany, but that 3-2 defeat was the most memorable of a series of fine games.
The fact that Portsmouth are to embark on their first ever season in Europe is an indication of one of the enduring strengths of the English league. Nowhere else in Europe are there teams with as many supporters who are yet to qualify for one of UEFA’s competitions. Portsmouth’s FA Cup victory still leaves several well supported clubs who are yet to play in Europe, notably Sheffield United, Charlton and Crystal Palace – although the last-named finished third in 1991 and would have done so but for the Heysel ban.
With the news as we went to press that Sven-Göran Eriksson was set to be sacked after his new club’s best top-flight season since 1992, Thaksin Shinawatra appears to have confirmed his ambition of turning Manchester City into the English equivalent of Hearts. That story started quite well, too, back in 2005. The club’s new Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov, loudly proclaimed his determination to challenge Rangers and Celtic, and the team led the SPL for just over three months. But even with the team topping the table, manager George Burley was manoeuvred out. Half a dozen less successful men, whose names even Hearts fans would struggle to keep track of, have followed.
It has been a while since relegation to the Conference was tantamount to dropping into a black hole. In the past ten years, seven clubs have been promoted back into the League after falling out. That won’t be any consolation to fans of Mansfield Town and Wrexham, who remain stuck at the foot of League Two with games running out fast.
A new phrase entered football last month, one that we will be hearing a lot more of. The Premier League’s “Game 39” plan, involving an extra round of matches being played at five venues in other countries, met with almost universal derision when it was announced by chief executive Richard Scudamore in early February. The media and supporters’ groups condemned it straight away, and were soon followed by football officials from around the world. Even the FA, not known for taking an adversarial line with the Premier League, chanced some mild criticism of the plan once FIFA’s Sepp Blatter had dismissed it out of hand.
As you know, the England team won’t be too busy this summer. So they are arranging a friendly for June, in Trinidad to celebrate the centenary of the FA there. This will be the first time that a full England team have played in the Caribbean, which is surprising, though not more so than the fact that their only ever game in Anglophone Africa was in Durban in 2003.
You know what to expect in the new year these days. Several clubs will field weakened sides in the FA Cup. A couple of high-profile players or their agents – this year it’s Dimitar Berbatov and Nicolas Anelka – will let it be known that they are looking for a move to a club “that will match my ambition”. And a couple of managers at least will complain about the transfer window. Step forward Steve Coppell – “I cannot see the logic in it, it brings on a fire-sale mentality” – and Gary Megson who, mirroring the outlook of the Europhobes who complain about the metric system having replaced imperial weights and measures, wants to see the window challenged in court. “Football clubs are told they have to do their business in a certain time, not when they would like to do it,” said Megson, who also echoed Coppell’s view that the window helps only the biggest clubs.