The title perhaps suggests this will be just another salivating borefest committed to regaling all with the deeds of the second best ever manager of England’s top flight in the wake of his retirement, but nothing could be further from my mind. As the season draws to a close I see a great deal of “endings”, and it feels almost like this is the moment when the latest era of England’s top flight has drawn to a close. Next season everything will probably remain much as it is, but with sufficient difference to suggest a new era has dawned.
Let us get the elephant in the room out the way first. Fergie has ruled the Premier League with an iron fist practically since its inception. In recent seasons he has flown dangerously close to the line of flaunting political power over on the field events, though perhaps “dangerously close” is mere irony. Such arrogance is not easily won however, and though I am happier to finally see the back of him I cannot deny that his record, especially in the league, is something that most managers would dream of when starting out. His status in the media is such that should he take up a post at United that is for all intents and purposes a “Director of Football”, then one could easily predict such a position immediately being hailed as the “new way forward for British football” by all the media monkeys who to that point had waxed passionately about the folly of clubs like Liverpool for attempting the same.
It not just the end of Fergie’s era either. With four of this season’s top seven clubs sporting new managers, including each of the top 3, the start of next season will seem more akin to massive upheaval than a breath of fresh air. Arsene Wenger can probably count himself lucky to be among the three who kept their posts, having earned a stay of execution in a manner not unlike Wigan retaining top flight status each season since taking on Martinez as manager. Perhaps the final failure of Wigan to stay up is the end of an era in itself; eight seasons of clawing their way from mediocrity to catastrophe. Furthermore, the remaining two managers of top seven clubs who did not get the sack are yet to be in their posts for twelve months, and come next season somehow Rodgers will have been at his club for less time than only 6 other EPL managers. Change indeed!
Further change has been seen in the decline of Stoke, the final bastion of traditional British football, and the rise of an increasing number of clubs sporting continental approaches. Rodgers’ work at Swansea was improved by Laudrup taking the club to the League Cup and into the EPL top 10. Rodgers himself dramatically changed the creaking, long-ball tactics of his predecessor into a passing machine that promises much in the future, even though presently it is little more than a flat-track bully. Although he started out with the Barcelona style firmly in mind, lately we have seen the depth of his tactical knowledge as the side has imitated both Dortmund and Real Madrid in recent weeks with some success. More clubs than before have adapted systems using odd-numbered striker counts (4-5-1, 4-3-3 et al), and on more than a few occasions we have seen three-at-the-back in imitation of the success of Juventus. Although British referees continue to allow thuggery on the pitch in the name of the English Game, the modern European systems are gradually taking over. 4-4-2 will never die, but gone are the days of a 6’2” brute with some ability in the air being requirement enough for most clubs.
I feel it is also the end of England football’s “Golden Generation”, the one that achieved exactly as much as all the generations before it barring that which won the ’66 World Cup – nothing. The supposedly 4th ranked side in world football has failed even to beat lowly Montengro in each of their last three meetings, and with Roy Hodgson at the helm one cannot imagine a future much more rosy than the present pot of decaying bulbs. All their super-stars are fading too: contract extensions or otherwise, Lampard and Rooney are largely out of favour at the only clubs that admire them, Terry is struggling with fitness and age, former stalwarts Owen, Carragher and Scholes have finally put up their boots, and Steven Gerrard, at times a mere shadow of the player he was, is urged more frequently by Liverpool fans to focus on club rather than country as Ferdinand has done. It would appear that England will struggle to qualify for the next World Cup, and who would the media blame then?
Perhaps they should blame the FA? After all, this is the organization that refused to take on Harry Redknapp at a time when Spurs were looking to get rid of him he was available! This is the same organisation that, in an effort to improve the quality of British footballers, doubled the required number of players who were born or taught football in England for each 25-man EPL squad, and figured that would be enough. In the wake of this change at the start of the 10/11 season, the EPL champion was eliminated from the Champions’ League group stage in successive seasons (11/12 and 12/13). Prior to this season, and going back to 04/05, an English club reached the CL final every season outside 09/10. 7 of those 8 finals appearances belong to Liverpool, Chelsea, and United, none of whom have the same managers as then, and Liverpool doesn’t qualify for any European competition next season. The 8th is Arsenal, who have failed to get out of the last 16 two seasons running. CL title holders Chelsea, who many felt were lucky to even reach last season’s semi-finals, also failed to get through the group stage this season. One has to wonder whether English football is really able to compete at that level any more. Is this the end of an era of English dominance in Europe’s premier club competition?
If anything, the FA should have been taking notes of the changes in German football rather than simply increasing quotas. The Bundesliga has had a CL finalist in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including both finalists this season. German football burst onto the international stage with their new-look youth at Euro 2008, and since then has gained nothing but respect and “momentum”. With the fortunes of Barcelona fading and reports of some dissent in the ranks, one wonders whether the current chapter of Spanish football too is drawing to a close, to be replaced by the efficient Germans who can only have thrived while staying within their country’s league thanks to excellent administration. By contrast, the FA is failing England, not just in terms of international football, but also in their flawed, random decision-making and non-independent, unchallengeable tribunals that make a mockery of justice and understanding in the league. How long before their arrogance will be taken to task by those with the power to enforce change?
Off the pitch another era is drawing to an end. With government’s apology and the reopening of the inquiry, the Hillsborough stadium disaster will finally be once again what it always was; an avoidable human tragedy. Gone in time will be the stigma that it was caused by Liverpool fans, the same fans that a handful of seasons before had caused English clubs to be ejected from European competition through their actions at Heysel. It did not matter that football hooligans were a plague that affected the entire country, and that Europe already viewed English football dimly; Liverpool was the scapegoat, and at Hillsborough became repeat offenders. Nothing makes a bigger statement than heavily punishing those at the pinnacle of success; just ask Luis Suarez. With the generation of anti-Liverpool sentiment now certain to fade away a new dawn awaits the club, and with it an opportunity to return to the summit of a league in which it has at times seemed to have been deliberately oppressed.
The king is dead. Let the battle for the succession commence.