James Lawton: Cheat-ridden, greedy, brassy, mindless and...highly addictive
The monster known as the Premier League is back and it promises to be as intriguing and controversial as ever – especially now the Big Four has swelled to the Super Six
Somewhere along the road of brilliant summer sport maybe your wish list for a new Premier League campaign was mislaid.
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Perhaps it was because the last one was in many ways so wretched, so lacking in style and communal heart off the field and, for so much of the time, so deeply mediocre on it. Indeed, when Barcelona came to Wembley and outclassed the champions of England was it not so much a defeat as a judgement?
But then if a week is a long time in politics and the serenity of our streets, a summer without the national drug, the barometer of so many distracting dreams and hopes, can for so many touch on eternity.
It is why the wish lists, including this one, are being scribbled down now.
The monster is upon us again with its brassy claims, mindless greed, capacity to cheat and flagrant disregard for the old principle that any league is only as strong as its most vulnerable member. But has it any real need to fear a significant level of indifference?
No, of course it does not. The Premier League knows that it remains attached to so much of the national vein. Some of its manifestations may be repellent but it is also addictive.
So what do we do? We make our wishes, which are variously one-eyed, eccentric, fanciful, well-meaning and about as likely to be fulfilled as a first-time mortgage application for a penthouse overlooking Kensington Gardens.
No doubt the one outlined here will tick most of those boxes but with the merit, at least it is pretty to think, of being detached from the worst examples of tribalism already being revved up in most corners of the nation.
First, there are the generalities. There is the hope of a hint of social conscience, the one which we are constantly being told by the Professional Footballers' Association is a reality too easily obscured by the sensationalised reporting of excesses in the celebrity fast lane.
Of course, we like to think this is true, as maybe we fancied we saw looks of authentic reflection on the faces of the England players gathered to hear the announcement that this week's friendly against the Netherlands had yielded to the more pressing business of protecting lives and homes, some of them at the very approaches of Wembley Stadium.
Were some of those players really comparing their own good fortune with the fate of the lemming kids so busily looting and burning and, if they were, might this, just maybe, trigger new and superior levels of behaviour out on the field?
Marvin Miller, an American trade unionist who fought successfully for huge rises in the incomes of baseball players, once swore indignantly that ball players had only one obligation. It was to play ball. The kids on the street, he said while defending a star pitcher assailed by drug abuse charges, should look up to their parents and their brothers and sisters and not professional sportsmen.
A grown-up view, you might say, but then you think of the disparity between so much reward and performance at the top of so many branches of professional sport and not least the Premier League, where players of less than luminous ability have recently been "frustrated" by offers of £80,000 a week.
So yes, at the top of this particular list goes some hope for new gusts of self-appraisal in the dressing rooms of the Premier League, something which Wayne Rooney, of all people, may have been inching towards with his recent declaration that he accepted the stupendous challenge set by Lionel Messi to all his contemporaries.
From Spain we hear of Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas, captains of Barcelona and Real Madrid, standing shoulder to shoulder with less celebrated workmates in a bout of industrial action and for a second at least we might speculate where such a selfless initiative might lead. Perhaps this is not itself a reminder of the Paris Commune, but could it represent a new level of professional fraternity – and the beginning of the end of such outrages as the sickening gamesmanship that disfigured the Real-Barça bout in the Champions League and so many Premier League collisions?
This is probably too huge a leap of optimism but, as an old pro once said, "If football isn't about dreams and potential why are we so hooked on it?" The great recurring wish is for some sign of a decline in the instinct to cheat, to exploit football's dismal failure to embrace technology, a yearning once encouraged, extraordinarily, when Robbie Fowler, while at his peak with Liverpool, advised a referee that he was wrong to award him a penalty.
Such a dramatic act of altruism is likely to continue to gather dust but perhaps it is not too much to believe in some awakening of the need to improve the image of a game ravaged by the performance of Fifa and so consumed by a wider self-interest.
It is not so hard divining the deepest desires of those impassioned by the prospects of what used to be a Gang of Four elite but now, with the possibility of Liverpool's survival as a serious football club and the striking progress of Tottenham Hotspur, may have swollen to as many as six.
At Arsenal there is an overwhelming need in the wake of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. It is convincing evidence from Arsène Wenger that he still inhabits the real world of football and not some place of shadow and betrayal that has replaced the old brilliance of his understanding of what the game at its highest level should be about, which is to say the possibility of winning the great prizes along with an enduring ability to make beautiful football.
Now there is talk that his genius for unearthing unsuspected levels of talent may have found expression in his £12m move for a Brazilian midfielder named Jadson, who has been operating in Ukraine. He has also made a £16m investment in the unformed promise of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Some see unswerving adherence to principles brought down from the mountain top. Others detect a worrying detachment from reality – and ask about the whereabouts of defenders who can truly defend and that level of iron and self-belief which separates the winners from merely decorative losers.
What everyone should want, of course, is Arsenal's continued presence at the top of English football, not as a fantasy project but a club reminiscent of its old weight and aestheticism and competitive instinct.
In two of these categories at least, it is possible to welcome back Liverpool. There is, reasonably enough, much debate about the depth of quality in Kenny Dalglish's summer signings but unquestionably the American ownership was right to recognise what he achieved in the few months of his return to the action. It was, no more or less, to realign a great club with the meaning of its past.
There is no limit, of course, to the ambition of Manchester City, and nor should there be when you glance at their resources, but is there a ruling philosophy about how they should play the game, how they should see themselves? The careworn expression of Roberto Mancini was less than convincing when Manchester United, apparently reanimated after their 19th title success, restated an apparently timeless ability reinvent themselves, at the very least in the mind and aggressive instincts of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Yes, of course, United must start favourites – and Chelsea, who looked so formidable 12 months ago in the charge of the amiable and accomplished Carlo Ancelotti, must prove just about instantly that they are involved not in some new speculative lunge involving 33-year-old coach Andre Villas-Boas but some measured response to a growing litany of fundamental mistakes.
Roman Abramovich has set the certainties of youth on his ageing plutocrat players. Chelsea fans must pray it is a genuine sea change in his thinking after the misadventures of last season, not the least of which, he has had plenty of time to understand, was the parachuting of Fernando Torres into a crisis of confidence that infected every corner of Stamford Bridge.
Much of Tottenham Hotspur's hope must reside in the ability of Harry Redknapp to separate again the pressures of his football challenge from other distractions. That he has the wit and the energy to do it was underlined in a brilliant European campaign and the powerful sense that he might just be a player or two from genuine contention in the race which starts again today.
Heaven knows, the possibilities are intriguing enough. But is there enough will and spirit and collective understanding that if there is a new stage today there are also some old and disturbing questions? Yes, it is that day when football goes on show once again but maybe with an unprecedented need to wear its best clothes – the kind most appropriate when you know you are on trial.
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