It says a lot about today's Premier League programme, well everything really, that Stoke City have an extremely good chance of finishing on top of the Match of the Day billing.
Whether they do largely depends on either the ability of Manchester United's Wayne Rooney to produce a few pyrotechnics amid the ranks of a massed defence or the ability of Stoke's ace strategist Rory Delap to spread a little alarm with his cannonball throw-ins. In any event, welcome to the underside of a league which on such a day as today has all the inherent appeal of a turkey shoot or a seal hunt.
You may say that we have to take the gruel with the foie gras and that we cannot expect to go from one weekend of tumultuous action to another, as we have throughout this September. The worry, though, comes when you examine the authorship of the most compelling action. United, Manchester City and Arsenal have in each other's company produced three extraordinary matches. Meanwhile, Chelsea have been picking off the also-rans as though they had just strolled down to the firing range.
The pattern, half-a-dozen matches into the new season, could scarcely have been laid down more clearly. One team have established a new and weighty presence, so far simply on the strength of a massive financial windfall. City may or may not build on their good fortune, it is a little too early to say with any great authority, and the same is true of the only other team to make any kind of suggestion they have moved into a higher category, Tottenham, the next biggest spenders outside the old four.
The reality, more than ever before is that there are two leagues and if we say that City have injected new interest by offering the ghost of a possibility that they might just become only the fifth club to win the Premier League title in its 17-year history, we are masking a very unpleasant truth.
It is that for most of English football the highest possible achievement is a place in a swathe of mediocrity, which today is expressed in games that, realistically, either cannot be won or don't matter beyond some desperate scrabbling for points which might just ensure another year of attrition. Assuming, that is, the effort does not break a club as it did Leeds or Newcastle or Portsmouth or Ipswich, which used to be vibrant centres of the English game.
Where are we going with this? We can take our choice between the unremitting truth that today's English league is breaking into two quite separate categories – or a nostalgic journey back to that time when the game was on an entirely different footing and there was never a day when something quite extraordinary wasn't virtually guaranteed.
Today, there are the rich and the powerful – in City's case a quite fortuitous status, as was Chelsea's when they felt the first rush of the oligarch's money – and there is the league of the damned, at least ultimately, which stage games between the likes of Birmingham and Bolton and see such as Hull, Wigan, Fulham and West Ham under the guns of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and City.
What has been lost, of course, is the idea of a proper league, one which has a little depth, a degree of competitive range. Inevitably, the concept of such a league is consumed by the years which have seen the domination of United, Chelsea and Arsenal to the point where any revisiting of the past is like wandering into a cave full of abandoned treasure.
For example, we might take in one of those few occasions when Stoke, even though they had a team of quite dazzling individual ability, made a rare appearance on Match of the Day for the trip to Spurs: 27 November 1965, when England were shaping their only successful challenge for the World Cup, when every member of the old First Division had creative powers that would illuminate so many of the high-speed fringe engagements of the Premier League, will do well enough.
The game was of remarkable quality despite the appalling playing surface. It was a 2-2 draw, inhabited by giants, albeit some of them a little long in the teeth, had Spurs goals from Jimmy Robertson, an elusive Scottish winger, and Alan Gilzean, a skilful Scottish striker who had the look of a youthful wing commander, and the greatest player on the field, Dave Mackay, received the kind of tribute which doesn't so often spill from the lips of today's commentators. "There's Mackay," said Kenneth Wolstenholme, "he looks as if he enjoys playing football." Jimmy Greaves was out with jaundice.
More remarkable than anything seen on the field, and in the conditions some of that was near miraculous, was the situation at the top of the league. "The top 10 continue to march on," said Wolstenholme. Yes, that's right, the top 10 were all jockeying for position. The top 10 were, in descending order, Liverpool, Burnley, Leeds, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United, Tottenham, Manchester United, the United, remember, of Law, Charlton and Best, Stoke, Arsenal and Chelsea. Seven points separated the lot of them.
Stoke didn't have a long-throw specialist but they did have their travelling reserve, Jimmy McIlroy, getting out of the dugout and signing autographs for Spurs fans. They did have the dark Welshman Roy Vernon, who moved like a snake and shot venomously, and Peter Dobing, the old Manchester City sharpshooter, and they both scored. Pat Jennings was, as usual immense in the Spurs goal.
Yes, you're right, distance does lend enchantment and if Emmanuel Adebayor or Rooney or Andrei Arshavin had been around via a time capsule, with modern nutrition and training, they would certainly have made a considerable impact. But then if some of the stars of that wintery day, on that ploughed field, had made the opposite journey on the same terms they would not have been lost at any level of the Premier League.
There is not much that can be done about any of this. The Premier League is set on its course, and the divide between the winners and the losing majority is set for as long as inordinate wealth can still be bestowed upon the few. It's like everything else, you make the best of what you have. It is something Gary Lineker will no doubt do in the Match of the Day studio tonight. However, we can be pretty sure it won't come as easily as it did to Kenneth Wolstenholme, back when it seemed as though everyone had a chance.
Strauss's noble act is a breath of fresh air
Those who say that England captain Andrew Strauss was overgenerous when he called Sri Lanka's Angelo Mathews back to the crease yesterday may have a case.
Certainly the batsman's collision with Graham Onions looked accidental. However, in so many of the recent circumstances of major sport, a thousand such gestures would not be too many. They might just tell us that there are still a few professional sports people around who do understand that the credibility and good name of what they do has never been so stretched.
At the end of a week in which Formula One's most influential figure, Bernie Ecclestone, declared that it may have been a little unfair to ban Flavio Briatore for life, simply because he had orchestrated a crash which subverted the Singapore Grand Prix and recklessly endangered lives, sport needed all the redemption it could get.
Strauss's action was maybe a small pebble cast into a currently stagnant pool, but he should be blessed for throwing it.
Eriksson right on the money once again
One thing you can say about Sven Goran Eriksson: he never leaves us in any doubt about his priorities, which is not something that can be claimed on behalf of every football luminary.
"I don't know where the money comes from," he declared from the depth of what appears to be a rather predictable fiasco at Notts County, "that's for the chairman to know, and I'm not really interested in it. The important thing is that the money comes." He might have said that when his paymaster was Thaksin Shinawatra and Amnesty International was in full cry, but perhaps the stakes were a little higher then.
Some people thought it odd that Eriksson should involve himself in the fanciful plan to renovate the old club. They know better now.Reuse content