That was the season that was

Murmurs of football's demise proved to be wide of the mark after a dramatic second-half comeback, with a climax better than any script could manage By Glenn Moore
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The Independent Football

Midway through this past season it seemed the Premiership had peaked. The football was dull, the title a foregone conclusion, the cynicism and greed of players and clubs a turn-off. The Premier League even set up a working party to find ways of halting the slide. Preliminary solutions included discounts for supporters at motorway service stations.

Soon after the Premier League launched another investigation, this time into continued allegations of a "bung culture". No one seriously expects this to finger anyone, but only because of a lack of admissible evidence.

Meanwhile, the Football Association, perhaps to distract everyone from the delay in acting on the Burns Report into its re-construction, embarked on a farcical search for a new England manager. Its patience with Sven Goran Eriksson had been exhausted not through a hapless defeat in Belfast, but by an inconclusive and over-hyped sting by the News of the World. Football in crisis? Not exactly, not while Sky and Setanta are prepared to pay £4m per match to televise the Premiership next season, a two-thirds increase on the current record-breaking deal.

From that mid-season nadir the game hauled itself back into favour with fans and pundits alike, aided by plots more preposterous than Lost, and characters as vivid as Shakespeare's. Arsenal's epic run to the Champions' League final is one factor in reviving jaded palates; Manchester United's belated challenge to Chelsea another, so too the Lazarus-like resuscitation of Portmouth and the accompanying boardroom soap opera.

Football's capacity to surprise and enthral keeps bums on seats. At midday on Sunday reporters at Old Trafford felt they had the back-page lead when Ruud van Nistelrooy was seen driving away from Old Trafford. Three hours later it was a sub-plot as Tottenham arrived at Upton Park clutching sick-bags and muttering darkly about a conspiracy.

This was the season when Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers surprised everyone, with the quality of their football as well as their results; when Alan Pardew, the most unpopular man in East London 15 months ago, led West Ham to Premiership security and an FA Cup final; when Steve McClaren saw his team dismantled 7-0 at Highbury, 4-0 at home by Aston Villa, yet ended up with a place in the Uefa Cup final and the post of England manager; when Arsène Wenger and Martin Jol stood nose-to-nose on the touchline; and when England selected a 17-year-old without a Premiership appearance behind him, or any first-team football since January, for the World Cup.

No wonder the bookies are pumping football so heavily - who can predict its twists and turns with any jackpot-paying accuracy? OK, so Chelsea began the season as favourites, led the table all season, and won by eight points. But there was never any shortage of drama at Stamford Bridge as Jose Mourinho flounced about like a spoilt teenager seeing enemies everywhere, including in his own club, in turn praised and humiliated his own players, and managed to be both charmless and charismatic. He also designed a team of awesome efficiency and regular brilliance. Because of Mourinho's antics, the club's abysmal public relations, and the "diving" of several players, the latter aspect was rather overlooked. The quality of this Chelsea team will not be appreciated until their time has passed.

Encouragingly, several clubs look capable of challenging next season. Manchester United, assuming a fully fit Wayne Rooney and the signing of a central midfielder, should lead the way with Arsenal and Liverpool in close pursuit. In the former case much will depend on whether they can retain Thierry Henry, and how quickly they settle into the Emirates Stadium. Spurs, with their youthful team, look best-placed to join this élite, though they will increasingly feel hamstrung by the limited capacity of White Hart Lane. Jol is a contender for manager of the year but the accolade should go to Paul Jewell, narrowly ahead of Mark Hughes.

Elsewhere, a gloom fell on the Midlands. Next season, for the first time since William McGregor, of Aston Villa, proposed the founding of the Football League 118 years ago, there will be only one Midlands team in the top flight. And Villa are treading water until Doug Ellis moves on.

Yorkshire, without representation this past season (unless Middlesbrough, now of Cleveland, are counted), are back next time out and Neil Warnock, of Sheffield United and these pages, should cause a stir. Reading will attract fewer headlines but, with judicious investment, could have a decent debut in the top flight.

Lower down the League, congratulations to Southend, with stunning back-to-back promotions, and neighbours Colchester. Also to Carlisle, from Conference to League One in successive seasons. In times past such achievements would make the respective managers, Steve Tilson, Phil Parkinson and Paul Simpson, strong candidates for individual promotion. The supply line appears, however, to have dried up. While this in part may reflect the increasing gap between the Premiership and the lower leagues, it means good men are being stymied. This trio, and many others, will hope McClaren, the former Oxford youth coach, prospers in the nation's premier coaching post. To Jim Smith go good wishes in his bid to steer Oxford back, but he will find the Conference a tough league.

There is sympathy also for the supporters of Hartlepool. Last May, in the play-off final, they were 19 minutes from promotion to the Championship before losing to Sheffield Wednesday in extra time. Next season they will be in League Two. Less surprising were the relegations of West Bromwich, Crewe Alexandra, Milton Keynes Dons and Rushden & Diamonds. Each finished one place clear of relegation last season. MK Dons will at least be relieved that AFC Wimbledon's progress slowed, beaten in the Ryman Premier play-offs. The pair thus start next season three divisions apart. The other "fans' club", FC United of Manchester, did gain promotion. Their support appears to be unaffected by the realisation, back at Old Trafford, that the Glazers, so far at least, are not the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

There is a welcome back to Accrington Stanley, 44 years after dropping out of the League, but it is farewell to Highbury, Alan Shearer, Dennis Bergkamp, Roy Keane, Jay-Jay Okocha, Shaun Goater... and, perhaps, Van Nistelrooy and Henry?

And so to the World Cup. Success for England will give the domestic game a huge boost but this season has already demonstrated, from Carlisle to Torquay, that, despite valid concerns about its governance, the national game remains in robust good health.

The best, the worst, the quotes and the quarrels...

Goal PEDRO MENDES (Portsmouth v Manchester City, March)

Mendes had been scoring stunning goals in training and Harry Redknapp told him: "Save one for Saturday." The Argentinian saved two. His injury-time winner, a brutal, swerving, unstoppable right-footed drive from 30 yards, ended Pompey's eight-game run without a win and launched an improbable escape from relegation.

Moment WAYNE ROONEY'S INJURY (Chelsea v Manchester United, April)

The whole nation gasped when Wayne Rooney went down clutching his foot during Chelsea's title-securing 3-0 win over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.

The World Cup suddenly seemed less like a festival then a funeral for England supporters. How could so much rest on a metatarsal? Six weeks, two months? Could Rooney even make the final? The gloom was so thick you could strick a knife in it.

Theo Walcott, however, owes Paulo Ferreira a great deal. It was the Portuguese full-back's perfectly legitimate tackle that ended Rooney's season. But if Rooney was fit, Walcott would not have been called up to the England squad yesterday. Clouds and silver linings?

Spat ARSENE WENGER v MARTIN JOL (Arsenal v Tottenham, April)

France and the Netherlands went head to head in the last great bout at Highbury, where Clay and Cooper once fought. Wenger was livid when Spurs scored as two Arsenal men lay injured, accusing Jol of lying when he said he hadn't seen them. Revenge would be sweet, or rather savoury; some might say lasagne-flavoured.

Worst buy SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS

He set Chelsea back £21m from Manchester City, yet he has started barely a dozen matches and seldom featured in a fixture of any consequence. The winger's wasted season was summed up by the sight of him standing in a tracksuit by a radiator at Aston Villa while the game continued in the cold where he also now finds himself with England.

Chants

Awarded jointly to Burton Albion fans for "Are you Tamworth in disguise? " aimed at Manchester United, and Liverpool supporters' homage to Peter Crouch: "He's big, he's red, his feet stick out the bed."

Quote JOE COLE, Chelsea

"Winning the Premiership title has been harder this year. Liverpool have got better, Man United have got better, Arsenal have got better, and Tottenham have joined the quartet of five teams."

Manager ALAN PARDEW

After West Ham had won last season's Championship play-off final, West Ham fans called Six-O-Six to complain, as it meant they were stuck with Alan Pardew. A year on, another visit to Cardiff - for the FA Cup final - and ninth place in the Premiership must surely mean those fans will shortly be issuing a public apology.

Best signing AARON LENNON

Pound for pound, it would hard to beat the £1m Aaron Lennon cost Tottenham from Leeds. The winger turned 19 only last month, but blossomed during the run-in, contributing touchline trickery and the occasional goal. Reputedly homesick for t'north, he could be a summer target for Manchester United.

Animal

No contest here: the squirrel that briefly, incongruously danced around the Arsenal pitch against Villarreal was a Highbury first in the stadium's final weeks. When Tottenham visited the following weekend a pointed (and prescient) banner sneered: "The squirrel has more Champions' League experience than Spurs."

Performance ARSENAL 7 MIDDLESBROUGH 0 (January)

Thierry Henry missed one sitter but still equalled Cliff Bastin's club record of 150 league goals with a wonderful hat-trick as the Gunners crushed Boro with an awesome team display. Philippe Senderos, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva and Alexander Hleb all scored. Jose Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg excelled. It could have been 10-0.

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