For the seventh time in the last 10 years, the Premier League reaches its concluding round of matches tomorrow with the title already decided. In four of those 10 seasons, the title was wrapped up with at least 14 days to go (and in 2001, a whopping 35 days) so this year, with Manchester United not confirming their supremacy until the penultimate weekend, counts as more than usually exciting.
For genuine excitement, however, it is again the word "relegation" that resounds loudest. After all, this is also the seventh time in 10 years that one or more of the relegation places have yet to be decided on the final day, with all the thrills and spills that implies. It could further be argued that the relegated clubs stand to lose far more than the title-winning club stands to gain. In other words, the Premier League, to borrow a typically genteel turn of phrase from Geoffrey Boycott, is decidedly arse about face.
It seems a little mealy-mouthed to knock the Champions League, which next Wednesday yields a mouthwatering showdown between the two best teams in Europe, and yet it is the Champions League, the money it generates and the yearning of the world's best footballers to play in it, that has gradually turned top-tier football in England on its head. Every August, we embark on a new season knowing that only four teams can win the title, and that it will be a minor miracle if their cosy cartel is disrupted, as it last was in 2004-05, when Everton had the temerity to finish fourth. By contrast, we can usually identify at least 12 clubs who could potentially end up in the bottom three. Taking the plunge tomorrow are West Bromwich and two from Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland. But it might equally have been fans of Blackburn, Portsmouth, Bolton, Wigan and Stoke biting their fingernails. And let's not forget how perilously placed Tottenham were a few short months ago, or how many people thought West Ham and Fulham could struggle this season.
Since 1999, only in 2001, 2004 and 2006 has the final day dawned with the identities of all three relegated clubs determined. In every other season we have been treated to that split-screen TV coverage of supporters swinging between torment and elation – never more dramatically than four years ago, when West Brom clinched their thrilling "great escape" – and for many of us the relegation battle represents a much more absorbing competition than the frankly tedious business of how the top four places will be permed between United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal.
So let's start transferring our interest to where the real excitement is in football, and concentrating from the start of each Premier League campaign not on the turgid top but the breathless bottom.
More bad news strikes too close to home for Clarke
Of all the messages of support sent to Phil and Amy Mickelson, following this week's news that Phil is withdrawing indefinitely from tournament golf while Amy is treated for breast cancer, I don't suppose any was more heartfelt than the one sent by Darren Clarke.
I spent an enjoyable few hours in Clarke's gregarious company last month, and although he didn't want to talk much about the emotional scenes at the K Club in 2006, when he competed in the Ryder Cup just a month after the death from breast cancer of his 39-year-old wife Heather, he did recall that after he and Lee Westwood had beaten Mickelson and Chris DiMarco in the opening fourballs, Amy Mickelson hugged him as though she was one of the European wives, celebrating a home win. "Amy had been friendly with Heather and she was absolutely brilliant with me all week, always taking my arm," Clarke said. And now she too, aged 37, has the disease that killed Heather. That must seem to him like the work of a truly malevolent force.
Shove off! The great Waddell's first love runs out of pennies
Britain's last official shove ha'penny league, in the Lincolnshire town of Louth, was disbanded this week, its president lamenting the ancient game's dwindling appeal particularly among local youngsters, who prefer pool.
The news caused me some sadness, not least because in the 1970s my classmates and I played our own version of shove ha'penny whenever we were incarcerated in the school hall during wet dinner-times. We had to be discreet, though, because it was banned by the prefects, one of whom, a nerdy fellow called Bernard, once delighted us by telling us sternly not to play "hay pushpenny". Bernard was clearly not a fan of the TV programme Indoor League, which back then gave shove ha'penny its heyday, or perhaps its ha'day.
Its producer, later to become the voice of darts, was Sid Waddell, who is rightly proud of memorable lines of commentary such as "that lad could throw 180 standing one-legged in a hammock", but once said that the distinction he would really love to be remembered for, is being the first man to put shove ha'penny on television.
Everton 2-1 on with dream new address
My congratulations to executives at Everton FC who have chosen a name for the new merchandise shop due to open in the city centre in July. It is located in the Liverpool One retail development, and is to be called Everton Two.Reuse content