Re­viv­ing Premier League has lifted a dam­aged na­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Total Football -

In this bleak mid­sum­mer of masks, bub­bles and im­promptu quar­an­tine for un­sus­pect­ing tourists in Ma­galuf, it falls to the Premier League to pro­vide re­as­sur­ance through its own time­less mad­ness. The dog days of late July are more a time for four-irons than foot­ball, but it ap­pears that the tra­di­tion of fi­nal-day top-flight chaos re­mains sacro­sanct.

Just ask As­ton Villa’s Jack Gre­al­ish, for whom ela­tion, de­spair and ex­quis­ite re­lief were all wrapped into five fran­tic min­utes.

Gre­al­ish, who grew up pre­tend­ing that the bush in his back gar­den was the Holte End, served as the emo­tional barom­e­ter for all Villa’s ab­sent fans. No sooner did he ca­vort like a dervish at what he pre­sumed was the win­ner than he wished the ground would swallow him whole, hav­ing de­flected An­driy Yar­molenko’s shot high into the sky and over Pepe Reina for an equaliser.

It is cus­tom­ary at such points for cam­eras to pan across fans chew­ing fin­ger­nails, mop­ping fevered brows, press­ing head­phones into their ears to check on the scores else­where. In to­day’s dis­tanced uni­verse, we had to make do in­stead with a mo­saic of Villa sup­port­ers in front of their TVs in full kit, ex­press­ing every­thing from wide-eyed trauma to bleak res­ig­na­tion.

But Gre­al­ish, lead­ing his team-mates in a ju­bi­lant dance once Wat­ford’s loss at Arse­nal con­firmed Villa’s sur­vival, en­sured the hu­man drama stayed in­tact. So, too, did Dean Smith, whose hes­i­tant smile at the fi­nal whis­tle con­veyed mul­ti­tudes. Two months ago, the Villa man­ager lost his fa­ther, Ron, to Covid-19 at the age of 79. Smith Snr, a stew­ard at Villa Park for many years, had been present for the club’s great­est glory, when Den­nis Mor­timer lifted the Euro­pean Cup in Rot­ter­dam in 1982. Now here was his son en­gi­neer­ing one of its great­est es­capes.

It is too early to de­cide how the 2019-20 Premier League sea­son, all 352 days of it, will ul­ti­mately be re­mem­bered. The pan­demic still rages, the

Fouls on Jack Gre­al­ish, the most since records be­gan in 1998-99

Games lost by Nor­wich when they fell be­hind – the first side not to win a sin­gle point from a los­ing po­si­tion

English goalscor­ers for Wolves – the fourth side for whom this has been the case

Years since a man­ager fin­ished as high as Frank Lam­pard’s fourth in his first cam­paign (Frank Clark with Nottm For­est, third)

Jamie Vardy’s age, the old­est win­ner of the Golden Boot

Penal­ties won by Manch­ester United, the most in a sin­gle sea­son game’s fu­ture still hangs pre­car­i­ously from one board meet­ing to the next, and the ghostly si­lence at sta­di­ums still re­minds us of a virus that has re­drawn ev­ery facet of life.

But we can be sure, at least, that the cam­paign held up a mir­ror to its tu­mul­tuous times. The ac­tions of Mar­cus Rash­ford and Ra­heem Ster­ling in cham­pi­oning causes far greater than them­selves have in many ways dwarfed the sto­ry­lines writ­ten on the pitch. While Liver­pool’s 99 points will be cher­ished for pos­ter­ity on Mersey­side, it is the qui­eter mo­ments, from the uni­fied knee-tak­ing at kick-off to the des­o­late scenes in the stands, that will form the most en­dur­ing mem­o­ries of re­cent weeks.

Amid a bliz­zard of dra­mas, it was easy to lose sight of a sense of won­der that the sea­son was fin­ish­ing at all. Back in late March, the Premier League was widely de­picted as a mind­less fri­vol­ity that needed putting out of its mis­ery. Null-and-void, points-per game and myr­iad other com­put­er­gen­er­ated so­lu­tions were ad­vanced to end it all early. Against a back­drop of death and ruin, foot­ball had to fend off ac­cu­sa­tions of tone-deaf­ness for dar­ing to think of public en­ter­tain­ment.

At the de­noue­ment, the Premier League could be for­given a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion for hav­ing de­fied the prophets of doom and all those who protested that the show could or should not go on. This was not just a mat­ter of min­imis­ing the re­bate owed to broad­cast­ers, but of fill­ing un­cer­tain days with struc­ture and ex­pec­ta­tion.

The days will not grow eas­ier any time soon. In Le­ices­ter, de­feat by Manch­ester United was but a brief dis­trac­tion for a city in lock­down. And de­spite Villa’s eu­pho­ria, it took a hard-hearted soul not to feel for Eddie Howe, rel­e­gated with Bournemout­h af­ter years of hard graft. The drop to the Cham­pi­onship has been a hor­ri­ble mo­ment for a club at the best of times, but the Covid emer­gency has ren­dered it po­ten­tially an ex­tinc­tion-level event.

All told, the de­ci­sion to re­vive the Premier League has proved a wise one. By of­fer­ing even fleet­ing es­cape for an anx­ious, dam­aged na­tion, the com­pe­ti­tion has served not just its own in­ter­ests but a far no­bler pur­pose, too.

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