Reviving Premier League has lifted a damaged nation
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.