The Herald - Herald Sport
Silly season taken to new levels as Premier League nears edge of insanity
IT still boggles my tiny mind every time that clip of Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel’s hands being superglued together resurfaces with the reminder it’s not a throwback from the Premier League vault but, in fact, something that happened this season.
We should have known that when the now very former Tottenham and Chelsea managers – succeeded by a combined total of four other people since then – locked horns on the Stamford Bridge touchline that we were on the precipice of a quite ridiculous season.
So much has transpired since August 2022 and, as the campaign’s conclusion approaches this weekend, so much of it has consequences for what is yet to come.
Tuchel and Conte being ancient history at their respective clubs already is symptomatic of one of the league’s older afflictions – the heavyhanded and brutally frequent jettisoning of managers as a quick fix to any and every problem.
So many have lost their jobs that my quick double check on the correct number of bulleted bosses led to the discovery of a graphic whose creator was forced to be extremely economical with space just to fit in all 13. It is a number which places this one as the most trigger-happy season on record and brought the average lifespan of a Premier League manager to an all-time low.
There has been no lack of variety, either. New-age coaches in Jesse Marsch and Roberto de Zerbi – one markedly more successful than the other – have locked horns with Roy Hodgson, tempted out of retirement at the age of 75. Elsewhere, Frank Lampard continues to laugh in the face of his dreadful managerial record by consistently finding new employment.
And a special shout-out must go to Leeds United, who have careered from one end of the philosophical spectrum in Marcelo Bielsa, to the very opposite in little over 12 months with Sam Allardyce, who has temporarily stepped away from hosting the ‘No Tippy Tappy
Football’ podcast to try to stave off relegation.
“The project” is a favourite phrase of your social media transfer gurus these days. “Player X is convinced by the project at club Y”, everybody is “committed to the project”. It just seems that said “project” for so many clubs these days is to throw managers at the wall and hope one sticks. They all seem to have an idealistic vision of what they want their club to be, yet are prepared to rip it up and start again when results take a dodgy turn.
There is no better example than
Chelsea, who have burned through two managers and brought back Lampard while they look for someone else, all while spending in excess of £600m. Todd Boehly’s so-far ill-fated ownership has coincided with what appears to be an era in which the people running football clubs become main characters, for various reasons.
Boehly’s role has been mostly slapstick so far, mixed with the grossness of how much money his regime has seemingly wasted – it’s been reported an obscene January transfer splurge bloated the doomed Graham Potter’s squad to such an extent that some players had to sit on the floor at team meetings. That Chelsea fans could recently be heard sarcastically singing “we are staying up” is a neat summation of how things have gone for Boehly thus far.
If only the scrutiny of ownership started and ended at a US businessman with too much money and limited football knowledge embarking on a real-life game of FIFA career mode. For all this season has produced some enjoyably bonkers plotlines, the shadow of ownership funded by state and sovereign wealth casts an increasingly long shadow over English football.
Manchester City’s fifth title win in six years arrived against a backdrop of 115 charges of financial wrongdoing, which the club vehemently deny. Built on vast wealth from Abu-Dhabi-based owners, a guilty verdict would not only be immensely damaging for City but – should the dominant club of the past decade be found to have cheated its way to success – for the Premier League’s selling point as the most competitive division in the world.
And then there’s Newcastle United, whose takeover funded by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund has coincided with a rapid turnaround in fortunes. They will play Champions League football for the first time in 20 years next season, an achievement well ahead of schedule for their, ahem, project.
What’s perhaps most ominous for their rivals is that this has been engineered without overly flexing their newly acquired muscle as the world’s wealthiest club; Newcastle have spent as much as hapless Tottenham to achieve much better results from a lower starting point. Their rapid rise and the charges against City have pushed the topic of sportwashing into mainstream football discussion, and with the prospect of Qatari-based leadership taking control of Manchester
United, it is an issue which is bound to provoke a reaction from the rest of the league at some point.
It’s been reported that Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani emerging as the Glazer family’s preferred bidder would spark significant backlash among clubs, and possibly accelerate the implementation of an independent regulator to push back against state ownership. Whether anything ever changes is another matter entirely, but it does feel as though City’s ongoing dominance and Newcastle’s rising influence has shifted the dial towards a realisation that the Premier League’s (loose) principle of competitive balance is being eroded by the influence of sovereign wealth.
Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler engaging in some mental gymnastics to argue “this is fine, actually” as City swept to another championship felt like a pennydropping moment; here was the voice of the Premier League for decades issuing a weak defence of the “best in the world” moniker that even he didn’t seem to believe anymore.
Given how much madness – some of it entertaining, some of it more insidious – was packed into this one single campaign, you wonder if we are finally reaching the peak of the Premier League’s excess, the point at which so many things become unsustainable. From lavish spending, to sacking managers on a whim, to turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the pursuit of on-pitch success, you’d think it all must come to a head at some point.
Mind you, we’ve been saying that for years already, haven’t we?
You wonder if we are finally reaching the peak of the Premier League’s excess, the point at which so many things become unsustainable