Exorcising Ghosts in the Premier League's Nostalgia Machine

Are Man United and Arsenal finally ready to escape the shadows of the recent past?
Offical Arsenal scarves featuring Arsenal manager Unai Emery, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette (Action Plus Sports Images/Alamy Live News)

Seagulls. Trawlers. Prawn sandwiches, the prettiest wife and fucking perches. The Special One? No, a Special One; but go with it anyway because it’s better than talking about facts. Remember the name: Yohan Kebab. You can’t win anything with kids… would you believe it? Dilly ding, dilly dong, and I’ll swear you’ll never see anything like this ever again. Take a bow, son. We don’t let this slip. You’ve been shite son, in your daft pink boots. Specialist in failure. Voyeur. Fat granny-shagger. He’s got a pineapple on his head. Arsène who? It was just banter. Are you flexible enough to get your head in the sand? If you don’t know the answer to that question, then I think you are an ostrich – and I’ll tell you, honestly, I would love it if we beat them. Love it. And that sums it all up.


Nostalgia has always been one of the Premier League’s biggest weapons. It’s something it wields with wanton expertise, like an épée fencer armed with a chainsaw, a way to layer-cake the game with countless extra levels of emotional resonance and narrative depth until it gets you tearing up three hours into a YouTube vortex as you wonder why Paul McGregor packed it all in just to slink off and front a mediocre East London noise rock band. Repeat that opening paragraph at volume on a tube carriage and you’d find yourself with the run of it pretty quickly. Yet to a certain type of person it might make a perfect kind of sense, each word a portal to a memory forged at some especially sore juncture of the Premier League timeline. At what point, though, does the meaning start to drain from these words, and the glow fade from the moments they refer to? What does it take for the romance and longing of nostalgia to die? At what point does that nostalgia become mere history?

This weekend, more than any other for quite some time, is one that felt quietly monumental for the English game, four days – because Thursdays are the new Fridays, after all – that have provided a glimpse of the fault lines lurking at the edges of splintering, shifting footballing epochs. It was a weekend that began with the announcement that Jadon Sancho had made the England squad, the first time any player with no first-hand experience of Millennium Bug panic had been called up to the national senior side. It ended Sunday evening with the news that John Terry, the last domestic representative of England’s surreally underachieving “Golden Generation”, had decided to hang up his boots. In between, there was what felt like confirmation of a title race, and a new rivalry at the division’s summit, in the attritional 0-0 slugfest between Liverpool and Manchester City – a fixture that in the recent past has been an artist’s impression of football as orgiastic free-for-all but was this time neutered almost completely by overbearing mutual respect. There were also, in red-letter victories for Arsenal and Manchester United, signs that the clubs comprising the great fallen duopoly of the Premier League era might be finding their own ways to escape the shadows of their departed history-making custodians.

On the pitch, it was Unai Emery’s North Londoners that thrilled the most, a side that seemed in its eighth league outing to be playing with the stabilisers off, all the whirring component parts clicking into gear for the first time. There were standout performances across the park – Bernd Leno was assured and sharp, Héctor Bellerín full of flair and industry, Lucas Torreira a dogged little pest, Alexes Iwobi and Lacazette blurs of vim and verve – and the third goal will linger long in the memory, a jaw-dropping upfield sweep that began with Aaron Ramsey in the right-back position and ended with the same player back-heeling it into the Fulham net 14 seconds later. “We’ve got our Arsenal back,” sang the fans in Craven Cottage’s away and neutral sections in delirious, Haribo-swapping bedlam, an ecstatic past beckoned back into view, no doubt, by the 4-4-2 Arsenal lined up in, a shape whose patterns defined the most irresistible and sepia-tinged of the Wenger years.

Old Trafford was the site of a very different kind of joy, but a victory that nonetheless saw the belated return of other familiar tropes from Premier Leagues past, a heady concoction of that extra-temporal zone commonly known as “Fergie Time” and José Mourinho’s Siege Mentality, the latter showing up in the former like a supporting Hollywood actor you’d assumed was dead rousing themselves to gun down the bad guy in the final fight scene. There is a common misconception that Man United fans are desperate to see their side play beautiful football but Alex Ferguson’s headiest moments weren’t gorgeous in any aesthetic sense as much as they were aggressive, pugnacious, defiant and dynamic, and this is exactly what United were in the second half as they showed up in the nick of time to blast the AK out of Rafa Benítez’s hands and win the day.

Clearly, none of this is sustainable. Emery will not find every opponent as obliging as droopy, dim little Fulham, a team of bumbling, bed-headed posh boys who urgently need to throw off their bijou mindset and start dealing in the grim currencies of Premier League survival – things like scoring goals and having a defence – if they’re to abide at this level. Similarly, Mourinho will not be able to conjure up a state of all-out civil war every time he needs three points to save his job. But there is at least the feeling that these two managers have personalities big enough to exorcise the spectres of the legendary men who came before them, to define the times they are working in more than the histories they are working to escape. What we can be sure of is that neither will welcome the onset of the international break, and the brief intermission it forces on a division that prefers to roll on ceaselessly, turning today’s victories into nostalgia, and yesterday’s nostalgia into the past.