Enjoying those weekend afternoons, are you? Reconnecting with family members, carefully reviving your relationship like a dying orchid slowly being reintroduced to water, talking about your holidays in pub gardens without having to glance over your shoulder every time Soldado skies one in the early kick off. Going to museums, saving money, having lunch, being a human being again.
Glad you enjoyed them, mate; I really am. But now those days are over, and you’re about to be plunged straight back into the world of missed chances, shit banter, broken ankles, institutionalised bigotry, nine-game bans, massive headphones and late pitch inspections at Turf Moor. Yes, the Premier League is back, and it’s bigger, weirder and more competitive than ever.
The close season has left the big clubs awash with unknown quantities, while the smaller clubs are still making do with their police line-ups of journeyman Belgians and basement scrap Expendables. In an uncertain world, a familiar face means more than being good ever could, as Southampton showed this week when they boshed 12 milly on Shane-fucking-Long. Before the transfer window is over, Liverpool will probably sign Kevin Doyle, just to remind their fans what league they’re watching again.
But reading through all the pre-season guides – with their banal, predictable opinions on who’s going to win the league, who’s going to score the most goals, etc – it’s clear that another kind of a guide is needed. Something to face this weird new world with, and to remind us of the parts of football we actually watch it for; the chaos, the tragedy, those bizarre moments that only happen because the whole thing is run by brilliant idiots, Jonjo Shelvey. Fuck your chance conversion rates; the real Premier League is over here.
THIS SEASON'S BIGGEST JESUS COMPLEX
Most seasons, there's a manager whose underwatched, underfunded team go on a run of decent of form and find themselves on the receiving end of the pundits' plaudits. Sometimes they're managed by old pros, who know they shouldn't let it go to their heads, shouldn't let the expectations get to the players and shouldn't start believing they're Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.
But alas, for many managers that ego-checking system goes AWOL, and you're left with a man who suddenly believes he's Rinus Michels, Billy Beane and Mark Twain rolled into one off-the-peg Armani suit. We've seen it happen many times before: Phil Brown, Paul Jewell, Ian Holloway, Nigel Adkins, Iain Dowie. Managers who think the world is desperate to know how they coaxed career-best performances out of Andy Reid by making him go fencing. Managers who compare Sepp Blatter to Chairman Mao in an attempt to pull some tedious Mr Smith Goes to FIFA "little guy" schtick.
This season, the most likely candidate is not a manager who's just come up, but one who nearly won the league a few months ago: Brendan Rodgers. With his white teeth, Malaga tan, gut loss and young blonde, Rodgers' midlife crisis is in full flow. He's ditched the "unfazed Ulsterman" swag of his early career, and has instead morphed into some kind of rejected Steve Coogan creation. An odd mix of Saxondale and Mayor Quimby. There is more than a touch of the Phil Browns to all this.
Like most recently divorced dads, he's beginning to believe his own luck and his player-crush on Wilfried Bony could well be his version of test-driving that Harley: a misguided search for a lumbering, overpriced penis extension. Only time will tell if he'll come crashing back down to Europa League normality, but those teeth are with him for life.
THE TEAM YOU DON'T WANT TO DO WELL THIS SEASON, BUT PROBABLY WILL
Remember when Pardew was hailed as a genius? Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? Those heady days in which selling big, signing Francophone mercenaries and winding up fourth officials was considered to be the path to greatness. The time in which Alan Carr’s dad became the most respected man in world football, when Pards reigned in terror as the Aleister Crowley of the Prem, and Roberto Martinez was still more of a Willy Loman figure, miserably putting together loan deals for wantaway Fulham full-backs.
Those days seem so hard to imagine now, because for the last few seasons, Newcastle have been absolutely diabolical. Like, really, really bad. A lumpen, striker-less team of players just biding their time for a club whose only ambition was not being relegated. Pardew, once so cocksure, had begun to look late Gaddafi, a dictator in crisis, desperately rounding up anyone who’d fight from local bars, paying them in grog. I mean, Paul Dummett seems like he could just be an abusive fan Pardew's goaded out of the stands, only to find himself on the pitch, getting screamed at by Coloccini and death threats from Uruguayan strangers.
But still, they finished tenth last year. Some would say that’s because everyone else was even more shit, but I would (and I have) said that’s because Pardew is the modern Faust. A man who’s made a deal with the devil can only lie down for so long, and Newcastle have signed well pre-season, adding another highly rated Frenchman, the Ajax captain and probably a few more deadline day impulse buys to their Sports Direct megastore of lost souls. The football writers are warning to expect only a slight improvement on last season, but with Pards, Dummett, de Jong and Satan on their side, who knows?
THIS SEASON'S FALSE IDOL
If all goes to plan, Danny "Welbz" Welbeck will be leaving Manchester United, and joining someone else, most likely Hull City. With the greatest respect to Hull, who've come a long way from the days of the aforementioned little Phil, it's not a move synonymous with an upward trajectory. Once upon a time, a move from The Theatre of Dreams to a team that ground shares with a rugby league side would’ve been balked at. Most players would rather play with the reserves than with Steve "n" Alex Bruce’s touring production of Steptoe and Son.
But in a modern football culture that loves to re-evaluate, and paint footballers as overlooked geniuses a la Danny Murphy, all Welbeck really has to do at Hull is hold the ball up, keep Yannick Sagbo out of the team and he’ll be regarded as the Franz Kafka of the league. A dog discarded by some spoilt rich kids, only to be rescued by a lonely, considerate nan AKA Steve Bruce.
Of course, it’ll be the same gangly, misunderstood, “Oooh! So close!” Welbeck who’s been running over through balls for years now, but the last football hipsters will quickly anoint him as the Humberside Higuain, the talkSPORT callers will start tipping him for England captain and he’ll get another ten years of international football out of it.
THIS SEASON'S FOLK HERO
Whenever teams come up, I like to have a quick scour of their squad lists, to gawp in wonder at the old Shire horses that are still going, the Championship hitmen who'll be benched when their side inevitably buys Kevin Doyle, the ex-big time youngsters on their fifth roll of the dice before the MLS comes calling, and the absolute throwbacks to an age in which team buses stopped at fish and chip shops on the way back from away games. And of all the players that came up this season, Leicester Gary Taylor-Fletcher stands taller than all of them.
Fletcher, who only became a professional footballer after being scouted by Northwich Victoria in a Roofers vs. Labourers charity match. Fletcher, who looks more like a fishmonger than a professional sportsman. Fletcher, a man who took his wife’s surname on his broad shoulders and scored three goals for Leicester last season, has found himself becoming a Premier League striker again at the age of 33.
Forget Jimmy Bullard, forget Rickie Lambert, they're industry; GT-F is the streets. He's the greatest football folk hero since Fatty Foulke. He is a man who gives every pub footballer with a decent right foot hope. He is the Widnes Helen Keller. A total inspiration who, despite having almost nothing going for him, will be taking on the likes of Vincent Kompany and Per Mertesacker next year.
THIS SEASON'S BASTARD
Alas, it all proved too much for Mad Dog Suarez in pre-season. The thousands upon thousands of indignant, hilariously sincere, professionally outraged no-banter merchants forced him to set sail for Spain, where that kind of thing is not only condoned, but straight up encouraged.
But before the front lines of British football became awash with teacher's pets and inconsistent Eastern Europeans, La Liga sent us another attacking superstar with a bit of a tasty rep in the other direction: Diego Costa. Looking like a suicidal cartel cop from an Alejandro González Iñárritu film, Costa arrives in the Premier League not only with 43 goals in 94 appearances for Atletico Madrid, but with 56 career yellows and a fair few reds, which isn’t bad for a man who’s younger than Adam Lallana.
There are other signs of him being a thorn in the side of football’s moral majority: a reputation for diving, a shunning of his country of birth, a four-month ban for punching another player and threatening the ref. Oh, and an accusation of racism, just for good measure. "You are the most consistent player I've had," said his ex-coach, Jose Ramon Sandoval, "you go into every game wanting to score and get a yellow card."
Diego Costa, coming to a tearful "Call Collymore" debate quicker than you can whine “disgrace to the Premier League” in a Brummie accent.
THIS SEASON'S SCHADENFREUDE VICTIM
Naturally, the players you want it to go wrong for are defined by the teams you support. Arsenal fans, I’m sure, will be wishing Cesc Fabregas nothing but the very, very worst. Even as a Chelsea fan Mourinho's chirpsing of him reminds me of the smooth talking Christopher Walken character whisking away Tia Carrera in Wayne’s World 2. In turn, Chelsea players will be hoping that Lamps is either acting as some kind of deep-cover sleeper cell agent in the City team, reporting back to his old club and changing Yaya Toure’s birthday on Facebook when he’s left his laptop open on the coach, so everybody forgets it, or at the very least his picture in the attic will catch up with him and he'll be absolute dogshit.
But one thing that unites the vast majority of Premier League fans is seeing something hilariously awful happen to Manchester United. The fact that Louis van Gaal is kind of an incredible bastard will only make people hope harder for another season that is more David Peace than The Mighty Ducks from the Red Devils.
It feels harsh to wish bad upon a young lad but Luke Shaw, as an outrageously overpriced English player with a Toni & Guy haircut, looks a decent shout as the source of some ABU schadenfreude. And seeing as he’s out for a month before the season's even begun, it might not be beyond the realms of possibility. If there’s one thing football fans love more than a comeback story, it’s a terminal, inexplicable decline, and a team in which Darren "Ken Barlow" Fletcher is looking to play an integral role might just give Shaw that opportunity.
THE FOREIGN LEAGUE EVERYONE’S GONNA GET INTO THIS SEASON
Once upon a time, foreign leagues were just places where English players went to die. Then came Football Italia, and a whole generation was introduced to Del Piero, Nesta, that incredible Parma side, James Richardson, red flares and the very concept of “simulation”. Then came the computer games: Pro Evo, FIFA and the Football Manager series, inspiring young men across the country to sell their Alan Smiths and buy their Alexander Freis. Shortly afterwards came the football hipsters, with their talk of volantes and insistence that Kagawa and Lewis Holtby were the men the Premier League needed most.
But now the Bundesliga’s gone mainstream, Germany won the World Cup, they all play for Bayern and Madrid anyway, even your mum knows who Mario Gotze is. So where do those in search of a higher truth look? To the Eredivisie, of course.
Dutch league football has always been seen as a feeder league, a place where the greats start out before moving onto greater things. In fact, I went to the Ajax museum a few years back, and Christian Eriksen’s place on the hall of fame was marked with a “2007-???” tag, as if they were playing a game of chicken with the teams who’d been eyeing him up.
But now everybody’s a football scout, and with more and more exciting players from Siem de Jong, to Michel Vorm, Daley Blind and Eriksen moving from the league to the biggest clubs in the world, the Eredivisie will surely take over as the league whose tactics those Power League wankers who drink in Silicon roundabout pubs in their retro Fiorentina strips will try to emulate.
THE PLAYER WE WANT TO DO BETTER THIS SEASON, BUT PROBABLY WON'T
It can only be one man. The Premier League's paranoid android, the sad, beautiful erratic force of nature that is Jonjo Shelvey. My lord, how we'd all love to see him belting out the national anthem before some bullshit friendly in February, how we'd love to see him get that big money move to PSG, where he could boss the midfield as the new Zidane along with Matuidi and Verratti. How we long to see Jonjo, the weirdest English footballer in a generation, also become its best.
Alas, it will probably never happen. He'll probably give us a glimpse of magic, a few on-pitch panic attacks, a few Football Focus profiles, but in essence, he's a never-man. A Swansea sadboy, staring out into the Irish Sea remembering the days when he turned down that move to Chelsea at 17. But still, we root for him against the odds, knowing that he'll probably end up being used as fodder in a panic buy for Gastón Ramirez or Ron Vlaar or some other more glamorous, less confusing player.
We'll always understand you, Jonjo. For you are all about football that we love.
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