So here we are again. Another year has passed. Players rose, players fell, people said Everton were good, people said Everton were bad, nobody quite made their mind up about Bournemouth. The Premier League manages to be both ephemeral and predictable, a merry dance for people who don’t talk to their families as much as they should; an uncertain journey with a fairly certain destination.
Was it a good one? I think so. We’re heading into the last game of the season without an anointed winner, and Neil Warnock has been banished from the kingdom. Most end of season lists will tell you that Sterling, Van Dijk, Klopp and Pep were the men of the hour. But who really needs to read a bunch of overpaid boomers struggling to find superlatives to describe Bernardo Silva?
For my money, to really understand the season, you need to evaluate factors other than excellence, the ones that are – as Christian Eriksen summed up Tottenham's Omaha Beach-inspired performance against Ajax – "non-tactical". To really understand where the league is and what it means to people, you need to immerse yourself in the magic and dread of it all – not just the winners. You need to sing loud and proud for the weirdos, the psychos, mid-table, scoundrels and chancers – both the invisible and the unforgettable. The players best typified by this mob: the official VICE UK Alternative XI of the season 2019.
GK: JORDAN PICKFORD (EVERTON)
Once upon a time, all footballers were like Jordan Pickford: local boys come good – then better – giving it their all for queen and country, but largely just treading water at club level. Now, most footballers are basically YouTubers with slightly more job security, and Jordan Pickford seems like a total fucking anachronism.
After his Victoria Cross-eligible performances in Russia, Pickford hasn't had the best of seasons: seemingly enduring the same spiritual comedown Kieran Trippier has been trying to shake all season. Off the field, he's had nearly as much of a shocker, the nadir of which being a now-notorious night out in Sunderland when he found himself in a scene from Street Crime UK – encircled by a half dozen merino-wool meatheads who called him "small arms" and dishonoured his fiancee.
Beyond that fateful night, there's something about the man I can't help but admire, no matter how slippery his fingers can be. It’s the fact that he seems to enter the sticks with a heart full of hate, rather than the cool temperament of a Victoria Park Hacky Sack player that keepers are supposed to emit these days – not to mention that he listens to MC Tazo, parks his Lamborghini in disabled spaces and once injured his hand punching his own knee, all while being occasionally brilliant. With Pickford, there's just a lingering sense that he has an inherent potential for glory that his longer-limbed, steady-headed contemporaries don't. Have him in this XI? I'd go to war with the man.
LB, CB, CB, RB: MAXIME LE MARCHAND, DENIS ODOI, TIM REAM, TIMOTHY FOSU-MENSAH (FULHAM)
Until now, this list used to practice a rule whereby you could only include a maximum of two players from any one team – a concession to variety if you will, a safety mechanism to counter against Sean Dyche jokes. But this season has given us the greatest mitigating circumstance in the history of the feature: a defensive line that just had to be included its entirety, a group of players who cannot be fully understood as individuals: the back four horsemen of Fulham's apocalyptic season.
The West London Whites seemed to enter the season deep in stage four, losing to Palace at home on the opening day and never really finding hope from there. But unlike most other promoted teams, goals weren't really the problem – it was their defence, one of the most terminally deficient and seemingly solution-resistant the Premier League has ever seen, a decrepit line dance troupe of over-promoted Championship lunks, lost loanees, terrified sticking plaster-signings and wantaway England fringe boys who couldn’t even work out the most useless variation of itself.
To watch Fulham soak up an attack was to watch a cheese grater trying to swim – even the most down-the-line of opponents seemed to bamboozle them into thrills, spills and belly flops that bore more resemblance to the end of Blackadder than a defensive unit. They conceded more goals than Huddersfield, and fuck me, Huddersfield were bad. Even Claudio Ranieri, a famously canny manager who won the league with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, couldn’t seem to stem the bleed.
The cherry on the septic tank came when Le Marchand managed to knock out his own man, Denis Odoi, during a post-relegation scrap with Cardiff. The Fulham 2018-19 is season is not a sports story coming to a Buzz Bissinger long-read any time soon, but one very much appreciated in this list.
MF: DECLAN RICE (WEST HAM)
There are some players who are born understanding their own greatness, the ones for whom every set-back, every half-time snub, every minute on the bench feels like a personal affront. There are others who can't quite believe they got to meet Tubes on Soccer AM. West Ham’s Declan Rice is very much the latter.
Rangey, wirey, with precision timing and a head like a torpedo, Rice plays like the platonic ideal of an English footballer – a player who seems to spend half a game mid-lunge, a box-to-box Bobby Moore, a big old lump of Surrey steel. He intercepts attacks, wins headers, steams through midfield space with the graceless intent of a prison van escapee on the M6. Yet his public persona is one of an affable, slightly surprised young man who can't quite believe he's where he is – one who gets excited about coming up against his idols, yet isn't afraid to put them on their arses either.
Watching him in his infancy reminds me of my first sights of similar Premier League forever-men in the days before their scars started to show – revealing shades of Milner, Terry, Barry et al, that feeling of "this kid is no kid". He was linked with Manchester City briefly, but it looks as if they’ll be going for some slightly more marketable Spanish kids instead. However, I have no doubt Declan Rice will outlive them all.
CM: JOAO MOUTINIHO (WOLVES)
The name of Joao Moutinho likely entered the consciousness of the British football fan through the long-standing gateway drug to debilitating transfer obsession that is the BBC gossip column. For years, the Portuguese playmaker was a perennial, yet little-seen, stalwart of the form, linked with everyone from Chelsea to United to Barca, West Ham and beyond. A name that seemed to echo through the rumour mill, a midfield cryptid whose existence was only confirmed at international tournaments.
Like Jefferson Farfan, Bafetimbi Gomis and so many others, he never quite made it here in his prime years, instead plying his trade quietly, but impressively, at Porto and Monaco. But this season, when everyone else was scrabbling around for Ligue 1 whippersnappers, the 32-year-old finally landed in the Prem, at the unlikely home of a recently promoted (but fairly flush) side. It took a while to really gauge his impact as Neves, Coady and Doherty took the primary plaudits and we all played the "fraud or not" game with Nuno. But as the season went on, Moutinho’s power and class was understood. For me, he’s the Wolves player who shines every time I watch them. Not because he's necessarily the best, or even the most effective, but because of that seductive class that only a scratchy-stubbled veteran who's refined their game to the absolute essentials can offer.
I'm a sucker for an ageing midfield general – a proper one, not some quantity-not-quality backpass merchant – who dictates, who battles, who runs the game in a smoking jacket. Moutinho has been just that. His name might never quite reach the the status it deserves, but he's a joy to watch – while he’s still with us.
CM: JONATHAN HOGG (HUDDERSFIELD)
Regular readers of this feature will know that I always like to include a player who ranks as the least glamorous in the league; a man out of time, a first division throwback, a quantum disturbance, a possible Highlander. In previous seasons the entries have usually been those quasi-household names who came of age in the Pulis years, somehow sticking around to the point that they started to resemble pensioners on Facebook – the Home Nations million pound men, Deans Whitehead and Marney.
This year's player is a little different. Firstly, he never played for Pulis, he never really developed much of a wider reputation and he’s still only 30 years old. Yet he must be the least recognisable player in one of the least recognisable Premier League teams of all time. Jonathan Hogg is a true ghost player, a background artist, a gaffer's best boy in the huge Cecil B DeMille production that is this league.
When it comes to Huddersfield players, you probably wouldn't recognise their four-goal-top-scorer, Karlan Grant, or even manager Jan Siewert himself. You might just about recognise Aaron Mooy – if he wasn't wearing a hat, and was standing outside the ground wearing a full kit with "Mooy" written on the back. But you definitely wouldn't recognise Jonathan Hogg.
Truth be told, I don't know much about the 30-year-old midfielder. I'm not sure exactly if I've seen him play. In fact, I can't quite remember watching Huddersfield in full this season, even against my lot. But when it comes to the stats, I like what I see: 177 games and one goal; Watford's player of the season for 2011; a £10 haircut and a name so Anglo-Saxon it could be in the Domesday Book. Mr Hogg, take your place with pride.
LFW: KENEDY (NEWCASTLE, ON LOAN FROM CHELSEA)
When Chelsea first signed one-time "new Ronaldo" Robert Kenedy Nunes Nascimento, better known as Kenedy, I didn't think he’d amount to much; a few ten minute run-outs here and there, maybe a freak goal. What I didn't expect was for him to develop something of a legend around himself, to mark himself as a mercurial, cultish figure at a club that already has a fair few of those.
Kenedy ended his time at Chelsea very badly indeed, with a deeply problematic Instagram post while on a pre-season tour of China – and the chaos hasn't really abated from there. A loan and a run in the Newcastle team followed, as did a few goals, a man of the match and a pretty much nailed-on place in the first team. All was looking good for a while. Then came a new season, and a quite frankly astonishing run of form that included one of the worst games anyone has ever had in the league. Not just a "he was shite today" performance, but a Black Saturday to rank up there with Jonathan Walters' infamous two own goals and a missed penalty in 2013. It started with narrowly avoiding a red card for trying to kick Victor Camarasa, continued into him failing to complete a single pass in the first half (a Premier League first) and ended with him missing an injury time penalty.
But that game wasn't even the most dreadful moment of his season. That honour falls to a single moment: when he attempted something that sent Geordie Twitter apoplectic during a hard-fought home loss to Brighton, a bizarre, impotent, half-cross, half-shot, 63rd minute, 40-yard rabona. I didn't see it at the time; in fact, it didn't even make MOTD, but as I started to read reports of this mythical disaster-attempt, I became quite obsessed with it, tracking down a video of the full match like the distraught relative of a missing person searching through CCTV for clues. When I finally saw it, it didn't disappoint. Find it if you can. It is utterly, utterly hilarious.
Ever since then, Kenedy has fallen out of favour at Newcastle. His future most likely lies at some obscure Rhineland Chelsea feeder club rather than the razzmatazz of the English top division. But for that game against Cardiff and that rabona shot, Kenedy is one of the few true heroes of this season.
RFW: CALLUM HUDSON-ODOI (CHELSEA)
Eighteen-year-olds playing for big clubs are supposed to know their place. They're meant to talk compliantly about their dreams coming true, their need to improve, their gratefulness for being picked for a two-minute cameo in Europa League group game. But Croydon's Callum Hudson-Odoi hasn't so much rocked the boat at Chelsea, but rather climbed from the hull to the deck, cutlass in mouth, holding the captain hostage and demanding control of the vessel.
Quite simply, the young man has some real nerve. But a nerve based in power, rather than piss-taking. We’ve seen contract rebels before, but never ones so certain of their worth. Here is a teenager who became fed up of the patronising distrust against him, a kid who took on a 60-year-old Italian bastard of a manager and a bunch of oligarch minions, and won. He has essentially called the entire game plan of one football’s most ruthless sporting organisations into question, through both his potential and his resolve. His footballing prowess might have revealed itself as more start-stop than he would’ve wanted, but there’s still real, tangible talent there – and a palpable streak of intent that’s more Michael Corleone than Michael Johnson.
He might not have quite mastered beating his second man yet, but such steeliness at such an age demands so much respect in a time in which young footballers are often see as low-yield investments. Only minutes and goals will tell whether he ever lived up to his own confidence, but right now Callum Hudson-Odoi is Jean-Marc Bosman with a better haircut.
CFW: TROY DEENEY (WATFORD)
Sportsmanship. No matter how alien and monied the game becomes, we still love to see it. In recent years it's become something of a rarified commodity, with a constant slurry of "not a fan, but this is class" tweets every time Mo Salah does something remotely decent, and that weird slew of "ULTIMATE SHOWS OF RESPECT RONALDO ZLATAN MESSI HD" compilations that litter your related videos bar like a porno virus.
But truth be told, it's all a bit boring, a bit safe, a bit Team GB. Football needs its villains; why can't someone be an ungracious cunt if they wish to be? When did we all become public school PE teachers? Thank heavens for Troy Deeney – the Premier League’s last remaining Captain Hook, its boo magnet, its heel, its angel of disgrace.
Now in his thirties, Deeney has disavowed his own media training like a once-respectable comedian taking a deep breath before appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast. He’s handed in his badge of respect and weapon of humility. After a few of Watford's big scalpings this season – notably City and Arsenal – Deeney has taken it upon himself to behave like a magnificent dickhead, rubbing salt into the bruised knees of his opposition, telling them they don't have the cojones, that their fans are shit – and he, Troy Deeney, formerly of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, now of Watford FC, is the fucking boss. He's right, to an extent. Troy Deeney is really quite sick.
The fact that these outbursts are usually dealt a pretty humbling blow in the return fixture throws a bit of Schadenfreude into the equation. But who needs to reflect on your words when you're a big game, big centre forward who makes Gooners cry?
MANAGER: RAFA BENITEZ (NEWCASTLE)
Rafael Benitez? What can you say. Well, you could say a lot of things about him: madman, genius, buffoon, emotional wreck, stater of facts, Champions League winner, Championship winner, master tactician, "fat Spanish waiter", the man who made Steven Gerrard the player he was, the man who tried to sell Xabi Alonso to buy Gareth Barry. But this season more than ever confirms one of his most notable character traits: that of being a total masochist.
Any other manager of his pedigree would have jumped the Bad Ship Newcastle as soon as they picked up a few results and Leicester or Everton or Udinese, or just about anyone else, came calling. But not Rafa. He retains a beautiful, misguided, but ultimately insane loyalty to a cause. His indefatigable pride and his inherent stubbornness has marked out for him one of the strangest careers the game has ever seen; one that oscillates between disgrace and glory without ever drawing much attention to its own weirdness. This is a man who managed Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Dummett in the same season, a man who really really wanted to sign Kenwyne Jones for Liverpool. A man who in many ways could have done better than he has, while also a man who couldn't really have done much more.
Rafa Benitez has tasted every flavour of the football experience. He makes Bielsa look like a money-grabbing chancer. He is possibly the only man in the country to willingly work for Mike Ashley in spite of better offers. For that, he is the perfect gaffer for this ludicrous, ill-positioned, yet highly entertaining team.
In fact, it's probably not a bad side, as long as the opposition don't try to score any goals.