The VICE Alternative Team of the Premier League Season 2016-2017

A squad made up of the weirdest, most fascinating players in the Premiership.

by Clive Martin
19 May 2017, 2:34pm

Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images

I'm beginning to see the footballers I knew as a teenager come to the end of their careers. Those teenage "remember the name" prodigies growing weary and lumpy, picking up bad knees and casino debts. As the 2016/17 Premier League drags its tired legs towards the FA Cup Final and the VIP area at Wayne Lineker's Ocean Beach Club, it's clear that a few of its greatest names aren't going to make it next season.

Joey Barton has finally been taken out back and shot by the Football Association. Wayne Rooney and John Terry – two of the younger members of Sven's golden generation – are next in line for the death-pen. Michael Carrick has managed to get on top of the barn roof, but he can't hide from the cull forever. The Premier League we knew is coming to an end.

However, the nature of football means that new heroes are birthed all the time; sometimes from abroad, sometimes from academies, sometimes from mid-career obscurity. The players who win opposition fans' hearts through character, calamity, skullduggery or just sticking around long enough to remind us that there are people older than ourselves who play football for a living.

So here we go again: our annual tribute to people who make the bore-draws, goal line technology debates and international breaks worthwhile: the VICE Alternative XI 2016/17.

They say you only play for Grasshopper Club Zurich twice: once on the way up, and once on loan from Lokomotiv Moscow. But tell that to Eldin Jakupovic, the 32-year-old Hull keeper who's far from down (although, he did get relegated). His chaotic season has seen him dropped, reinstated, lauded, slated and accused of "making saves for the cameras" by well-known modesty merchant Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

With his unorthodox career path, notable penalty stops and can't-believe-his-luck manner he's become something of a cult figure, which is increasingly rare for modern keepers. A player like Jakupovic might have gone unnoticed in the era of Barthez, Bosnich, James and Marcus "I collect guns" Hahneman, but goalkeepers just aren't the mavericks they used to be. Gone are the Muse fans, the male models, the meticulous art pedants (actually all of these are David James) and in are a new generation of lanky, solid Gollums who probably play Mass Effect with a headset and are always looking for a move to a Madrid club. God knows where he'll end up next season, but god-bless him anyway. Eldin Jakupovic, the last lunatic in between the sticks.

The only man who manages to be both on this list and Henry Winter's, David Luiz Moreira Marinho has risen like a shaggy phoenix from the flames of disgrace and finally become the brilliant defender he always probably was. That Benny Hill role he played in the infamous 7-1 defeat against Germany now seems a long time ago.

But even after completing an Open University course in Alessandro Nesta Studies during his time in Paris, he remains an unclassifiable footballer and human being; a centre-back dead-ball specialist, a defender with 16 million Instagram followers currently in exile from his national team, a perpetual Erasmus student, the world's most immature 30-year-old, a tough Sao Paolo street kid who looks and dresses like a member of a Christian ska-punk band. If you don't love him, you don't love life, you certainly don't love football and you should probably get into podcasts or some shit.

If there's one thing we know about football it's that time can make a legend of the most unlikely player, and as the agents of the last-surviving stars of PES edge their boys towards a 14-game season at Zhengzhou Cowboys or Monster Energy Utah, it falls on the likes of Gareth McAuley to become an elder statesmen for the game.

Gareth McAuley is actually older than John Terry, but who even remembers him before he turned 34? Unless you kept a close eye on Jim Magilton's Leicester or the Northern Ireland national side he might have slipped you by entirely – little more than a name that might have crept into your subconscious after falling asleep during an episode of The Football League Show. But like Jeremy Corbyn or Seasick Steve he has found fame in his winter years, and he's now the first name on Pulis' team sheet. Which is presumably made out of parchment, or beeswax, or a cocky youth team winger's skin.

When it comes to the four vs three-at-the-back debate, we're looking to be on the right side of history, so our final defender is also our second Hull player: Harry Maguire, the perennial "one bright spot" of the Tigers' season, and one of the few players who might make it out of the KC Stadium alive.

He plays like Jimmy Grimble and he looks like the boy who serves you somebody else's food in a country pub. He is perhaps the first English player we've seen who's been directly influenced by the gallivanting centre backs of the continent, and that combined with his Victorian boxer's physique makes him quite a spectacle when he gets going. He also nearly battered Theo Walcott, which is enough to secure anyone's place on this list.

"Craig Dawson". It's one of those names that echoes around the dead space of football, an ambient collection of syllables that seems to leave your consciousness as soon as it enters. He's a player you could go on holiday with and still fail to recognise as a professional footballer until he told you, a mid-table shadow-man, the George Smiley of the modern game.

He is omniscient and elusive, constant but obscure, totally reliable but also never really there. When you hear his name you ask yourself who he is. Which Midlands team does he play for? Which one is he and which one is Craig Gardner? Sometimes you see a shirt with "Dawson" on the back, but you always just assume it's Michael Dawson because you can't remember where he is now either. But Craig Dawson is so much more than all that, and finally an England call-up has been mentioned. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing you he was in the Championship.

Hector Bellerin might have be born in Catalonia, but having lived in north London since he was a teenager he seems to have fallen in love with the culture of his adopted city and become something of an honorary road man – or at least a driveway man.

With his Riff Raff-esque cornrows, Vetements hoodie and posts about "trappin", he's basically Milkavelli on a high-protein diet. His fashion choices and references seem to represent something of a step-up in terms of hipster footballers, especially compared to the now-quite-bait efforts of previous "world's trendiest footballer" Daniel Sturridge. Hector is the Arena Homme+ editorial to DS's ASOS "GuiltyGarms" shoot; the Shayne Oliver to his Reggie Yates. One thing's for sure: he's going to miss Dover Street Market when he moves to Barcelona this summer.

Okay, so we've got Bellerin in. But who would you say was his galactic opposite – the least glamorous player in the Premier League? Grant Leadbitter? Darron Gibson? Glen Whelan? Devout Christian and 30-year-old Bournemouth squad man Mark Pugh? No: all of those lot look like Alex Fucking Hunter compared to the trudging majesty of Dean Marney.

Marney might not be a Burnley starter any more, and you could be forgiven for wondering why he's still there. But Sean Dyche is a man of the old school. Marney's presence in the team harks back to the days before "developments squads", when reserve players weren't just Belgian teenagers Snapchatting their Yeezy Boosts, but ageing, bitter, never-quite men whose primary function was to make up the wall in set piece training and hold new signings' legs down during hazing ceremonies. Somehow he is younger than both Prince William and Ne-Yo. Football: it gets to you.

Some players end up at the right club. Some players end up at the wrong club. But only a few players manage to end up at the wrong club for six years, seeing out 200-odd six-pointers and basement scraps before ending up relegated at 31, despite their increasingly futile best efforts.

The story of Seb Larsson is one we won't see too much of in years to come: a talented but essentially lightweight midfielder who manages to be a fixture on Goal of the Month, but seems to operate in a sphere outside of his own team. Once upon a time the league was full of Seb Larssons, but for the last few seasons his sort have been more and more out of favour, and he's become little more than a stateless scandi-timelord, writing Nordic poetry in a crumbling North East workhouse full of big four evacuees and marred by fascists and paedophiles.

Just why did he stay? Why did he spend the best years of his career doing pull-ups over the relegation pit? A Bergman-esque tragedy if ever there was one.

"The man don't give a fuck", goes the song. And this season no man has given less of a fuck than Moussa Sissoko, the one shit-bit in Tottenham's season and a footballer seemingly desperate to finish off what Emmanuel Adebayor couldn't in pure "training with the kids" stink-out vibes.

The £30 million guy had a frantic, fearsome Euros, playing his heart out in the final. But it seems to have been too much for him, so he's taken a little breather for 2016/17, spending his year in north London, sharing gum with Michel Vorm and Cameron Carter Vickers on the Tottenham bench. When he does play, Pochettino lets him on with the weary suspicion of a copper who's letting an apprehended suspect go for a piss by the side of the road.

And in true Adebayor style, he's apparently still wanted by Barcelona. Where he'll probably be brilliant.

Sigurdsson might have got more plaudits for keeping Swansea up. But pour one out for Adama Traore, who last week managed to be named the best dribbler in Europe, despite playing for an creatively dismal 'Boro team with about as much artistry as a Teeside breaker's yard.

Running the wings on his ones, desperately trying to find a knackered Negredo or, later, Patrick "Goals" Bamford, he is the lost boy of the Premier League. A headstrong penguin bravely running into the void, usually doing the first man but eventually colliding with your Cahills and your Vertonghens, before awaiting another "sorry, my fault" from his non-scoring centre forwards. Poor guy.

Due to a nasty injury, Lukaku and Kane's continuing dominance, and the fact that many United fans feel they'd be better without him, Zlatan won't be making too many EOS lists. Which is a shame, because what he's done has been nothing short of magnificent.

Being brilliant is not necessarily being 23 in a highly performing season and scoring 25 goals. Being brilliant is being 35 and scoring 17 goals while surrounded by a team of lightweights, makeweights and malcontents. It's smashing it while being managed by a man who lives in a hotel.

Zlatan is the living embodiment of Thomas Carlyle's Great Man Theory; no footballer, no man, has ever backed up bullshit quite like him. Nobody has ever had all that style and all that substance. By all rights he should have been terrible; he should have finally embarrassed himself in the no-bullshit heartlands of the English Premier League. He should have been captured in Ryan Shawcross' bathos dungeon, but he wasn't. The fact that he may have been retired early at the height of his powers only confirms his legend. One of the few players in English football who we'll be telling our grandchildren we saw. Yet we still say Rashford should be starting.

Forget its pig's bladder days for a second and you'll realise that football as we know it is a relatively young art form. Compared to music or literature or painting it's basically still a child. The rules weren't properly formulated until the 20th century and most of its greatest names are still alive. While Fatty Foukes was playing in goal for Chelsea, Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso were pioneering cubism. By the time of the first World Cup, Hollywood was making talking films. Wearing shinpads wasn't yet mandatory when the first Nirvana album came out.

Our attitudes and tastes towards football are still in their infancy, too. Many of us still believe football owes us beauty, entertainment, crash, bang, wallop, "Thierry scores again." Why, because we've paid to get in? Well, once upon a time people thought that cinema owed them a happy ending because they'd paid to get in. But Tony Pulis doesn't. Tony Pulis is out here remaking the end of Chinatown with Salomon Rondon and 20,000 screaming Brummies.

He is the rare manager with total faith in his methods. A true football artist who understands that art doesn't have to be beautiful, it doesn't have to respect its audiences or their admission fees. The Marc Rothko to Guardiola's Thomas Kinkade. He doesn't have to play out from the back; he doesn't have to sign number 10s or even players under the age of 25. He does what he wants, because he is the artist and this is his show.

This season has been the most magnificent of his career, and he should be celebrated thusly rather than written off as a negative throwback, like he so often is. So bow before him: Vladimir Pulis, the 59-year-old enfant terrible of English football who once head-butted James Beattie while naked (which seems even better now when you consider that James Beattie is a Tory). He is also the only football manager who's publicly stated his belief that Labour has moved too far to the right. What a don.