Seasons come, seasons go. With every passing guard of honour and lap of shame, our memories of the English Premier League are trampled deeper into the landfill of our minds until we can remember precious little beyond “Aguerr-o!” and the Darren Bent beach ball goal.
Was it Andros or Andy Townsend who scored that volley, or just some cruel trick of the mind? Does it even matter? Football is a shark that needs to keep moving – there is no Last Dance here, only the next one.
For all Lineker, Shearer and Wrighty’s Lockdown compendiums, nostalgia is for the dogs. Who in their right mind wants to hear another “honest reappraisal” of Jack Wilshere’s career?
No, the only acceptable form of hindsight in this game is the end of season XI. So here’s mine. Think of it as Copa90 for people who die a bit inside every time they hear the phrase “baller”.
GK: PEPE REINA (ASTON VILLA)
In any other career, the years leading up to retirement are a slow drop-off. Through experience, knowhow, knownot, you learn to minimise your workload, optimise your lunch break, pass off a piss-up as a “research trip”. The canteen, the days in lieu sheet, the secret toilet on the second floor become your best friends. Your eyes are on the gold watch, the calendar on the wall, the brochure for that Costa Blanca timeshare in the top drawer.
But in the world of football, many older players are denied their easy descent into the armchair. Instead of shuffling out of the game gracefully, they’re plunged into a life of fear, chaos and endless six-point, no-rules dogfights.
Pepe Reina is a year older than Mark Zuckerberg, he’s played for Liverpool, Barcelona, Napoli, Bayern – he won the Euro’s and the World Cup back to back. But through either ambition, necessity or some kind of super-masochist complex, he’s ended up at Aston Villa, trying to whip their band of half-arsed Futhead mercenaries into something resembling a team.
The aged aren’t supposed to go out like this, they’re supposed to do three days a week at the British Heart Foundation, drink gin Dubonnets in the afternoon and sleep sitting up. Instead, Reina spends his days much like the rest of us; in a place of deep uncertainty, trying to work out whether Tyrone Mings is any good or not. It’s a perverse way to spend the last days of your professional life, but one that’s admirable enough to earn him a place on this list.
RB: PHIL BARDSLEY (BURNLEY)
How this guy is still a Premier League right back in the age of Trent Alexander-Arnold is absolutely beyond me. But still, fair play to him for providing some degree of continuity in the age of hypernormalisation.
Phil Bardlsey – like Dean Marney, Jonathan Hogg and Dean Whitehead before him – is surely the 2019/20 season’s least glamorous player (even though his other half is a Real Housewife Of Chesire).
CB: DAVID LUIZ (ARSENAL)
David Luiz Moreira Marinho has been a fixture on this list ever since it began. When all is said and done (and trust me, there’s a lot more to be said and done when it comes to David Luiz), he’ll go down as one of the most unique and idiosyncratic footballers of his generation. A mainstay of European football for well over a decade; a winner of titles, cups, hearts and minds.
But for a fervent believer and family man, he’s also Gazza-level controversial. And with his last minute move to Arsenal, he’s found the perfect audience for his “difficult” oeuvre; constantly enrapturing and enraging his own fanbase, like Dylan in the 80s, or Lou Reed after Metal Music Machine.
The highly reactionary goonersphere can’t make their minds up against the attention-deficit defender, he wows and betrays in equal measure; he can give you life, he can take it away. For every three astonishing 70-yard passes, there is a double barreled, season-derailing penalty and red card blunder. For every absolute-zero moment, he produces a performance that reminds you that when he wants to be, he’s the perfect modern centre-back; Ramos with the eyes of Riquelme, Van Dijk with a maverick streak.
Luiz and Arsenal are the perfect foils for each other, a relationship forged in infuriation, stirred up on social media, building towards an unbearable tension. Long may it continue, I say.
CB: CHRIS BASHAM (SHEFFIELD UNITED)
At the start of this season, Sheffield United’s backline read like a CIA-assembled ghost unit of football league journeymen. Their identities, faces, backgrounds and careers seemed almost too pedestrian to believe: “English, 31-years-old, 6’2, 85 games for Blackpool, two kids, married childhood sweetheart”. Were these men real footballers, or just a set of chunky thighs and sensible haircuts to take the fall for a Chinese betting syndicate?
But those who’d seen them in the Championship knew that this was a clever, innovative side full of players who thought as much as they fought. Chris Wilder’s team is a fearsome proposition, defending from the top down like a fighter who knows how to use every part of their body; head and teeth included. Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and most of the football commentariat found this out too late.
Really, I could’ve chosen any one of Jack O’Connell, John Egan, George Baldock or Enda Stevens to typify this singular side. But Basham, having his first season in the Prem at the age of 32 seems to best exemplify The Blades’ Black Ops defence.
LB: ERIK PIETERS (BURNLEY)
Some years ago now, a friend described Erik Pieters to me as “potentially one of the most exciting left-backs in Europe”. I won’t speculate too much on whether he’s achieved that status or not, but I have enjoyed his transition from Total Football at PSV, to Burnleyball, via a lengthy stint at the Anthony Pulis Finishing School.
Erik Pieters: he’s big, he’s hard, he’s the least Dutch left-back you could possibly imagine.
CM: TANGUY NDOMBELE (TOTTENHAM)
It was never going to work, was it? A languid, roguish, leisurely French midfielder and The Professor Petersen of the Premier League. Like some dreadful, three-day Dennis Hopper shotgun coke marriage, Jose Mourinho and Tanguy Ndombele have not been getting along.
Mourinho likes his midfielders to be both rottweilers and boy scouts; lean, mean – but also obedient, faithful, deferential. He loved Michael Essein like a firstborn son, and treated Pogba like a stepchild with a septum piercing.
Ndombele is a fantastic player to watch, but he’s certainly not the fittest; he’s a Soccer Aid Zidane, a French Lee Trundle, the greatest park footballer you’ve ever seen. So when football’s apex predator inherited him, so began an ever-souring relationship of coded digs, early substitutions and a bizarre personal fitness session in a Barnet park.
“Don’t forget how good he can be” reads Ndombele’s top Youtube result. According to rumours, Barcelona and PSG haven’t, which should be a cue to Mourinho to reconsider his talent. But then again, this is a man who brain-cucked Kevin DeBruyne out of Chelsea. Talent? It’s for snowflakes.
CM: JACK RODWELL (SHEFFIELD UNITED)
For all Chris Wilder’s work creating a fluid, holistic, hard-fighting machine with no stars and no illusions about easy games, the man himself clearly has an awesome ego. That isn’t to say he’s pompous, selfish or unable to take criticism – if anything, he’s almost too honest, too effacing in the way that many self-obsessed people are (see: Kevin Keegan).
The problem is that those who achieve great things often decide at some point that they are in fact, Great Men Of History; capable of actual miracles, making decisions that fly in the face of sense, logic, finance, science, whatever you’ve got. With Wilder, this mindset reveals most clearly itself in his bizarre, pointless (but largely unimpactful) signings of two of English football’s most wayward sons: Ravel Morrisson and Jack Rodwell.
That these two have played Premier League minutes after years of League One ignominy and Mexican league football is testament to Wilder’s open-mindedness. But the simple fact is neither have worked out, at all. There was to be no return to glory for either Rodwell or Morrisson, no redemption, no miracles, just more dead-in-the-water cup appearances and contract terminations in the post.
It turns out it didn’t matter, the team did exceptionally anyway. But with more money at stake, these deals could have been far more damaging to the club and going forward, they might just reveal a few little red flags regarding Wilder’s transfer policy.
As cruel as it sounds, the Premier League isn’t Rocky, or even Moneyball. It’s a cold, hyper-competitive environment where strong characters and thick skin thrives. What it isn’t, is a place where a 2020 Jack Rodwell revival has any chance of happening.
AM: JACK GREALISH (ASTON VILLA)
The first name on this lunatic team sheet; Jack “Greazy” Grealish, the shinpad-sceptic sex symbol with a hairdo like a Monte Carlo widow’s dog, the joyriding, balloon-huffing, positionless Peaky Blinder with legs like Spanish hams.
His return to the top table has been every bit as manic and controversial as we could have hoped for. Since day one of the season, he’s been kicked mercilessly, won games single-handedly, scored, created, destroyed. After being punched in the head by a derby-day nutter last season and being photographed pavement pissed in Tenerife early in his career, he upped the the stakes during lockdown; crashing his Range Rover into two parked cars and apologising for it with all the sincerity of a boyband star getting nabbed with a spliff.
To imagine Villa without him doesn’t bear thinking about, to call him a talisman would be borderline insulting. In the court of Aston Villa, Grealish is king, knight, jester and judge. He is that club, but to the point where he seems to have made himself almost unbuyable. The name of Jack Grealish might well go down in the same annals as Bowles, Marsh, Le Tis et al; but something tells me he’s probably alright with that – if it means he can still go to Pryzm every now and again.
FWD: ADAMA TRAORE (WOLVES)
Adama Traore has long been one of the quickest players in Europe, a stats curio amongst the usual faces. But this season he’s added that terrible cliche “end product” to his assets, and in turn, has become arguably the most electrifying player in the league.
Like a young Tyson facing up to lanky Irish guys in the amateurs, he seems to present a physical mismatch for even the most rapid full backs. Quick forwards are usually negated by canny defenders with little nibbles, shoulder barges into the hoardings, expressions that say “he was going too fast, ref”. But Traore is not Theo Walcott. He’s a Pamplona bull, who can now cross and finish with the best of them. Although, bizarrely, he did manage to get pocketed by Marcos “relax, there’s another bus in two minutes” Alonso this season.
FWD: CHRISTIAN PULISIC (CHELSEA)
Until now, Americans who’ve played in the Premier League never really seemed that American. Most had been knocking around the fringes of European football long enough to have developed Mid-Atlantic army brat accents and a command of all the usual cliches. They also tend to be old, bald, goalkeepers or Jozy Altidore – and therefore lacking star quality.
But Pulisic – despite the Balkan surname – is the Premier League’s first American. To look at him is to summon up a cast of imported stock characters we grew up with during the cultural dominance of the Clinton-era. To British eyes, he could be a sensitive jock on Dawson’s Creek, a high school shooter who nobody expected, a member of The Chainsmokers, a likeable-but-weird Mormon porn star in an early Louis Theroux.
Personally, every time I see him in the post-match, I can’t escape a vision of him sitting at the communal desktop computer of a hostel in Brussels, in an “IOWA STATE HOCKEY” hoodie, checking his emails and drinking a pomegranate SoBe. I imagine he has a girlfriend with a promise ring, doesn’t “use” alcohol and is quietly perturbed by the ritual decadence of the old continent.
It’s easy to take the piss out of the lad with a barrage of tired likealooks, but his work on the pitch is nothing to laugh at. Despite heradling from a culture where our beautiful game is seen as a pursuit for Mexicans and subversives, he’s shedding the cultural baggage in style.
CF: OLIVIER GIROUD (CHELSEA)
Like some syphilitic French poet rediscovered by the Beats, only now are we beginning to realise the genius of Olivier Giroud. He’s big, he’s slow, he’s old, he misses a few sitters – but time is proving him to be the perfect enforcer for the nippy young forwards of our era.
Since the restart, the Alpine mountain man has been exceptional for Chelsea – part shire horse, part peacock, part hawk – a pimpernel-cum-poacher who drags, digs and fools young defenders towards doom with a glint in his eye. Arsenal fans were telling us this the whole time, marking perhaps the only time they’ve talked any sense whatsoever in the last 15 years.
MANAGER: CHRIS WILDER (SHEFFIELD UNITED)
Who else could it be? What other manager could master this ship of scoundrels and blaggards, this platoon of pretty boys and ruffnecks. Only the steel town Coach Carter himself, Wild Thing Wilder.
We laugh, but Wilder probably is the manager of the season. Compare them to other promoted sides: Wolves might be the best team ever to come up, but really that was never a Championship squad. Norwich are supposedly full of good players but thwarted by funds – but man for man they’ve got a much snazzier side than The Blades. Villa spent a bomb and Jack Grealish remains their only decent player.
Wilder’s team are one of irregular style, finding new heights in the medium of defensive football, just as Pernell Whitaker did with defensive boxing. This isn’t just some “whack on the best of Guardiola on Youtube and hope the dross in the squad take note” stuff, it’s tailoring a team to a vision.
He’s also solid ITV3 comedy gold, often coming off like a man who’s got a hatful of dreams and a bitter dispute with the local planning authority. “The most Sheffield man alive”, I've heard him described as. For his football, his achievements, and his cantankerous, maniacal passion – Wilder is the man of the season.