Decline of the Hard Lad: This Weekend in the Premier League
Crystal Palace finally scored a goal!
This article was originally published by VICE UK.
It would be great to kick things off with a lazy joke about how shit the international break was, but it was actually alright this time, wasn't it? Scotland were denied a potential World Cup place with a dramatic collapse against Slovenia, Wales suffered the same fate against Ireland, while Chile missed out after one of the most exciting South American qualifying campaigns of all time.
In the "team you want to like but worry have propaganda value for an authoritarian regime" stakes, Egypt secured a World Cup spot in injury time while Syria were narrowly beaten by Australia. In the end, the only boring games all fortnight were those involving England, who managed to win twice and yet somehow leave fans even more certain that they're going out at the group stage of Russia 2018.
Anyway, the Premier League was back in action this weekend, so, for now, let's put England's inevitable World Cup failure to one side.
Decline of the Hard Lad
Cast your mind back to the 2012-13 season – Tony Pulis' last with Stoke – and the Potters' entirely forgettable 1-1 draw with Manchester City. In case you can't recall the details – and the likelihood is you can't remember a thing – the Stoke team-sheet that day included the likes of Dean Whitehead, Glenn Whelan, Matthew Etherington and Ryan Shawcross; Andy Wilkinson, Jon Walters, Marc Wilson and Charlie Adam. This was the age of the hard lad at Stoke, when only Brits and Irishmen with flesh like raw sausage meat and playground bully manners could be assured of game time. Throw in Peter Crouch and Matthew Upson, and the starting XI began to look like the cast of a straight-to-DVD Green Street sequel, or one side of a mass punch-up outside a 24-hour nightclub on the Costa del Sol.
That was what Stoke were about back then, and they were unapologetic in their hard lad mentality. They weren't much to look at, but – especially when it came to upsetting a team of superstar passing wizards with studs up, elbows flying and fists windmilling – they were the right men for the job. Over the last few seasons under Mark Hughes, however, the Potters seem to have eschewed meat-and-potatoes British and Irish players in favour of the same European technocrats as every other mid-table team: your Xherdan Shaqiris, your Ibrahim Afellays, your Bruno Martins Indis. The people of Stoke-on-Trent didn't vote Leave so that, rather than hold Manchester City to a respectable, unambitious 1-1 draw, their team could get pumped 7-2 while attempting a metropolitan passing game and starting a gifted Spaniard called Jesé up front.
De Bruyne, Deified
Speaking of superstar passing wizards, Kevin De Bruyne is fast becoming the best of the bunch. De Bruyne is the Brexiteer's nightmare: a super-talented Belgian at the forefront of an economic powerhouse who is determined to travel to Britain and demolish everything in sight. Thankfully, the economic powerhouse in question is Man City as opposed to the mighty EU, and De Bruyne is mainly demolishing back fours and offside traps rather than, say, our sacred customs, ancient laws and right to work very long hours for abysmal pay. That means we are allowed to respect his genius, even if we suspect he likes the Euro and thinks immigration is OK.
Not satisfied with respecting De Bruyne, many pundits are eulogising him after his flurry of assists on Saturday. One no-look pass through the Stoke back line was particularly impressive, a feint so good that were it five-a-side would have seen everyone else give up and trudge off for an early pint. De Bruyne is now in that pantheon of minor deities just below Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and almost ready to ascend to the highest level of acclaim in football. By that, I mean a level above Ian Wright calling him "world class" several times on Match of the Day, which isn't exactly the sweet poetry of the beautiful game at its best.
Right Man, Right Time
Were some mad, evil genius to genetically engineer a human embodiment of Roy Hodgson's time as England manager, it would look a lot like Tom Cleverley. A midfielder blessed with the holy trinity of i) a low goal return ii) unremarkable physicality and iii) an extremely average passing range, Cleverley has always been of the "I don't really know what I'm doing here" school of footballer. As such, he was the perfect man to get an added-time winner against Arsenal on Saturday, with the lack of purpose which has dogged his career more of a mantra for Arsene Wenger's team at this point.
Surely there is nothing more evocative of Arsenal in the modern era than a scoreboard which reads: "Watford 2-1 Arsenal, Cleverley 90+2". Where most footballing philosophies comprise some novel approach to passing, pressing or possession, Wenger's can now be summed up with the words "late winner from Cleverley" and three cry-laughing emojis. Usually the fact that a dive changed the game would at least drum up some routine outrage in the commentary box, but the pundits are too busy trying not to piss themselves at Arsenal these days. Watford striker Troy Deeney went on BT Sport afterwards to accuse his opponents of having tiny bollocks, a comment which would usually raise a few eyebrows in the studio but which, under the circumstances, was met with a round of approving nods.
731 Minutes Later
Wilfried Zaha after the final whistle this weekend. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire/PA Images
… and Crystal Palace have scored their first goals of the season. The first one was technically an own goal off Cesar Azpilicueta, but hey, when you've made the worst ever start in the Premier League you'll take what you're given and go home grateful.