Offside, 6 January
Football's balance of power has shifted to west London.
The year 2006 began with the all too familiar sound of Scousers moaning. ‘Outrageous, baffling, embarrassing’, bellowed the Liverpool Echo after the European Cup winners were overlooked for gongs in the New Year’s Honours list. England cricket captain Michael Vaughan received an OBE while his Ashes-winning team were given MBEs. Hell, even Lawrie McMenemy bagged an MBE, presumably for services to alcohol-free lager. But Rafa and Stevie G got diddly squat.
The honours snub will invariably enter Scouse mythology as the latest in a long series of Crimes Against Merseyside (a list that includes the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the city, the Sun’s coverage of Hillsborough, Boris Johnson’s ‘hooked on grief’ Spectator article, and Channel Four’s axing of Brookside). Personally I can’t get that worked up over who has and hasn’t been honoured by the Queen. But if the honours system is, in the words of a Downing Street spokesperson, intended to reward ‘outstanding achievement and service right across the community and the nation as a whole’, then I can see why Rafa’s Reds might have been overlooked.
The clue is in the words ‘outstanding’ and ‘achievement’. Yes, Liverpool did win the European Cup in the most astonishing fashion, coming back from 3-0 down at half-time in Istanbul to beat AC Milan. But to describe Liverpool’s victory as an ‘outstanding achievement’ would be a terrible violation of the English language. The European Cup was won not through outstanding football but through a combination of AC Milan’s extraordinary act of charity and a Peter Crouch-sized slice of good luck. If anyone deserves a gong after Istanbul it’s AC Milan for gifting the trophy to Liverpool.
Last season Liverpool were little more than a well-drilled defence plus Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. This season Benitez’s team have added a goalscoring dimension to their game and, consequently, have become far more consistent in the Premiership. Liverpool’s players have even started ‘turning up’ at away fixtures – something of a rarity last season. And now that the goal-shy beanpole Peter Crouch has started finding the net, some commentators are suggesting that Liverpool have supplanted Manchester United as the dominant team in the North-West.
Time will tell whether Liverpool’s progress is real or illusory. Liverpool are still not a pretty team to watch, over-reliant as they are on the long ball – even more so now that Steven Gerrard has a 6ft 7inch circus stiltwalker to aim his 40-yard punts at. What we can say for sure, however, is that ‘Best of the North-West’ has become a rather hollow accolade. While United and Liverpool slug it out with Wigan and Bolton for the consolation prize of North-West bragging rights, the balance of power in English football has shifted to West London.
It is a sign of the new order in English football that Arsenal versus United, a fixture which would have been a title-decider two years ago, has now been relegated to an irrelevant side-show to Chelsea’s inexorable march to a second successive title. The striking absence of needle in this week’s insipid goalless draw between Arsenal and United speaks volumes for the meaninglessness of this particular fixture.
Chelsea’s unparalleled spending power has prompted complaints that the Premiership has become boring and predictable. Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has recently called for the introduction of a salary cap to restrict Chelsea’s domination. Ironically, Wigan’s gravity-defying exploits illustrate that, despite the growing financial divide, football is still a gloriously unpredictable game. At the start of the season the bookies tipped the three promoted teams – Wigan, Sunderland, West Ham – to go straight back down. However, while Sunderland looked doomed, having scraped together a pitiful six points from a possible 60, both Wigan and West Ham are sitting pretty in the top half of the table.
The only thing that appears predictable is Chelsea’s domestic domination. But even here it is difficult to assess how good this Chelsea team really is. Mourinho’s men have not really been put under any real pressure from a credible title challenger. Sure, Abramovich’s spending power cannot be matched by Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal, but these three clubs are hardly paupers. Wigan and Bolton have shown that it is still possible to punch above one’s financial weight, but Chelsea remain unchallenged because United, Arsenal and Liverpool are still punching well below their respective weights.
So, with the Premiership title destined for Stamford Bridge, that only leaves my other predictions for 2006. There will be plenty more moaning about the boring, boring Premiership from jaded football hacks. Government ministers will continue to blame footballers for children behaving badly. During the summer the War on Terror will briefly give way to the War on Fat White Blokes with Tattoos. Germany’s stunning new World Cup stadiums will put Britain’s penny-pinching to shame. And finally, Wayne Rooney won’t get any prettier, Gazza won’t string a single coherent sentence together, and Peter Crouch won’t score the winning goal in the World Cup Final. I’m pretty confident about all these predictions.
Apart from the last one, that is. After all, in football anything is possible.
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