It says a lot, for better or for worse, that Manchester United’s eighteenth championship sent barely a ripple through the footballing press. Most headlines read, “Man United 0 – Arsenal 0,” with United’s Premier League-winning feat mentioned in the sub header. It seems the Premier League ended some time ago, perhaps when Liverpool drew Arsenal in a more exciting fashion then Saturday’s soaking wet kick about (or at least for me, when Aston Villa drew Stoke in early March).
This was an awful season all-round. The sort of narratives that usually drive speculation among punters, neutrals and johnny-come-latelys fizzled just as soon as they were kindled: Benitez finally winning the league; Aston Villa challenging for the Champions League at Arsenal’s expense; the beginning of the end of Man United’s debt-pooled collapse in the manner of their American shirt sponsor. Like a band of nervous studio execs descending on their auteur director, any hint of originality this year was forced to give way to cozy convention. Even Liverpool trouncing United at Old Trafford 4-1, certainly the most dramatically significant match of the 2008-09 season, was the exciting exception that proved the deadly dull rule.
Sadly, Newcastle United going down with Alan Shearer saluting as the icy waves reach his cabin door, only for a BBC helicopter to come swooping in at the last minute to rescue him as the Toon break in half and lurch to the ocean floor, may be the only real convention broken this year. Watching Newcastle was like watching a club stuck in time warp, with names and players culled straight from 2003-2004. Viduka, Owen, Duff. Only Obafemi Martins looked the part on occasion. Steven Taylor once or twice.
The Northeast is currently bearing the brunt of an economy laid to waste by the Ponzi-esque banking schemes of moneyed London, and it’s hard to imagine even a club of Newcastle’s stature coming back from the brink without lucrative new ownership. Newcastle can still escape of course, but even if they do, the smart bet isn’t on a bright, sunny outlook for 2009-10. And while relegation can often be the best thing to happen to a club, exclusion for once-mighty top flight teams, as in the case of Leeds or Forest, can last a lifetime.
It seems these days in the Premier League, relegation struggles are squeezing out the top-of-the-table victories for front page headlines. While we can usually depend on You-Know-Who to fill out the Champions League roster, the list of potential relegated clubs is cutting closer to the core of the English football of old. Even Tottenham prior to the intervention of Harry Redknapp, seemed early on destined for a relegation fight. A collapsing domestic economy, coupled with the enormously-inflated cost of competing in the top flight, mean the difference between challenging for Europe and struggling to stay in the Premier League altogether is going to get smaller and smaller.
As is the distance between England’s four best clubs, and the rest.