Wednesday, March 16, 2016

This is truly a season to savour

PREMIER LEAGUE CAMPAIGNS LIKE THIS DO NOT COME AROUND VERY OFTEN

Whenever I try to distill what makes football so intriguing, I always come back to the personal involvement in the dramas I am watching.

This is truly a season to savour.


Those split-seconds when as a watcher you are invited onto the stage to share the emotions of those taking part are what makes fandom so addictive.

Their wins are your wins, their losses you feel too.

This is known as apparatus theory in film theory, that the spectacle is constructed specifically to involve the spectator as a conscious participant in his own mind.

Having played the game even at school level you allows you to place  yourself in the shoes of that winger trying to skin the full back, the goalkeeper hastily getting his bearings for a one-on-one showdown or a midfielder desperately skipping leg-breaker tackles as the opposition try to swamp him.

Then there is the drama of the managers on 'death watch', who apparently are one defeat away from the P45. You watch them intensively as they are on the bench and automatically try to feel an ounce of their pain from a comfortable distance.

Just look at Newcastle United's or Real Madrid's travails this season. It is voyeuristic being a gallow bird, naughty indulging in Schadenfreude or perhaps over sensitive to feel the pain of a sacked coach, but part of the deal for a high-profile entertainment industry.

Only by tapping into supporters' emotional needs can you expect them to shell out for tickets, replica shirts, TV contracts etc and the volatility of  results means they will experience a gamut of emotions, a rollercoaster ride.

And if you don't want your body analysed, then don't go into showbusiness and do not court publicity in the first place. If you don't want to be branded a clown, lame duck or a dead man walking because your team has been losing football matches, or a hero, star or legend when you win, then do not become a Premier League manager.

To be honest I went off the Premier League years ago as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United seemed to have set up a boring hegemony.

Now Manchester City have joined the club. It was clearly too dependent on the wealth of one's owner for surprises to occur and the flood of foreign players diluted the cultural connection of the English fan. There are many sound reasons to despise the 'EPL' and all it stands for.

But hey presto this season has been a surprisng joy and certainly the most remarkable since the old First Division became a Pay-TV-fed league in 1992.

The association with the players is not what it was, the on-field quality of football is better like the stadia but at least we can connect at some level.

It is not just Leicester City's extraordinary title challenge which would create the biggest shock in the league's history and probably the greatest in the top flight since newly promoted Nottingham Forest won Division One under Brian Clough in 1978.

Running the Foxes awfully close are Tottenham Hotspur, which means the probable top two finishers and will be first time medallists in the Premier League.

Of course much of this season's terra incognita must be attributed to Chelsea's precipitous fall from title-winning joy last season to rancorous infighting this season, as well as Manchester United's prolonged hangover from the Alex Ferguson era.

But it would equally be churlish to diminish in any way the remarkable turnaround Claudio Ranieri has engineered at Leicester and their simple yet devastatingly effective counter-attacking style.

14th place last season has turned into first this time around and team spirit has gone from strength to strength as every pundit (including former Foxes idol Gary Lineker) has seen his or her so-called expert opinions evaporate before our eyes.

Leicester have still got the two North London giants and Manchester City to contend with in their last eight games yet have managed to stay five points clear of their closest pursuers, winning away at Spurs, and, most impressively, 3-1 at Manchester City, although Arsenal beat the league leaders home and away.

Not since Blackburn Rovers were crowned champions in 1995 has a club outside the big five wealthy ones bagged the title, but Rovers were benefitting from steel magnate Jack Walker's largesse as much as Alan Shearer's purple patch. Leicester's eleven has been assembled for comparatively a fraction of their's.

The neutrals must surely want to urge Leicester over the line and complete the fairy tale, but two stumbles and Mauricio Pochettino's steely Spurs will surely pounce: It is far too early to celebrate.

Spurs winning would also be a minnows' victory of sorts as they have not won the league since 1961, while Leicester have never been champions.

Yet win or lose, what a tale Leicester has been this season. When fans connect to a match so intimately that they feel they are participating in the show themselves, the drama created edges into a meaningful reality and Leicester have facilitated this process for us.

At the other end Aston Villa's cursed campaign lets us indulge in a grotesque voyeurism as their strikers fluff chance after chance, their defence springs leak after leak and their able manager Remi Garde sits traumatised in his seat as another yet another debacle unfolds before him.

Promotion and above all relegation are wonderful inventions American sport and money men may never understand because they upset the balance and allow the status quo to change.

The prolonged agony or ecstasy of trying to avoid the drop is something you cannot bottle and no serious football fan would swap it for mid-table boredom.

The other emotionally-involving story in England's top flight this season, assuming another hopeless season for Newcastle is nothing to write home about, is of course Louis Van Gaal's painful struggle at Old Trafford.

The spotlight on suffering here makes for more ripe emotional attachment as one of Europe's great modern managers stumbles to mediocrity and failure in the final chapter of his career.

The clips of his apparently cowed face as he masks his grimaces to Ryan Giggs are microcosms of rich internalised turmoil. Van Gaal's stern and combative attitude to the press is something we have not seen in England for ages.

Despite the Dutchman's gruff and robotic rebuffs being a tried and tested defence mechanism to keep the hackery far from his work, it has also been commendable to see a manager not try to ingratiate himself with the disloyal and self-serving fourth estate.

What a season it has been before even Easter. Enjoy it while it lasts as the laws of probability mean next season will probably see a return of money talking and big clubs dominating the title race again.

It has been a wonderful tale of the unexpected and we should all rejoice in it until May.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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