And so that time rolls upon us once again. The Easter chocolate overload is finally settling, those little seen gym cards are being dusted off and another season in the Premier League draws to an unforgettable, explosive, never before seen climax. If Sky Sports are to be believed. A time when every fan of every team from top to bottom believe they have something to fight tooth and nail for. Some targets realistic, some not so much.
Although every season offers its own unique stories and twists, some things seem ever present. Manchester United will be in the title race. A team beginning with W will be near the bottom and a whole Pandora’s box of cliches get regurgitated for the farewell 2 months. Some are fresh, their foundations built that season. From Balotelli being the sole culprit for Manchester City’s mini collapse to Liverpool’s lack of luck. Of course every year contains those ever present familar tag-lines like Arsene Wenger’s fear of the transfer market and Alex Ferguson’s mind games. Media en mass would have all with an attention span believe that entire squads of professional athletes, assembled for countless millions of pounds, crumble at the knees and throw their entire years work away after a few barbed comments from the man who has been there and seen it all before.
But have mind games become as important as any player or any tactical briefing in the nail biting run in? Or has the idea become the journalistic equivilant of a Rory Delap throw in, a choas inducing long shot caused by one forceful flick of a wrist? Sadly for any non Man. United fan, a large portion of Premier League seasons have actually finished at such a canter for United that Fergie barely even needed to wield out his acid tongue.
The 1996/1997 season did of course produce a genuine race when United pipped Newcastle, seemingly certain winners, to another title and a run in that would produce an interview that would become as dramatic and instantly unforgettable as any moment on the pitch during the ‘Sky Sports years’. As Kevin Keegan cracked professing a burning desire for love and everyone from Richard Keys to Rupert Murdoch licked their lips with glee, the title had gone and Newcastle had surrendered a 13 point lead.The annuls of history would record that Fergie had won and Keegan had cracked under the pressure. Kevin was weak to the game.Yet the truth is that ten games before Ferguson’s interviewed attempt to rile Leeds and Nottingham Forrest into direct action against their Geordie rivals, Newcastle began a run that would see them drop 14 points out of 30. The goals had dried up, the signings of Faustino Asprilla and David Batty seemed more disruptive than beneficial. All season long the backline of Warren Barton, Phillipe Albert, Darren Peacock and Jon Beresford were more than susceptible to conceding goals but Les Ferdinand and co. could always score more than the opposition to collect another 3 points. When this was no longer the case, the 13 point lead frittered away. The pressure set in on a team and manager with no previous title experience and the Cantona lead juggernaut took over. But the underlying fact is, this all started long before Ferguson had even spoke seriously about a challenge.
Facts lead us to another of Fergie’s famous psychological victories. In 08/09 Liverpool mounted probably their one and only true title charge, under the tenorship of Rafael Benitez. As Liverpool sat in the unfamilar position of top of the league, Rafa launched into what was vilified as a rant over issues he percieved as the FA and English football as a whole, favouring Ferguson’s side. The press lapped up the ‘meltdown’ and as Manchester United strode towards another title, the papers would force people to cast their minds back to that press conference, as the day Liverpool lost their best chance for a first Premier League title.
But once again if we have commitment beyond a season reduced to bullet points, we will see that the week to week slog of that run in was not about a collapse. In a season where Liverpool lost only 2 games, they would gallop in with 31 points out of 33, stretching back to February 28th. The best form they have ever been on in the EPL. An insane 4-4 draw against Arsenal on a night when only for Arshavin having the game of his life, could easily have ended 10-0 to the Anfield side. These would be their only points dropped.
The reality of Liverpool’s failing were a terminal lack of quality widespread. Despite having the best striker in the league, with the best goals per game ratio in Fernando Torres, those games were so few that two midfielders were Liverpool’s top scorers that term in Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt. Liverpool’s first choice 11 was arguably stronger than anyone else in the division, but sadly that 11 rarely battled together. Their replacements could never replace the lost quality and Rafa’s tinkering (another unfair myth) could not duplicate their post ‘rant’ form, throughout the season. Throw in the failings of 20 million Robbie Keane and already we can see that Liverpool’s search for that elusive best team in the land crown would extend again for a multitude of reasons beyond that of a press conference.
In the interest of competition and basic change of scenery, thankfully, Man. United have not won every Premiership. In 1998 they once again strode out front in another one horse race for the title before St. Patrick’s day. Yet a Marc Overmars winner at Old Trafford unsettled the mastermind so much that Sir Alex filtered the mind games into the environment early. He promised the result would be no major set back as Arsenal would certainly drop points before the end of the season. Fergie was right. Arsenal would lose again, but only after embarking on a 10 match winning streak that would see Tony Adams lift his first Premiership under the stewardship of Ferguson’s latest foe, Arsene Wenger.If the mind games did not work this time, why wasn’t it documented as acting as an inspiration instead?
As fans we enjoy and despair through almost every human emotion in a long tough season. Weeks on end of high drama, miserable mistakes and week changing brilliance. The hopes and aspirations of ones own team can change ten times over in those 9 months. So is it possible that an entire season’s work can come down to who can handle the child’s play most adequately? Can an entire dressing room of anything up to 20 nationalities be disrupted by one of 1000 interviews throughout the year? Id have a right mind to switch to a different game if it did.