Thursday, 21 June 2012

See You at the Crossroads

The Final 'Final Whistle' Column - The Goldsmiths Leopard. Published May 2012

The organisers' comprehensive anti-hooliganism drive was an unmitigated success.
There were few fans available after the game for comment.

So, the ref is looking at his watch, preparing to blow full time on ‘final whistle’... And what a great place to leave the world of sport, delicately teetering, like the bus at the end of The Italian Job. Except that unlike Michael Caine, I don’t have a plan...

At the time of going to press, we have just about got our collective Leopard breaths back from the whirlwind that was the final five minutes of the Premier League season. This is just the beginning. In fact, instead of balancing precariously on a cliff, the British sporting nation, along with many Leopard writers, finds itself unceremoniously dumped at a crossroads. Waiting along one road is the final of the Champions League, where a battered, shoestring Chelsea side will turn out against an in-form, organised Bayern Munich team. Where will that one take us? Spurs fans will be hoping it’s a dead end, as a Chelsea win in Munich on Saturday would put them into European no-man’s land and on another trudge through the Europa league with the resultant loss of the fourth Champions League spot for next season. Di Matteo deserves a medal, but sadly, he’s not even assured a job. Especially given that Abramovich may look to oust him for the very man the Italian outsmarted in the semi-finals. Go figure.

Another road leads us kicking and screaming into Euro 2012, with a brand new (old) manager, who instilled little optimism with his appointment of Gary Neville as coach. Yes, the uglier of the two ugly brothers may be England through and through, but so is a fry-up, and that gives you heart disease. What Hodgson was thinking, I suppose we’ll never know but one thing’s for sure, the England team bus will be a distinctly Scouse free zone if Manc nationalist G-Nev gets his way. The job’s a big risk for an unproven coach, especially as Neville looked a nailed on choice for the second pundit spot on Sky’s Super Sunday next season. At least now there’ll only be 11 people having to put up with his drone.

A third avenue takes us majestically on to London 2012, providing the road isn’t blocked. It’s a miracle that everything is ready for the Games if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves. I was half expecting to have to base this entire column on the general ineptitude of the Olympic Delivery Authority, but it looks like they may have pulled it off. That’s not to say they won’t forget something important though. It’s always the way: after all, you only ever remember your toothbrush when you’re halfway down the motorway. The difference here of course, is that in the ODA’s case the toothbrush may just turn out to be failing to order the lightbulbs in time for the opening ceremony. Depending on the outcome of these games, Seb’s either going to be given a plinth on Tralfagar square or tried in the media equivalent of the Hague. But, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Only if Britain finishes outside the top 5 in the medal table...

A fourth track leads us smoothly and gentlemanly to the summer’s cricket tests. God only knows how the erratic England side will perform, having gone from world’s best to shaky outsiders in the space of 6 months. You’d expect them to beat the Windies, but I’d expect a squad of spaniels in whites to beat the Windies, given that most of their top order is chasing the rupees over in the Indian Premier League.
Looking back the way we’ve come, the road has been a bumpy. Who’d have said three months ago that Man City would overturn an eight point deficit to beat United and clinch their first top flight title in living memory? Not Betfred it seems, which sagaciously paid out over half a million to punters on a United league victory back in April. Who also would have thought at the start of the league season that Alex McLeish would narrowly avoid relegation with Aston Villa? Oh ok, fair enough; I’d have paid out on that in January. It was a vintage year for the Premier League, and one that rightly cements it as the most exciting, if maybe not the most technically advanced, in Europe. As Chelsea showed however, the Sunday league technique of bodies behind the ball can pay dividends and crucially, not one of Messi’s 60 goals this season was scored past this resolute defence, which was already depleted of its two central assets in the semi-final second leg.
As far as national pride is concerned, the argument will continue to rage as to which is best football league in the world. Criteria varies, but Champions League success is a healthy barometer.

Only one English team per year has made it past the quarter final stage in recent times, which for many indicates a falling away in technical merit for a domestic league that regularly enters four teams a year. However, as Charles Darwin would have told you when he wasn’t out stealing other people’s ideas, adaptability is the key and Chelsea showed it in abundance that night in the Nou Camp. Where Manchester United had been ripped to pieces by the classy Catalans the year before, Chelsea rolled up their sleeves and got the job done. Considering this was in front of 90,000 hissing Spaniards, the feat is magnified. The fact that Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League this year is irrelevant: they still won the day when it mattered. Even Torres got a goal, before quietly slipping back into his spiralling depression via a freak hat-trick against QPR.

The argument goes that in England’s crumbling Premier league, lack of homegrown quality spills over onto the international scene. But this is pure drivel. Surely the best homegrown talent plays to a higher level amid the best in the world? Besides, England have always been terrible, except for one giddy summer in the 60s when everyone in England was so high it’d have been impossible not to win something on home turf. Three Lions on your shirt, chest, arse or anywhere else will never change that. No, regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, Chelsea have single-handedly proven that the English Premier League is the best in the world through their sheer stubbornness – like only the British can.

And so now the end is here, and I, along with the ODA, Team GB, Chelsea FC, Roy Hodgson, England and the British Public, face the final curtain. The Olympics were organised, and will no doubt be run, in a truly British fashion. Chelsea will do what they can to bring home the Champions League title to the most exciting domestic league in the world. Hodgson will work his nodding little face off to progress past the quarter finals of Euro 2012, and The Leopard will continue trying to produce something a little different but eminently readable in the way I have attempted to do here this year.

So, at these crossroads, we’ll travel each and every one of these highways, and looking back we’ll say that more, much more than this, we did it our way.
And it’s been a good’un.