It is a mark of the grand old institution’s powers of survival that on the day the Premier League ended it also truly found itself again.
Manchester City might have wrapped up the title race at Old Trafford last Sunday, but we also got back in touch with everything that made The Greatest League in the World (TGLITW) great.
All that once made Sunday super.
At one of our ‘leading bookmakers’, they employ a ‘head of mischief’, somebody to organise the bantz, with the knowhow in toxic waste to process effluent into the blocks of publicity on which they build the brand.
There is no known counterpart at TGLITW, but it is impossible not to imagine key personnel swooping into action on Sunday last, executing emergency end-of-season plans, mobilising the ‘controvassy’.
The gold standard for any controvassy is a ‘fracas’ and the centrepiece of the afternoon’s distractions was the meeting of minds in the bowels of the Theatre of Dreams, variously tagged ‘watergate’ or ‘milkgate’ based on the liquid weaponry employed.
It will endure in TGLITW folklore like its Old Trafford predecessor, pizzagate, of which we are told, roughly every six months since, that Cesc Fabregas has finally been identified as the culprit.
It is also possible to imagine Jose Mourinho scripting the whole thing, for other reasons of distraction. In any case, from the fracas, sundry fresh controvassies were born, notably Jose’s new protectiveness of dignity and restraint in victory, a concern that may not extend back to his Real Madrid days when he kept in his office — Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga tells us — a lifesize cardboard cutout of himself, finger in the air, captured the moment he sprinted across the Nou Camp pitch to celebrate Inter Milan’s win in the 2010 Champions League semi-final.
Or even back to May, when United players sung “why don’t City fuck off home” after the Europa League final win, on a night their city was mourning the Manchester Arena attack.
Simple “diversity of education” caused City to behave in a gauche, inflammatory way, shouting in their dressing room, Jose now laments, opening the floor to the finest minds in controvassy, including the man who worked harder than anyone to make TGLITW great.
From his exile in Qatar, Richard Keys was on high alert, working angles nobody knew existed better than Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“Jose saying ‘diversity’ — are we sure? Broken up — the way he’s delivering it — it sounds more like ‘diver-city’. Listen again,” the master tweeted.
Mark my words, they will bring this man home one day, perhaps when a season ends in October.
Even if the gap at the top extends to 50 points, the ill wind from the evacuations of Old Trafford’s bowels should power us on to May, but this Super Sunday delivered so much more besides.
There was Klopp, indulging his ‘penalty fury’ with a classic ‘interview storm’. While the players on the pitch even contributed some improvised penalty area theatre to keep ‘debate raging’.
Yet, despite the cryptic prompting Keysy detected, in the forensic analysis of ‘the big decisions’ on Super Sunday, I feel a key ‘takeaway’ has been missed, a portent perhaps of something bigger. A power shift, if you like. A sign they are finally learning something in the academies of the Premier League and a clearer indication than even youth World Cup glory that the end might soon be in sight for the Three Lions’ five decades of hurt.
At Old Trafford you had Johnny Foreigner, represented by Ander Herrera, whose penalty box ‘simulation’ looked hopelessly outdated, obsolete even. Stiff and clumsy in his collapse, he went, as Big Ron would have it, down in instalments. He didn’t earn the right to go down, nor did diver-city’s Jesus, earlier.
At Anfield, in contrast, fellow spot kick applicant Dominic Calvert-Lewin was showcasing the finest in modern English craft. His detour into Dejan Lovren and spring-loaded rebound into the turf was penalty manufacture that complied with the highest lean six sigma standards.
It resembled the brilliance of Robert Lewandowski in last season’s Champions League, when he felled himself by pushing Laurent Koscielny. Or the trickery of Fernando Torres in the 2016 final, when he veered into Pepe’s attempted clearance to be kicked.
Those are lofty standards to emulate, but in its essence, Calvert-Lewin’s work was Vardian; the contemporary high-spec way to box clever advanced by the sly Fox.
In the Vardian era, egregious Platoon contortions popularised by one-time pioneers such as Jurgen Klinsmann are no longer necessary or sensible. The dive itself is an unsophisticated relic relied upon only when there has been a gross failure of imagination.
Rather than invent a foul, the best now create one. A subtle difference.
Robert Pires was an early specialist in a field where TGLITW accepted the necessity to import talent, where there was once no indigenous supply of expertise.
That has changed utterly with diver-city’s Raheem Sterling another to learn fast. Where Pires might once have been able to fool a ref, these modern practitioners are capable of fooling an industry.
The verdict from virtually every pundit that Everton’s was a stonewall penalty might be partly obedience to the Lovren calamity narrative, but it was also a testament to the swift advances in domestic manufacturing that have left the pundits behind.
It baffled Klopp, who told Sky’s Patrick Davidson he couldn’t be dealing with people who had no basic understanding of the game.
When Davidson told him all the ex-pros thought it was a spotter too, it was Klopp floundering in a world he no longer understood.
“They are all right and I am wrong,” he sulked.
Maybe everything we know is wrong.
Football’s coming home.
No tunnel vision for viewers
The great Stevie G — the Cork hip-hop DJ rather than the Liverpool Phil Collins enthusiast — had one concern about the Super Sunday extravaganza.
“For all their hype and bluster Sky never have footage of these tunnel bust-ups which are no doubt ten times as good as any matches they ever televise.”
How long more will subscribers dig deep when they are denied the full story?
BT Sport, where the other Stevie plies his trade these days, have expressed concerns and applied to bring cameras into dressing rooms, with boss Simon Green keen to broaden the picture.
“We are not there to catch people out, we are there to tell a story and to tell a good story.”
Man City’s tunnel cam is an online success after matches, with players captured in unguarded moments and the odd argument thrashed out. And we can’t forget that United blocked access to Old Trafford last Sunday for the Amazon film crew shooting behind the scenes for an upcoming City documentary series.
The Daily Telegraph called that decision a “blow to City as they look to document the enormous hype and emotion surrounding Sunday’s game”.
The lost episode will certainly leave quite a hole when the show is finally broadcast.
Heroes & villains
As we scan the horizon for some kind of Irish saviour, we’ll take every 10-minute hat-trick for Norwich in the FA Youth Cup where we can get it.
The Sky man dealt brilliantly with raging Kloppo, even if he was wrong on the pen.
A Manchester United FA Cup tie will not be screened live for the first time in 58 rounds! Truly, everything we know is now wrong.
Whatever about pumping up the volume, confetti in the dressing room? Won’t anybody think of the Old Trafford cleaners?
Mighn’t affect us for a while, but somewhere down the line you know it will mean football costing more.