LIAM MACKEY: Premier League title-race makes glorious viewing from the neutral corner

‘Tis the season to be neutral, payback time for those of us who could never could quite commit to an English club in our formative years.

Growing up a League of Ireland fan as the 60s gave way to the 70s was not without its external trials, chief among them a veritable rite of passage which involved trying, usually with negligible success, to explain the seemingly inexplicable to the stubbornly unreceptive.

Or to put it more simply, from about the age of eight I learned to endure numerous short-lived schoolyard conversations along the following lines:

“So who do you support then?” “Shamrock Rovers.” “Oh, right.” (Pause). But who do you really support?”

There was no answer to that, not even when I got a green and white hooped jersey to wear on the pitch at the top of the road. All that did was to shift perceptions to north of the border across the water. “Ah, you’re a Celtic fan...” Which, in truth, I was, but only in the way that I was also, at one and the same time, a fan of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Leeds United, Liverpool, Wolves, Chelsea, QPR and quite a few more, not excluding Brazil and even Peru. (Mexico ‘70, as you might have guessed, is a magical touchstone for those of us of a certain age).

For me back then the beauty of the beautiful game was that it seemed to be overloaded with beautiful players, which meant that from one week to the next I could be variously and happily bewitched by United (Best, Charlton, Law), Spurs (Greaves, Chivers, Gilzean), Chelsea (Osgood, Cooke, Tambling), Man City (Lee, Bell, Summerbee), Leeds (Giles, Bremner, ‘Sniffer’ Clarke) Arsenal (Charlie George lying on his back at Wembley was enough to do the trick there), Celtic (Jimmy Johnstone — say no more) and, indeed, wherever and with whomever such magical mavericks as Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and Tony Currie were doing their thing at any given time.

It’s fair to say then that, as a football fan, I was very much an equal opportunities type. But that was only where the English First Division was concerned. To me, all those clubs, great and small, were always ‘them’; ‘we’ I reserved exclusively for the men who turned out in the only hooped shirts that really mattered, of a Sunday afternoon in Milltown. (Or in the green shirts at Lansdowne or Dalyer, it goes without saying).

All of which is by way of explaining why the Premier League of 2015/16 is the gift that just keeps on giving for those of us without a favoured horse in the race. Claudio Ranieri has happily dubbed it a “crazy” season, and I wouldn’t disagree, even if by “crazy”, I’m pretty sure a man of his experience really means “entertainingly sub-standard”. But with his Leicester City side still joint top with Arsenal — even in the throes of a barren mini-run, the Foxes haven’t gone away, you know — he’s hardly going to complain about the various deficiencies afflicting his big name opponents and which, with all due respect to Leicester’s stirring achievements, have a great deal to do with the fact that pre-season relegation certainties can remain in the title hunt this late in January.

Premier League title-race makes glorious viewing from the neutral corner

Nor will you get any complaints from this neutral corner. As arguably the most unlikely and romantic success story in the English top-flight since Brian Clough was performing miracles at Nottingham Forest, a Leicester City title success would represent an almost revolutionary overthrowing of the established order, a thrilling gate-crashing of that exclusive club which has been reserved for just five members — with one of them, Blackburn Rovers, only allowed past the velvet rope just the once — during the whole of the Premier League era.

And if Vardy, Mahrez and Co. do pull off their own miracle, who’s to say that, in emulation of the Tricky Trees, they won’t go on to win successive Champions Leagues? (He quipped good-naturedly).

But if the Foxes are to fall short this year, then I reckon there’ll be plenty of neutrals hoping Arsenal can finally put an end to their long title wait. I’ve mentioned here before that it’s far easier to be a fan of Arsenal than a supporter, by which I mean that the former can always derive enjoyment from Arsene Wenger’s purist principles but without having to suffer the supporters’ anguish at seeing the manager’s enlightened quest for footballing perfection repeatedly undone by a failure to take care of those pesky basics.

If last Sunday’s Liverpool-Manchester United game — once a sure-fire Premier League heavyweight collision — was only ever going to be “super” as a reflex Sky Sports hard-sell, tomorrow’s meeting of two more giants of the English game, Arsenal and Chelsea, will at least have a direct bearing on the title — if not, of course, in the way that most of us would have anticipated at the start of the season.

So I’ll be rooting, in my strictly neutral way, for the Gunners in that one, although if this season is to revert to type at any point, then we should probably expect the side just four points above the relegation zone — that’d be the reigning champions, by the way — to come up with something which will wind up Wenger almost as much as it will Mourinho.

Premier League title-race makes glorious viewing from the neutral corner

For obvious reasons, the neutral won’t want to see third-place Man City come out on top in May — considering the stellar quality of their side, that would be too much like sound logic being belatedly imposed on an entertainingly daft campaign.

Yes, we’re big fans of Aguero and Silva and, when he deigns to show up, Toure, but even if City do win the title, they’ll probably still look to jettison Manuel Pellegrini, and he deserves better than that.

Which, completing the current top four, leaves us with Spurs and, again, those of us with no emotional investment in the outcome would have no problem if those perennial bridesmaids were to finally make it up the aisle. The admirable Maurico Pochttino would deserve it, and so would the terrific Harry Kane, while in Dele Alli they have one of the most impressively precocious English talents in years.

Then again, as Martin O’Neill pointed out on the Beeb the other night, every time there’s even hushed talk of a White Hart Lane title charge, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll end up finishing fifth.

And here’s a final thought — what if the craziness spills over from May into June? What if English football was to mark the 50th anniversary of 1966 by winning the European Championship?

Now there’s a prospect to really put our neutrality to the test.


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