After last year’s feast, the famine…
Rewind 12 months and right up until the end we were relishing not only a three-horse title race but one in which a comparative long shot had emerged as hot favourites coming down the final straight.
One Devon Loch moment for Stevie G later, however, and Liverpool were left to watch Manchester City breeze past the finishing line on the final day.
Still, it was good while it lasted, and with the collapse of Manchester United under David Moyes providing the juiciest of subplots, 2013/14 made for among the most compelling of Premier League campaigns. And, as it ended, we still had a World Cup to look forward to — and it turned out to be one that would eclipse most expectations too.
This time around, the Premier League title race finishes in anti-climax, having stuck rigidly to an all-too predictable script for most of its duration. So much so that, back before kick-off in August, even your humble, not to say, unreliable correspondent was able to forecast the final top four with some conviction, nominating Chelsea as winners and Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United as the other Champions League qualifiers, with Liverpool the side I suggested would suffer the most slippage.
Not that you needed to be Nostradamus to envision that the loss of Luis Suarez would be hugely damaging for Brendan Rodgers and his team — and even more so if, as indeed turned out to be the case, Daniel Sturridge would be sidelined with injury.
There’s plenty of room for criticism of how Anfield spent its money in trying to replace the irreplaceable but you need look no further than Reds’ goals-for column — 101 last season, 52 of which were supplied by Suarez/Sturridge, as against a not so grand total of just 51 this time out — to see how the blunting of the Anfield strike-force had always made this a season more likely to be endured rather than enjoyed.
As it happens, the order of the teams from two to four was the only thing I got wrong but even in suggesting Arsenal had it in them to pip Manchester City for second I still ended up rather closer to the mark than those who were anticipating a season of crisis for the Gunners that might well end with Arsene Wenger’s head on the chopping block.
Nevertheless, their plodding conclusion to the campaign, ahead of their cup final date, has been a late reminder of the distance the club still has to travel if its to become a genuine title contender.
As for Manchester United, another season of transition but one which would at least restore stability, if not glory, always seemed on the cards once the experienced Louis van Gaal got his feet under the desk. The only pity is that his team couldn’t provide as much entertainment as the manager did at the club awards ceremony this week.
Indeed, among many other disappointments in the Premier League this season, the failure to set the English game alight of box-office arrivals Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria — the latter after an authentically false dawn — has got to rank pretty high.
In general, it tells you nearly all you need to know about the Premier League’s charisma deficit in 2014/15 that, on last week’s Match Of The Day, Alan Shearer could suggest with a straight face that Nigel Pearson was a candidate for manager of the year.
This would be the same Nigel Pearson who was not only the source of the season’s most cringe-inducing tirade — his ludicrous ‘ostrich’ verbal attack on a journalist — but who, more to the point, presided over a team which, going into the final round of games, has a record of 19 wins in 37 matches, with a goal difference of -13.
But, if ‘bouncebackability’ is to be the main criterion for honours, you might as well argue that surprise England call-up Jamie Vardy should have beaten Eden Hazard to the Player Of The Year gong.
In fact, Hazard — a thunder-thighed version of David Silva — was the deserved recipient, just as Jose Mourinho was legitimately the manager of the year.
The arrival at the start of the season of Diego Costa corrected the glaring deficiency in front of goal which had consigned the Blues to third place last year but it was their steely spine fleshed out by that unified team ethos inculcated by Mourinho — and epitomised on the pitch by John Terry’s resurgent contribution — which meant that, even if panache gradually gave way to pragmatism, they scarcely put a foot wrong when it really counted at the business end of the season.
And, of course, they got more than a little help from their enemies.
After Monday’s 3-0 defeat for the champions at West Brom, Mourinho, in his usual mischievous way, sought to deflect attention from his side’s no-show. “I think the contenders are also guilty because they let us win the title so early,” he said.
For Mourinho, Chelsea were “ruthless” in their ability to get results. On the evidence of the season and the final table, few can argue with that.
Whether it was Arsenal’s big match failings, United’s comparative ordinariness or City’s lack of a collective spirit, all of the other contenders found ways to help smooth Chelsea’s passage to the title. Yet another reason why this Premier League season will not be remembered as a classic.
Now, on the eve of the final day, we see that ‘Super Sunday’ has given way to ‘Survival Sunday’, with Newcastle United and Hull City contesting the final relegation place.
In the end, it’s probably appropriate the main end of season drama lies in the battle to beat the drop.
The financial picture may be getting rosier with every eye-watering television rights deal but where it should really count — on the pitches of Blighty and, even more conspicuously, on the playing fields of Europe — this was a season in which the Premier League fell even further short of the hype.
Mulligan’s brought to book
Even though I crossed its threshold many times, especially during the five years I spent working in the Irish Press building next door, it somehow escaped my attention that, behind the bar of Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street, is a photograph of the late Eusebio, signed by the legendary Portuguese striker himself.
In fact, I only learned of his visit to this celebrated Dublin hostelry when I opened the newly-published Mulligan’s – Grand Old Pub Of Poolbeg Street (Mercier Press), an entertaining and enlightening history by Declan Dunne, in which he also records the pub’s many other “fascinating connections with the extraordinary”, including to “Judy Garland, James Joyce, John F Kennedy, British monarchs, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Oscar-winning film My Left Foot, Flann O’Brien, Peter O’Toole, the birth of rock ’n’ roll and a raid by the Black and Tans.”
Since he was synonymous with the pub, it’s only fitting that our late, much-loved and still much-lamented friend Con Houlihan gets a whole chapter to himself, in the course of which Dunne reveals the great man’s memorable explanation for why he favoured his trademark brandy and milk tipple: “The brandy takes the shting out of the milk.”
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