By Andi Thomas & Alex Netherton
Sometimes, a set of football results can say absolutely nothing. This team beat that team. That other team lost to that team. There was a nil-nil draw. Some very highly-paid professionals behaved like petulant children, again. We poor bastards condemned to write about it can do little more than shrug, make jokes about Roberto Mancini’s scarf, and pray that next week something significant might be good to enough happen. But, as Roberto Mancini pointed out with his sarcastic praise of the soon-to-be-ex-Pope this week, prayer is often as useful as a melting and chocolate sex aid.
Other times, the subtext leaps about and waves its hand in the air like a particularly annoying schoolchild who got an encyclopaedia for Christmas, and who you keep kicking up into the air. So it was this weekend, when The Most Adorable Cup Final Of All Time followed hard on the heels of The Fixture That Sums Up Everything That Is Wrong With The Game As We Know It. There are probably some of you reading this that enjoy the word “narrative”; well, this weekend was all about you, you sick (R)souls.
To Manchester first, for a fixture that Twitter—as good an advert for global climate change as the Koch brothers could ever hope for—spent all morning gleefully calling ‘El Cashico’. (A joke that definitely, definitely works really, really well, not least because neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona have ever spent any money.) A meeting of the Premier League’s two most eminent managerial frauds*, the first half passed in a long, shared sigh, as football fans up and down the country feasted their eyes on exactly what all that money had bought: really expensive shit, on a really expensive stick.
*A moment to clarify, though. Roberto Mancini was born a managerial fraud, piggybacking calciopoli to his success. Rafael Benitez simply grew into it, around the same time he grew his little beard that made him look like a cuddly Satan.
The second half perked up a little, mostly because Joe Hart’s brain went briefly to sleep. Ba! Bah! Idiot! Penalty! Up stepped Frank Lampard … and missed. On first glance, it looked an excellent, amends-making save of a decent-but-not-good-enough penalty, but you need to remember that everything Frank Lampard does is part of the ongoing wrangle over his contract, a Byzantine mess that would give the Schleswig-Holstein question a headache. This particular incident can be best understood as an underhanded and cynical attempt to remind his club what life without a reliable penalty-taker might be like. After all, the idea that Lampard might not be as good at kicking a ball as he used to be is utterly unthinkable.
It certainly affected his teammates, who sagged like an abandoned helium balloon, and on Benitez, who made a series of bizarre substitutions as a part of a running joke. Exactly who is responsible for Chelsea’s decision not to close down opposition players isn’t clear—is this incompetence tactical? is it improvised? is it the natural consequence of a squad and a club drifting pointlessly through a lightless, loveless season?—but it’s not working. And City? Jack Rodwell was good. Make of that what you will. Some people are saying it might be time to pack the whole thing in.
This cloth-covered futility was all supposed to be thrown into sharp relief by the
Littlewoods Rumbelows Coca-Cola Worthington’s Carling BAE Systems Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Moon Capital One Cup final, which featured two teams that the unwary Premier League supporter might never have known existed, were it not for Swansea City having been promoted the season before last, and Bradford City’s supporting roles in the ongoing crises at Arsenal and Aston Villa. Although Bradford were actually in the Premier League not too long ago. That joke didn’t really work. Have any of these jokes worked? Never mind, we have failed press on!
Not even we are minded to mock the remarkable achievements of the two finalists. Bradford put together an old-school cup run to warm the hearts of even the most weary and worn down, while Swansea’s ten-year rise through the divisions, achieved in part thanks to 20% fan ownership, is unimpeachably impressive. But the game served as a handy reminder that (a) without an ongoing crisis or the grace of some serious good fortune, the big boy will always slap the little boy about the chops and get the girl, and (b) should anybody outside the anointed biggest beasts of football have the temerity to achieve anything, they—and their fans—can look forward to it being chopped up and shoved hastily into the big bonfire marked Idle Speculation.
There is an argument to be considered here that anybody saying (or typing) “And where will Michu/Laudrup/Cyril the Swan be next season?” deserves to have their tongue (or fingers) removed. It’s a tempting one. But ultimately, they’re just innocent victims of a game gone completely arse-about-tit. Where logic insists that the earlier of these two games is the better for any footballer to be involved in, it’s time to go and lie in the road. Ledgers have no column for glory.
The rather wonderful coda to all this was that the third big game of the weekend, Newcastle against Southampton, was by some distance the most entertaining. Six goals, comedy Geordies dressed as comedy Frenchmen, Papiss Cissé kicking seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven shades of dipping, swerving shit out of a football. Bliss. No bugger was watching, mind, but bliss nonetheless. As Confucius said: he who stares too long at the biggest fish, misses Jos Hooiveld putting through his own net. A lesson for us all there.