By Andi Thomas and Alex Netherton
Premier League: Season 21 ★★
It is the curse of all successful, long-running entertainment franchises to be judged by what came before. Last season, the writers of Premier League threw everything they had at the ending. Obviously, the last-minute last-kick denouement stretched the credibility, but that didn’t matter: it was outstanding drama, carefully scripted to maximise the pleasure for Manchester City, the pain for Manchester United, and the entertainment for the viewing public.
But that comes with its own problem, which is that when it comes to the next season, you can’t just pull the same trick again. That Premier League was brave enough to try something different should be respected, but the peculiar decision to have the title race done by around January, and the relegation places all decided before the final episode, meant that the only point of any competitive interest on the final day was the end of the Race for Fourth, which took place across two dull, predictable 1-0 wins, only leavened slightly by the comedy stylings of Andre Marriner and his free-jazz interpretations of the penalty laws.
The Race for Fourth has never really caught the imagination of the viewing public, despite the best efforts of the writers, and this was another strained and faltering attempt. In footballing terms it provides one team — this time Arsenal rather than Tottenham — with the opportunity, next season, to go out of Europe earlier in a better competition as opposed to later in a worse one. In financial terms it’s terribly important, but great television is not born from such concerns. At least the writers were clever enough to retain an element of parochial cock-snooking through to the end, and we’d like to shout out the Arsenal fan in London Bridge who, moments before kick-off, decided to ask his friend to photograph him in front of the television, back to the camera, pointing with his thumbs at the customised name on his replica shirt. It’s the Arsenal fans that aren’t ‘Arsenal fans’ we feel sorry for.
The other consequence of the writers’ decision to remove much of the competitive edge from the season has been the attention expended on various ancillary plotlines. It was an inspired decision to bring the cross-season racism arc to an end with a room full of white journalists gasping at a black man using words that they wouldn’t be allowed to, and special mention must go to Roberto Mancini, for a delicate, gripping, and ultimately quite affecting portrayal of a preening man fatally undermined by his own tactical incontinence. The only downside of his descent into paranoid mediocrity is that we won’t get to enjoy it again next season.
Yet despite these moments of triumph — and we should also acknowledge the Luis Suarez Biting Incident, a scintillating moment of comic relief and a wonderful pay off for the years of groundwork that have gone into establishing his character — it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this season dragged terribly. By the time the John Terry: Full Kit jokes were being wheeled out for another airing, it was clear that Premier League has been stuck in a holding pattern for some time, and moments like the end of last season can only distract, temporarily, from the structural issues and lack of variety inherent in the setting.
Already, sweeping changes are being planned for next season. Along with the departing Mancini go Paul Scholes, for the second time, Rafael Benitez, after an unconvincing cameo that pleased some critics but never engaged the fans, and a triumphant Sir Alex Ferguson, whose final scene, sliding down a hill near West Bromwich in a bathtub, will live long in the memory. Producers have denied that Ferguson will return next season, but have hinted that notorious psychopath Jose Mourinho, last seen driving a people-wagon into a London canal, will make a shock return.
New faces; but, one suspects, the same old nonsense. The plotlines — Manchester United are victorious, Alan Pardew is unpopular, Liverpool are hilarious — are familiar and wearing thin; the performances are ranged for the most part between acceptable and risible; the relentless focus on off-field nonsense has stretched the patience of even the most avid viewer. Or at least, it should have. But ratings remain strong, proving once and for all that there is no audience so supine, so content to collaborate with its own cheapening, as viewers of Premier League, which will continue for ever and ever, shiny and loud and utterly relentless.
As a mark of the enjoyment we’ve had doing this in the last year, and as a mark of thanks to all of you, our fantastic audience, we would like to leave you with the following quote from Reginald D Hunter, ‘N–”[Richard Whittall interjects, grabs microphone from Andi and Alex, and screams, "That's it. That is it. You're done. Done. That's it for you at The Score. Never again! Your careers began elsewhere but they end here!"]