And in a packed Ramble this week, as the season draws to a close, we ask the important questions... is Wayne Rooney going to be knighted? Zlatan the Musical – is it time? Does Eden Hazard have an evil twin? Trevor Sinclair – the future of football on TV – or just a man in a nice cardigan? Swindon Town – what’s their link with quantum mechanics? Could you harness the intensity of Martin Keown as a force for good? And – why do the press always ask Harry Redknapp about money?
The FA Cup semi finals were played out this past weekend and the thing that stood out to me is that there were no underdogs. Pretty much four of the top teams in the country were in the semis. And is that the way we’re heading? A clearly defined ‘elite’ of perhaps six teams that are going to dominate the Premier League? That’s if you don’t accept that they already do (remember Leicester?).
And logically it has to be the way we’re going - with the financial clout of the top teams, how can anyone else compete? Although Antonio Conte had this to say this week:
This season it’s very important to understand it’s not always about who spends more money who wins.
He is, of course, referring to the fact that Manchester United spent £150 million in the transfer window and Manchester City spending £165 million. What he didn’t explain was that he spent £100 million himself and you could argue that he had the more established Premier League side to start with. So, kettle, pot, black, thing, I think.
And this summer will be no different, the top six are going to harvest the clubs of Europe and the world to outdo their close rivals. No more so than Manchester City and we presume Guardiola, who crashed out of the Cup this week leaving them with.... nothing. Guardiola won fourteen trophies in his first managerial job, and he was told at the time – ‘don’t win them all at once, leave some for later, you know what you’re like’. But did he listen? And now look where he is.
Pep has only a Champions League place to play for, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll get it given the defence and goalkeeper he employs. And, if he doesn’t get into the Champions League, will he hang around? Will he have a choice? If he stays, he’s going to have to spend big, but can he be trusted? The first thing he needs for sure is a goalkeeper, and I think he still has Joe Hart on his books – now there’s a conversation I’d like to listen in on.
The second big question of the summer is ‘can Spurs hang on to their best players’? If they’re serious about breaking into the elite then they have to hang on to their stars and still buy more in the summer. But with their new stadium to pay for are they going to be tempted to cash in when any offers are made? For sure, the one lesson learnt from the semi-final against Chelsea - apart from playing Son out of position, which was just plain silly - is about strength in depth.
Chelsea could start with Hazard and Costa on the bench and when they came on, they changed the game. Spurs took off arguably their most in-form player - Son - who was largely ineffectual, and brought on someone I’d never heard of who doesn’t make the first team for most games. And that was pretty much the difference between the two.
Hazard was a shoe-in for PFA Player of the Year this year, right up to the point when N'Golo Kanté beat him, but you have to ask the question, what happened to him last season? In his first season under Mourinho he was unstoppable, but then last season the total opposite, hardly featured, lacklustre performances - he looked like a different player.
Except he didn’t, he looked exactly the same, only the performance was different, and there can only be one explanation. We’ve all seen magic tricks where the magician appears to be in two places at once and we all ask ‘how can they do that?’ And the answer’s always the same – the identical twin. Yes! We can reveal here and now, exclusively, that Eden Hazard’s place in the Chelsea side last season was taken by an evil twin who, together with his brother, conspired to bring Mourinho toppling down because he’d been stealing his dinner money or giving him Chinese burns or something. And remember – you read it here first.
Talking of Mourinho, a win in the Manchester derby this week will take his Manchester United side above City into fourth place. But, can they do it without Zlatan, who tragically is now going to be out till early 2018? (‘Dum, dee dumdum….’)?
We should now mention what I feel is going to be a huge step forward in the world of popular entertainment – ‘Zlatan’ - the Musical. Background – poor immigrant (topical), muslim family (edgy) fights against the odds, overcomes the odds, gets the girl, wins the cup, ‘bang’, will run in the West End for years. The thing holding me back was the third act, we needed a setback to his meteoric rise, a hook to grip the audience - and a baddie.
The injury provided the first. His replacement provided the second and third. Enter Wayne Rooney (‘boo’), eager to reclaim his centre forward position (‘boo’) and force our hero to seek a meagre pittance in the wastelands of North America (‘boo’). Long months spent in isolation with Rooney (‘boo’) struggling to match Zlatan’s achievements and always undermining his reputation before - at the climax of Act 4, our hero comes sweeping back at the critical time to score the winner and save the world. I can see Elton doing the score and Hirst, the stage design. Jobs a good ‘un.
Of course Rooney (‘boo’….sorry), may not be around. Not exactly José’s cup of rosé, it’s looking increasingly likely that Wayne will get the old heave-ho. But where to? I can see him and his good lady aspiring to be a more down-to-earth copy of The Beckhams, but in reality, it’ll take at least a knighthood to put him even close to the first couple of football in social circles, media circles, advertising circles or even crop circles. So, China then.
The thing about FA Cup weekend is that the Beeb is stretched for pundits so have to reel out their second string. Which means Martin Keown. Keown is the BBC’s very own dementor, sucking the life out of any living thing in the vicinity. He must have had any trace of humour or happiness surgically removed at a young age and I imagine when he’s not on air he’s floating ethereally outside Television Centre in long wispy robes and preying on small birds and Airbus A319’s of holiday-makers heading for the Mediterranean.
Trevor Sinclair is the one I always look forward to though. Not someone I really remember as a footballer, but that’s not a big deal, I feel the same way about half of Sunderland’s current midfield. He’s a man whose calm manner, good dress sense and naturally relaxed persona in front of the camera belies his total inability to talk about football with any degree of education or interest whatsoever. The first time I saw him he just repeated everything Alan Shearer said. Not a bad tactic but a little wearing after the second sentence.
But this week, he made me eat my words. In reviewing the crucial game between Hull City and Watford, he had the opportunity to comment on Hull’s second goal, struck cleanly from outside the box by Clucas - it was both in context and execution a fantastic piece of football. But how would Trevor sum this up in a sentence? He didn’t disappoint:
That’s a paintbrush of a finish!
‘That’s a paintbrush of a finish’ closes the book on TV punditry for me. There can be no greater moment, no point of inspiration to outshine that pure instance of genius. I remember where I was when I heard that Elvis had died, where I was when Bowie died, where I was when I heard that we’d voted to leave the EU and I’ll never forget where I was when I heard ‘that’s a paintbrush of a finish’. Game over.
So, Swindon, despite the best efforts of Tim Sherwood, a gifted man in every way except outside of his own opinion, were relegated at the weekend. No shame in that, let me say, but what happened next was unusual to say that least. In the match report on the official club website, there was no mention that by losing the game they’d been relegated. And this provoked a lively debate – why are the Club not admitting that they’ve been relegated?
The answer lies in quantum mechanics. You’ll be familiar with the experiment featuring Schrödinger's cat, where a cat is locked in a sealed box together with some poison (please don’t try this at home), and the postulation is that the cat can exist as both alive and dead at the same time (to any actual quantum mechanics out there, please don’t write in, I’m winging this big-time).
Anyway, the theory is that if Swindon don’t admit that they’re relegated, then they aren’t relegated, or at least they exist in a state where they are both relegated and not relegated at the same time. See? There - that turned out well.
Finally, Harry Redknapp had his first game back in charge with Birmingham – a big derby game with Aston Villa - and he lost. But no-one wanted to talk to him about the game, only about his financial arrangements for taking over City for three matches. What is it about Harry Redknapp and finances – I don’t know, something in his past perhaps? Might as well ask his dog!
Anyway, Harry replied:
I told Birmingham I don’t want nothing, I’m not interested in the money.
Perhaps someone should then have asked him about his use of English and why living amongst people who can actually speak the language his whole life has had so little effect on him?
However, he continued, when asked about his ‘nice’ £250,000 survival bonus:
It’s not that nice, not that nice. It wasn’t a money deal for me.
See, there’s the quantum mechanics thing again. Harry can purport to be totally disinterested in money whilst expecting a quarter of a million bonus for three games work – at the same time.
I wish that I understood physics better.