The end is nigh, and there are issues at both ends of the table that look like going to the last day of the season. Not for us of course, but more of that later.
At the top, it’s the race for fourth spot that’s keeping the excitement going. Liverpool’s win at Watford saw them pull clear in third and a relatively easy run-in should cement their Champions League place. Arsenal, in sixth can’t win a raffle in the league at the moment, so it looks like a straight tussle between arguably the biggest characters in the League – Pep and José.
José of course has the added possibility of qualifying via the Europa League, for which he has the first leg of the semi-final this week. His problem, however, is two-fold.
Fixture congestion is the first main problem he must counter. He has six matches before a possible final in three weeks time. The first leg of the semi-final is this Thursday, and is followed by a trip to Arsenal on the 7th. The return leg of the semi-final takes place four days later and is followed shortly after by a trip to Spurs on the 14th Southampton on the 17th before the final game of the season at home to Palace on the 21st.
The Europa League final would then take place on the 24th.
If the congestion wasn’t enough, he has eight first team players out with injury including Zlatan, Pogba, Mata, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Jones and Smalling. He’s threatened to play himself on Thursday and I’d pay good money to see that, then, if they make the final, he’s promising to put out the U23 team against Palace on the last day of the season. I can see his point, but Mick McCarthy did a similar thing as Wolves manager a few years ago and got into all sorts of trouble.
So he probably wasn’t thrilled when Maroane Fellaini got himself sent off in the Manchester derby at the weekend and missed the following game at Swansea as well as the trips to Arsenal and Spurs. José to be fair stood up for Fellaini, who attracted the ire of the referee by appearing to head-butt Sergio Aguero.
I saw Aguero in the tunnel but no broken nose, no broken head, his face is nice as always, so I’m not so sure.
Whether the rules of the game make distinctions between the degree of damage done in such an incident I’m not so sure, but what is certain is that Aguero provoked Fellaini into the reaction. Fellaini had been booked nineteen seconds earlier for a foul on the Argentinian, who then pushed his face into Fellaini’s - who then appeared to clock him. Red card.
Now, the modern footballer is trained in all aspects of the game whether it’s on or off the pitch. Nutrition, sleep, psychology anything to try and give them the edge in a game. So why aren’t they taught how to deal with provocation? You see it all the time – player’s being sent off for retaliation - Zidane in his final game a case in point, surely they should have role-play training where they can recognize the situation for what it is – an attempt to make them lose it and get sent off?
They should be trained in the art of reason, of replying to an insult with a measured comment – for instance:
Sergio: “Hueles de orina y tu madre es una esposa de peces.” (‘You smell of urine and your mother was a fishwife’)
Marouane : “Sergio – calm down bonny lad, mine's a pint.”
No red card and Jose doesn’t have to play himself in midfield for the Spurs match.
So - have we seen the last of Joey Barton after an 18th month ban, imposed due to his gambling habits which "will be my retirement’ according to the Burnley player? Somehow I think not, he seems to have a taste for the media, although I can’t really see him as a pundit on MOTD comparing sweaters with Alan Shearer. He was banned for placing 1206 bets worth over £200,000 at a loss of £16,708, and although I’m not a betting man, that looks like pretty good form doesn’t it?
And commentators have said that this begs the wider question of ‘does football have a problem with betting’? Any commentator who seriously asks that question should be straight out of a job. Betting is endemic throughout the sport, infused and infested at every possible level from adverts in betting shop windows, through social media, TV sponsorship and advertising, shirt sponsorship right up to renaming Premier League grounds after the betting company and supporting the national team.
Clubs have agreed betting partners for different areas of the world, are happy for their name and brand to support the industry and any restrictions seem to be minimal. The only reason why betting isn’t seen as a problem with football is that no-one is asking the questions.
We know that the game in the Far East is corrupted by betting syndicates and that efforts have been made to ‘fix’ games over here. We know that players have been approached to influence the outcome of games but there have been no signs of a rigorous investigation into institutionalized betting corruption, nor any mention of the effect that a wall of betting propaganda is having on the individual punter.
And I don’t expect there will be unless a whistleblower comes forward with a genuine case or studies prove that it’s having a detrimental effect on the individual. I cannot see football itself biting one of the hands that feeds it.
And at the bottom end of the table only one thing happened. We knew it was coming, it was a relief to many, for lots of reasons, but the question for me was, ‘how do you cope with it’? How do you react?
We’re not a scrappy team, high on energy, fighting the plucky fight week-in week-out right up until the end of the season, when a cruel twist of fate sends us down on the final day. That would be tough to accept, that could be deemed ‘unjust, or unfair’. No, we set out our stall early and barely wavered from our course, so it was a bit like being surprised by Christmas really.
Even though we knew it was coming, that we’d lived through it before, it was still hard to take. The hardest aspect of it all for me was the mismanagement over previous years. The sheer ineptitude of the people running our club was staggering. People with no footballing experience is bad enough, but people with no common sense, or the simplest idea of how to run a business is unforgivable.
It makes our club looks like a laughing stock to the wider world. A bunch of mismanaged no-hopers with fools for supporters who stood by and let it happen. Trusting that the people in charge knew what they were doing year in and year out, with a misplaced optimism that things would get better next season.
Well, I was right up there with biggest of the fools and I certainly felt it this weekend. But there were three things that got me through. One was red wine which I conveniently had in some abundance, secondly was the World Snooker Finals as I couldn’t face watching any football, and the third is this insane optimism that next season is going to be so much better. There’s no fool like an old fool.