By Vineet Kanabar May. 22, 2016
What a season. The “most successful manager ever” lost his job, Leicester City won its first Premier League title before Liverpool, and this writer almost gave up on the sport.
History will recall two major communities whose collective sense of entitlement has come back to haunt them – Americans, and Manchester United fans.
At times during the season gone by, the United fan in me wanted to curl up with a bottle and forget about football for a couple of years. Two seasons of depressing football matches and a laboured trudge to fifth place had taken its toll, especially since I tend to build my life around match days. But as I contemplated football fan suicide, the fire was kept alive by the high-drama enthusiast in me, stoked by the this-cannot-be-happening story of the season — Leicester City were going to be champions.
In the Chinese year of the underdog, an African won Player of the Season for the first time, the most high-profile manager lost his job (in part due to a sexism row), and #JusticeForThe96 was finally delivered. By September, all early season predictions, including mine, looked like naive bets placed on a drunken day at the races. Football punditry’s lone shining light, Gary Neville, quit his job in the studio to take up a full time managerial position, failing almost as spectacularly as Michael Owen trying to string together a coherent comment.
Now, I don’t want to take away from Leicester City’s achievement but something has to be said for every other club’s blatant refusal to show up for the title race. That said, the Foxes have now won more Premier League titles than Liverpool, and awarded themselves the opportunity to build a global football brand. Going forward, Ranieri will need to hold on to his stars while attracting new ones. But it’s still early for the cynicism that is bound to shadow Leicester next season, so for now, the feel-good hit of the summer belongs to Jamie Vardy & Co, and he’s having a party.
The postponement of the final game between United and Bournemouth at Old Trafford due to a bomb hoax turned out to serve as a wonderful microcosm for the season.
A new television rights deal kicked in this season, and football capitalism made the clubs even richer on the back of the lads, chavs, and the posh kids paying more for football on TV and in the stands. I watched for free, with a five-minute delay (thanks, Hotstar), as Leicester City became the best advertising campaign for the league. Claudio Ranieri’s men went from relegation fodder, to the lead characters in that Denzel Washington movie in the course of a year, finishing 10 points clear of Arsenal. Karma chuckled while Ranieri completed his redemption story as the Nicest Man In Football, managing his team and the hype around their triumph with pre-meltdown Mourinho-esque tactics. Leicester claimed every fan’s second team spot, along with a place among Europe’s elite for next season.
To add more drama to the mix, three major clubs announced managerial departures mid-season. Despite the assurances of the English press, my club wasn’t one of them. Chelsea were the first to offload their “most successful manager of all time” Jose Mourinho. I admit that I felt a little sympathy for Mou as he presided over the most disastrous title defence of all time. Chelsea were hanging by a thread above the relegation zone when Mourinho went on to write and star in a hyper-realistic adaptation of his seminal work, How To Lose A Job in 3 Months. Dutchman Guus Hiddink came in to clean up the mess, somehow guiding Chelsea to a barely respectable tenth place finish. In one of the least enjoyable renditions of The Clash’s hit song, Goldflake’s unwitting brand ambassador, John Terry, couldn’t decide if he should stay or go. Sadly, he’s decided to stay on, and will play under Antonio Conte next season.
In January, I watched helplessly as our noisy neighbours continued to crush our hopes in Manchester, with an early announcement of the arrival of Pep “sexy-suits-silky-football” Guardiola in July. What must’ve seemed like a clever PR move at the time became an albatross around Manuel Pellegrini’s neck for the remainder of the season. Injuries sapped momentum further as City finished fourth. The league will surely miss Pellegrini, its champion silverfox, and thorough gentleman, but City fans weren’t even grateful enough to turn up in numbers at his last home game. I suppose we aren’t the only club with plastic fans.
The biggest loss of entertainment value, bar none, was Liverpool’s managerial character and resident David Brent-impersonator. Brendan Rodgers was asked to walk alone out of Anfield midway through the season, presumably because no one in the Fenway Sporting Group’s board understood what positions on the field a “7-and-a-half”, or a “false-inverted-tubular-9”, or “raging-hormonal-anti-national-11” were. BRod was replaced by everyone’s favourite heavy-metal manager, Jurgen Klopp. The former Dortmund man came in as a breath of fresh air to Anfield, adding insult to United fans’ Guardiola-shaped injury. By the end of the season, Klopp had rescued Liverpool with a commendable eighth place finish (still below United, still off their fucking perch), and a Europa League final (did not qualify for next year).
Meanwhile, in silver linings for football fans averse to change, Arsenal pipped that other North London club to the second spot on the last day of the season. For much of the second half of the season, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs seemed like a fashionably late lead act as they nearly hounded Leicester to an implosion. Instead, they handed Arsenal a twenty-first consecutive St Totteringham’s Day with a 5-1 implosion of their own against an already-relegated Newcastle United. Harry Kane restored English pride by winning the Golden Boot, but as far as Tottenham is concerned, title challenges should be made of sterner stuff.
Arsene Wenger, the longest-serving manager on the league, continued to play Big B from Mohabbatein, as injuries prevented the Gunners from claiming the title in a year when their fiercest competitors were a shambles. But a second place finish (perhaps a welcome change from the fourth place & FA Cup combine) may assuage fans till the realisation of a trophy-less season sets in. Yet again, fans from the #WengerOut brigade made their stance clear to the Arsenal management. And yet again, a win later, they disappeared from the scene like the youthful glow off Fabregas’ face since moving to Chelsea. For now, it looks like Wenger’s spot at the Emirates is secure for another season. Boring, boring Arsenal.
Meanwhile, the commercial juggernaut that is Manchester United rolled on making megabucks in deals for noodles and shampoo partners around the world, but, despite my fervent prayers, adamantly refused to lift the performances on the field. Louis van Gaal’s philosophy, Wayne Rooney’s abject form, inadequate creative midfielders and an injury crisis to rival Arsenal, put an end to any momentum built from the previous season. The Red Devils played ponderous football reminiscent of the Monty Python philosophers’ football match sketch and posted record profits in a season they narrowly avoided finishing at their lowest points tally. The postponement of the final game between United and Bournemouth at Old Trafford due to a bomb hoax turned out to serve as a wonderful microcosm for the season. I joined the other Indian fans in sacrificing another weeknight as United prepared to host their 38th game with no glory left to play for, two days after the League ended. The subsequent FA Cup win, of course, went a long way in reparations.
If I could be wholly neutral about the season, despite my colossal loss of faith, I would say that 2015-16 was a great year for the Premier League. It was a testimonial to the loyalty of the fans of a small club like Leicester City. For me, it was a test of my loyalty to the sport and club I love. But as it goes, there are few things as resilient as the heart of a football fan, and so, I made it through. Football, bloody ’ell.