2013, The Football Year That Was
Someone once said, a week is a long time in football, and year an eternity. Today on the blog Ian King reflects on the major footballing stories of 2013.
Pope Gregory XIII has a lot to answer for, you know. It's his calendar which doesn't align with the football calendar - in England and Scotland, at least - meaning that writing a review for the end of the year 2013 has the feel of writing a match report based on what has happened during the first half only. But never mind. Welcome to 2013, another year of shrieking hysteria, trigger-happy chairmen and the end of several eras, although it rather feels as if what exactly will replace those eras hasn't quite settled yet.
Ferguson Leaves United
The second half of the last Premier League belonged to Manchester United, of course. A run of sixteen wins in eighteen matches between the end of November and the end of March was enough to wrap the Premier League title up at a canter, but even this most comfortable of title wins was overshadowed at the very end of the season with the announcement of the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and his replacement by the former Everton manager David Moyes.
The jury remains out on Moyes. To what extent has his team's poor - by their own lofty standards - performance been his fault? Or did the previous manager perform some degree of managerial alchemy to get them on that four month long unbeaten run last season?
Bradford City Reach League Cup Final
Ferguson's retirement was a shot in the PR arm that the Premier League needed at the end of last season, because on the pitch all the action was taking place elsewhere. As Manchester United meandered towards their twentieth league title, considerably greater excitement was to be found in Bradford City's run to the final of the League Cup - and even the hammering they they received in the final at the hands of Swansea City can't detract from the achievement of getting there in the first place from League Two - and in the closing stages of the season in the three divisions of the Football League, where it sometimes felt as if a Hollywood director might have been appointed with the aim of writing the perfect script. At Vicarage Road and Griffin Park, crucial matches were decided a missed penalty at one end of the pitch and a goal seconds later at the other, whilst the made scrambles for survival at the top and bottom of all three divisions made for compelling viewing.
Furthermore, the sub-plots surrounding much of this action only added a further layer of interest to the stories being played out on Saturday afternoons. Portsmouth, for example, may have been tumbling from League One to League Two, but at the least the club took an enormous step towards financial stability after its supporters trust finally took control of it. For Wolverhampton Wanderers on the other hand, financial prudence may have been a positive signal from a club with a long and inglorious history of basket-casery, but a second successive relegation brought demonstrations on the pitch at the end of last season, although the support may have been somewhat ameliorated by a reasonably successful start to life in League One.
At the other end of the spectrum, even the successful didn't have it all their only way. Supporters of both Cardiff City and Hull City had their promotions to the Premier League tempered somewhat by meddling owners chasing a pot of gold at the end of a thus far illusory rainbow. Cardiff threw their club colours and badge on this bonfire of the vanities, and Hull City seem set to add their very name itself to the flames. Expect more of this madness over the coming twelve months.
And now....Coventry City
Basket-casery, however, is all relative and la creme de la creme of English footballing basket-casery this year has, of course, been Coventry City. Now, I could write enough about this story here to put together a book, publish it and be threatened with legal action by the club's owners, but to summarise briefly, on New Year's Day 2013 a crowd of 15,185 people saw Coventry City play Shrewsbury Town at the Ricoh Arena.
Eleven and a half months on, the team is playing its home matches thirty-five miles from home in Northampton after its owners moved it from its home ground whilst muttering something about staying at The Ricoh Arena being untenable, and crowds have plummeted to around 1,500 hardy souls who make that seventy mile round trip every couple of weeks or so even though manager Steven Pressley has somehow managed to assemble one of the most entertaining teams to watch in all three divisions of the Football League.
Meanwhile, the owners of the club continue to blame everybody but themselves for this state of affairs, and what seems likely to be a lengthy court case now means that the club returning to Coventry in the foreseeable future is a hope that is rapidly disappearing into the distance. Crowds in Northampton haven't massively improved since the start of the season, and the arrival of winter means that we are likely to see unwanted record low attendances being broken over the next few weeks or so and, most troubling of all, there seems to be no end in sight to the torment of the group of people who are - no matter what Manchester United supporters might say to you - comfortably the most put-upon in English football at the moment.
New Faces, Old Faces
The end of the Premier League season, meanwhile, brought a taste of things to come, and not only at Old Trafford. If Manchester City's lethargic performance in the FA Cup final against Wigan Athletic - another match to gladden to hearts of those amongst us who believe that there may still be the faint beating of a heart at the centre of the game - could be put down to the imminent departure of Roberto Mancini from the club, the two managerial departures signalled the start of a summer that was, curiously, simultaneously both extremely busy and exceedingly boring. Gareth Bale - or at least those speaking on his behalf - sent football supporters worldwide into something approaching a coma with his protracted sale to Real Madrid, but for much of the summer most of the action was to be seen in terms of managerial replacements.
Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, Roberto Martinez shuffled his way to Everton, and Manuel Pellegrini arrived at Manchester City during the summer, and that feeling of flux has carried over into the first half of this season. Yet the manager who might have been considered amongst the most vulnerable at the start of this year, Arsene Wenger, sits loftily atop the Premier League pile as the year nears its end. The arrival of Mehsut Ozil on Transfer Window Closing Day may turn out to be proof that it's not how many players you sign, but how well they fit in with the rest of your squad. Ozil seems to have breathed new life into those around him so far this season and, although a suspicion remains that leopards seldom change their spots as dramatically as Arsenal have since their home capitulation at the hands of Aston Villa on the opening day of this season, the likelhood of the club ending its eight year long trophy drought seems as great as it has done in recent years.
Dark Clouds Gathering
And yet, and yet. As 2014 dawns, there remains a feeling in the air that trouble is in the air. The 2014 World Cup finals seem likely to be disrupted by protest and there remain serious questions over the host nation Brazil's readiness to stage the competition. Elsewhere, FIFA remains dead set on holding the next two finals in a Russia rendered distasteful by explicitly homophobic laws and in Qatar, where the atrocious conditions faced by immigrant workers were met by a wholly unsatisfactory (yet entirely predictable) bout of oh-dearism from the governing body.
Meanwhile, competitive imbalance in European club football seems only likely to be further skewed by new television contracts, whilst back in England the corrosive influence of money in the game has resurfaced with ugly match-fixing rumours which, should they be proven, throw doubt over the credibility of both the non-league game and the Football League.
There were plenty of reasons to be cheerful in 2013, despite a feeling of gloom hanging in the air. It's difficult to approach 2014 with much hope that common sense will return to professional football again. That ship, we might contend, sailed a very long time ago.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @twoht
And read more of his work on his TwoHundredPercent.net