How long before Premier League gets its own Hollywood ending?
So there was to be no repeat of last season’s final-day drama, which, with Sergio Aguero’s last-minute title-winner, served up a last act so thrilling it felt as if a Hollywood screenwriter had taken control of the storyboard.
This time, thanks to the combined coronation and abdication at Old Trafford last week, the last round of fixtures felt a bit like the bonus material on a DVD. You watch on hoping for one last hit but, deep down, you know the main event has been and gone.
Spurs failed to leapfrog north London rivals Arsenal at the last and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United weren’t quite able to secure their manager a win in his final match in charge (although no-one can claim that 10-goal game of two halves lacked excitement). All in all, the Premier League denouement was just a bit of an anti-climax.
In truth, that was no great departure from the previous eight months. You couldn’t help but think that the TV companies, fresh from lavishing a total of close to £2 billion on a new rights deal, would be feeling a little short-changed by a season in which the title race and all three relegation spots had been sewn up with a game still to spare. Not much nail-biting tension to be had there, sorry old chaps.
That’s what made the prospect of a third place playoff between Arsenal and Chelsea – within a whisker of finishing on the same points, goal difference, goals scored and conceded – so tantalising.
A season shorn of the exhilaration of recent memory could be given one last shot at redemption.
It was a game that, had it gone ahead, would almost certainly have sparked some conspiratorial chatter in the boardroom at Sky TV.
After all, once sponsors and TV executives had got a taste for a winner-takes-all playoff for Champions League qualification, and all the extra revenues that game would bring, it would surely be only a short hop for them to start salivating over the prospect of a similar finale to decide who would be champions.
Why wait for a randomly-generated, once-in-a-lifetime money-spinner, when you could guarantee one every season, they might think. It works just fine in rugby league, as we know.
Granted, that modification was a response to a question the Premier League doesn’t need to answer: how to revive an ailing sport. Stubbornly high attendance figures in the face of surging ticket prices say football’s top league has no comparable popularity problem.
But there are other, structural, problems in the English game which mean the playoff idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
The fuss around the Champions League, for example, has now become so cacophonous in English football that it drowns out almost everything else.
That has had obvious implications for the FA and League Cups in this country, but it’s also beginning to harm the title race.
Just look at Chelsea this season. Disrupted as they were by the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo mid-season, and Rafa Benitez’s arrival in January, they were still European champions who had spent £87 million on new players, and were trailing Man. United at the top of the league by just four points.
Seeing them slip back so quickly in the league, while still managing to lift a European trophy, smacked of a club hedging its bets. Throw in the towel in the championship, consolidate a place in the top four and still challenge for European glory, their strategy seemed to be saying.
They call it pragmatism and, with the growing trend for merry-go-round manager recruitment – Benitez was clearly desperate to get his hands on a quick trophy for the benefit of his CV – that approach is only going to become more and more common.
The playoff system would only formalise this approach, of course, but with the added bonus of giving over-burdened English clubs a better chance of competing in Europe’s elite competitions. At a time when we appear to be slipping irretrievably behind our German and Spanish counterparts, this can be no bad thing.
The grand final idea might also head off the arrival of a European Super League, which would surely decimate the domestic league beyond repair.
After a season in which United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich all look like winning their respective leagues by double-digit margins, the temptation to cast off the shackles of domesticity must be swelling for the continent’s biggest clubs.
Practically, the plan would be difficult to implement, especially in a sport governed by traditionalists who can’t even agree on an innovation as widely backed as goal-line technology.
There would, naturally, be inevitable discomfort at seeing a team finish top with a sizeable lead, then go on to lose a play-off semi-final against the fourth-placed finishers.
Rewards for finishing first and second – home advantage in a one-legged semi-final, perhaps – might help assuage those fears and, anyway, it’s unlikely that a team would expend the necessary energy to amass such a lead when they knew it would be close to worthless come the end of the season.
The point is that, like it or not, it’s inconceivable that those who run the game aren’t already thinking about this idea, preoccupied as they are with exporting the Premier League as a global product.
As we’ll see with the many post and pre-season tours due to be made across the Atlantic by Premier League clubs this summer, the US is very much the next market to crack.
The MLS over there already has the playoff system in place, and with American owners now in place at Liverpool, Arsenal and Man. United, how long before the Premier League decides its time to take the Hollywood route?
No such thing as crocodile tears for Beckham
Talk of Hollywood is always a handy segway to David Beckham. The footballer turned global brand made his last ‘home’ appearance on a football pitch on Saturday night, as his PSG side beat Brest 3-1 at the Parc Des Princes in Paris.
There was a fair amount of scorn poured on the fact that Becks lets his emotions get the better of him with a good old blub at the final whistle.
Perhaps this was considered, in some way, un-English. We still prefer our sportsmen to be cut from a more stoical cloth.
But then Beckham never really lived up to the stereotype of the British footballer. Happy to play with his masculinity – yes, the sarong – and with an unprecedented openness to globetrotting, he was probably English football’s first truly international star.
For all that Bobby Charlton became renowned throughout Europe, he never played abroad and nor did he crack America the way Beckham did.
Those tears in Paris might just explain Beckham’s success.
As much as his world fame was plumped up by an aggressive brand-building project, his true appeal was grounded in something more human.
People loved Beckham because of his boy-done-good story, his insatiable work ethic and, ultimately, the way he showed true emotion in a world of artifice and superficiality.