It was early June 2023. Rishi Sunak was prime minister. The world was succumbing to Barbiemania, and Man City had just been crowned champions of Europe. Different times, different times. But here we are now, a whopping 60 days on, we’ve lost the Ashes, we’ve had a wet July, my rhubarb patch is flourishing and whilst Rishi Sunak is still prime minister, there is hope for everyone as the footy is at long last back, baby. We’re alive and kicking!
But whose idea was it to schedule the biggest show in women’s football so it overlaps with the premature and frankly unwelcome return of the Championship, Scottish League along with the ever-spirit-sappingly-tedious Community Shield? Are basic good manners too much to ask for? The Women’s World Cup doesn’t need any sort of artificial boost, because the 2023 edition is one hell of a tournament and it’s delivering in spades, I’m loving it. My wife said she’s fed up with my addiction to football. We’ve been together 39 seasons now, but it’s worked out ok so far.
City again…and again…and again? Anyone going to catch City this season? City are a paean to more innocent days when Gazprom was just a cuddly fossil-fuel provider embezzled from the Russian people that absolutely loved the soccer, rather than the financier of a mercenary army in an illegal and mass-murderous war. Ok, I’ll put the soapbox to one side now.
Watching the players and staff disembark from the plane carrying City’s squad home from the Big Cup final, it was hard not to sympathise with Jack Grealish. Having spent the previous night wandering the bars and foyer of an Istanbul hotel in full kit looking for his clothes, it seemed clearly suffering from the effects of what must have been extreme turbulence on the flight home. Unsteady on his feet as he descended the steps, Grealish’s attempt to walk from the plane to the airport terminal resembled a cross between Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, the video for Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity, while all those around him were perambulating in real time.
I like Pep, a football genius for sure, and of the players, Grealish, an old-fashioned footballer playing with his socks down and still a bid kid loving the game. As the notion of the football club dissolves into the shadow of galactic wealth and state funded ‘projects’ (soap box klaxon) Grealish brings a semblance of connection to fans, pushing back the endless trophy ceremonies of the same-old-teams-that-win-everything. He’s somehow scruffier, more human. Needs to get a haircut and lose the hair band though. I’d love to put him in my fantasy league team, but will Pep pick Jack, or Foden or Bernado? City did what needed to be done and finally harpooned that elusive whale. It’s the stuff you dream of, blubbed a tearful Jack into the microphone, only to tweet later that it was the stuff I couldn’t even dream of. Still suffering from the turbulence, obviously. But while City fans look forward to doing it all again, adding the handy Gvardiol to their squad, in the distance is the loud trumpeting of 115 elephants…
But they may have an unexpected rival in their pursuit of retaining the Big Cup. KÍ Klaksvík from a Faroe Islands town boasting just 5,000 inhabitants, are two ties from Big Cup’s group stage after dumping Swedish outfit BK Häcken out of the qualifiers. Whatever happens, Klaksvík are now guaranteed a spot in one of the Euro League comps, the first time a Faroese club have featured in the groups of a European competition. Tears. Tears of joy. What a team. What a club. What a town. What a story. Amazing support. This is unreal. Next up: an Amazon documentary.
Are Saudi FC the new Chelsea? Once upon a time there was Planet Football, where fans lived on a diet of high and low emotions. They produced them through compelling, heroic contests, arch-rivalries and tribal behaviour where triumph-over-adversity, piquant failure and bitter disgust presented a weekly roller coaster, Saturday to Saturday. Not any longer. First, we had the Sky Money League, then the breakaway Euro Champs league, now it’s Saudi teams, primarily the four large clubs funded by the Government, buying up the Chelsea rejects and recreating the Liverpool midfield. Whilst Mbappe is not joining Al-Hilal for £259m, Riyad Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maxim, Fabinho, Firminho, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane have, and next year they’re hoping to bring Wout Weghorst. Saudi’s growing influence in football has dominated the transfer headlines this summer – even Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema left Real Madrid to join Al-Ittihad, who have signed ex-Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante.
Henderson has left his supposed principles on Merseyside for the sake of a huge bin of cash. As well as winning every trophy possible with Liverpool, Henderson made a lot of friends along the way. He hitched his trailer to the LGBTQ+ wagon as an ally who was unafraid to speak out, and he also took the lead when it came to organising a generous footballer whip-round to raise funds for the NHS and foodbanks during the pandemic and has campaigned for Hope United in their bid to rid football of misogynistic hate. Just a lad from Sunderland, the general consensus has always been that he is one of football’s good eggs. Henderson announced his departure from Liverpool presumably aware that should he continue his policy of promoting LGBTQ+ and women’s rights once he starts playing in Saudi Arabia he could be in a spot of bother. Quadrupling his wages and trousering £700k per week, he can’t be unaware of the disappointment felt by those who feel so betrayed. Liverpool’s LGBTQ+ fan group, Kop Outs, were withering in its dismissal of and disappointment with our Jordan.
That Saudis are flexing their substantial funds deepens the Premier Leagues’ tangled web of state investment. The Public Investment Fund owns 75% of the country’s top four clubs, probably the best league in Asia before the current transfer spree, as they attempt to mirror the success of Abu Dhabi and Qatar on the world stage. These state forces are almost unimpeachable, but you can’t set the morality aside, although with the number of Russian Oligarchs living in the UK, this hasn’t bothered our government’s moral compass for years. Saudi has doubled down on political repression. In 2022 Saudi executed 147 people. More than 1,000 have been executed since. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder sponsored by the state in 2018 was surely enough to block the PIF buying 80% of Newcastle?
Apparently not, they whizzed through the ‘fit and proper person’ test of ownership. Just like pineapple should be illegal on pizza, football club ownership should reflect the games’ community impact, heritage and fans. Research has found 35% of top European clubs are owned entirely by private capital, and most investors want to ‘crystalise’ returns within a decade. Sigh. Ok, I’ll put the soapbox to one side now. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in tactics and politics to remember what football is generally about: agony and ecstasy.
Runners and Riders in the tsf.tech league As Chelsea and Liverpool lose out from the top four, six or seven or whatever it is, and Brentford and Brighton lead the charge, who do you pick your fantasy players from? Chelsea have had a right good clearout, Kovacic, Mendy, Koulibaly, Kante, Mount, Havertz, Pulisic, Loftus-Cheek, Ampadu, Aubameyang and former captain Azpiliceuta have all departed this summer. Arsenal splurged £100m on Declan, Spurs are trying to keep Kane, Liverpool can’t sign anyone, and Man U seem to be suspiciously good at bringing in their key targets and looked to have shipped out Harry.
Clubs have returned for pre-season at shiny training complexes out in the sticks with perfect pitches, large gym facilities, fitness coaches and more sports and data scientists than players. Then they nipped off for tours to lovely sunny countries, getting themselves ready for the start of the campaign. We are shown them in professional settings, looking happy to be back at work and without an ounce of extra fat picked up from a summer of excess. Show-offs. In their new branded gear. Show-offs.
It’s hard to look beyond City and Arsenal again. Arsenal led the Premier League for 248 days last season – no side has spent as long at the summit of the English topflight and failed to win it. United? I think they will continue the improvements started by Ten Hag last season. No chance of the title though Saint Marcus is in my Fantasy XI. Villa? I have a feeling we will see a very strong Villa this season and I’m going for Mings and Watkins for sure. Newcastle? Not sure there will be another top-four finish, but the curve is very much moving in an upward direction as far as long-term prospects are concerned, Trippier and Botman in defence are a good combination. West Ham? Maybe Bowen, but they’re thrashing out personal terms for two players who are as English as sewage-drenched shorelines, although James Ward Prowse is decent. Given City’s interest in Paquetá and their tendency to get whoever they want with a minimum of fuss, West Ham could soon find themselves another star player down, albeit while listening to the reassuring beep-beep noise of a sky-blue bin-laden lorry reversing to unload yet more cash.
David Silva Former City playmaker David Silva has announced his retirement from football. The 37-year-old spent a highly successful decade at City and won four Premier League titles and two FA Cups before joining Real Sociedad in 2020. However, Silva suffered a serious knee injury during pre-season and has decided to call time on his 19-year playing career.
The former Spain international joined City from Valencia in 2010 and went on to make 436 appearances for the club, scoring 77 goals. Whenever Burnley played them, he was just head and shoulders the best player on the pitch, with tremendous vision and attacking verve, he glided over the grass with grace and yet strength. A statue of Silva was unveiled at the Etihad in 2021, standing alongside those of fellow club legends Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero.
Silva retired from Spain duty in 2018, having won the 2010 World Cup and 2008 and 2012 European Championship titles. Silva made 125 appearances for his country, scoring 35 goals. One of the modern greats for me, and it’s one benefit that the money tumbling into our game has brought some of the best players in the world to Burnley on a wet Saturday afternoon.
Transfer deadline is 630pm Friday Football is sold to us as fun. As colour, as sunshine, as joy, as winning. In reality, football is experienced as doubt. For most of us, football is about losing. Only one team can win a league. The torturous history of defeat, pain and regrets still feels extraordinary, we are powerless to prevent something awful happening to us, in a 90-minute period that matters to you so much. And so you lie to yourself. We’re just going to enjoy the occasion. It’s only sport. I didn’t expect us to win anyway. Hope is a delusion. Dreaming is for night-time. Football is disappointment. You know all this is true. You also know what football can do for you. It makes you leap around and grab your friends around the neck and roar at each other’s faces from inches away. It makes you jump on the back of strangers.
You stay with football because of the possibility of all this. Because football can change. You miss a penalty and then the other team miss two sitters and you’re still 1-0 up with ten minutes to go. There are limitless reasons to fall out of love with football. The idiots you know even in the home end at your own club, the jingoism that snarls in the slipstream of success. The price of shirts, the price of tickets, the £3 booking fee for a £45 away ticket bought in a microsecond from an automated page. The multiple satellite packages, the kick-offs before lunch and after Sunday tea-time, the lack of mid-week games, the money coming from state investment funds that….Then you think of the adrenalised peaks and emotional releases of the season to come, the pleasure of seeing your happiness reflected in the faces and moods of people you have almost nothing else in common with apart from sitting a few feet away from you in the ground wearing the scarf you’ve had since 1987 (see photo!).
For one manager in our Fantasy League, it will be something else other than defeat. Colour, sunshine, joy, winning. It could be you. Maybe, this once, it will be. Sign up details are here, please pass on to anyone who you think would enjoy the fun and banter.
League Code: nleilr
Good luck, whether you’re an Evertonian, a Bolton fan, a Manchester Red or Blue, a Leicester supporter, wear Arsenal, Stockport, Liverpool or Norwich colours, follow your team with passion, through think and thin and believe. Unless you’re Leeds and you can get lost. Here’s to a great season of fun, laughter and some good moments along the way – it’s only a game after all.