At the beginning of October 2020, as those of us who spend our weekends devouring the sickly sweet syrup of the Premier League were still coming to terms with Spurs’ 6 – 1 win at Old Trafford, one tweet foretold the madness that was yet to follow.
The cauldron didn’t so much bubble as overflow, drowning us all in the pure ludicrousness of the champions of England and the world getting hit for seven at Villa Park. Midway through the second half, the author tweeted again, sickened at the fulfilment of his own prophecy.
Now, the uninitiated among you may be wondering just what “The Barclays” is. With no definition ever committed to writing, I ran my own attempt at putting into words past @kxsmo, the 23-year-old Singaporean Liverpool fan (account named after Jose Enrique’s cat, if you were wondering) who originally coined the phrase that’s now a cherished part of the online footballing discourse.
He didn’t mind “an affectionate term for the Premier League that celebrates all its randomness and oddities with a hint of nostalgia and leftfield, comic sensibilities”, adding a mention for “the cruel and hilarious vicissitudes of the sport, relegation-saving goals being disallowed with the camera zooming in on crying children.”
Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea, I’m told, “stands alone in the pantheon of Barclays moments”. There are honourable mentions, too, for David Moyes’ United putting in 81 crosses in a home draw with Fulham, Darren Bent’s beach ball goal at Sunderland and Arsène Wenger losing 6 – 0 to Chelsea in his 1,000th game in charge of the Gunners. Hopefully, that’s brought you up to speed.
Normally, the pause of club football for the international break is met with a collective sigh but this time most of us would admit we’ve needed a breather over the past two weeks to reflect on the apparent descent into post-Barclays mayhem. But beyond the comedy value of recent unhinged results and handball fuckeries, the idea that we’ve reached a turning point does hold weight with a list of questions as long as your arm about what’s going on in the league and where it goes next.
In the immediate present, there are the on-pitch matters to think about. While the pandemic hasn’t overly impacted clubs’ voracious spending on transfers (Premier League teams laid out more than £1.25bn this summer, almost as much as France, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Holland’s top leagues combined), there are other factors that might serve as levellers.
It’s all impossible to quantify, but the physical strain of a shorter off-season, the risk of players or entire teams missing matches with Covid scares, and whatever other currently unimaginable curveballs are around the corner will all have an impact.
You’ve got to speculate about the effect empty grounds is having on proceedings, too. Would Everton be sitting top of the league with 40,000 notoriously demanding scousers inside Goodison Park having a collective panic attack over Jordan Pickford’s goalkeeping? Similarly, in north London, is the absence of one of English football’s more hysterical fan bases making the early stages of Mikel Arteta’s “project” at Arsenal slightly easier? Take all this into account and it becomes pretty easy to talk yourself into another Leicester-esque title win or at least a serious Leeds flirtation with Europe being on the cards this year.
The temporary absence of supporters could have implications that stretch far beyond a shake-up of the accepted natural order though, as a unique opportunity to redraw the boundaries of fandom is explored by the powers that be.
Dissenting voices warn of the pernicious effects of a ten-hour-long Super Sunday and those whose lives really do revolve around supporting their clubs are pleading for a staggered return to grounds. But the truth is that, for many, sitting in front of the “digital circus” from noon ’til night is just fine. For some younger fans priced out of stadiums, it’s all they’ve known and many of us have grown all too comfortable spending hungover afternoons inhaling the game this way.
Petitions are being signed and politicians criticised, but the “football without fans is nothing” arguments have largely drifted into the background as questions over how much longer Solskjaer’s got and what Thomas Partey will bring to Arsenal lead the agenda. We’ve long known that at the very top, match-going supporters are expendable and TV is king. Now we’re seeing it in action.
So, with the Saturday 3pm blackout lifted, is it time to start preparing a eulogy for a proud British institution? Time to get ready for a Spanish-style programme of (even more) constant elite level football beamed into our eyeballs via Sky, BT, Amazon or clubs’ own platforms later down the line? Again, it’s a case of “the new normal” claiming the assist as something that was already happening is ramped up and made standard.
The kicker in all this briefly seemed like being Project Big Picture. Proposed by Liverpool and Manchester United with the backing of controversial EFL chairman Rick Parry, the plan looked to reduce the Premier League to 18 teams, get rid of the League Cup, put more voting power in the hands of the top six (and three vague others who had been in the PL the longest) and bail out clubs further down the pyramid that face going to the wall.
It was badly received, widely panned as an opportunistic backroom power grab cooked up by American owners taking advantage of lower league clubs on their knees, but it’s set the wheels in motion.
Already vetoed by the Premier League, PBP was still the first vision (though reportedly the plan was already its seventeenth draft) of the next iteration of English football. Its existence is confirmation that change is in the offing, whether through a variation on the original proposal or the instigators using the backlash as ammunition to step up plans for a breakaway European Super League.
Change in itself is far from a bad thing, of course, and most agree that the sport needs it. Few oppose supporting the lower reaches of the EFL or doing away with the Community Shield but it’s who gets to write the new rulebook, how dystopian their ends are, what the small print is and how much of a threat it poses to football as we know it that will concern your average supporter.
The idea of football as the great distraction, the opiate of the masses, 90 minutes where nothing else matters – that stood up when we welcomed the English game back in sunnier times after a three-month break. Right now, though, there’s little such consolation to be found. Instead, it mirrors the chaos, shady manoeuvrings and struggles to adapt and survive that dominate life in these dark times.