The search for Henry Fonda amongst football's self-obsessed Angry Men

As autumn arrives and the Premier League finds its stride, a quick look at last weekend’s games suggests that despite reports to the contrary drama, subplots and, whisper it quietly, entertainment are all alive and well in England’s top flight despite Chelsea’s best efforts to destroy them and the nation’s favourite game by selfishly winning all the time. Luke Moore is pondering which worthy cause should benefit from his well-earned £10,000 bounty for finally breaching the Blues’ terribly unsporting and miserly defence. Mick McCarthy woke up on Monday to find that the monkey he’d been carrying on his back had upped and left clutching a first class ticket to Goodison Park. Kevin Nolan pulled off the kind of acrobatic feat that generally results in a bruised arse/ego and 30,000 people chuckling into their post-game pint, and Alain Perrin dispensed with Le Plot, treating us all to his finest Wayne Rooney impression. But best of all, Sparky’s Blackburn proved they could play football as well as kick people by humbling his former mentor up at Old Trafford to a chorus of booing and general disquiet from the Soccertainment consumers. The opening exchanges this season may not have been of the finest vintage, but dull? Not a bit of it.

However, reading the papers over the last couple of days it would seem that little has changed. Football’s self-appointed jury has been recalled and is set to continue its deliberations in the ongoing trial that is determined to prove that the Blues have plunged a dagger into the heart of football and run off laughing callously, leaving a trail of £50 notes behind them. Not only that, but nearly all are particularly vocal in suggesting appropriate and ingenious solutions to “make the game exciting again” (or stop John Terry from lifting the Premier League trophy again come next May, depending on your point of view).

The jurors themselves don’t exactly come from a wide cross section of society as is traditional in British justice. Closer examination reveals an array of characters who are starting to make the average Big Brother contestant look publicity shy — disgruntled managers desperate to disguise their shortcomings, egotistical chairmen with their own agendas, and injured players with far too much time on their hands. All of whom are simultaneously proving that Oscar Wilde was right on the money when he suggested that “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

We start, as is often the case on matters Chelsea with the in-no-way obsessed Arsene Wenger. Currently distracted not only by the ephemeral absence of Thierry Henry but also his possible departure to the Nou Camp before the ribbon is cut at Ashburton Grove, he has suggested that football could be saved by giving an additional point for a win with a difference of 3 goals or more to “reward attacking football”. That’d scupper dull, tedious Chelsea and their negative football, he chuckled to himself. Their winning margin last season would have only been in single figures and the gap this season just 11 points instead of… erm, oh…

Next up is Dave Whelan, Mr. JJB Sports, self-made man and wealthy benefactor of impressive new boys Wigan who has called for a salary cap to restore parity and introduce a level playing field back into the game. Mr. Whelan has bankrolled his team’s speedy rise through the ranks at vast expense and now wants the rules changed, presumably having temporarily forgotten about a wage bill that is allegedly a mere 127% of the club’s turnover. A more impolite person might suggest that he should stick to selling Reeboks and hoodies to the ASBO generation and let Paul Jewell and his team speak for themselves on the pitch.

Then we have Gary Neville. Whilst nursing his injured groin (not a pleasant thought) he chose simply to indulge in a bowl of sour grapes, suggesting that Jose’s Blues will simply be another Blackburn Rovers (good comedic timing, Gary) — a brief spell in the sun at the whim of a sugar daddy and then back into obscurity leaving the real “big clubs” challenge for honours year in, year out. Ugo Ehiogu, Jens Lehman, Cesc Fabregas, Roger Vanden Stock (the Anderlecht president, presumably still miffed that his goalkeeper chose to perform some kind of bizarre Chaplinesque pratfall rather than attempt to save Frank Lampard’s free kick) and numerous others have entered the debate. Far more than Twelve Angry Men who would happily convict Chelsea for crimes against football, despite the lack of any compelling evidence to support their paper-thin case.

Most level-headed folk view any suggestion of sanctions in sport made under the guise of increasing competition with a healthy degree of suspicion, and the current mutterings from the angry mob forming outside Stamford Bridge are no exception. I shudder to think how embarrassing it would have been to hear the world’s Test cricketers of the last decade or so arguing furiously that their batsmen should be awarded an extra run for every Shane Warne ball they faced that didn’t send them back to the pavilion. Sound ridiculous? Of course. And while it may not be the perfect analogy, this is the sort of ‘initiative’ that football’s cognoscenti would happily impose under the false pretence of making the game more interesting. And few people are willing to point out how utterly ridiculous they are making themselves look.

Although in amongst this courtroom full of Angry Men in WengerSpecsâ„¢ who all know a guilty man when they see one, it is encouraging to note that the occasional Henry Fonda figure is willing to stand up and fight the trumped-up charges filed against Chelsea. When asked by crisp endorser Gary Lineker whether the Premier League had become boring in the light of Chelsea’s dominance on Match of the Day this weekend, the venerable Alan Hansen offered a curt response — “absolute nonsense” — also mentioning jealousy as a possible motive for the continual sniping. Sir Bobby Robson suggested in his column in the otherwise execrable Mail on Sunday that teams should stop trying to create pale imitations of Jose’s formation and methods, not fear losing and stick to what they have previously done best — playing 4-4-2 and trying to win games, just as West Ham and Wigan have done with a good degree of success so far this season. Two of the game’s greats with decades of experience and numerous honours between them, neither with an axe to grind nor the constraints of vested interest clouding their judgement. Unsurprisingly, as a result they both provide well informed, sensible and accurate comment on the game without resorting to the finger-pointing and negativity which fills so many column inches these days.

Meanwhile, in the eye of the storm Jose and his fellow defendants shrugged off the criticism and charges against them and got on with the business of winning football matches. Saturday’s visit of Villa with their shortage of fit strikers didn’t bode well in terms of entertainment, but all credit to David O’Leary and his team for coming with the intention of actually playing football. The result was a decent game (a rarity against Villa in recent years), superb performances from Lampard and Essien (just how good is this boy going to get?), a vastly improved atmosphere and conclusive proof if it were still needed that it takes two to tango. Not usually a favourite down at the Bridge given his past associations, O’Leary then showed himself to be on the Fonda side of the jury when it came to the allegations that Chelsea’s financial power and dominance were spoiling the Premiership.

“I’m not buying into that,” he stated. “They’re going into the game saying: it’s not fair Chelsea don’t concede any goals. What’s not fair about that? I grew up with Arsenal for many years and we were proud not to and I want to do it. I want my team not to concede any goals but I want them to score goals as well. And if you’ve got that mixture, the rest of us are in a hell of a fight. But it’s not their fault. It’s down to the rest of us to take the challenge to them.”

Case dismissed then.

So despite the whining and complaints about the state of the game and our supposedly leading role in its downfall from the attention seekers in football’s increasingly over-exposed side show, it is important to remember that both Chelsea (that’s the Chelsea with the most shots on target and most goals scored this season, in case you were wondering) and Premiership football as a whole still provide plenty of drama and entertainment for those who want it. Moreover, there are a few pundits, commentators and other professionals out there who are worth listening to on the subject of the still-beautiful game and the important part that Chelsea are currently playing in it.

And so to Anfield, twice in five days for our sins. I’d like a fiver for every time the Scouse masses mention “their glorious history” over the next week — I might be able to chip in for the next Michael Essien if Roman runs short of a few quid.

Keep The Blue Flag Flying High.

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