Boring, boring England?

It is true that the final stages of the race between Chelsea and Manchester United, which went right down to the wire, and the final Sunday of the English Premiership, was dramatic indeed. But where was everybody else? asks Brian Glanville.

Late in the recently concluded English season, Kevin Keegan, back as we know at Newcastle United, announced hot on the heels of his team’s home defeat by Chelsea that the Premier League had become a bore, reduced as it now was to a contest between the top four teams. In fact at that moment it was down to just two teams, Chelsea and Manchester United, Arsenal having fallen several points behind, Liverpool making no real challenge. Richard Scudamore, the seldom convinc ing chief executive of the Premier League, well and truly diminished by his misguided support for a 39th, foreign-based round, was predictably quick to deny Keegan. And it is true that the final stages of the race between Chelsea and Manchester United, which went right down to the wire, and the final Sunday, was dramatic indeed. But where was everybody else?

In the event, United, with some help from an indulgent referee, won 2-0 at Wigan — who should have had a penalty for hands, while Paul Scholes deserved to be sent off — while one saw Chelsea yet again condemned to a draw at Stamford Bridge, by Bolton’s last gasp equalise. A game I watched, with scant enjoyment, just as I had previously seen Chelsea caught very late by an equaliser at The Bridge by Wigan. Not that it would have made any difference had Chelsea held on to their lead, given them by of all unlikely people, Andrei Shevcheno, since United had by far the better goal difference.

Which no doubt was what prompted the Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, to lament before the game that where teams finished level top on points, a decider should be played as indeed was the fashion in Italy.

A meeting in Moscow of course awaited the two teams, but one should point out that Chelsea’s long and seemingly remarkable unbeaten record at home is surely blemished by such results as those against Bolton and Wigan. True, in the Bolton game, Chelsea were certainly disadvantaged where their dominating captain and centre-half John Terry was taken off with a dislocated elbow, after a painful clash with his ’keeper, Cech. Without both him and the injured Ricardo Carvalho, Chelsea’s defence was by no means as solid as usual and indeed, Taylor’s equalising goal came after a poor clearance by the big Brazilian centre-back, Alex.

Moreover, the race would hardly have gone down to the wire had the United manager, Alex Ferguson, not decided to gamble and literally lose by putting out a team with six reserves for the League match at Stamford Bridge, which United duly lost. Three potentially vital points thus drifted away.

Shortly before that significant Sunday (itself forced on the clubs by their implacable lords and masters, commercial television) Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, had lamented the fact that a club like Chelsea could achieve such financial power through sources (meaning the oligarch Roman Abramovich) from outside football. Lament he might, but there have been and still are countless examples of clubs being financed by wealthy directors and owners. In season 1994/5 for example, could Blackburn Rovers possibly have won the Championship for the first time since 1912 without the millions poured into the club by their devoted Chairman and multi-millionaire fan Jack Warner? Look around you at today’s Premier League clubs and you find numerous examples of millionaires bankrolling them.

What of the deeply controversial Thai ex-President, Thaksin Shinawatra, about whose appointment Scudamore never raised a peep, despite those stories of corruption and, from Amnesty International, torture? Even with the satellite television money pouring into these clubs in such immense quantities, such rich patrons are ubiquitous.

As for Arsenal, what would they have been, had it not been for the patronage of Sir Henry Norris, the millionaire who moved them, as Woolwich Arsenal, across the Thames to Highbury in 1913, connived them back into the first division in 1919 and saw that they stayed there? Wenger should surely know of him.

True drama on that final Sunday was surely best found at the bottom rather than the top of the Premier League. A wildly unpredictable scene in which Fulham, Birmingham and Reading were all in danger of going down to the so-called Championship, joining the pitifully inept Derby County.

In the event, it would be Fulham who’d seemed inevitably doomed only a few weeks earlier, who won their third away match in a row 1-0 at Portsmouth and thereby escaped, even though both Birmingham City, beaten a week earlier at Fulham, and Reading — at Derby — had four-goal victories. Till they defeated Reading 2-0, Fulham hadn’t won a single game on the road for 19 months! But now Murphy’s untypical header at Fratton Park — he was under orders not to get forward — gave them victory; and preservation.

Reading, who hadn’t even scored for weeks on end, thrashed Derby at Pride Park 4-0. For Derby, cheered on as always by their amazingly loyal 33,000 fans, it was a shocking end to an appalling season. Oddly enough, I saw them there, just weeks earlier, giving a splendid run for their money to mighty Manchester United, losing only 1-0 and forcing two tremendous saves from the gifted young United ’keeper, Ben Foster. But that was just three days after I’d watched them concede six goals at Chelsea.

Paul Jewell, who took over as the manager in mid-season, was forever deploring the weaknesses of his team and promising far better things after the summer, thus, it seems, managing to escape personal blame. But didn’t he deserve it? Surely he could have got more out of a squad of players who, time and again, lay down and died?

Conceding half a dozen at home not only to Arsenal, but to Aston Villa.

Which brings me to what was surely the most remarkable result of that Sunday, Middlesbrough 8 Manchester City 1. True City had Richard Dunne, the mainstay of their defence, sent off early on, but they just seemed to throw in the towel. You wondered whether it had something to do with the fact that Shinawatra had announced, to all intents and purposes, that he meant to get rid of his manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, although the players liked the Swede and had protested publicly. Boro had not scored more than two goals in any previous game all season.