Reading tea leaves

Things ain't what they used to be, writes Hunter Davies - or are they?

We live in unusual times. Obama in, economy down, Mandy back, John Sergeant up and Roy Keane growing a royal grey beard, convinced he's George V, or was it Edward VII? All kings had beards at one time because I've seen their phizogs on postage stamps, but I can't think of one bearded football manager in my long-legged lifetime.

But that's not it. What is it is that the old orders and wisdoms in the Premier League, which we have picked up and handed on since time immemorial (which means 1992, when the Prem began) could be coming to an end. Just look at the league table. I reckon that by Christmas, what it will show us is bugger all.

The norm is for every armchair fan, while eating their Christmas cracker and pulling the turkey, to say Man United/Chelsea /Arsenal has won it, no question, while Derby/Sunderland/Watford has had it. And it's been true, more or less. There usually is a clear leader as the year ends and some poor sods with so few points they might as well start their summer hols. All the so-called Top Four have already dropped vital points. A few weekends ago, none of the top four won or even scored a goal. While at the bottom, it's so tight that if you win three games on the trot you zoom up six places, win the World Cup and Strictly Come Prancing.

"Now why is this, what does it all mean?" you cry, knowing that I know everything. Which I do, but here's some possibilities for you to mull over.

First, it could signal that the Top Four are about to be split. At one time, back in the Sixties and Seventies, we talked of the Top Six, namely Arsenal and Spurs, Man United and Man City, Liverpool and Everton, who always seemed to be there or thereabouts. Then Chelsea pushed in; Spurs and Everton got pushed out. Now could we see Aston Villa displacing Arsenal this season?

Second, what the table shows, especially with the rise of Hull, is that it's not inevitable that the rich will get richer, nick all the best players, always be at the top, while the poor will get poorer. Good management, discipline, teamwork, desire and application can do wonders for average players - for a time anyway.

Third, this season has shown that two other received bits of wisdom might not be true. Bringing in some brilliant European coach, such as Juande Ramos, doesn't always work, nor does promoting some callow youth, barely out of short trousers, just because he was a star player, a legend in his short lunch hour, such as Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Gianfranco Zola. OK, Incey has put some time in lower down, but it's far too early for all of them to be given Prem clubs.

Fourth, the continued success of Fergie proves that experience is vital, that continuity counts, but we knew that anyway.

It also shows that speaking the language, knowing the culture, is important - and can explain why Harry Redknapp and Joe Kinnear have done so well when Spurs and Newcastle looked like doing a Derby and being dead by Christmas. This could be a good season for the old sweats.

The present look of the table could of course simply be explained by there being no outstanding team this season - just as there happens to be no team which is total rubbish.

Finally, it could all mean nothing, just a temporary quirk. Man United will bound away in the New Year. No two seasons are ever the same, but once you start looking at stats you start hallucinating and can see whatever patterns in the tea leaves you want to see.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror