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9 December 2017

Mohicans, fondue and manic managers: the best and worst of the football season

Featuring a zinger from Ken Dodd, showing that at 90 he still has a finger on the local tickling pulse.

By Hunter Davies

First things first, as we take a deep, analytical, philosophical, statistical, in-depth, oh-do-get-on-with-it look at the season so far.

Hair I was despairing of finding an award-winner this year, which would have been the first time in 22 years. No mad, long hair, no pineapples, dreadlocks have gone – it’s all shaven bonces with some discreet slashes at the side that you can hardly see. I was thinking Pogba of Man United, with his red-and-yellow tuft of Mohican on the top like a cockatoo, but he has had that style, or similar, for ages. Young Tammy Abraham of Swansea has acquired some sweet little highlights, but they’re too understated to be noticed.

So it looked like Bakayoko of Chelsea, with his blue hair, was going to walk away with the top award. Dyeing your hair blue, for lads or lasses, is not all that common, but I was still thinking, OK, then, give him the money, Barney.

Then Riyad Mahrez of Leicester suddenly emerged with blond hair. Leicester fans had a Twitter frenzy, not all of them pleased. Going bleach blond is not unusual for the very dark haired – it’s what they have always dreamed of, desperate for more fun. But it was because it was Mahrez. He has always struck me as a very serious, composed, sensible, unflash, conservative Algerian. Did we get him wrong? What is he trying to tell us?

A new hairstyle is a glimpse into the soul. And in this age of high-intensity TV coverage, with all-seeing close-ups of every spot and every wrinkle, you know that even a slight change in your barnet will attract attention. With a bit of luck, people will be distracted from the goals you missed.

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Spurs Now this is really serious. Early doors, Mauricio Pochettino was the most desired manager on the planet, Harry Kane was going to Mars for £1bn, Dele Alli was going to be the Duke of Milton Keynes… Now look at them. A shambles. Nearer the bottom teams than the top.

I feared, when Guillem Balague’s book about Mauricio, Brave New World, came out, that Mauricio was being distracted, bringing it out in the middle of the season. Also criticising Alli in public – what was he thinking? Yet I had him down as an upright, correct, punctilious, totally focused, gentlemanly manic manager. Possibly Wenger’s love child.

The other reason offered for Spurs’ collapse is Wembley – but that faded once they started playing just as badly away from home.

The real cause is more obvious. They are a middling team, with no strength or depth, only one really good player, plus two quite good – and the rest were playing above themselves when they beat Real Madrid.

New players The Brazilian Richarlison at Watford looks good. Such a strange name, but then so many South American- clubs and players have mixed-up England names, showing their mixed-up English influences, or bad spelling, such as Edinson, Ronaldo, Fred and Willian at Chelsea. I was convinced, during his first years at Chelsea, that whoever fixes the letters on their shirts had made a mistake. Surely it must be William.

Best joke A zinger from Ken Dodd, showing that at 90 he still has a finger on the local tickling pulse. “Did you know that Jürgen Klopp’s daughter is called Klippetty?”

Good commentary “He should have thrown his head at that one” – a BT commentator during an Everton game.

“Lots of dip on that one” – a Sky commentator thinks that he’s at a fondue party.

Most improved players Mohamed Salah at Liverpool. He found his feet, found his form, found the goals, after floundering at Chelsea. Chelsea also let Nemanja Matic go to Man United, where he is playing his best football, and let Kevin De Bruyne leave as well. Chelsea must be kicking themselves…

Prem managers going What a mad season they are having. I can’t remember so many falling before we have even had our Christmas pudding – five by my reckoning, but it could be more before I get to the end of this paragraph. The gone and not at all sorely missed so far are: Frank de Boer from Crystal Palace, Bilic from West Ham, Koeman from Everton, Pulis from West Brom, and Shakespeare from Leicester.

Prem managers bouncing back What a mad season. No sooner have they gone, staying at home to count their money, than they reappear – such as Pardew, now at West Brom, Moyes at West Ham, Roy Hodgson at Palace, Allardyce at Everton. Big Sam has now managed seven clubs in the Prem – almost all of them in the lower half, where most England managers are. The top six are still managed by foreigners. What does all this prove? Yes, there are English elites, who keep on getting jobs, but they are second-class elites.

Future fun Enough of the moans. Can’t remember going into a New Year with so much to look forward to – loads of English clubs still in the Champions League. Man City could win it, plus the Prem, while – hurrah – another World Cup is looming.

England have been drawn against two totally hopeless, pathetic teams, Panama and Tunisia, plus Belgium. In the streets of Panama and Tunisia, there have been wild dancing and shouting: are we not lucky, being drawn against the totally hopeless and pathetic England? Poor fools. No respect for their elders and betters. Don’t they know who we are?

So that’s June and July sorted. It will be my first World Cup since my wife died, so I will be able to sit there, slumped, watching every game, every minute, without being told: what a pathetic, hopeless, specimen. You mean England? I used to say.

Already got the Beaujolais in. A perfect pick-me-up for disappointing times. 

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special