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29 August 2018

As Steve McManaman might say: “To be honest, the new season is looking… nice”

All last season, according to Steve, everything was nice – nice goal, nice pass, nice cup of tea at half-time.

By Hunter Davies

So what do you think of it so far, this new season? Smells pretty much like it did 23 years ago when I started out on this wonderful journey, you and me together, exploring this space, oh do get on with it.

When Arsenal play Cardiff this season we are all going to be in an awful quandary. After the game, a beer and a couple of pies, we will be saying to each other, “Where should we go now then, eh, Rwanda or Malaysia?” Hard choice, folks. The Visit Malaysia slogan on the front of the Cardiff shirt is bold and prominent, can’t miss it. The Visit Rwanda encouragement on the Arsenal shirt is more discreet, printed on a dinky pink armband.

Marketing moves in strange ways. Why on earth would they think football fans in Cardiff or Highbury would be so bored that their thoughts stray to their next hol? It does betray current ownership and involvements. Cardiff is owned by a Malaysian businessman, Vincent Tan. But what connection does Rwanda have with Arsenal? President Kagame is, apparently, a Gooner. Any road up, as we say in football, thank God our young multimillionaires are running around promoting foreign places and not another awful betting company.

The season has started well for headline writers. “I’m Sarri, I’ll read that again”… not actually seen that headline yet, but it will come, when Maurizio Sarri, the new Chelsea manager, reads out a statement saying he has been sacked/Eden Hazard is going/a dodgy Chinese syndicate is buying the club from Abramovich.

Nick Pope, Burnley goalie, having been to the World Cup, is now better known, ideal for sub-editors when Burnley play in south London: “Pope in fight at Palace.”

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Good luck to all the new young managers, hardly out of training nappies. Only yesterday they were on the pitch in short trousers kicking each other. Now they’re on the touchline looking solemn, pretending they know what they are doing. Frank Lampard is managing Derby, Lee Bowyer at Charlton, Joey Barton at Fleetwood, Steven Gerrard at Glasgow Rangers. Quite grown up, in fact.

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Sky TV and BT are still doing my head in, or at least my ears. I do wish they would turn the volume down on the crowd atmosphere. It is more annoying than the canned laughter in TV comedy. The World Cup was such a relief, with both BBC and ITV having live coverage and not messing around with over-the-top sound effects, trying to make it more exciting than it was.

Welcome back to Steve McManaman, my fave commentator. All last season, according to Steve, everything was nice – nice goal, nice pass, nice cup of tea at half-time. This season he has added a new catchphrase: “To be honest”, which precedes all his wisdoms. “To be honest, that was a nice goal, nice pass, nice cup of tea. And to be honest, I think it is raining.”

Stats are showing how often goals come from set pieces, as if we didn’t know, which means players now take forever organising themselves. They get in a huddle, heads down, stand back, more heads down, now what was it we did in training, what did the gaffer say, oooh, I don’t feel confident any more, you take it, no after you, Claud, then back into a huddle – while we fans are screaming on the terraces. A free kick now takes longer than a Brexit negotiation. And it always hits a brick wall.

“Really brilliant, the most wonderful player of his age I have ever seen, such a nice lad, he has a tremendous future, I can’t wait to see him become a legend for this club, oh yes, I love him, kissy kissy… but just not this week, not this game, perhaps not this century…”

That was Pep Guardiola speaking, more or less, about Man City’s boy wonder Phil Foden. Do spare a thought for all English boy wonders this season. Man City is so overstocked with some of the world’s best players that many spend their life on the bench. Almost all Premier clubs have such riches, they can afford to buy the finished article from abroad and not take a chance on home-grown talent. Sad, as we say in American politics.

This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic