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28 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:16pm

Erotic beard-stroking, Marvelous Nakamba and coconut water sponsors: the season begins!

By Hunter Davies

So what do you think of the season so far? I have been saying that every season running for 24 years. Well, I was running back in 1996, when the Fan began. Now it is more like lumbering.

Looks much like last season, the same two teams hovering at the top. Hard to think that either Man City or Liverpool will come a cropper – not till the very end.

New face in a new team in the Prem Norwich City. Their Finnish striker Teemu Pukki had already scored a hat-trick before I had got my tongue round his name. He is 29, but looks older, and came on a free transfer from Brøndby in 2018. Amazing, in this day and age, when even modest Prem clubs can splash out £40m on players you have never heard of. Last season in the Championship, he was the top scorer. Will he fade, when the Prem heavies get wise to him?

Old face Harry Maguire, now established in the England team, and the most expensive defender in the world, after Man United paid £80m. Yet Hull paid only £2.5m for him in 2014, from Sheffield United. Shows you there are still bargains out there.

The thing about both Pukki and Maguire is that they don’t look like modern Prem stars. They have not got the hair, the body, the tattoos. They are not smooth, polished, toned, elite players such as Ronaldo or Beckham. Football is meritocracy in its purest sense, in that it is what you do that matters, not how you look or where you came from.

And yet, aha, in this age of celebrities in all walks of life, elite players do exist, and can continue to be elite players, if they look and act elite enough, even when they are not doing the business. How else could Andy Carroll have survived all these years? It is because they become a brand, their name and image sells shirts and attracts sponsors and advertisers.

New names to look out for and enjoy Marvelous Nakamba, who this month joined Aston Villa, and Isaac Success, who is at Watford. Let’s hope that Marvelous Success will be coming along soon.

New ways with words When companies pay millions to a famous club in order to call themselves “partners”, you have to laugh, as if they have anything at all to do with the team itself. All they do is pay money. But it has certainly caught on and we now have variations on a theme. The Liverpool flashing pitch-side hoardings constantly tell us they have a Principal Partner, whose name I missed but I think is probably an insurance firm. They have an Official Partner, which appears to be a brand of coconut water, and a Proud Partner, which turned out to be Carlsberg. Will we eventually have firms boasting they are ex-partners ? They could probably get away with not paying a penny for that.

At last I know what Standard Chartered, Liverpool’s main sponsor, actually does. “Working to protect elephants.”

Hair confusions Now that David Luiz has joined Arsenal, he is playing beside Mattéo Guendouzi, which makes them hard to tell apart as they both have the same hair. Sort of long and flowing and curly. Must be a nightmare for refs. And Arsenal fans. Luiz has confidence but always makes at least one mistake. Guendouzi is nervous, with no confidence.

My two teams Spurs and Carlisle United, one frustrating, the other depressing. Let’s move on.

Commentator Steve McManaman is back on form, with his full range of incisive observations, that all begin with “To be very honest with you”, which covers all possible events. “To be very honest with you, that was a good throw-in.” “To be very honest with you, the pies at half time were brilliant.”

Image of the season so far is the Wolves manager, Nuno Espírito Santo. He is an ex-goalkeeper, unusual for a Prem manager. While sitting on the bench, he strokes his ample beard. It is a strange, hypnotic mannerism, which clearly he doesn’t know he is doing. He does it so tenderly, lovingly, erotically even. It will probably take me all season to work out if he does it when he is bored, nervous, pleased, excited. Or just trying to find any crumbs left over from lunch. 

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler