EPL TALK: Hail a refreshing title race with no unlikeable teams

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Manchester City's Fernandinho lifts the Premier League trophy as he celebrates with teammates.
Manchester City's Fernandinho lifts the Premier League trophy as he celebrates with teammates. (PHOTO: Reuters/Hannah Mckay)

THE final day of the English Premier League season was a nightmare. There was no one to hate. There was no reason to burst a blood vessel or an enemy’s bubble, no incentive to hyperventilate or turn into Roy Keane on any given Sunday.

This is not the way, supposedly. After the 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Manchester City last month, post-match analysis came with a tinge of regret, usually from pundits of a certain vintage, lamenting the absence of spite, bile and violence.

They pined for more blood and thunder from the title rivals, suggesting the English Premier League needed the look and feel of a Viking invasion, backed by a Led Zeppelin soundtrack.

But they didn’t get it. Pep Guardiola’s champions are likeable. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds are likeable, making the title decider an extremely likeable affair, a point worth reiterating because it goes against the grain of popular sentiment.

Modern football reflects modern society, right? That's why, after years of lockdowns, rampaging hordes in polo shirts and white trainers must revert to the natural laws of Man and punch opponents during pitch invasions. Apparently.

It’s a broader reflection of a social media-fuelled culture of tribal division. It’s hatred for dummies. Blue against Red. Us against them. No middle ground. Only rage.

But this hasn’t played out between Manchester City and Liverpool. Not once. Jaundiced sentimentalists may hanker for tunnel bust-ups and flying pizzas, but it never came to pass.

The title race was a riveting pantomime without a bogeyman, neither on the pitch or in the dugout. There were only stories, entirely positive and cheery stories.

Manchester City’s three goals against Aston Villa all came with uplifting narratives included. Raheem Sterling provided the assist for the first, the often-abused black Englishman from a council estate, still having to over-perform to justify his presence, wealth and lifestyle in a way that Jack Grealish never will.

For City’s second goal, Oleksandr Zinchenko played the decisive pass. The wing-back. The Ukrainian. The 25-year-old dealing with an illegal invasion of his homeland, the destruction of everything he holds dear. It’s too much to comprehend.

Liverpool's Divock Origi (centre) honoured at the end of the Premier League match between Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Liverpool's Divock Origi (centre) honoured at the end of the Premier League match between Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. (PHOTO: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

During the lap of honour, he draped the flag of Ukraine around the trophy. He stood back and succumbed. The tears came. And the only rational responses to an entirely irrational situation were astonishment and empathy. How does he continue to function? How can he just be?

The roar that greeted Zinchenko’s symbolic display was spontaneous, kind and necessary. Sport isn’t greater than life and death. But somewhere between the two, in the margins, it can help, offering a distraction, an emollient, whatever. It provides something, anything, to escape the worst of us, by occasionally showing the best of us.

The Ukraine flag was a reminder of the terrifying reality beyond the Emirates Stadium. The EPL trophy was a reminder of the temporary joy that can exist within. No one is ever going to naively claim that one can overcome the other, but similarly, no one is going to downplay Zinchenko’s moment either. This was the game at its most beautiful.

And there are none more beautiful than Kevin De Bruyne. Where others wilted, he blossomed. He skipped two tackles and found the pass for the winner. Of course he did.

He has made the effortless look ordinary for far too long, retaining a humility that has perhaps undermined his peerless talent. He’s an artist that everyone loves to love.

Guardiola’s relationship with the casual observer, on the other hand, can be more complicated. First, he isn’t Klopp, with the megawatt grin and that quirky Germanic sense of humour. And second, City’s limitless resources and a chequered past when it comes to financial fair play regulations do not inspire warm and tingly feelings.

But at the final whistle, none of that mattered. Instead, he found the only faces in the crowd that mattered. His family. On the same day, five years ago, his wife took their daughters to the Ariana Grande concert. They returned home. Guardiola has never forgotten the 22 people who did not.

He addressed them in his interviews, devoting his first words about a fourth title in six years to the lives lost in a terrorist attack, his voice cracking, his raw emotions laid bare.

The Manchester City manager has never been afraid to expose himself in this way, revealing human frailties that endear him to so many. Klopp does the same.

Yes, it’s a generational thing – it’s hard to imagine Sir Alex Ferguson weeping on camera – but the emotional impact of both managers upon a predominately male – and often youthful – global audience should not be underestimated either.

As toxic masculinity persists, manifesting itself in pitch invasion punch-ups, vulnerability and sensitivity have never looked cooler or been more important qualities between close rivals.

Hatred enjoys wide currency now. Anger means retweets and eyeballs. Outraged tribalism is profitable. But Liverpool and Manchester City bucked the trend to provide a palate cleanser from that weekly residue of shouty people.

And what about those rivals, eh? Liverpool finished with the only unbeaten home record in the EPL. In 24 of the past 29 seasons, their 92 points would’ve won the title.

In defeat, they were magnanimous. Klopp and captain Jordan Henderson offered generous words of praise for City. In victory, they were magnificent, perfecting a fast and visceral kind of football that took the breath away.

They lacked the wealth of several rivals but never whined. Instead, they rotated and went again. There were no weak links, press leaks, rotten apples or banana skins, just a squad of agreeable lads doing extremely agreeable things for 62 exhausting games.

And that’s about it. They were likeable. Like City. It’s a broken record worth repeating amid so much white noise. Indeed, the title race was essentially off-kilter, an outlier even.

Hatred enjoys wide currency now. Anger means retweets and eyeballs. Outraged tribalism is profitable. But Liverpool and Manchester City bucked the trend to provide a palate cleanser from that weekly residue of shouty people.

Races must always have winners. But this one, thankfully, had no losers.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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