Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cracking the big time

Because a football league is such a protracted affair it poses problems in a society that continues to demand instant gratification.

Football is not a game that lends itself to a Twenty:20 style abbreviation and leagues remain the most lucrative format for clubs and the media.

This means that over the course of a forty week season the media feels the need to engineer a number of different narratives to keep the “consumer” involved.

At this stage of the campaign it is the form in Scotland to focus on a team that might have a chance to crack the Old Firm duopoly while the English press focus on ending the "Big Four's" dominance.

It's been cranked up this week for a few different reasons. Rangers and Celtic seem to have lost any semblance of form, Hibs are breathing down their necks and the Edinburgh club travel to Ibrox today.

John Hughes has spent much of the week dampening down expectation. It might not suit the press but Hughes is clued up enough to know that a Hibs team allegedly showing Champion's League form lost to Hamilton, couldn't beat fourth placed Dundee United at home and needed a dodgy penalty to dispatch Kilmarnock last week.

And take a look at the SPL table. If Hibs win today they could go top. If. But Celtic could then overhaul them tomorrow.

Ifs and buts. Two poor Old Firm teams and an apparently world beating Hibs side. But Hibs are still in third and they lost when Celtic came to Easter Road. In willing this “challenge” story on to any team that is within spitting distance of the Old Firm after a handful of games the media simply crank up the pressure on players who are not used to it.

Thus the demand for a challenge becomes self defeating. And yes, a cynic would say that might suit some of the journalists just fine.

Hibs might win today. And Celtic might draw or lose tomorrow to give Hibs a week at the top of the pile. After less than a quarter of the season that won't mean we're any closer to seeing a team other than one of the Ugly Sisters finishing in first or second.

In England the early season notion of breaking into the big four dominates the media. This season it's cranked up because of Manchester City's millions and Liverpool's shocking start along with strong starts from Villa and Spurs.

But Manchester United and Chelsea remain at the top of the league despite some creaky results.

Sometimes blinded by the institution's history the English press are prone to miss the signals coming from Anfield. Rafa Benitez has been given too much leeway since the 'miracle of Istanbul' and been allowed to create a squad light on quality that relies too heavily on its two dominant players.

If the big four were to be broken this year it was always likely to have more to do with Liverpool's failings than anything else. The pre season resistance to the Manchester City project coupled with a journalistic failure to take Liverpool to task over their problems in the boardroom and the boot room means only now are the press waking up the possibility of seismic shifts.

Even then, however, change is likely to be only temporary or to require only a slight expansion. Maybe next year they'll be asking if anyone can break the hegemony of the top five.

Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Enjoy the "team most likely" stories if you like. Ignore them if you'd prefer. But remember that the majority of these teams will be in their usual places by the end of May.