Our continued (and for some people, illicit) love affair with English football ignites again on Saturday with the start of the English Premier League (EPL) season. Still, after a summer dominated by the World Cup, many fans may have forgotten where the league left off. And by "many fans," I mean me, because May 2010 seems so long ago.
If you'll indulge me, I'd like to take this time to dig into the annals of Premier League history, to a time before the second Hand of God and the Dutch attack on Spain in Johannesburg. Long before Diego Forlán was DIEGO FORLAN or adidas debunked Newtonian physics, there was the 2009-10 EPL season.
So I looked it up, and it turns out not only did Chelsea win the league without José Mourinho (whatever happened to him?) but Tottenham Hotspur qualified for Champions League. And - get this - Fulham made it to the final of a major European tournament. A team went into administration, Liverpool finished seventh (seventh!), Manchester City's spending might have broken the league because Newcastle United was nowhere to be found.
It turns out there were a number of interesting stories that were swept away by the World Cup's wave, so at the onset of the 2010-11 Premier League season, now's a good time to flashback to May and take inventory of where we left the league's 20 clubs: some on highs; some on lows; and some carrying mixed bags into the new season.
Blackpool - Blackpool won five of six matches to close the season, including the Championship playoff final at Wembley, beating Cardiff City 3-2 to earn promotion to the Premier League for the first time in the club's history. While much of this summer's discussion of the Tangerines has focused their small stadium (12,555 at Bloomfield Road) and lack of resources, manager Ian Holloway, entering his second season on the job, will be an asset to the Premier League regardless of his club's finish:
It's going to take all my powers of restraint to resist using "on the pull" in each Blackpool match report.
Tottenham - It's still difficult to believe Spurs finished top four. After being brought-up on the maxim "Tottenham always fades," I saw Spurs accelerate to and through the Premier League finish line, further evidence Manchester City's broken the league. Wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, and City over the league's last month have Spurs one two-legged tie from their first Champions League appearance. While it's unlikely 2009-10 will prove tthe point Tottenham becomes a permanent member of the EPL Elite (code name for the crew featured in the documentary Ronin), Spurs supporters can start the 2010-11 campaign with bragging rights over City, Liverpool, and the other clubs trying to keep up with the league's three Joneses.
Arsenal - Though the Gunners felt some late season pressure for third place from their North London rivals, it was a season of mild redemption for Arsenal. Coming off a fourth place finish which had many prognosticators predicting a fall out of Champions League, Arsenal made a small title push before succumbing to injuries (most notably to Cesc Fábregas and Robin van Persie). The mere fact that they have their two most dangerous players healthy and with the team (and not in Barcelona) makes 2009-10 an building block instead of a relic.
Birmingham City - Recent history says Birmingham City, one of the yo-yo teams of recent seasons, is not in the clear yet, but after climbing from Championship to ninth place in one season, Alex McLeish can be permitted an exhale. And that's where we find Brum - reflecting on a remarkable campaign. True, City has failed to reinforce their team over the summer and have had to swap Joe Hart for Ben Foster, but if Roger Johnson and Scott Dann can replicate their 2009-10 performances, the Blues will carry their warm-fuzzies into 2011. For now, it's all warm-fuzzies.
Wolverhampton Wanderers - The last time Wolves came up (2003) they went right back down, so their ability to stay-up with largely the same team that won the 2008-09 Championship had to be satisfying. That Mick McCarthy secured safety a week early gave Wolves supporters a chance to savor the season's last match, a 2-1 victory over McCarthy's former team, Sunderland, in front of near-capacity crowd at the Molineux. For a team that may have had less talent than any team in the league (well, Burnley), Wolverhampton rarely looked relegation-bound after January, a triumph for their manager.
Everton - It looked bad - really bad - for Everton after the first few months of last season. People were talking relegation, so for the Toffees to surge to eighth place while exhibiting a contender's form sends supporters optimistically into 2010. With Mikel Arteta, the club's best player, returning from injury to record six goals in 13 end-of-season appearances, Toffee fans can understandably have a take-on-all-comers attitude.
Chelsea - And then there's the league champions, who put up 103 goals on their way to a third Premier League title. There's no other place you can put the victors than into the "High" group.
Aston Villa - You can forgive Villa supporters their mixed emotions. On the one hand, their club's coming off a strong league performance that saw them break through their late season wall and maintain in their Champions League challenge deep into the season. On the other hand, Villa's failed to make improvements this offseason, should expect Liverpool and Everton to be stronger, and are letting their summer be defined by James Milner's move. Now you might ask what those facts have to do with an end-of-season reflection. They don't, but when a club's manager unexpectedly resigns as I'm editing this piece, format goes out-the-window.
Bolton - Owen Coyle came in mid-season and lifted the club out of the relegation zone, consistently getting results against bottom-of-the-table competition. The problem: Coyle's open style of play combined with Gary Megson's personnel saw the Trotters ripped open by the more talented teams in the league. That's the bargain made by Bolton in bringing Coyle in. Do they have the stomach for a full season of it? Being the EPL litmus test?
Manchester City - Fifth place can't help but be a disappointment not only because they were expected by some jump-the-gun projections to make Champions League. The disappointment also comes from fourth place being in their grasp, slipping away with a late, home season loss to Spurs. Had City lost a decisive match to Arsenal, Chelsea, or even Liverpool, it would have been understandable, but given the club's goals at the season's onset, Tottenham was not a team that was supposed to beat them. Fifth place was a strong finish, but it also carried misgivings.
Newcastle - A great Championship season sees the Toon bounce up after one campaign in the second division, but for a team that should have never gone down, it's the expected result. Congratulations to Chris Hughton for righting the ship, but unlike Ian Holloway, Hughton should be expected to steer his team above a relegation battle, a feeling that had settled-in by the beginning of summer.
West Bromwich Albion - This is the fourth time since 2002 that West Brom's earned promotion, which tells you they've been sent down a number of times, too. Why is 2010-11 going to be different? There isn't much to say it will, but we don't need to tell that to Baggies supporters. As nice as it is to jump-up to the Premier League, the promotion comes with misgivings. A here we go again feeling settled-in long before last season's promotion. It's become part of the club.
Stoke City - It's not fair to Potters players who helped solidify Stoke in the league, but Stoke's season will forever be linked with Ryan Shawcross's tackle on Aaron Ramsey. Not only did the play put the Arsenal midfielder out of a year, but it also led to a prolonged debate about Stoke's tactics and, of course, the state of the English game. The derision targeting Ryan Shawcross was ill-placed, with the World Cup providing a welcome rest for club and player.
Blackburn - Rovers supporters are a gang of Fausts, and Mephistopheles just took them to tenth place. Whereas once Blackburn supporters stubbornly opposed the idea of Sam Allardyce's style of football, a year and half after he saved them from a Paul Ince-induced relegation battle, they're stuck. Can't live without Big Sam, so might as well try to live with him.
Manchester United - For a club that's won's 11 of the Premier League's 18 iterations, any season in which Manchester United goes without a title is a relative low point. In absolute terms, United has little to worry about. They finished one point back and have a number of reasons to believe themselves in position to claim a 12th title.
Sunderland - A lot was expected of Sunderland in their first season under Steve Bruce, but the Black Cats flirted with the a relegation fight throughout the season, and while a true battle never materialized, Sunderland's 13th place finish represents a lost season, particularly in light of their spending. The lingering feeling: Is Steve Bruce destined to manage relegation-battling teams? Because the feeling around the Stadium of Light sees a team with too much talent to play to that fate.
Wigan Athletic - The few Latics fans that showed-up to the DW were left wondering whether this team's destined for a 2011 relegation or will take a step forward in their second year under Roberto Martínez. I suppose any struggling team could set-up that dichotomy, but with Wigan, there were undeniable indications of each. Wigan allowed the most goals of any returning team yet were still able to record wins against Arsenal, Aston Villa, and Chelsea. So what's it going to be Wigan? Are you that team that gave up 79 goals? The team that got three wins against the top six? Or, are you just that indecisive?
West Ham United -The Hammers took a huge step back. The team never seemed capable of winning a close game or protecting a lead, so although their goal difference was only eight worse than the year before, the Hammers dropped from ninth to 17th. New owners David Gold and David Sullivan took over the team mid-season, immediately making public the club's huge financial problems, creating a certain foreboding around the team. Although West Ham survived the season (thanks to the historically low point totals of the relegated clubs), 2009-10 left Upton Park feeling like the first act of a zombie movie.
Fulham - The Cottagers finished the season in high-spirits despite losing the Europa League final to Atlético Madrid, but when Roy Hodgson left for Liverpool in early summer, there developed a feeling that the ride may be over. Seventh place one year. Major tournament final the next, all on the heels of a barely surviving a 2007-08 relegation fight. Shortly after the end of the 2009-10 campaign, when if became clear that Hodgson would leave, the mood around Craven Cottage shifted. Are relegation battles back on the table for Fulham?
Liverpool - True, Hodgson replacing Rafa Benitez is an upgrade, and signing Joe Cole is a great signal of intent, but Liverpool finished seventh last season. Now the term "Big Four" hasn't been used in so long, I'm tempted to explain it. Whether ownership or management was to blame, Liverpool took a historic step back last season. In that context, only three teams had worse 2009-10 campaigns, and they're no longer in the league.