With results on the weekend continuing to challenge all that we know about English football, Neil Humphreys realises that there's really no explaining anything in this topsy-turvy league.
The current Premier League standings evoke warm memories of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro once giving EPL match predictions for the BBC’s Football Focus programme. This prediction format has always been deliciously sinister with its smug undertones, rather like our reaction to the current Premier League standings.
Basically, a couple of American actors are usually in London to promote their latest blockbuster when they are sat beside their new movie’s billboard and asked for EPL predictions by a giggling BBC interviewer. The format is simple, but slyly underlines its ulterior motive of reminding Yanks that they might have cornered the celebrity market, made the best-worst football movie of all time (Escape to Victory) and pinched Saint Becks for a few years, but they haven’t got a clue when it comes to picking a winner between Burnley and Sunderland.
Oh, how we laugh at Hollywood heavyweights who don’t know their Clarets from their Black Cats.
The YouTube clip with Stallone and De Niro only half works because the legendary Escape to Victory goalkeeper is too self-aware of his ignorance. So Stallone goes to the opposite extreme and happily predicts 17-goal thrillers while we chuckle at those Yankee doodle dandies and their daftness when it comes to the World’s Greatest Sports League.
Well, no-one’s laughing now. The surreal, insane Premier League world imagined by Stallone and De Niro has come to pass. We’re living in Hollywoodland, a mystical, nonsensical place that could only come from the kind of American scribes who believed an audience would buy Stallone saving a decisive penalty by diving like the school kid who always tried to forget his PE kit.
In this world, the minnows are mighty. The little guys are laughing all the way to the top five and the underdogs are marching into the top 10. Southampton, Aston Villa and Swansea are in the top five. Leicester and West Ham have snuck into the top 10. Idiotic, incredulous scorelines are being spat out quicker than De Niro and Stallone in their BBC interview.
Eight goals were shared between Manchester United and Leicester, but those voracious Foxes gobbled up THE famous five. The singing, dancing, bouncing Baggies toppled Tottenham and Liverpool were hammered at Upton Park. West Ham rocked the Boleyn, playing attractive football with passes along the ground and everything. Their supporters’ necks were spared another aerial bombardment and East London was left swinging in an exuberant, celebratory display not seen since Bobby Moore wandered around Carnaby Street whistling The Kinks’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion.
We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but maybe not. The Premier League’s complexion already feels like a psychedelic dream, as if the table must be viewed though the prism of an LSD trip with Jimi Hendrix twanging in the background. That’s not to propagate the use of hallucinogenic substances to achieve a heightened, trance-like state of consciousness. Last weekend’s games took care of that.
For some, this is an unnatural order, too anarchic, too scruffy and too uncouth even. It’s still football in the way that chimpanzees splashing paint around a canvas still constitutes art of a sort, but it lacks any cerebral quality or artistic merit. Like daubs of paint in a gallery, the Premier League’s current state lacks credibility and is somehow shallow and superficial.
Such a simian analogy is not suggesting for a moment that the defences of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham share similarities with a lorry-load of monkeys. The cohesion and communication among our long-tailed cousins is beyond the comprehension of Tyler Blackett and Jonny Evans.
Photo: Desmond Morris/Tate
But the suggestion is as insulting to the league’s lesser lights as it is to the chimpanzees, as if Leicester, Villa and Swansea deserve token applause in the way zoo guests might clap chimps at an archaic tea party for successfully pouring water into a cup.
Watching Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy terrify the pitiful princes of Manchester United was about as an exhilarating a spectacle as the Premier League can offer. West Ham’s decision to throw a spotlight on Brendan Rodgers’ spending folly with an equally intoxicating performance contrasted sharply with the cagey contest between Manchester City and Chelsea.
For stubborn, foolhardy souls who insist on watching their football beyond the comfortable bubbles of Old Trafford, Anfield and the Eithad, this is a topsy-turvy time to savour. For the hopeless idealists who still favour a local postcode over prestige or were drawn to a club for reasons beyond its trophy cabinet, success is always measured in subtle, nuanced ways, like a cup run or a couple of upsets.
Decades of dedication and disappointment are rewarded not with dynasties, doubles and continental campaigns across generations, but in tiny time capsules of quality; little moments of magic.
Those moments are now. For Southampton, Villa, Swansea, Leicester, West Ham and even Hull, such moments sustain partisan souls. In most cases, the good fortune will be short-lived. Table slides, early cup exits and relegation battles are likelier outcomes. But the memories remain, always giving faint hopes to that incorrigible ambition: if it happened before, it could happen again.
But that’s a dream for another day. It’s happening now. The Premier League has blessed us with a ridiculous table beyond even the benign ignorance of Stallone and De Niro.
Hollywood couldn’t come up with a Premier League that looks this weird, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful.