Heroes & Villains: Champagne, confusion and pop psychology

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Sir Alex Ferguson
And so the ‘worst Manchester United team in years’ are champions of English football with a game to spare – not bad going for a team some pundits were tipping to finish outside the top two.

Although Ferguson’s team maybe have coughed and spluttered over the line with a scrappy 1-1 draw at Blackburn, there’s no question that United are deserving champions over the course of the season having been the only team in the Premier League to consistently grind out results over the last 10 months.

Given the saturation of the Premier League (and the adulation of Manchester United) it's hard to praise Ferguson without repetition, but let's give credit where it's unquestionably due. He has yet again managed to build a team capable of sustained success; although some of the bigger names are getting on, youngsters like Fabio, Rafael, Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez are likely to continue improving.

And he continues to come up with managerial masterstrokes – his handling of Wayne Rooney’s autumnal strop and his utilisation of Ryan Giggs in central midfield being just two to mention as he finally managed to officially knock Liverpool off their perch with the 19th title.

On Saturday’s Match of the Day, Alan Hansen – the man whose analysis of a Manchester United "crisis" in 2002 produced the memorable perch quote – stated that any of the current top four would have won this season’s Premier League had the Scot been at the helm. You could probably add Liverpool and Tottenham.

The biggest challenge is successfully defending a title, as Ferguson well knows having won 12 in 19 seasons, half of which were successful defences. Given his squad’s mix of youth, experience and relentless desire – wonder where they get the latter from? – title No.20 is certainly well within their capabilities.

Charles N'Zogbia
With just under an hour played of Sunday’s ‘plummet meeting’ between Wigan and West Ham at the DW Stadium, the Latics were staring down the barrel. Enter Charles N’Zogbia, whose superb 25-yard free-kick dragged Roberto Martinez’s side back into the game and completely transformed the atmosphere in a stadium that, to be blunt, rarely rocks.

Connor Sammon put Wigan level within 11 minutes and from that point on it was anybody’s game. Wigan’s greater composure saw them succeed where West Ham – and particularly Carlton Cole – failed by putting the ball in the net for a third time, thanks again to N’Zogbia.

How Birmingham, the team most likely to suffer should Wigan escape the drop, must rue not agreeing to the French wideman’s wage demands after agreeing a transfer fee last summer. Had that deal been completed, it’s hard to imagine Blues being in danger – or Wigan still being in touch.

Steven Fletcher
After a season of struggle, Wolves have come good at exactly the right time – and Fletcher has led the revival. The Scotland striker has scored five goals in five matches which have seen Mick McCarthy’s side pick up the eight points that have propelled them out of the relegation zone. His latest was the crucial second in a win at Sunderland which leaves Wolves certain of safety should they beat Blackburn next weekend.

Blackpool (all of 'em)
Saturday’s 4-3 win over Bolton encapsulated Blackpool’s season – thrilling, watchable football in which defensive frailties are weighed against a willingness to attack that hovers in the borderlands between enthusiasm and naivety. It may not be quite enough: they may need a win at Old Trafford to survive. That’s not impossible, of course – West Ham were in the same position in 2007, but while Carlos Tevez's goal beat a demob-happy Manchester United side, Blackpool will face players pushing for a place in the Champions League final.

Although the Tangerines have at times been a joy to watch, and have exceeded the expectations of most just by still being alive on the final day, you sense we may be about to bid them farewell; however, few impartial observers could complain if Ian Holloway's men escape the drop on goals scored.

Ledley King
Where would Spurs be had King been fit all season? Quite possibly in roughly the same position – after all, their problems have mainly been at the other end. But there’s no doubting the calming presence of their skipper would’ve given Spurs a far better chance of returning to the Champions League. Quite what the future holds for the defender, lord knows – but he didn’t look to be suffering at all as he inspired Spurs to an unexpected and welcome victory at Anfield which puts Spurs back in the driving seat for a Europa League berth.

Brede Hangeland
Having played exactly like a man who’d been bed-bound with a stomach virus for a week against Liverpool last Monday, the Norway centre half repaid Mark Hughes and the travelling faithful by scoring twice as the Cottagers beat Birmingham on their last away jaunt of the season. If only they could do it more often: Fulham haven't won more than three away league games in a season since 2004/05.

Darren Bent
Two brilliantly taken – and dare we say it, typically Darren Bent – goals helped Villa to a much-welcome win at Arsenal that finally ensured the West Midlands side’s Premier League place for next season.


The West Ham board
The say a bad workman blames his tools. Given there seems to be no bigger tool – at least in terms of managing Premier League teams to relegation – than Avram Grant, it seems logical that the blame for West Ham's farcical season should rest not with the man mopping in the dugout but the bunch of publicity-hungry quote-machines haplessly running the club: David Sullivan, David Gold and Karren Brady.

Grant is, it has to be said, not a great football manager. Having failed to inspire all but the merest fight into Portsmouth last season, it’s hardly surprising that he was unable to instil the necessary fighting spirit into West Ham. A glance at the back page of a Hammers programme makes you wonder how exactly this pathetic campaign has come to pass. The Upton Park squad is far from the weakest in the Premier League, and Grant was given money to strengthen it further in January.

But a more notable transfer-window arrival than Gary O'Neil or Demba Ba was intense speculation over the manager's future. Before Saturday 17 January's home game with Arsenal, the tabloid talk about the imminent appointment of Martin O'Neill was so loud that Grant's throwing of a scarf into the crowd was widely seen as his final act at the club. O'Neill baulked at the premature publicity and ruled himself out, leaving the board saddled with a dead man walking, and the constant noises-off have done nothing of benefit to West Ham.

If it wasn't paper talk (fed by "well-placed sources" to pet journos) about Grant's potential successors, it was the unseemly (and unpopular) land-grab for the Olympic Stadium, which rumbled unhelpfully on through an unsuccessful spring. Then, three weeks ago, Sullivan weighed in with pompous pop-psychology by announcing that big names would be sold if the club went down – an unveiled threat unlikely to unite fans, players and manager into a concerted team effort.

West Ham will be back, of course. Scott Parker, Matt Upson, Rob Green, Thomas Hitzelsperger and Demba Ba may leave this summer, but they’ll behind a group of youngsters – James Tomkins, Zavon Hines, Jordan Spence, Freddie Sears, Junior Stanislas and Jack Collison – with fine potential to succeed in the ever-open Championship.

The key will be leadership, and not just on the field (presumably in the ever-willing form of Mark Noble): Hammers fans must hope the owners finally find a man who can bring it to Upton Park – and leave him to do the job without constant undermining from the sidelines.

Birmingham City
All Blues needed to secure Premier League safety was three points at St Andrew's against a Fulham side that have been consistently unsuccessful away for six seasons and had just been gubbed 5-2 by Liverpool. But rather than concentrate on the fundamentals – like passing, tackling, marking and actually moving about a bit – the Blues opted to play like statues in a 2-0 defeat that sent their fans facing a few sleepless nights before their final-day clash with Tottenham. Curiously, goal difference means that Birmingham could win and still go down, or lose and still stay up. Expect TV close-ups of confused faces staring into mobile phones…

Sebastien Squillaci
It’s hard not to assume some relationship between Arsenal’s failure to win trophies and their inability to play a simple offside trap – not least because when they employed perennial arm-lofters Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn the Gunners reeked of trophy polish and stale champagne (although that was just the Monday morning odour of Paul Merson).

Sadly those days are long gone, and when Kyle Walker dinked a perfectly weighted ball to Darren Bent to give Villa an early lead at the Emirates it was Sebastien Squillaci who had been caught day-dreaming to round off what can only be described as a ruddy awful first season in English football.

Blackburn Rovers (late doors)
With Birmingham and Blackpool facing tough last-day trips to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford, it's perhaps unlikely that Blackburn will be relegated. But if they are, they will rue the last five minutes of Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Manchester United.

With the game level in the dying minutes and United preparing to pop their corks, Rovers sat back and watched the visitors play half-arsed keep-balls across their back four, rather than pressing and attempting to seal three points that would fully secure safety. Is this the brave new world of "good football" for which Sam Allardyce was sacrificed? Some may find it a bit churlish to suggest it would be funny if Blackburn went down by one point...