During the year after I finished school I found myself in a large amount of debt, owing chiefly to dropping out of an entirely pointless college course just late enough that I had to pay the full year’s tuition fees, having spent my entire student loan on DVDs that I would never watch. I lived in the middle of nowhere. To combat this sudden financial quagmire I began working part-time at a supermarket. I’ll refrain from telling you which one, but if I worked there now you might mistake me for a member of the backroom staff at Southampton. Despite working six days a week roasting chickens, my mountain of debt barely decreased, so I got myself a second job. Working in a pub.
“Have you ever worked behind a bar before?” the manager asked. “Oh yeah, quite a few times”. Once. “You know, at family functions and that sort of thing.” At my brother’s eighteenth birthday, when I was ten years old. And there was no bar. I just poured cans of Stones Bitter into plastic cups for various family members, mainly to stop being dragged into conversation with my slightly odd uncle. Anyway, I got the job and was utterly useless at it, and plenty of the regulars wanted to see the return of Kev. Kev was sacked for turning up drunk and getting progressively drunker during his shifts, though he was there on my first night singing ‘Never Felt More Like Singing The Blues’ on karaoke, much to the delight of the clientele. I can’t stress enough how parochial this pub was.
Half-way through the night a customer came up to the bar and said “Can I have a ding-dong, please?” Were this not in the land of the bog-people I would have assumed this particular customer had Victorian sensibilities and was asking me outside for a dust-up. “Excuse me?” I replied, betraying my gaping chasm of knowledge when it comes to keeping bar. “A ding-dong! Come on! Oi, Alfie, this new lad doesn’t know what a ding-dong is!” Alfie was the owner of the pub. It turns out a ding-dong is a double Bells and Cola. Obviously. Obviously that’s what it is. Anyway a few shifts later Alfie said he’d let me know when they needed me in next. He never did. The pub closed down a year later, so needless to say I had the last laugh.
Speaking of ding-dongs, Richard Scudamore must have ordered one for this weekend because the Premier League returned with the spectacle of Liverpool v Manchester United. For Klopp it was a chance to get his stuttering Reds back on track, and for Mourinho it represented the first stern test his title-chasing side have encountered so far this season. Sadio Mane was missing for Liverpool with injury, with Philippe Coutinho moving into a front three with Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah as Emre Can was brought in to offer steel in midfield. Marcus Rashford dropped to the bench for Man Utd, Anthony Martial brought in to replicate his raw pace up front.
The first real chance fell to the visitors as Nemanja Matic looked to test Simon Mignolet from distance, but his dipping half volley cleared the crossbar. Mourinho’s side looked content to sit deep and try to catch Liverpool on the break, knowing that leaving Anfield with a point was not to be sniffed at. Liverpool’s best opportunity came from the unlikely source of Joel Matip, whose goalbound poke was met by the boot of David De Gea – a brilliant reaction stop from the Spaniard. There was little else for the crowd to get worked up about as a second successive Liverpool-Man Utd fixture was overhyped by Murdoch’s minions. Mourinho will emerge happier with the result, while disappointed Sky Sports subscribers have joined the hunt for Red October.
As it’s Champions League week, the rest of England’s representatives were all in action on Saturday afternoon, and Mark Hughes tentatively took his Stoke City side to his former hunting ground in the hope of escaping with his dignity. Pep Guardiola is still unable to call upon the striking talents of Sergio Aguero, but was able to name a front three of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane, who between them have 16 goals already this season. Stoke didn’t just come to defend and it was during a foray forward after 17 minutes that a sloppy crossfield pass was intercepted by City and allowed Kyle Walker to cross for a Jesus tap-in. From the kick-off, Stoke ventured into City’s half again, only to lose the ball and watch as Leroy Sane fed Raheem Sterling, and the winger slotted the ball past Butland for 2-0. With less than twenty minutes gone travelling supporters could have been forgiven for beating the traffic, and when, ten minutes later, a sumptuous passing move on the edge of the Stoke box led to Sterling squaring the ball for a scruffy David Silva finish, plenty of Potters had probably seen enough.
If they had left at that point then they would have missed their side rallying as the game headed towards half-time. Stoke finally worked the ball into City’s penalty area and Mame Biram Diouf’s shot was deflected high into Ederson’s net. The smallest glimmer of hope in an abyss of sky-blue dominance. Any fans that left early would at least have heard the news of a second Stoke goal on the car radio. Two minutes after half-time and a cross into the City area was met by Diouf, whose header deflected off Walker and into the net. 3-2, and perhaps for the first time this season, Guardiola’s side were being asked serious questions. But if Stoke were harnessing the spirit of superhero Underdog, Manchester City were more The Hulk, and Diouf had made them angry. Less than ten minutes after Stoke had clawed their way back into the game they conceded again, an inch perfect cross from Kevin de Bruyne converted by Jesus. Seven minutes after that the game was well and truly up. First a thunderbolt from Fernandinho rocketed in off the bar, then another exquisite de Bruyne pass allowed Sane the simplest of tap-ins at the far post.
With a tricky fixture against Napoli on the horizon, Guardiola took the opportunity to give Jesus and De Bruyne the rest of the afternoon off, and it was the Brazilian’s replacement, Bernardo Silva, that rounded off the scoring for City with a near post-tap in. That’s seventeen goals in the last three home games for Pep’s team, and by the looks of it, it’ll take one hell of a slump to stop them from winning this league.
The side currently in possession of the Premier League trophy took the short trip south-east to Crystal Palace to take on Roy’s goalless boys. Ahead of the game the jury was still out on whether Hodgson could dig Palace out of trouble, given that two of his first three games in charge had come away at the two Manchester clubs, and few would have expected the Eagles’ dreadful start to the season get any better with the visit of the champions. Hodgson was able to name Wilfried Zaha in his starting eleven for the first time this season, albeit as a rudimentary striker. Argentine goalkeeper Julian Speroni also received a surprise recall, with Wales international Wayne Hennessey still sitting in a darkened room following his country’s crucial defeat during the international break.
The impact of the returning Zaha was almost instant as, three minutes in, he forced Courtois into a smart save. Palace had their tails up early on, and the golden moment came with only seven minutes on the clock as a shot from Yohan Cabaye bounced off Cesar Azpilicueta into the net to give the Eagles their first goal of the season. Their joy was shortlived, however, as Tiemoue Bakayoko headed Fabregas’ corner past Speroni to equalise. But still the home side came forward and, on the stroke of half-time, Zaha got the goal his performance deserved, darting into the Chelsea area and stroking the ball into the corner.
As the second half wore on the game opened up more and more, with Chelsea committing men forwards in an attempt to capitalise on Palace’s nervous defence. Charly Musonda should have done better when played in by Fabregas, while Andros Townsend had a golden opportunity to extend the home side’s lead, but shot wide when well placed. Fabregas certainly should have done better when Mamadou Sakho took leave of his senses and attempted a back-heel in his own penalty area, only for the Spaniard to slice his shot past the far post. Hodgson’s side held on to record their first points of the season, as the Croydon Owl gets his feet firmly under the desk at Selhurst Park. Chelsea, meanwhile, severely missed Alvaro Morata’s golden touch in front of goal, and will be praying the Spaniard returns from injury sooner rather than later.
In the other 3pms, Tottenham earned their first Premier League victory at Wembley Stadium as Christian Eriksen’s goal secured a narrow win over Bournemouth. Huddersfield’s descent back to Earth continued with a two goal defeat on the Welsh coast, with a Tammy Abraham brace earning the points for Swansea, and a “proper old-fashioned game of football” at Turf Moor saw Burnley and West Ham share the spoils with a goal apiece, despite Geordie centaur Andy Carroll being dismissed for two yellow cards.
The Saturday evening kick-off saw a face-off between two sides who are desperately trying to find their level this season. Watford have enjoyed a strong start but crumbled dramatically when they faced a top six side in Manchester City, while Arsenal’s decline seems to have been overstated given that they found themselves level on points with last season’s champions before kick-off. The Gunners’ decision to wear their lucky away kit (played two, lost two) was an early talking point for kit fetishists, since red and white doesn’t appear to clash with yellow, though when Per Mertesacker glacially drifted into Watford’s penalty area and gave Wenger’s side the lead with a header just before half time, Arsenal fans would have been happy to see their side dressed as cockerels.
There were chances for the visitors to extend their lead in the second half, Mesut Ozil in particular won’t be looking forward to re-watching the highlights, and that was the perfect cue for the hosts to break forward and Brazilian revelation Richarlison to go down under the slightest sign of pressure from Hector Bellerin to earn Watford a penalty. Troy Deeney sidefooted the spot-kick home and the jitters quickly crept into the Arsenal side. The home side had further claims for a penalty turned down, but looked the more likely side to score, and in the first minute of stoppage time Richarlison drove a shot a goal and in the ensuing chaos the ball fell to Tom Cleverley to slot home. The replays showed Granit Xhaka statuesque on the edge of the box, though culpability fell on more than one of Arsenal’s number. Deeney was frank in an interview after the match, suggesting Arsenal lacked the requisite reproductive organs in order to compete. Anyone’s guess. Meanwhile the image of Paul Merson foaming into his St George’s Flag as the ‘clueless’ Marco Silva did a job on his former employers is a wonderful thing to conjure. Presumably Harry Redknapp could have earned a point – at least Xhaka would have ‘fucking run around a bit’.
The lunchtime game on Sunday brought a vague curiosity – Brighton v Everton wasn’t broadcast on UK television, but rather was rescheduled to be shown at a Premier League event in India. Incurring the wrath of a thousand Evertonians is one thing, but surely the risk of a riot was very real when the locals turned up to find out the very special game that England’s soccer bosses had put on for them was the equivalent of several farts in a strong wind. Given that, twenty four hours earlier, the two most famous English clubs in the world were playing out a tedious goalless draw, was the meeting of two sides with nine goals between them so far this season going to offer the best advert for the Premier League? Well, no, as it happens.
Oumar Niasse’s short spell as Ronald Koeman’s first choice striker came came to an end, with Wayne Rooney restored ahead of Everton’s ten playmakers, but it was the unlikely source of Idrissa Gueye that came closest to breaking the deadlock, first stinging Mat Ryan’s palms with a rasping strike, then curling another long ranger wide. Brighton’s Lewis Dunk was adamant his goalbound shot had been handled by Michael Keane, though a penalty award would have been harsh as the shot rolled up the Everton defender’s body before deflecting out off his arm.
It wouldn’t have taken an NVQ in Police Detective Studies to work out that these two sides were low on confidence and short of goalscoring ideas, so when Bruno crossed for Anthony Knockaert to slam the ball home and give Brighton an 82nd minute lead it looked as though the contest had been settled. And they would have got away with it if it wasn’t for that pesky kid Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The England youth international jumped to meet a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick, only to meet Bruno’s outstretched elbow mid-flight. Michael Oliver promptly pointed to the spot, and Wayne Rooney calmly nestled the ball into the bottom corner to earn Everton a point. Another dispiriting performance from Koeman’s charges, reminiscent of their boom and bust era under David Moyes. The visit of Arsenal next week offers the opportunity to kickstart their season, but a lack of goals could make it a long seven months. Disappointment for Brighton, meanwhile, who need to close out these sort of games if they’re going to survive beyond May.
The schedule for English clubs in Europe gives Sky the opportunity to show what might be deemed ‘less glamorous’ fixtures, and at the very worst gives them a chance to irritate Newcastle United supporters. For the third time this season the Toon Army were sent to the other side of the country for a late kick off, making the 650 mile round trip to Southampton to see Rafa Benitez take on one of his former players in Mauricio Pellegrino. The Saints are another side that have lacked attacking threat so far this season, and they came up against a Newcastle side drilled to within an inch of their lives. Happy to cede possession, the Magpies soaked up early pressure from the hosts and took the lead after twenty minutes when the ball fell to choking enthusiast Isaac Hayden to drill home from twenty yards. There was very little for Rob Elliott in the Newcastle goal to do in the first half, and the visitors could have doubled their lead when Joselu hit an angled volley just over on the stroke of half time.
Southampton came out in the second half with more purpose, but again Joselu was unlucky not to score when his near-post flick bounced off the top of Fraser Forster’s crossbar, and Christian Atsu was unable to convert the rebound. That stroke of luck looked crucial when Manolo Gabbiadini lost his marker and slid the ball past Elliott to restore parity. Southampton were level for less than two minutes, however, as Newcastle broke forward, and Matt Ritchie played a through ball to Ayoze Perez. The Spaniard’s first shot was beateen away by Forster, but he was first to react and belted the rebound in at the near-post.
The home side were unlucky not to see their opponents reduced to ten men when the already booked DeAndre Yedlin arrived late and crunched the ankle of Nathan Redmond. Kevin Friend let the American full-back off with a final warning, and the introduction of Sofiane Boufal saw Pellegrino attempt to capitalise. The Southampton pressure began to mount on the Newcastle area, and when Shane Long looked to have knocked the ball out of play, Magpies centre-back Florian Lejuene dove into a tackle and conceded a penalty. Gabbiadini erred from his usual placement of bottom left, and smashed the ball high into the top right corner. With neither team looking content to take a point, it was Sean Davis’ intervention on the line that prevented Lejuene winning the game with an 89th minute header. All square in the end, but Newcastle left the more disappointed having stuck firmly to their gameplan and broke forward efficiently. Pre-season concerns of them heading straight back to the Championship ebb away after each impressive performance. Southampton, meanwhile, will have been relieved to have scored more than once for only the second time this season.
Attention on Monday night turned to the King Power Stadium, where the latest instalment of the Mike Dean show was due to take place in a clash that left the football watching nation shrugging in complete indifference. Leicester City’s poor start to the season has so far gone under the radar as the failings of teams around them have provided a smokescreen, but the visit of West Brom would offer an ideal opportunity to get their season going.
In a scrappy game that offered little but the opportunity for Dean to get his cards out, the Baggies made the breakthrough from a wonderful Nacer Charlie free-kick, though Kasper Schmeichel may have a few awkward questions to answer the next time he pops round his Dad’s for dinner. Riyad Marhez levelled the scores with ten minutes remaining, and the Foxes could have nicked it when Harry Maguire’s long range effort stung the palms of the deputising Boaz Myhill. Spoils shared, but Craig Shakespeare will be desperate to get another win on the board soon.
While that win for Crystal Palace still sees them rooted firmly to the foot of the table, green shoots have appeared in South-East London, and Bournemouth, Leicester and Everton will be looking nervously over their shoulders. Huddersfield, meanwhile, are now without a win in four, and their excellent start to life in the Premier League is slowly becoming a distant memory.
That’s time, ladies and gentlemen. Drink up, and go away.