“I’ll be back on Tuesday”: Three days with the Premier League’s changing moods

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 18, 2018

The night shows Wembley for what it is. When off-duty its screens are blank and its arch sits in darkness. Below, the pale office lights illuminate empty rooms and the whole place exudes a lifeless chill. In an article before last season’s Champions League final, Jonathan Liew wrote about a stadium’s latent energy and how, even before the crowds file in and the players take the field, football grounds possess this vague yet heavy aura.

That’s not really true here. In my hotel, the foyer is decorated with shirts of players who have stayed. There are Swansea and Birmingham shirts, signed NFL jerseys and an American football. Outside, the stadium itself doesn’t hum with any authority, it’s just a building – big, metallic and impersonal, tucked between other looming blocks, each carrying the promise of convenient rental opportunities and further transience.

People do live here, but this is an arterial exclusion zone. On Friday night, dolled-up teenagers head for the tube and the adrenalin of central London, but they have to walk through this strange little Chernobyl to get there. The harder it tries to have a soul, the more obvious it becomes that it doesn’t.

Friday, 11.30pm.

The Real Football Fans Show is a strange little spectacle, isn’t it. It barges into my Wembley hotel room late on Friday night and, somehow, I can’t look away. The premise is simple enough: rival supporters gather in what looks like the Crystal Maze’s industrial zone and shout in each other’s faces for minutes at a time.

The withering put-downs should snap in like a reflex but, really, it’s actually perfect. It’s confrontational and modern, the visual equivalent of a block capitals argument on Twiter. I hate it, of course, but I think I’m supposed to. Somewhere, deep within some agency building, there’s a flip chart in an office with a picture of my face with a big red cross through it.

Mine and many others, you suspect, because nobody ever seems to meet that type of supporter. Whether in the stadium, on a train, or in any other part of life into which football bleeds, this type of fan – this platitude shouting, petty one-upmanship loving, transfer-market-worshiping caricature – is conspicuous by its absence.

Tim Lovejoy has quite the legacy.

Saturday should have brought the opening of Tottenham’s new stadium. Instead, Spurs found themselves back at Wembley, counting the days and cursing the contractors. Liverpool’s visit was the kind of fixture that belongs in the national stadium, but this fanbase has been living on the road for too long now and their suitcases are starting to get heavy.

Their team is in a strange place. Like their jaded talisman, the heavy-legged Harry Kane, they began the season looking as if they’d already slogged through the winter and, a cathartic win at Old Trafford aside, have limped to three wins out of four. A reality check seemed inevitable. It duly arrived, too, courtesy of Watford and a cackling crowd at Vicarage Road. Two set-pieces, two goals; their unbeaten record wasn’t taken away as much it was surrendered.

Saturday, 2.30pm.

Liverpool make everything look much worse. Jurgen Klopp’s side are functionally impressive – efficient at best – and yet Tottenham sag limply. A ridiculous sequence of errors allows Gini Wijnaldum to rainbow a header into the top corner and goalline technology raises its hand. Roberto Firmino will add a second shortly after the break, but only after Spurs have already made their defeat feel inevitable. They’re hopeless; a lifeless mess of bad ideas and poor execution.

It’s a rotten afternoon. A feeble, error-strewn performance in nasty, burning sunshine which, later, Mauricio Pochettino will somehow declare himself happy with. On the way home, Tottenham moods will grow deeper and darker. When a team wins, it’s easy to turn away from the modern game’s ills. When they lose, not so much. As those fans snake back into central London, they’ll dwell on broken promises – the assurance that the new stadium wouldn’t see a rise in ticket prices, for instance, or the subsequent justification of those hikes as a means of funding a more competitive side.

“If you want the shiny new players on the big wages, then this is the price you have to pay…”

As the schedule slipped and the fixtures began dropping away, season ticket holders were promised a 1/19th refund in compensation for every game that New White Hart Lane didn’t host. As they trudge home, those supporters probably remember how, initially, this game was bracketed as Category A and that, had there not been an outcry, the club would have reclaimed those refunds with interest.

Yes, really.

Later, on the way to Wolverhampton, my train stops in Milton Keynes. Modern football’s Death Star itself, where Spurs will be playing their first game in this season’s League Cup. Pochettino wears his apathy towards that competition on his sleeve, he couldn’t possibly care less about it. Spurs could have switched the game to Vicarage Road, Watford were certainly keen, but instead they’ll send their supporters an hour out of London on a weeknight, to a place which affronts the very notion of fandom – and which, according to a recent press-release, will also house MK Dons fans on the night itself.

Ordinarily, this would be the moment to repurpose that John Lydon quote for the millionth time. It’s not quite at that stage yet, this is a relative situation, but the fibres of Tottenham’s traditional moorings are certainly beginning to fray.

A day later, Molineux is soothing. It’s a top-flight anachronism really, with its unfilled corners and steep tiers, but it’s one of the best grounds in the country. 24-hours on from Wembley’s nondescript  high-rises, there’s nourishment to be found in an actual place – somewhere with some life and where the buildings are more than ten years old.

Walk through Wolverhampton, past the imposing, dark-bricked beauty of St Peter’s and on to Molineux, and you feel that pulse. The gold shirts, slightly more amber these days, start to multiply the closer you get to the ground and, when it does appear, it rises from below. As land has become more expensive, clubs in search of bigger homes have to had to buy and build beyond their city walls. Here though, football remains quite literally carved into the local community; Molineux sits low in the ground and a few locals can probably peer in over the top of the stands on matchdays.

Yes, this is better. The optimism here is refreshing. Wolves are newly-promoted, so they are still at that stage where everything is new and wonderful, but this mood is more than just novelty. Fosun International have created the ability to compete. Foreign investment bringsuspicion, correctly given the precedents, but this time the balance seems right. Fosun no doubt benefit in all sorts of hidden ways from their ownership and, clearly, there is more to Jorge Mendes’ involvement than just goodwill, but the ratios are roughly correct. Supporters aren’t naive, they understand that this isn’t charity, but their side of this deal looks more than reasonable at the moment.

It sounds that way, at least. Pre-game, Robert Plant’s wails fill the air and Led Zeppelin’s power shakes the ground. It’s loud here, the stands bear down on the pitch and fireworks burst in the air before kick-off.

It’s infectious. By the time Jeff Beck picks through the opening chords of Hi Ho Silver Lining, Molineux is simmering with tremendous energy. Burnley are getting done here and everybody knows it.

They’re Wolverhampton Wanderers and their on they’re way back…

Sunday, 1.25pm.

Wolves are not a blood and thunder side, nor are they reliant on any one individual. Ruben Neves is clearly gifted and Joao Moutinho’s CV speaks for itself, but perhaps the greatest compliment this team is due is that, in fact, they clearly are one. There are headliners within the group and the range of passes which fly from central midfield certainly catch the eye, but Nuno Espirito Sancho has put his pieces together smartly.

They carve Burnley apart. Sean Dyche’s team are on an obvious downswing at the moment and their hearts and minds are weak, but Wolves have them down on the ground from the first whistle and spend the rest of the game with their knees on their necks. You want entertainment as a neutral and it’s on offer here: Wolves scythe forward with panache and variation, moving the ball too quickly and smartly for their opponents. It’s a performance of real style. Not one which brings an avalanche of goals but which, without Joe Hart at the top of his form, might have done on a different day.

Something’s beginning here. It’s hard to quantify it or tell exactly what it is, but the mood is so optimistic. After the game ends and the people have left, Joao Moutinho’s young daughter runs down from the stands and jumps into her father’s arms. On the pitch, Rui Patricio’s tiny son chases after a football which comes up to his waist. Winning always bathes everything in a sympathetic light, but this is all looks very warm; Molineux is a good place to be at the moment.

St Mary’s is not. Southampton aren’t a crisis club, but their associations are shifting. This used to be a place of method, where the steady drum beat of progress was never interrupted. Now, thanks to eighteen months of botched recruitment and reactionary appointments, a disenchanted crowd is watching over Mark Hughes and his fragile football team.

A day earlier, sat in the Molineux press-room, I tune in to Leganes against Villarreal just in time to see Guido Carrillo slash a penalty high and wide. That sums it up; Carrillo is away in Spain on a heavily-subsidised loan and it doesn’t appears as if that’s a move begging to be made permanent. Add him to the pile then: Sofiane Boufal, Jordie Clasie, Florin Gardos, Jeremy Pied; Les Reed has locked himself out of his own Black Box.

As different as Molineux was to Wembley, St Mary’s is another step removed in a different direction. There is no grand dysfunction here – there are no sensational headlines – but two years of trudging football have taken their toll and the resulting ennui has sucked the energy dry. Southampton aren’t bad enough to go down, but then neither are they good enough do anything much at all. As for so many sides in this division, they have and will always exist under a glass-ceiling, incapable of paying enormous fees and offering phone number wages, but they used to have a restless spirit. They were a great defier of a status quo which they now obligingly conform to.

Monday, 5pm.

St Mary’s has tradition on its side and, historically, it is in the right place. But that right place is in a strange part of town now and the Ted Bates statue which sits in front of the main entrance stands in salute of a concrete manufacturing plant. It’s a necessary cost of progress perhaps, but not something which was noticeable before, when players and managers were being flipped for great profit and every summer brought fresh energy and new ideas.

Maybe that’s pedantry, but I’m three days in, I look, smell and feel awful, and by this point I’m looking for things to be irritated by.

Southampton start eagerly enough against Chris Hughton’s Brighton. A pre-kick-off light show (think Cirque de Soleil at its most indulgent) has the crowd in the mood and, on the pitch, the passing zips with urgency. Wesley Hoedt hacks an early chance over from six yards, Mohamed Elyounoussi misses with a header which really should have found the target.

The supporters have been back in the Premier League for almost a decade now and, over time, expectations have hardened. There are teams in the division they should always be beating and yet, over the last few years, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, they’ve become one of those sides who dominate the ball with little purpose and, understandably, St Mary’s has grown restless. At the root of the tension has been the twin failure to add a true playmaker to the side and to properly stock the forward line; nothing is more dispiriting than seeing obvious problems ignored.

Monday, 7.55pm

On Monday night, they don’t need a forward: 35 minutes in Pierre Hojbjerg (once the apple of Pep Guardiola’s eye) rips through the ball and finds Mat Ryan’s bottom-corner from a mile away. It’s a sensational goal – part-Essien, part-Martina – and it’s enough to briefly soften the hard hearts in the stands.

Brighton don’t go quietly though. Davy Propper heads hopelessly wide when well-placed to score and Anthony Knockaert, just minutes later, bursts through to test Alex McCarthy. Southampton have no control over the game and their attempts to protect a lead show them for what they really are – a week-to-week football team without a guiding principle. They’re ahead, but they don’t really understand how or why, least of all how to protect that position.

It will cost them. To supporters, the game will always be about winning and losing, that hasn’t changed, but – increasingly – their optimism is instructed by evidence of process. Not every club can challenge for honours and for those who can’t, it’s imperative to stand for something. Southampton did – their “way” lit a safe path beyond the division’s big beasts. Now, they’re just part of the fatty middle, their only distinguishing features being their colours and crest.

Just after the hour, Danny Ings wriggles into the box and draws a clumsy tackle from Gaetan Bong. Penalty, 2-0. That’s the point at which cohesive sides can relax and when faith in structure really tells. Not for Southampton: Knockaeart whips in a perfect free-kick and Shane Duffy halves the deficit within minutes.

And there’s the fear in the crowd again: it’s not a reflection of the supporters themselves, but what they’re watching. Tonight has become a grind. About seeing it out and getting over the line. Southampton do neither. James Ward-Prowse needlessly shoves Duffy to the floor in the box as stoppage time begins and Glenn Murray scuffs a penalty straight down the middle. 2-2. The away end goes berserk, little Knockaert bounces down the touchling kicking hoardings in excitement and, at the other end of the ground, 5,000 seats snap empty.

“2-0 and you f—– it up…”

There’s no obvious anger, neither does it cause any great surprise. Southampton have lost their way in every sense, tonight and in general. They’ve become one of those Premier League clubs: just hoping to stay in the league, so consumed with today’s fight that tomorrow doesn’t figure at all. Conceding late goals and dropping points is part of football life but, here at least, there’s no sense that it instructs anything going forward – here, Southampton are always the same and this current period in their history, this prolonged limpness, doesn’t appear to be in aid of anything. New managers arrive, new players bounce in and out of the club, but the needle doesn’t seem to shift.

What a good news story they were and what a crying shame this is. They’ll lose at Anfield next weekend, Wolves will savage them before the end of the month, and then back they’ll come to St Mary’s in October, when Chelsea will scare the life out of them and St Mary’s will be twitching again.

Premier League life can be miserable.

Monday, 11pm

Afterwards, Mark Hughes will blame the referee. He starts his press-conference by highlighting the good and discussing the bad, then he’ll tell the media that the penalty was soft. And then he’ll accuse Shane Duffy of going down too easily. He mentions it again. And then again. It’s less process, more PR. Maybe Hughes has a point, but he seems to find a hard luck story in every bad result and, at a time when his idealogue peers are seeking evolution and progress, his act has become tired.

Do fans want excuses? Sometimes. Really they want answers, though. Over the next five days they’d like to imagine their players beavering on the training-ground, honing their defensive set-piece discipline as the light begins to fail. Instead, they’ll picture Hughes stewing in his office, hurling clumsy darts at Anthony Taylor’s face.

He’ll sit there in the dark, wishing away the hours until the time comes to do this all again.

What are you looking for?