A frenzy of tears, salutes and send-offs have marked the finale of the campaign of goodbyes as the Premier League draws a line under its first defining generation
By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
How the send-offs have piled up, like cars in a Bank Holiday traffic jam.
Some enjoyed grander departures than others. Sir Alex Ferguson led the way, as he has done for the majority of his glorious 39-year managerial career, with the kind of red-carpeted farewell that not even David Beckham, the most famous footballer of his era, could match.
Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Phil Neville exited the stage to head for the broadcasters’ sofa or a waiting training-ground tracksuit with ovations ringing in their ears.
The frenzy of retirements was matched by an equally dizzying number of sackings and appointments as the perpetual Premier League news factory went into late-season overdrive.
David Moyes left Everton for one of the most demanding assignments of all with his head held high and a tear in the eye.
Others were not so fortunate. Rafael Benitez shuffled out of Stamford Bridge with his managerial reputation restored but with barely a nod of thanks from the Chelsea faithful, while the last that Manchester City supporters saw of Roberto Mancini was him being smuggled into a chauffeur-driven car.
With the three best teams all changing the name on the template in their manager’s club parking space and half the central constituents of the ‘Golden Generation’ waving goodbye, a line has not so much been drawn in the sand as permanently etched to the accompaniment of flashing neon lightbulbs.
Yet there is little time to pause for breath and reflect. Agents are already busy pushing their own men for the Everton and Newcastle jobs as the traditional post-season managerial merry-go-round gathers pace.
Moreover, the Premier League transfer window opened when the clock struck midnight on Sunday, ushering in even more lucrative pay days for those players lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the new £5.4 billion broadcasting deal starts to be carved up.
What larks for those in the businesses of pumping out football news, selling souvenirs, or, most profitably of all, being a beneficiary of those multi-million-pound player contracts.
Yet the industry’s capacity for setting agendas and stealing headlines cannot hide the awkward truth that the 21st season of the Premier League was a fairly mediocre one. Manchester United’s stress-free stroll to their 13th modern league coronation – and 20th in total – was a reward for relentless ambition and drive rather than any consistent brilliance.
Other notable achievements included Swansea City’s Capital One Cup triumph and all-round improvement under Michael Laudrup, Everton’s consistent overachieving and Tottenham’s advancement, if only marginally in points terms, under the shrewd guidance of Andre Villas-Boas, who has proved that he is not so dogmatic as to refuse to learn from his mistakes.
Yet other high-water marks were less visible. The giant leap forward that Wigan made in downing hot favourites Manchester City in the FA Cup final to win the first trophy in their 91-year history was extinguished by relegation.
Chelsea gave their demanding supporters another memorable night by winning the Europa League, the 11th major trophy of the Roman Abramovich era, but this merely provided hastily added polish to a poisonous campaign.
Elsewhere, Newcastle nosedived, the middling clubs remained the middling clubs, Arsenal treaded water before claiming Champions League qualification by the skin of their teeth and Liverpool made baby steps under Brendan Rodgers without answering the questions about whether or not they can overcome opponents when the chips are down.
Even last-day drama was thin on the ground, bar a Hawthorns goalfest that provided a fittingly exciting way for Ferguson to bow out. The relegation struggle had already been settled, leaving Arsenal and Tottenham’s fight for a minimum £25m Champions League handout to be elevated to top billing.
Gareth Bale’s sensational post-Christmas form saw him deservedly walk away with all the individual gongs to secure his status as the Premier League’s outstanding performer. The likes of Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick, Juan Mata and Pablo Zabaleta had outstanding seasons, while those in the level just below, like Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Ashley s, Asmir Begovic, Jan Vertonghen, Santi Cazorla and Sascha Riether, maintained lofty standards week in, week out.
Nevertheless, there was less individual stardust than in the days when Arsenal were invincible and Cristiano Ronaldo was the free-wheeling leading light in Ferguson’s third great United team.
The Premier League’s new financial fair play rules, which combine wage restraints with a cap on club losses, come into effect next season but this will not stop the stampede from the continent into the English top flight.
With big-spending newcomer BT Vision providing the most credible threat yet to the hegemony of BSkyB, TV cash will flow into club coffers like never before, to the extent that it is only a matter of time before the era of the £300,000-a-week footballer begins.
The leading Spanish and Portugese-speaking players who cannot make the Real Madrid and Barcelona first-team squads continue to flutter their eyelashes in the direction of the most eagerly followed league in the globe. Even the top Italian and German players, traditionally far less enthusiastic about moving to England than northern Europeans, might regard a season or two aboard the Premier League gravy train as time well spent.
The new era will be most conspicuous by the fresh faces in the United, City, Chelsea and Everton dugouts, with the headline writers salivating at the impending comeback of Jose Mourinho, if not the likely arrival of Manuel Pellegrini.
How the three best-resourced Premier League clubs each cope with their individual upheaval will surely determine the destination of next season’s trophy. It is hard to see it heading anywhere other than Old Trafford, the Etihad Stadium or Stamford Bridge, unless perhaps Arsene Wenger spends the near-£100 million kitty at his disposal and transforms an efficient squad into an excellent one.
The English game remains unhealthily dependent upon foreign technique, continental coaching wisdom and overseas investors.
Despite all this wealth and dugout sophistication, the season of 2012-13 will not be remembered as a vintage one.
It is now time to look forward to fresh beginnings, with most sets of fans hoping that the end of the Ferguson era will narrow the gap between the champions and the rest.
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