Almost a year to the day since Talking Points’ inaugural Premier League end-of-season awards ceremony, celebrating the upper echelons of the revolutionary English Premier League in what this year will be its 25th anniversary, I am forced by GCSE revision commitment to unveil my 2016/17 season award winners a week prior to the season’s close. While this may be my last blog for the foreseeable next five weeks, I am determined to harness the opportunity for self-indulgence to its fullest extent, and as such, a dedication to perhaps the least ethically reasonable or redeemable organisation in football’s sullied yet spasmodic topography seems befitting of such an honour – hardly. Nevertheless, it is the passion such sparsely-located hundreds of millions, if not over a billion global viewers, hold for the much-debated Premier League that cause the 1992-splinter division to be so decisive in the overall complexion of the sport, and as a viewer, I will contribute my analysis of this yet-concluded season – one which has, to date, witnessed the demise of North-East counterparts Sunderland and Middlesbrough to the Championship from whence the latter were delivered in 2015/16, and the now-confirmed triumph of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. In the comparatively mediocre nine months succeeding Leicester City’s title-winning forays of 2015/16, now acclaimed a more astounding an intoxicant with the benefit of such a period’s hindsight and events, there have been managerial controversies at both ends of the table, notable contract disputes for an array of the league’s utmost entertainers, heroic arrivals, acrimonious departures and, classically, more than a fair share of unexpected isolated results. The star performers and most notable incidents from such a traumatic and stupendous term? Read on for my perception…
Team of the Season – Formation 3-4-3
Goalkeeper: Tom Heaton – Burnley
In assuring lucrative Premier League survival for not only the smallest urban area present in the division in terms of population, but the club with the second lowest expenditure in terms of seasonal squad wage totals, Sean Dyche – mimicked by many, yet unparalleled in his ability for resource management – cannot be underestimated at the forefront of England’s current managerial crop. The pinnacle, arguably, of Dyche’s modestly industrial philosophy, in both playing style and financial supervision, is the Cheshire-derived monument of goalkeeping fortitude, Mr Dependable to pan a cliché-ravaged commentary – Tom Heaton. A free signing from the relegated Bristol City in 2013, the Manchester United academy product has ascended from the perennial loanee and unremarkable Championship shot-stopper to a Premier League-leading testament to the success of perspiration and determination for all those rejected by the ruthless youth production lines of Manchester, Liverpool and London, without mentioning his national service – a duo of caps to his name as a reward for toil behind Joe Hart, Fraser Forster and Jack Butland in the ranks. At 31, he has peaked at the perfect period for the Clarets, delivering a scarcely-conceivable 40 points and 10 clean sheets alongside his mainly-homegrown teammates, a key incorporation of which is a back four of Ben Mee, Michael Keane, Matthew Lowton and Stephen Ward, costing Dyche and predecessors a mere £3.9 million, and each worthy of a place in this side if not for the exploits of individuals further up the table.
With an equal clean sheet record to Liverpool and West Ham amongst others, Heaton can point to his league-leading 135 saves, mere three absences through injury (in which Paul Robinson conceded seven goals of the side’s current total of 51) and Fantasy Premier League record 21 bonus points and 146 total points for 2016/17 as markers of his consistency. With the third fewest goals conceded outside of the current top eight in the division, belying his side’s financial output, Heaton stacks up, for me, the greatest sentry of the hallowed net, especially with a home record fundamental to the season-defining Turf Moor form, of 16 goals conceded in 17 matches to date.
Centre Back: David Luiz – Chelsea
As many have mentioned over the course of what has become a season of utter contempt for opposition never close to their standard, Chelsea have their tactical reinvention under Conte to thank for their triumph, and in no area more critical than their defensive third. Great sides such as Barcelona and Real Madrid may have gained reputations for annihilating opposition through a multitude of crisply-crafted chances, but as any well-travelled connoisseur would impart upon you, it is defences that win you titles. Returning to Stamford Bridge for £34 million last August, Luiz – who departed for a place at the heart of a Paris St Germain defence in the wake of his questionable 2014 home World Cup performances – has, perhaps surprisingly, displayed a maturity and control that had previously been decidedly lacking from his obvious skillset, allowing an intensely creative attacking plethora of widely-sourced talent to flourish. On the left of a three-man set-up, his role has demanded the nous of the Italians Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci who Conte previously had at his disposal at club and national level, in addition to the passing vision of only a Brazilian to speed up play in a Premier League demanding flowing counter attacking football. Though trailing Cesar Azpilicueta (first) and Gary Cahill (21st) in the passing tables, Luiz, 44th with almost 1,500 passes completed, has been the aggressor of the trio in breaking apart opposing forays, and visibly, in the paltry 28 goals conceded over 36 games to date, his presence has been an unbridled success, developing significantly under Conte’s tutelage, and perhaps the crowning glory of the Italian’s season-defining rethink of the Blues’ back line.
Centre Back: Gary Cahill – Chelsea
Another pinnacle of the three-man system that has ushered in a new era of domestic dominance – encouraging Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham and even Gareth Southgate’s England to now operate under, and take enthusiastically to, similar formations – Cahill, as aforementioned, has complemented the styles of fellow centre-backs Luiz and Azpilicueta seamlessly. A more sedate crux to Luiz’s periodically all-action approach and defensive shield to Azpilicueta’s potentially vulnerable passing range, the Englishman has flourished under the pressure of leadership – thrust upon him as vice-captain in the wake of John Terry’s age-demanded occupation of the bench – and has assumed many of the Chelsea legend’s qualities in a more mobile guise. Dependable at both ends of the pitch – preventing chances that would’ve added considerably to his side’s goals conceded tally, and contributing a vital six goals that draw him equal in the goal scoring charts with Riyad Mahrez, Marco Arnautovic and Wilfried Zaha – his aptitude at club level is on another level to his often-unremarkable manifestations in an England shirt, where his all-too sedate style can place the likes of Hart in danger. Having risen to the challenge of keeping prodigious duo Kurt Zouma and Nathan Ake at bay for his place in the side, Cahill is effectively the first name in the Blues’ defence – a true testament to his rarely-acknowledged translation of dependability from Aston Villa and Bolton to a consistently Premier League-leading outfit. Fitting, then, you could argue it is that he will be the first Blues player to lift the newly-inscribed trophy in honour of their sustained consistency.
Centre Back: Toby Alderweireld – Tottenham Hotspur
Jan Vertonghen could well have taken this slot, as could Azpilicueta, but for me, there is a steely, unfettered demeanour that sets Alderweireld apart from his defensive counterpart, while selecting all three Chelsea defenders would’ve just been discourteous to the challengers who have lined the Blues’ achievement with some credibility. Although Vertonghen has two years over his almost career-long partner, it has only been since Alderweireld’s arrival at White Hart Lane that he has appeared settled as an unopposed regular, practically faultless alongside a telepathic colleague. Spurs, seemingly, can do no wrong under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino, boasting a persistently infuriating ability to assume any tactical guise the Argentine opts for, with the required character and freedom that comes with an extended period of settled co-existence in spades. While the true stars of the purring Tottenham engine lie in the final third, it is the long-range vision and pinpoint ability to carry out sweeping 30-yard through balls that sets Spurs’ defence apart from all others – most notably from the more ambitious Alderweireld – and allow the front four of the Lilywhites to dazzle. Only absent for six league games all season, it is worth mentioning that, without his presence, Pochettino’s XI conceded in all but two of those matches – a 5-0 thrashing of Swansea and their 0-0 stalemate with Bournemouth – with a goals conceded per game average of exactly one, admirable, but incomparable with the mean of 0.57 from the 30 games he has started. Quite simply, a fundamental aspect to the surely trophy-destined North Londoners’ furniture.
Left Wing-Back: Marcos Alonso – Chelsea
A broken record I may be, but Alonso has, for me, been the surprise of the season. Only able to point to a PL pedigree with Bolton and Sunderland, the powerful Spaniard has made 31 key league appearances – equalling his domestic record for a season, set in 2015/16 with Fiorentina – in a rapid and inconceivable rise from second-choice left-back to undisputed king of the left wing. It may have been Conte’s lack of options that both ushered his signature and his ascendancy into the limelight of a transformative new formation, yet he has returned the profits not of a man for whom it could have been easy to crumble in readjusting to the British Isles and assuming a playing role more critical than ever previously posed. Victor Moses, his symbiotically attack-minded partner on the right, may have tailed off in terms of impact in the wake of his contract extension, yet Alonso has only raised his levels in 2017, and has reaped the rewards on the late stretch of the season. Having delivered more crosses than Zaha, Michael Antonio and Raheem Sterling, exacted more tackles than Ashley Williams, Eric Bailly and Shkodran Mustafi, fizzed more shots than Troy Deeney, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud and laid more passes than Alli, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick, there is no doubting his stamina and persistence – vital factors to the position for Conte, not to mention technique. Six goals – five with fell swoops of his lethal left boot – and three assists fit the bill of his responsibility, yet whether he will maintain both a starting berth and such ominous form next term will be fascinating to observe.
Central Midfielder: N’Golo Kante – Chelsea
Considering all that has foregone my wrap-up of the season, there is scarce left unsaid about this mercurial Frenchman, once doubted by some in the Leicester scouting department and again in the step up to one of Europe’s biggest clubs at the start of this season. Hailed as the worth of two players in one by some plaudits and the best player in the league by others, none other can match the irrepressible force of Kante in such fluent and diligent midfield service, critical to feeding possession from opposition sieges to Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s rampages, nor in his timid, endlessly admirable humility.
It is rare to witness the same player hoist consecutive Premier League titles - 43 have, unsurprisingly, achieved it at Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, with the only others a select 14 at Chelsea in the mid-2000’s. It is even less common an occurrence for an individual to attain a medal for their efforts in triumphant campaigns with two different clubs; Henning Berg famously the first, followed by Ashley Cole, Carlos Tevez, Gaël Clichy, Robert Huth, Nicolas Anelka and Kolo Toure. But to be the recipient of consecutive titles with different sides? No figurehead has been so feverishly form-ridden to yet achieve that feat, an exacting accolade to the expendability of the dream player for any team at any level, and perhaps the peculiar coincidence of a duo of blessed Italian managers’ confidence in the Parisian. Toppled from the top of the tackling charts only by the booking-flushed Idrissa Gana Gueye, his focus has adapted from that at underdogs Leicester to comprise a more comfortable game at a side inherently dominant in possession – playing the seventh most passes in the league (more than Mesut Özil, David Silva and Christian Eriksen) and the same number of through balls (seven) as Yaya Toure and Manuel Lanzini, evidence of an invaluable contribution to his defence and attack alike that has deservedly earned him a spot in the record books.
Central Midfielder: Dele Alli – Tottenham Hotspur
Similarly to Kante, translating a season of outstanding form has presented no mean task for Dele Alli, having burst onto the Premier League scene aged just 19 last season with bravado and guile incomparable for an Englishman perhaps since Wayne Rooney or David Beckham. Despite only possessing passing statistics for the season that rank him 82nd – below the likes of Andrew Surman, Joel Ward and Glenn Whelan – his impression on the team-leading 34 Premier League matches and 47 total appearances has been insurmountably significant. 17 goals, five assists and a passing accuracy just over 80% make him, on paper, the most proficient midfielder in the division, all at the age of 21, with Sigurdsson, Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Eriksen, the latter duo 25 years old with over 50 international caps each and the former 27 years with 49 Icelandic appearances, his nearest challengers in the number 10 role. The vital component, however, to such a role is not personal accounts, but the ability to fuse a front four and the ball-winning midfield behind them, and as Alli works in tandem with Eriksen in the position, he has mastered both this requirement and the threat of a winger in turn. Elegant, audacious and, on his day, absolutely unstoppable, Alli is a diamond with edges ever-sharpened by his exposure to the pressure and quality of the Premier League – Real Madrid will not be his calling come August, but one day, it may well be a possibility.
Right Wing-Back: Christian Eriksen – Tottenham Hotspur
Forgive me if I am playing a monotonous tune by this point, but this is how slick both Chelsea and Spurs have been this season, that I have to fit players of the quality of Eriksen into positions that could easily be occupied by the stars of sides outside of the title reckoning. This slot certainly punished my thinking – Coutinho, Sigurdsson, Antonio Valencia, Kyle Walker and Moses have all returned performances of great vindication – yet for his ever-optimistic output, punishing ability and tactical awareness, Eriksen had an incorrigible charm. Laying on 12 assists, mainly for Harry Kane and Alli, and chipping in with eight goals, his confidence seems to have finally returned from what was, ultimately, a less fruitful season prior, proven by the ambitious and league-leading 129 shots, subsequent five woodwork-striking efforts and fifth highest number of crosses – 226. Translating, on average, to 5.375 shots and 6.65 crosses every game, with shots and crosses every 17 and 14 minutes respectively, the Dane has the canny knack for unlocking a defence and creating the space to spread havoc in an 18-yard box that, in a side that play so heavily on the front foot as Spurs, is a key attribute to personal survival and collective victory.
Right Striker: Romelu Lukaku – Everton
The titanic Belgian has reached the very peaks of his majestic game in fits this season – a Golden Boot-destined 24 goals proves as much. As injecting as he can be on leaky defences, he is undeniably prone to lean spells where either service doesn’t click or his game is restricted by stricter opponents – prevailing, especially, on his meagre away form, the Toffees’ travels having delivered just eight goals and a solitary assist for him, with a goal arriving just once every 198 minutes. Contrast that with the 16 finishes (one every 100 minutes) and five assists at Goodison Park he has garnered, and a worrying trend is obvious; something is astray once he sets foot on the team coach. Ultimately, this is why he feels he should remedy the issue with a move to greener pastures – Manchester United and a Chelsea return both linked, yet improbable at this stage – and with a goal scoring record, at least at home, as enviable as his, there would be no shortage of suitors. Plainly, his stage is above simply seventh place in the Premier League and an unlikely shot at cup glory, with the Champions League deserving of his blessed pace, power and control of the two. In such a context, with support from Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley as opposed to Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne at national level, for example, his feat is outstanding, and truly worthy of a position in our team of the season.
Central Striker: Harry Kane – Tottenham Hotspur
A third year running of 20+ goals for the scintillating North Londoner then, with preconceptions and records again sent tumbling in his illustrious wake. Injuries have played their part in his limited appearances, but he has more than made up for lost time otherwise, with 21 goals from just 26 PL matches and six assists to boot sustaining, if not increasing, his worth at the pinnacle of Premier League striking stardom. Multifaceted in his attributes, it appears that whenever a ball connects with his laces, his medial cuneiform or his sizeable forehead, space appears and an effort seems destined for the back of the net – ever the inflammatory signature of a lethal striking proposition. As with Lukaku, away form is a cause for tempered concern, as his quintet of efforts from a dozen travels have been counterbalanced by an extraordinary 16 goals from 14 home matches, but in a team as talented as Spurs, it is not just his goals that are relied upon anymore to carry the weight of the entire squad – not that it matters to Kane, who relishes the opportunity to exact punishment upon those who have the audacity to prevent his scoring.
Left Striker: Eden Hazard – Chelsea
An appropriate note upon which to conclude our XI, Hazard has set Stamford Bridge alight in a manner reminiscent especially of the title-winning 2014/15 season and perhaps to a degree unprecedented personally in English football. Providing an enlightenment to how his collapse in form led the Blues to a tumultuous 10th-placed title defence last season, his comeback in the form of a personal-best 15 PL goals and five assists – despite adapting to an unnatural position more based on the principles of a striker rather than an out-and-out winger – has been a trailblazing factor in Conte’s inspiration of West London to again produce PL trophies. Reinvigorated with the daring skill, the explosive pace and the untameable shooting prowess of seasons past, the glint in his eye and the affection to torment defences is recouped, only for the price of Conte’s arrival. Without a shadow of a doubt, Hazard is back to his glorious best as one of the top three PL talents – Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero, for me, the others – and for that alone, we should be intensely grateful to Conte.
Ben Foster – West Bromwich Albion
Antonio Valencia – Manchester United
Cesar Azpilicueta – Chelsea
Leroy Sané – Manchester City
Gylfi Sigurdsson – Swansea City
Philippe Coutinho – Liverpool
Zlatan Ibrahimović – Manchester United
Seven players who could not ignored for their contribution to a compelling, aggravating and spirited season, my bench comprises the best of the rest – Foster, for his protruding influence on the potential club PL record 46 goals the Baggies have conceded this season under Tony Pulis’ expert stewardship, Valencia for his comfortable assumption of a right-back role Jose Mourinho had no right thrusting upon him and Azpilicueta, as aforementioned, for his involvement as the ever-present passing outlet in a supreme defensive trio. Sané earns a spot for his impact since bursting onto the picture at Pep Guardiola’s busy shop at Manchester City – seriously impressing with the encapsulation of his trademark blink-and-you-miss-it run and lashing finish – Sigurdsson, akin to Lukaku and Jermaine Defoe’s situations, for salvaging hope with astounding returns from what would otherwise be doomed operations, Coutinho narrowly ahead of compatriot Roberto Firmino for his leading of the Liverpudlian line - no mean feat under Jurgen Klopp’s demanding 4-3-3 formation - 10 goals and six assists, and finally Ibrahimović for taking to the PL many feared he would struggle with like an aged duck to choppy waters amongst a discontented Mancunian ship; 17 goals from 115 shots the figures of a striker still in the world-class category.
Jordan Pickford, Hugo Lloris, Eldin Jakupovic, Thibaut Courtois, David De Gea; Jan Vertonghen, Gareth McAuley, Harry Maguire, Ben Gibson, Michael Keane, Eric Bailly; Kyle Walker, Victor Moses, Danny Rose, Seamus Coleman, Nathaniel Clyne; Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, Nemanja Matic, Emre Can, Joe Allen; Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Kevin De Bruyne, Pedro, Wilfried Zaha, Alexis Sanchez, Josh King; Jermaine Defoe, Diego Costa, Christian Benteke, Fernando Llorente
Manager of the Season
As much as I would love to hand Antonio Conte the gong on this count – securing a league triumph in his first English season a significant achievement, especially in reinventing a side whose inspiration had dissipated almost totally the season prior, and for piecing together an unforgettable 13-match winning run in which time only four goals were conceded – I believe the lack of a continental diversion counts against him. He has had, at his disposal, arguably the best (or second best, regarding Pep Guardiola’s at City) squad in the Premier League, and it is now, whether you believe it a fallacy or truism, a widely-held belief that with fewer games comes superior league performance.
For outstanding achievement, then, I would hand the prize to Tony Pulis for his completely unpredicted maximising of potential at West Brom, where a squad I felt too thin in quality and numbers alike has remained largely fit throughout the season, with distinctive performances from Matt Phillips, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley, Craig Dawson, Ben Foster and Salomon Rondon along the way delivering them the proud declaration as the best of the rest in the Premier League pack – outside of the resources of the established big four, in addition to Man City, Spurs and Everton, yet having bravely competed with these sides nonetheless. Obviously, set-pieces have been the oft-highlighted aspect to Pulis’ approach, and while it has been a key focus in exploiting the poor organisations of many sides at corners and free kicks, there is far more to the Baggies than one-dimensional far-post headers, otherwise they would be far from a highly credible eighth position.
Goal of the Season
Jeff Hendrick vs Bournemouth, 10th December 2016
A sumptuous 20-yard pass, initially, from Matt Lowton in response to Nathan Ake’s defensive header set cult hero Hendrick free of Steve Cook’s attention. The first touch, extending his right boot at waist height to halt the ball into control, was elegant enough for the unheralded Irishman’s usual standards, yet was superseded by the second, allowing the ball to bounce up and onto his thigh for a final hammer blow; a 20-yard screaming half-volley, under Cook’s pressure five yards right of the D, that arced in the Lancastrian air and past a full-stretch Artur Boruc into the top right corner. Gaston Ramirez and Andros Townsend’s solo efforts against Bournemouth and West Brom respectively garnered my attention, but Hendrick, whose season has since trailed off to relatively mediocre standards, gains my award here.
Match of the Season
Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool, August 2016
Hark back to the very first weekend of the season, as honestly, I cannot remember any such displays of competitive astonishment since. Spectacular goals, changes of the lead and a tense finish each unparalleled, for my money, ever since. Uninspired, I know, but little else sticks out in my mind, certainly in comparison with last season’s unpredictability. Let’s hope for better next year…?
*All statistics correct as of 12/05/2017
Deep in the obscure Gloucestershire countryside – specifically the quaint Cotswold town of Nailsworth of a mere 6,000 inhabitants – The New Lawn, overlooking – atop the rolling Stroud Valleys – the quarter from which its club’s name is derived, lies whirring, motoring and chuntering away on an almost 24/7 basis. Preparing for a Vanarama National League play-off semi-final second leg on Sunday afternoon which will likely attract the largest attendance the United Kingdom’s first organic pitch has ever witnessed, discounting the ever-ravenous BT Sport audience, with rooftop and ground-based solar panels gathering sufficient energy from the recently murky British skies to power the demands of such a clash, the club’s kitchen preparing solely vegan produce for the generally supportive local public and one of only two ‘mow-bots’ in the footballing world trimming the early May grass to automated perfection for the twenty-two individuals on the brink of a Wembley final, Forest Green Rovers are unlike other club – non-league or otherwise.
Chairman Dale Vince (central, first row in the above squad photo) is the individual to whom these decidedly non-conformist measures can be attributed; himself the renewable energy mogul of company Ecotricity, who sponsor the club’s shirts, provide the energy at The New Lawn and have generally transformed what was once a sleepy county league outfit until 1975, a rapidly developing regional division cause through the late 1970’s, 1980’s and a majority of the 1990’s and a Conference Premier side who continually flirted with relegation for over a decade – 1998 to 2010 – prior to his arrival in the club’s hour of need. Was his an opportunistic purchase, sighting a model upon which to impose personal ethical and business beliefs, or can he be valued as a genuine supporter and local entrepreneur aiming to set things right, both in terms of FGR and football in general? Do Rovers deserve their potential position in the Football League, come the possible event of a Sunday victory, followed by what would be a 14th May Wembley battle with Tranmere Rovers? Should we, in short, agree with their principles in what is a complicated and totally unparalleled study of contradictory yet currently successful internal tactics, or condemn them as another rurally-based club to intrude upon their current stage, akin to North Ferriby United, Whitehawk or Hungerford Town, each the profiteers of intense entrepreneurial investment belying their comparatively minor parish populations – each fewer than 6,000, Brighton district Whitehawk aside – and sparse historical achievements?
Perhaps, before I delve my argumentative eye too deep, I should admit I would peruse the situation a little less sympathetically provided Vince, ever the East Anglian revolutionary – as effervescent a character in his staunchly pro-renewables and liberally vegan stance in a manner fellow Norfolk product and transnational human rights activist Thomas Paine would have been proud of – wasn’t the fundamental factor to The Little Club On The Hill’s (as they are affectionately renowned) success, or if my deep-rooted Rovers affections from a Football Manager Handheld 2012 save – where I took them to the Premier League in the matter of ten seasons – could be forgotten. Unfortunately, these facts remain, and my opinion, as unbiased as I will attempt to mould it over the course of an informative and though-provoking writing and editing process for me, and a reading ordeal for you, could take some persuading from an accommodating stance of what Vince has cast in the favourably – for Ecotricity, if not first team manager Mark Cooper’s playing tactics - windy Cotswold climes from meagre circumstances to self-made riches and club-bound accomplishment.
That is without mentioning, of course, the millions which have undoubtedly been required to fund the rejuvenation of what must be largely deemed, consenting to the circumstances, ambitious upstarts from a town so modest as to be only 25% larger than my village, which for those otherwise unacquainted with activities at Talking Points HQ (welcome, if so), is Ringmer, admittedly one of the largest villages by population in the south-east, but only boasting a non-league club 10 steps deep in the English football pyramid. Allowing for the alternating fortunes of local economies in producing self-made millionaires as the lush Gloucestershire valleys, through which the River Frome bubble, can point to, can the difference of five divisional tiers, and I believe 126 positions by the route Ringmer FC would have to take, be tolerated as a mere 1,146 parish inhabitants, according to the 2011 census, between the likes of Ringmer and Nailsworth? Clearly not. But that is not where this moral siege will not be won, as unfortunately, we have to accept how areas similar to Nailsworth will realise apparent potential in fits and patches throughout a history as long as FGR’s – in which, interestingly, they have assumed seven different aliases in an extraordinary 128 years dominated by district competition – exploiting, and in turn being exploited by, the countlessly irresponsible businessmen whose false pretences are soon discovered.
Rather, it is in comparison to sides that toil with inexorable ardour for both the sport and their local communities, Lewes, Saffron Walden Town, Dorchester Town and Dulwich Hamlet – the former trio of which have populations, as towns, at least triple that of Nailsworth, whilst boasting a collective 30 years more of Victorian blood, sweat and tears than The Greens – that the fairness of Vince’s, and his predecessors’ investment, comes into question. Playing in the Isthmian Division One South – or English eighth tier, Lewes – the Rooks – would require four full seasons of consecutive league-surpassing funding and consequent achievement to reach the brink of a Conference Premier play-off semi-final, while the Bloods – Saffron Walden – at step nine in the Eastern Counties League Premier League, would take half a decade to match Rovers, Dorchester (the Magpies) a mere three terms starting from the Southern League Premier Division and Hamlet just the three, providing their nous and heart wasn’t ousted yet again by Margate, Whitehawk, Bognor Regis and the rest of the royally minted clique. These crimes, which directly impact those at truly supporter-orientated clubs, spare communities who happen to be in the vicinity of hijacked operational abodes – A.K.A. grounds – the strife of seasons of deep-rooted malaise, remorse and cynicism; instead enthusing them with the periodically inescapable paradox of glee and expectation as skilled ex-professional arrives after skilled ex-professional, ultimately dissuading large swathes of individuals in these fits of ‘inspiration’ from the reality of the sport, even society. Why, then, having strived for one respectable season after another, are the residents of Lewes, Saffron Walden, Dorchester and Dulwich – all beautiful areas in their own respects – being denied such glory? Is there ambition non-existent, is their internal framework faulty, or is it simply that they are being domestically outgunned by unsustainable finances? It doesn’t take much pondering.
There is, however, an undeniable romance, dare I say je ne sais quoi, to the Rovers story in recent seasons. Vince’s tenure has certainly been a polarising one of significant contradictions; lining the generally favourable introduction of a vegan manifesto with funding beyond what many of their Conference Premier opposition – including Torquay, Macclesfield and York, amongst other former Football League propositions – can muster, and investments in former Ligue 1 midfielder Fabien Robert, defender Drissa Traoré, central midfielder Liam Noble attacker Keanu Marsh-Brown and centre-back Dale Bennett - a quartet with 151 appearances’ worth of League One experience – with increasing the presence of renewable energy systems around the ground. Even the manner in which Vince has revolutionised the style of the club; adapting from lower-half strugglers in an outdated 2000’s system to divisive proponents of ethical environmentally-minded actions, emblazoned with the cause even on their chests, seems excusable. He has changed the course of a 128-year-old marker of local history, yet little opposition has come his way; surely speaking volumes about his affable character and niche chairman decisions, which if anything I learnt from an email interview with Lewes chairman Stuart Fuller as part of my Business GCSE coursework, is vital to non-league clubs as marketing hubs. Anti-establishment vitriol is now an esteemed pillar of the club’s structure, opposing theoretically every aspect of modern football – the dictatorship of foreign owners lacking even an inch of integrity in their profit siphoning, the endless waste, both in terms of finance and energy, at clubs so blinded by commercialisation they believe they hold the earth in their hands, and the non-existent ethical stance assumed by unquestioned individuals whose ambition overpowers their very being – with one minor flaw.
I say one; you could argue their flaws to be many. Similarly, minor is in the loosest sense of the term when evaluating the partly hypocritical Forest Green project. Put simply, Vince’s is a green empire established on credible morals, yet undermined in some aspects by his exploitation of the decisive role of funding at Rovers’ tier – one which pits historically semi-professional outfits against mainly city-based professional set-ups who would give anything at a Football League return. The odds are rigged in the Conference Premier, and have forever been, by literal changing fortunes. I would certainly argue, with it being the foreseeable gate between endless semi-professionalism, often disparaged as meaningless, and utopian professionalism, in the sense of the considerable pay packets for both players and directors in the event of their EFL return or arrival, that it is both an insufferable league in which to habituate in respects of its competition, but one that is, in turn, fairly simple to discover loopholes in after many years of service. Primarily, chairmen will have to target a season in which to strike; who is paying what, what state are the relegated clubs in, are the promoted clubs in a similar position to us, and with 99-point champions Lincoln City removed from the equation for the freefalling Leyton Orient, degraded from a proudly historic family to a Francesco Becchetti-ruined shadow of former glories, not to mention either Hartlepool, in scarily similar circumstances to Orient, or Newport, not long ago a step five side, taking the place of Tranmere, Forest Green or Dagenham & Redbridge – the losing duo of which from the play-offs I would certainly tip for automatic promotion next season - the opening appears significant in 2017/18. If the water is good – to be absolutely cynical here – bumper investment in playing budgets should be expected, something that surely came to fruition with the influx of EFL assets this season in deepest, most picturesque Gloucestershire.
This is not Rovers’ first bite of the bittersweet cherry of potential professionalism, however. Just last season, having accrued a record 89 points to finish second (well clear of third-placed Braintree with 81 points, yet dramatically trailing comparative megaliths Cheltenham on 101), and in deposing fifth-placed play-off semi-final opponents Dover, they assured themselves of a Wembley showdown with Grimsby Town, where for a brief second-half period, 2-1 down after Marsh-Brown’s 60th-minute effort, they harboured serious extra-time ambitions for a Football League place – only to be denied by a clinical added-time third from the Mariners. The season prior, they had lost their play-off semi-final against eventual play-off victors Bristol Rovers as fifth-placed challengers, a finish itself preceded by three highly commendable consecutive 10th-placed returns under the intoxication of Vince’s peculiarly unifying investment.
Speaking objectively, would this debate be far vaster and more divisive, given rather than Vince, a fellow advocate of sustainable energy from Arabia, China or Russia, was in charge of the relatively miniscule Gloucestershire proposition? Is his character and ethnic background his ultimate advantage in what is currently an amply harmonious working environment that has produced, when ignoring the ploughed finances, astounding results, and are they the personable factors which delivered him to favour amongst the admittedly few locals in what had the definite potential to be a conflict of controversy? Given the high-profile cases of the aforementioned Becchetti, ally Massimo Cellino at Leeds, the Al Hasawi family at Nottingham Forest, Roland Duchatelet at Charlton, Balaji & Venkatesh Rao of Venky’s at Blackburn and Tony Fernandes at Queens Park Rangers, who have been washed with the same brush of disgrace as Vince easily could have, why has the Stroud-based businessman not be targeted in such cases of public condemnation? His actions, objectively, and when translated into an immediately biased argument, appear only equivalent to what these international magnates have performed; creating new club identities by casting aside history, churning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds into running costs each season and placing faith in largely unproven quantities as managers. The latter fact may be disputed, certainly with current manager Mark Cooper’s arrival in 2016, not to mention the success of Vince’s trusted employees Dave Hockaday and Ady Pennock, but he has most certainly enforced an unopposed entity upon the club in the form of a new badge, kit, (planned) ground and technologically advanced, vegan philosophy, and has invested significantly to achieve both this structure and the first-team accomplishment which had evaded them for many years, unrealistic as it was in their former guise as effectively a large village club.
Forest Green had come a long way prior to Vince’s arrival, and with the virtues of his tenure, I am sure will repeat such outstanding performances after his departure, although nothing will come close to equalling his impact. Altering the total public image of the homely, yet irrelevant relegation candidates from the chocolate-box, yet still irrelevant Gloucestershire backwoods, his effect cannot be underestimated in transforming fortunes, while consigning heritage to the archives in the process. Is he a crazed eco-friendly megalomaniac? No. Has he been irresponsible with the club? It could be argued, yet after seven years, here he still stands with the club firmly intact and teetering on the prospect of the EFL. Alternatively, have his actions been blemish-free? Far from it, yet with the power that majority shareholders wield at football clubs, especially those in the non-league ranks, learning curves are fundamental. Rovers have taken into account the flailing disarray of many clubs, have welcomed and benefitted from the input of fans, and are employing Vince’s personal environmental and social policies in accordance – spelling triumph to date.
Securing the future of the club in 2010 with his escalation of involvement to majority shareholder, Vince certainly assured himself of short-term affection amongst support, and as comes with ethically complex and questionable owners, with success all queries were dropped – just survey Sheffield Wednesday’s untarnished Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri or their cross-city rivals United’s similarly disregarded Saudi financier Abdullah bin Musa'ed –, local support and national media intent to fixate on the partially sustainable positives of his reign rather than the shedding of a past guise; black and white striped kits binned, the Barcelona-esque badge cast to eternal reminiscence and an ambition for survival, in financial and sporting senses, ditched for professional aspirations.
Who can blame him? He is trying to do the best by the fans, the club, the vicinity, his company and himself, and such a balancing act is trying. There is a well-supported argument for Forest Green’s to be the most sustainable and ethically vehement of all business models in England’s top five leagues, and for that the club has to be applauded, yet in the context of providing a stylised adaptation of the same unsustainable approach of any other professional outfit; bar AFC Wimbledon, Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth. In many respects akin to Tony Bloom at Brighton and Hove Albion, a self-made billionaire and lifelong Brighton resident, Vince employs a fan-friendly approach with convictions close to his heart, allowing operations to run smoothly in what is primarily a successful footballing club. Realisations of a long-held ambition for the club’s development should come sooner rather than later, having released plans for a Zaha Hadid-designed stadium complex – the £100 million Eco Park to encompass 100 acres of greenbelt land off Junction 13 on the M5, complete with a 10,000 seater wood-forged stadium, grass and synthetic training pitches, multi-purpose community 3G pitches and sports science hubs, alongside a technology business park, nature reserve and public transport hub all of which, naturally, powered by Ecotricity technology – last year, and regardless of whether the first team secure promotion later this month or not, the club is moving forward dramatically. Thanks to Vince’s foresight, sufficient ownership interest should be in place come a relocation or promotion, so that one day he will be able to take a back seat with his aspiration realised.
Sure, play-off victory to avenge the successive seasons of falling at penultimate and final hurdles would be favourable, providing they can see off a Dagenham & Redbridge side determined to regain league status this Sunday, but it is not imperative to Forest Green’s future thanks to Vince’s financing. This may be the utmost testimony to the self-deprecating entrepreneur’s mission in Nailsworth; resources aren’t monstrously fixated on unsustainable surges through the pyramid’s successive tiers, with Vince’s personal desires tempered by those in the club’s interest to create a compromise of environmentally-focused and progressive policies with footballing developments, albeit one that cannot escape the looming presence of beneficial multi-millionaire investment in an area hardly deserving of such success for its historical stature or population. None of what we witness today at Forest Green would exist had it not been for the former New Age traveller, and I very much doubt they would have the capacity as a club to challenge the likes of Dagenham & Redbridge for League Two places.
Say what you like about Rovers. The vital factor to your opinion on Forest Green is perception; are they a well-meaning, environmentally-friendly, niche, ethically defiant club under Vince, tainted by their extortionate ambition and reliance on the funds of a local multi-millionaire, or are they a ruthless proposition of unattractive ambition, doomed to be their downfall, denying sides with greater claim for such big-time shots in a single-minded business pursuit, somehow redeemed by their quirky, vogueish decisions of Vince and co. which undoubtedly challenge the norm of English football? If they eventually achieve a position in league football, will they have truly earned it?
Even after all this analysis, I am honestly no closer to deciding whether Forest Green are the scourge of football, the half-cracked remnants of a shattered system, or the saviours of an industry so entangled in its subservience to fail to realise its ethical impacts. They are a finer proposition than many compiling the EFL’s 92, but of all non-league organisations, they are hardly representative of the values dearly protected by the likes of Lewes, Saffron Walden, Dulwich Hamlet and Dorchester, instead practicing egocentric pageants in the form of unrealistically expensive signings and media-friendly sustainable energy unveilings. They are an unparalleled quantity and the product of a single man’s eco-friendly social ambition; a true rarity in their field. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t their year for EFL promotion, but one day it will arrive, and with it will come even greater cross-examination of their ethics and history.
From being known The Little Club On The Hill amongst likely only 5,000 local inhabitants to being on the very verge of professional football, with more than a little help from a multi-millionaire eco-electricity tycoon along the way, Forest Green will hold a place dear in my heart and an extraordinary position in English footballing history for their newfound ethical manifesto, upon which a possible professional impetus could be brought to fruition. FGR carry a complex internal structure to football – whether they deserve a higher platform upon which to promote this is up for debate, but I do believe that as an outfit, they are healthy for the sport, neither deplorable nor faultless, and will, as football progresses, contribute significantly to its future. They need not attempt to appease universally, and remain an intrinsic example of the equilibrium between emotions that football can throw up; I’ll embrace their being, whether the league system can is another beast entirely.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!