Premier League at 25: New challenges – 2012-2017

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So much had changed in 21 years of the Premier League, yet there had been one constant throughout: Alex Ferguson, who had picked up 12 titles with Manchester United, two Champions Leagues and a knighthood along the way, as well as a head of grey hair and the scalps of most who had dared challenge him.

Few guessed the end was nigh when his Robin van Persie-inspired side won another title at a canter in 2013, although the signs were there if you looked hard enough: the look on the manager’s face when Real Madrid put them out of Europe; a patched-up team of old stagers garlanded by a fine, young Spanish goalkeeper in David de Gea and a Dutch master in Van Persie; a landscape thick with rivals and awash with money.

The transition was smooth – a Scotsman for a Scotsman, the older man endorsing the younger and moving upstairs to the boardroom to keep a paternal eye on it all. Nothing that followed would be.

David Moyes looked happy on the day he arrived and seldom afterwards. He had signed a six-year-contract, unaware that within four he would have been sacked by United and left two other clubs in failure too, haunted both by the man upstairs and a man dressed as the grim reaper when he returned to his old club Everton as blue as he had ever been.

Its third decade left the Premier League morphing again. Wigan, who had fought soccernomics successfully for eight years, went down at last with the FA Cup for company. Only three of the 20 clubs that year were managed by Englishmen; the brightest British talent of his generation, Gareth Bale, proved that European giants could match the lure and lucre at home too. If Roberto Soldado did little to salve the wound for Spurs fans, one of their own would soon emerge to prove that Kane could be just as able.

Little could be big. Bournemouth’s average home crowd of 11,500 mattered less than overly generous owners and a record-breaking television deal, making it possible for comparative tiddlers to land big fish like Nathan Ake for £20m. Social media made fans feel closer to those big names than ever, at least until the rapacious culture commercialised that too, and left Victor Anichebe asking his own account to tweet something that sounded better than it looked.

After a decade of going close in Europe, staying out became the dominant trend. Clubs freed of Champions League responsibilities put together the most impressive title charges, starting with a Liverpool side in 2013-14 who were told by their skipper not to let it slip and then watched him do exactly that.

Steven Gerrard’s men could not repeat their charge, not least because Luis Suarez – 31 league goals that season, including four in one match against Norwich, backed up by partner Daniel Sturridge’s 21 – got his teeth into a far bigger contract at Barcelona. Manager Brendan Rodgers would spend his fee unwisely and follow him out of the door.

Jose Mourinho came back to Chelsea, won another title with John Terry to lift it in his full kit and then showed nothing had changed by blowing up as usual in his third season. Special had been superseded. “By mutual consent” became the emptiest phrase in a shallow era.

Mourinho would soon resurface at United, who mutually consented to the sacking of Moyes’ successor Louis van Gaal two nights after he won them the FA Cup. United were dominant off the field – the largest stadium capacity by 15,000, 65 commercial friends including a global noodle partner, official mattress and pillow partner, Thai-specific motorbike partner and integrated telecommunications partner for Azerbaijan – but ever less inspiring and effective on it.

There was still room for impossible romance. Claudio Ranieri arrived at Leicester on the crest of a slump, having been sacked as Greece manager after they lost to the Faroe Islands. Perhaps inspired by that underdog tale, he pulled off arguably the greatest upset in sporting history, overturning odds of 5,000-1 to take the Foxes from fighting for scraps to the head of the table.

Whether it was down to Buddhist monks, the reburial of Richard III in Leicester cathedral or a one-off season of wonder from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, all of football swooned. When Ranieri was sacked nine months later, his team in the Champions League knockout stages but closer still to the bottom three, football sighed and got on with speculating about his successor.

For the first time, dark clouds gathered on the horizon. The fate of England’s national side, supposedly one of the key drivers behind the formation of the Premier League in 1992, nosedived still further with defeat by Iceland and a managerial reign from Sam Allardyce that lasted 67 days and one match.

English kids struggled to get in clubs’ first XIs and clubs struggled to get kids on the street into their shirts, Madrid and Barcelona becoming staples in every park and playground. The age of spectators inside the ground climbed and the number watching live on television plateaued and then dropped, illegal streams and a certain saturation taking its toll.

The response was an arms race: Pep Guardiola to Manchester City; Antonio Conte to great effect at Chelsea. United gambled the house and then spent and spent again. Arsenal decided to stick not twist and gave Arsene Wenger one more last hurrah. Jurgen Klopp fell in love with Liverpool and Liverpool bounced that love back.

Twenty-five years of money, of mayhem, of fabulous players and unprecedented skill, of scandal and debt and outrageous riches to those whose luck held. And no-one quite sure what might come next, only a jolt at the realisation that so much had happened, and so many years flown past.

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