As a commentary on the state of the Premier League, Manchester City’s routine destruction of Stoke City was as sobering as they come. The Premier League – or, at the very least, the product embellished by Sky
By half-time, City were two goals ahead. Usually such a margin would be cause for grave concern amongst all but the most optimistic of the attendees at the Etihad Stadium. They are, after all, a support raised on a diet of shattered promises and broken dreams; heroic failures and indignity alike. However, the unfathomable riches spent on constructing an impressively mechanistic side which moulds efficiency with flair seemed to have inured a once jittery support of such fears. The understanding was implicit: such was City’s superiority that Sergio Aguero and Adam Johnson’s goals were always going to be enough. The second-half was reduced to a procession. Stoke’s carcass lay stricken to be feasted upon. Had they so desired, Roberto Mancini’s men could have surpassed their tally of six at Old Trafford.
Money, in what Brian Glanville so pithily described as the “Greed is Good League”, does not so much talk as dictate. Never before has a team’s budget – particularly in terms of its wage structure – had such a strong correlation with its final league position. There is, make no mistake, a yawning chasm between the top six and the rest. Signalling the death knell for romance in the English game, the only way to infiltrate that top echelon seems to be to attract the interest of billionaires.
Nevertheless, there has indisputably always been a relationship to some extent between budget and success. Just the manner with which the lesser lights have dealt with this fact has changed. As strong as City were, Stoke were equally abysmal. A trench may as well have been dug along their defensive 18-yard line, for all their intent of defending beyond it. Kenwyne Jones and Ricardo Fuller provided all the use of fans who had won a competition to play amongst their heroes, the only difference being that they looked thoroughly disinterested. They were defeated before the game had even begun.
Oh, for the days when the underdog would play with a little pride. Once upon a time, the visitors would have thrown caution to the wind. A heady mixture of fatalism and optimism, they would stare defeat in the face and refuse to bow to it. In days gone by, Stoke would have acknowledged City’s superiority, but they would never have willingly succumbed to it. With scant regard for the consequences, they would attack. Better to die in a blaze of glory than to slowly contribute to one’s own downfall. “Death,” as Steve Coogan articulated in The Trip, “is but a moment. Cowardice lasts a lifetime.” Such defeatism was quite frankly depressing to witness – all the more galling that it came from a side noted for their ferocity. The accusatory lyric to Alright by Cast came to mind: “You never even tried.”
Stoke will doubtless argue that retaining their Premier League status, and ensuring the cash windfall which comes with it, takes priority. They will blusteringly talk of ‘pragmatism’ and saving their resources for more attainable challenges. How truly depressing a state of affairs. Manchester City were handed the game on a plate. Their wealth, their status, preceded them, making the match a formality. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and the past will inevitably be romanticised, but surely a competitive game of football ought not be too much to ask for? Aside from games against one another, the big clubs have not been involved in enough of them. Manchester City’s steamrolling of Stoke was simply another example.
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