YOUSEF HATEM (@yousef_1892) hides in the bushes, Bielsa-style, and takes a sneaky peek at what the fans of rival clubs are saying. Do Spurs, Liverpool and Brighton fans fancy their chances of a Champions’ League place?
Fanzines and podcasts are great. Coming from me – a fanzine writer and podcaster – that view is about as surprising as a cabbie expressing his opposition to a new cycle lane, but it’s true. Want to know what the mood is like at a club? Ask those who live and breathe it.
Two out of five clubs – Man Utd, Newcastle, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Brighton – will qualify for next season’s Champions’ League. Those two don’t need to be particularly good: they just need to be better than the other three. As the saying goes, you don’t need to swim faster than a shark, you just need to be faster than whoever you’re swimming with. The question is not whether Newcastle are good, bad or indifferent – it’s just whether we’re likely to finish ahead of three of the other four teams in that group.
Think of how many times you’ve seen an article in the national press about Newcastle United, or seen some “analysis” on the BBC, and thought, you know what, I don’t think they actually watch us. How else to explain those pundits who would constantly point to Jonjo as a set-piece specialist? It’s not even a criticism – the professionals have no more hours in the day than anyone else, and frankly have limited fucks to give – but, to get a sense of what is really going on, without a bland platitude in sight, you’ve got to ask the fans. Which means their fanzines, and their podcasts.
So how are our top-four rivals feeling about their prospects of finishing in those coveted spots? I’ve had a little sniff around.
Optimism seems in short supply at Spurs. This, from The Fighting Cock (@lovetheshirt) on 17 March (before their damaging draw at Southampton), is pretty typical of the mood: “If it weren’t for Kane or the newfound set-piece expertise, we’d be battling it out with Chelsea for mid-table mediocrity…[Conte’s] time at Tottenham seems fleeting. Like Dido, our tea has gone cold and I’m wondering why I get out of bed to watch this team each weekend…if [Conte] is waiting to see if we secure Champions League football next season, I question his character. His performance and potential shortcomings will play a part in our eventual league position. A place in the table which could be below the likes of Brentford and Brighton.”
Note how our Lillywhite friend doesn’t even mention Newcastle? Are Spurs fans already writing off the notion of finishing above us? The writer, Matthew O’Gorman (@MatthewOGorman2), goes on to suggest that a season off from the Champions’ League might even be a good thing for the club. All in all, not an article that suggests all is well in N17. And this was written BEFORE Conte’s outburst at his players following the points dropped at St Mary’s. Goodness knows how Matthew feels now.
Brighton fans, by contrast, seem understandably upbeat. Here’s Tony Noble (@Noble1844Tony), from the We Are Brighton (@wearebrighton) fan site, writing a couple of weeks ago, again in terms which I’ve seen paraphrased elsewhere: “If Brighton are to make it to Europe, then it is our job to be the 12th man in every game between now and the end of the season…Brighton are starting to play like a top four side and it is largely down to De Zerbi. It is enough to bring a tear to the eye. These players have the belief, the skill, the determination, and the coaching team to continue to improve.”
This reads like something which could have been written by a Newcastle fan in the autumn – after we put four past Villa or five past Brentford: it evokes a tangible positivity in the air, but in its references to “Europe” and its description of Brighton as playing “like” a top four side but without really saying they are in the mix, it’s an article which exists in “whisper it quietly” territory.
Liverpool’s fan media is interesting in that it seems to comment on developments in the context of whether they’re likely to help Liverpool get in the top four – it’s so obvious that everything is geared to that goal, that the kinds of existential questions which are currently energising the NUFC fan base (Are we “ahead of schedule”? Is it a good season if we don’t finish fourth?) are absent. It’s much more matter-of-fact.
Here’s Leanne Prescott (@_lfcleanne) from The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap): “Liverpool have the rare benefit of time on their hands. Practice, preparation and a total reset is needed ahead of a critical month, with the small matter of Manchester City away combined with Chelsea and Arsenal. Talk about tall orders. This side, though, has responded to tall orders. Come April 1, Luis Diaz will be back in contention while the likes of Jordan Henderson and Thiago will have stepped up their respective recoveries from injury and illness. That’ll offer a timely boost with Klopp able to refine and address the glaring issues at bay. Then we all must go again. Liverpool’s top-four hopes depend on it.”
To the extent there is a general consensus, it seems to be that Klopp needs to make the right choices in midfield, and something needs to be done to address parlous away form, but – unlike Spurs’ erratic form this term (which seems to have no cure, besides the sacking of Conte, according to their fan media), Liverpool’s erratic form is being diagnosed, and discussions seem heavily focused on matters on the pitch rather than off it.
I’ll deal very quickly with Man Utd. While there is a sizeable proportion of their fanbase evidently still reeling from the 7-0 defeat at Anfield, nobody seems to be suggesting that Man Utd will finish outside of the top four, even though defeat at St James’ next weekend would put Newcastle ahead of them on goal difference. It appears that the stats lads down at Opta agree, giving Man Utd a 91.8% chance of qualification.
As for the other sides in the mix, Opta have the other probabilities for a top-four finish: Newcastle (39.9%); Liverpool (30.7%); Tottenham (23.9%); Brighton (12.9%). And yet, looking at fan media, you might think that Liverpool are the most confident, with us and Brighton somewhere in the middle, and Spurs bringing up the rear. Of course the articles I’ve cherry-picked here aren’t the full story – if any fanbase knows how many different views can exist among followers of one club, it is ours: we usually cannot agree which way is up, let alone anything else, and there will be similar diversity of thought within the fanbases of our rivals – but I’ve looked at a few and tried to get a sense of where they’re at.
Of course, fans won’t decide who finishes in the Champions’ League spots. Accumulation of points is what matters. Thus Spake Brucey, and on that, if on nowt else, he was right. Still, it’s moderately interesting to know how confident our fellow swimmers feel about their ability to outpace that shark.
Do I think we’ll do it? Goodness knows. 39.9%, or a two in five chance, sounds about right. I’ve also got a funny feeling that when our home game with Brighton is rescheduled (probably for a balmy weeknight in mid-May), there will still be something riding on it for both sides. Brighton. 12.9. Fair to good. Rising slowly.
YOUSEF HATEM @yousef_1892