Every football season has a narrative arc. In the Premier League, the focus of the drama is usually at the top of the table, with two dominant plot strands: Which team will emerge as League Champions and which teams will end the season in the top four?
Last May, the season came to a particularly dramatic conclusion, with Manchester City only eclipsing Manchester United in the last minutes of its final game. There was also a decent sub-plot, with Tottenham finishing fourth, two places above Chelsea, but missing out on a Champions League place thanks to Chelsea becoming European Champions.
This season, however, there’s precious little drama at the top of the table. United have established a comfortable, seven-point lead ahead of City and few people expect them to be caught in the remaining 16 league games. There’s some uncertainty about who’s going to fill the other two top-four slots, but it looks likely that Chelsea and Tottenham will hang on to their third and fourth spots respectively. Liverpool are nowhere and Arsenal show few signs of reversing their slow, inexorable decline.
No, the action is all at the foot of the table – and, specifically, Queen’s Park Rangers’ relegation battle. Now, admittedly, I’m a QPR season ticket-holder and have been following every twist and turn of this drama with obsessive interest. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the most exciting story in the League. Rangers narrowly avoided relegation last May and started this season so badly they chalked up an unenviable record – the longest start of any club to a Premier League season without a win. What made this particularly humiliating is that manager Mark Hughes – brought in last January to see the team to safety – had persuaded owner Tony Fernandes to spend big money on a host of players, including Djibril Cissé, José Bosingwa, Park Ji-Sung, Junior Hoilett, Samba Diakité, Nedum Onuoha, Ryan Nelsen, Stephane Mbia, Julio Cesar, Esteban Granero, Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson, most of whom either haven’t performed or have picked up injuries. (Nelsen, Cesar, Mbia, Diakité, Onuoha and Granero are the exceptions.) Cissé in particular has been a crashing disappointment.
QPR’s return to the Championship looked to be a near certainty, but Hughes was replaced last month by Harry Redknapp and since then the battle for survival has commenced. Harry has a well-deserved reputation for turning teams’ fortunes around, keeping Portsmouth in the Premier League in the 2003-04 season and taking Tottenham from bottom of the League to an eighth place finish in 2008-09. Since Harry’s been in charge at Loftus Road, the Rs have chalked up their first win of the season (2-1 against Fulham), beaten the European Champions 1-0 and only lost one match (1-3 to Liverpool).
Yesterday saw Rangers enjoying their best day of the season, beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 to secure a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup and announcing the signings of French internationals Loic Remy and Yan M’Vila. (For fans like me, the news that Cissé would be leaving the club at the end of the month was the icing on the cake.) Both should be available for this Saturday’s clash with West Ham.
Survival is by no means a foregone conclusion. The Superhoops are currently languishing at the bottom of the table, five points from safety, and Harry reckons they’ll need to win 24 points from their next 16 games to stay up. To date, he’s only averaged one point a game so that’s a big ask. If Harry pulls it off, it’ll be his biggest achievement to date, confirming his status as the Houdini of the Premier League.
It’ll be an almighty scrap no doubt, with the Rs battling against fellow strugglers Reading, Aston Villa and Wigan. What makes this story particularly compelling is that the last act will be a nail-biter, with QPR facing Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool in the last three games of the season. The first two of those will be at home and I’ll be in the stadium with my four children me, singing the theme to “The Great Escape”. God knows, this isn’t where we want to be, but for sheer, edge-of-the-seat excitement it doesn’t get much better. And imagine the glory if we survive after such a miserable start! For fans and neutrals alike, this is the sort of drama that makes the English Premier League the most exciting league in the world.