It seems significant that the dominant emotion of the current summer transfer window is not excitement or ambition, but a kind of generalised, grasping confusion. Mainly, nobody has any real idea about value. English premiums, contract lengths, degrees of risk and reward are all suddenly avenues of fevered debate. It is a peculiarly exciting mess – and one that is developing its own language. This week Harry Redknapp described Luka Modric, who looks increasingly haunted and unhappy, like a frightened cat being forced into a basket, as not just a good player but "a top, top player".
Redknapp isn't alone in identifying this quality. Charlie Adam has talked about the "top, top players" at Liverpool and how he's looking forward to "learning from them", albeit this is the sort of thing you would expect Adam to say given his endearing resemblance to a Dickensian man-child rogue, perhaps a thieving tinker or a chimney sweep who is taught to read by a six-year-old girl and discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Top top players. Top top top top players. This is apparently the way we're going to talk about footballers now. But whose fault is it?
It is tempting to point to a wider overheating, a compounding of absolutes everywhere. It is a top top top top world and football is simply reflecting this. On the other hand it may be easier just to blame Jamie Redknapp. Redknapp popularised the concept of top top through his punditry on Sky Sports, often concluding his entertaining digressions with the phrase "We're talking about top top players, Ruud – top top top players". No doubt this has had a profound influence. Like the kind of people who shout "Murderer!" and "Give Denise's baby back!" in the street at off-duty soap actors, there are those who have perhaps become confused by Redknapp's TV persona and genuinely consider him to be a footballing oracle, the voice of what Pelé once called "the top top game".
It is above all a crisis of diminishing superlatives. The concept of top top sprung out of a superheated Sky-driven Premier League where everything is great pretty much all the time. How do you express excitement or even mild approval in a world where the emotional barometer is continually pitched at a level of damp-eyed superbity?
In theory, this is an open-ended scale. Redknapp might remark in passing: "You look at Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs – these are top top players."
"Yes, Jamie," you'd say. "But you look at Xavi, Iniesta – these are top top top players."
"Lionel Messi, Nandor Hidegkuti, Garrincha, Hot Shot Hamish, the Honourable Alfred Lyttelton – you're talking top top top top top players," Jamie would insist, becoming agitated.
And so it is that fresh mezzanine levels of topness just keep opening up, secret doors, priest holes, tower rooms, private elevators, Jamie ushering you ever upwards though VIP suites of vertiginous approval and into a realm of pure top top top top top. In fact, the issue of footballing classification pre‑dates even the Redknapp Index. The more you look at it, the more confusing it becomes – and so in the current age of rolling analysis the old problem of working out who is and isn't any good at football has become a barking chorus of blanket bafflement. This isn't cricket, where a player's worth can be measured out by an exacting formula. Football is free-form. It is one giant amorphous opinion. Even with things like statistics and goalscoring records and medals with things like "player of the year" inscribed on them, still the debate rages.
No one is safe. Frank Lampard is too fat. John Terry is too slow. Rio Ferdinand is too easily distracted by bright lights, magazines, shoes, gurgling banter-attacks. Steven Gerrard is simply a pair of wild, flailing legs. Stewart Downing is wreathed in a peculiar air of sadness. Peter Crouch is a brilliant satirical spoof of English traditional "strengths". Messi is a cheat, obsessed with temperate weather. Weirdly, the only exception, the only unclouded absolute, is Paul Scholes: if you say he's rubbish you get stabbed in the eye by the Queen.
This instability extends across management, officialdom and punditry. Sir Alex Ferguson makes referees give Manchester United trophies. Arsène Wenger is mad and a proven loser. Fabio Capello is evil. Stuart Pearce hates old people and dogs. Roy Hodgson tortures mice in his kitchen. Sam Allardyce regularly shoplifts penny sweets then just throws them out of his car window on the motorway.
I think Jamie Redknapp is great but there are those who see only a thigh-chafing collage of unrelated think-blurts. Is Graeme Souness really any good, or is he just grimacingly soulful and authentic, like a man in an uplifting advert for boiler repair care plans? Is Alan Hansen wonderfully laconic or does he just never say anything with any content, instead lolling immovably on his sofa cushions, trussed within his satin man-shirt and unspooling his soothing gobbets of TV-Scottish?
Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows anything. Glazed by superlatives, wildly overpriced and buffeted by conflicting tribal denouncements, this is now football's default setting: a gloriously irresolvable confusion of absolutes, and a condition that spreads right through from bottom to top to top top top top.
by Barney Ronay