It’s simply not cricket

Branded bear

Something unusual is happening in English sport. Our team is number one in the world. Eight of the top 15 players in the world are English. The game is riding a wave of positive support and there’s the unusual feeling that affairs are in order from the national governing body down to grass roots level. But that’s enough about cricket. Another fractious and unedifying football season awaits…

Look – I love our national sport but to be honest I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for it with the Premier League kick-off just two days away. I’m sure that’s going to change at 3pm on Saturday, though with England heading for a third straight test victory against mighty India maybe I’ll be tuned into that instead. Hang on, this was meant to be a blog about football, full of enthusiasm and expectation … let’s try again…

The modern game is as much a soap opera as Coronation Street if that’s your thing. There are, despite the lobotomisation of modern professionals, still characters in the game willing to speak their minds or just be plain entertaining. Meanwhile on the pitch, amidst the oft dull and the desperate fare are moments of magic if you are brave enough to hang around until the final whistle. Then there’s the rich football fan subculture with it’s own community and humour. There’s a chance that 22 men kicking a ball around may yet cleanse our souls of the latest toxic FIFA corruption shenanigans. We need some positive news stories on the pitch – football owes us.

Every year I make a few predictions on the season ahead. Last years predictions – well, the less said the better. I might as well have pulled names out of a hat for all of the hopelessly inaccurate predictions I made. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen and take a punt on the season ahead…

Premiership

There has been a lot of money flying around this year with three weeks of the transfer window to go. Money alone can’t buy success and that’s why I expect Alex Ferguson to steer Manchester United to yet another title. City and Chelsea have to somehow keep their overpaid and overpopulated squads happy now that they are limited to 25 players under FA rules. Liverpool, revitalised under King Kenny, will be an interesting proposition following a huge spending binge and eyes will also be on Arsene Wenger as the perennial also-rans of Arsenal face life without Fabregas. Once again there may be more drama at the other end of the table with the likes of newly promoted Norwich and Swansea setting out to finish 4th from bottom.

Champions

  • Manchester United – Some senior pro’s have retired but assuming they land Wesley Sneijder I think the mix will be right for them to finish top again.

Relegated

  • Norwich – I know it’s an easy call but so far they haven’t recruited nearly enough quality players to compete at this level over a season
  • Swansea – same as Norwich, simply not good strong enough as things stand
  • Wigan – only just survived last season since which their squad has weakened. Pretty football alone does not translate to points

Dark horse

  • Stoke – Like Skoda they initially became efficient and have since had the nerve to add some quality. Top eight?
Championship

The days when you assumed clubs relegated from the Premiership would bounce straight back have gone. Relegated clubs tend to bring financial woes with them or underestimate how hard it is to escape from this division. The finances have started to bite many clubs and some that gambled on a failed promotion bid last season will struggle this time around as the purse strings are tightened. Leicester are bucking the trend as manager Sven throws millions at players in a bid to secure a top 2 finish.

As a Derby fan I have to believe we will finish a lot higher than last seasons dismal showing. The squad looks stronger this season and there are certainly more leaders on the pitch but at the time of writing we need a midfield general, tall old-school striker and a left back not called Kilbane if we are to challenge for the play-offs. I’m hoping for top half.

Promoted

  • West Ham – Premiership quality
  • Leicester – Money doesn’t buy you promotion. OK, maybe it does then.
  • Cardiff – Not that far off last season and they have improved the squad since then

Relegated

  • Coventry – Struggling on and off the pitch.
  • Peterborough – They punched above their weight last season. They will need to do it again.
  • Barnsley – A lack of quality may tell.

Dark horse

  • Brighton – on a roll with their new stadium, last seasons promotion and some quality signings.
League 1

This division is a melting pot and a lot of teams will fancy their chances this season. The two Sheffields find themselves in the same division and some attendance records will likely be set when those two meet. Did you know that Nolberto Solano is plying his trade at Hartlepool? There’s a lot to capture the imagination in this division…

Promoted

  • Charlton – Unlucky not to make it last season they should have a little more know-how this season
  • Preston – A strong squad with a spine of experience, they have a fighting chance
  • Huddersfield – Nearly did it last year and still a good bet this year

Relegated

  • Rochdale – Only a hunch but their second season back at this level could be tougher than the first
  • Stevenage – Where are the goals coming from?
  • Tranmere – The startling move of striker Dale Jennings to Bayern Munich may prove to be a body blow
  • Yeovil – They begin with a “Y” so in the event that every game this season is a draw they are doomed

Dark horse

  • Notts County – Last season was about survival but manager “Mad Dog” Martin Allen has brought a new way of thinking to the club that may take them on a run.
League 2

It would be nice if all the talk this season was of football and not finances. One thing’s for sure there will be plenty of neutrals looking out for AFC Wimbledon – a club reborn by purist fans after the MK Dons debacle. Also under the spotlight will be Crawley who spent astronomical money by non-league standards to leap into the football league.

Promoted

  • Bristol Rovers – A big club with a plethora of new signings often fails to produce results but I’m backing them anyway
  • Crewe – You can’t keep Dario Gradi down
  • Oxford – They have a strong defence for this division and I’m backing them to be there or thereabouts
  • Shrewsbury – They play a lot of good football. If they can show some steel they will be well placed for promotion.

Relegated

  • Hereford – I saw them last season and was amazed they survived
  • Barnet – struggled last season and have lost players since. It doesn’t look good for them.

Dark horse

  • AFC Wimbledon – they really aren’t ready for league 1. Not a chance. But wouldn’t it be fun! Football remains the preserve of dreamers…

 

Football’s back. Did it ever go away?

Non-league charm

Footballers. They’re over paid, over rated and over exposed. Even the most die hard fan would probably have more criticism than praise for the modern professional. That said, there is one sacrifice they do make. They don’t get much time away from the game. Best case scenario they finish mid April and return for training early July but some seasons they will lose much of this time negotiating transfers, moving house, etc.

If a clubs is involved in the play-offs that’s another couple of weeks tied to the game. Meanwhile the better players will be turning out for their countries at major competitions like the World Cup every other year leaving them perhaps 2 or 3 weeks before starting over for the next season. There – that’s as much sympathy as they are going to get from me.

And so another season rolls on and it promises (as ever) to be nothing if not entertaining. Here is my potted preview to the forthcoming season…

Premiership
We could be in for a real humdinger of a season with more teams than ever battling for top spot. Chelsea and Man Utd will go toe to toe but the Man City megabucks may finally start to tell. Liverpool under Hodgson will surely improve on last seasons fare while Arsenal are always in with a shout and Spurs – well – let’s not tempt fate. Blackpool will set the Premiership alight, at least off the pitch with Ian Holloway in front of the cameras. Eyes will also be on Mark Hughes at Fulham and Sol Campbell at newly promoted Newcastle. All will become clear.

CHAMPIONS
Chelsea – They were clinical last season where other contenders slipped up. I think this season may be similar.

RELEGATED
Blackpool – The gulf is toooo big. We would all love Holloway’s men to stay up, but really?
Wigan – Can’t keep punching above their weight. This may be the season gravity kicks in.
West Brom – We know they play attractive football but where is the steel they need at this level?

DARK HORSE
Birmingham – I’m not suggesting they will finish in the top four but they could sneak into a European Cup position

Championship
If ever there was an odds-on favourite it has to be Middlesborough with their stellar squad and big money signings. The relegated clubs would normally be expected to challenge for promotion but Hull and Portsmouth have huge financial problems with Portsmouth potentially starting the season with a mere 15 professional players. Locally I see Leicester pushing for a playoff place along with Forest (hiss!) who will probably make plenty of news off the pitch as manager Billy Davies inevitably falls out with his board.

My team Derby finished mid table after an at times precarious flight last season but I believe the club are progressing slowly but surely. Coach Johnny Metgod went to the World Cup with the Dutch as a scout and returned with dreams of a 4-2-3-1 formation. The Rams have adopted this pre-season to good affect and with last seasons massive injury list on the wain I predict a 10th place finish.

PROMOTED
Middlesborough – Cash thrown at an already good side
Burnley – Enough premiership quality to return first time around
Cardiff – Boo! But they have hung onto Micheal Chopra and may continue last seasons ascent

RELEGATED
Scunthorpe – Survived last season due to Hoopers goals but now he has left them.
Watford – They seem to have reacted to last seasons mediocrity by selling lots of players and getting none in.
Hull – OK, this is a punt. I think they may end up going into administration and get docked points. Bear in mind I thought runaway champions Newcastle might slip down last season…

DARK HORSE
QPR – They have spent stacks of money over a number of seasons but ruined it all by changing managers every 10 minutes. They may feature this time purely on the basis of having had some stability for a longer period.

League 1
There will be a few “big” teams shooting it out in League 1 but there is no guarantee of promotion as dirty Leeds know. That said I do expect the likes of Southampton, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday to challenge for the top. Division new boys Notts County will be happy with a mid table position but I think they could be sniffing around the play-off positions with a modicum of luck

PROMOTED
Southampton – I expect them to continue last seasons progress
Charlton – There has been some turnaround in the squad but they still look good in this division
Sheffield Wednesday – Should bounce back to the Championship with the quality of signings they have brought in.

RELEGATED
Dagenham & Redbridge – Promoted last season they may not have the experience to avoid getting sucked into a relegation battle
Tranmere – They just survived last season and not enough has happened since then to turn things around
Colchester – Finished 8th last season but have lost too many good players.

DARK HORSE
Huddersfield – Have recruited plenty of good players close season but can they gel quickly enough?

League 2
With Notts promoted last season Bradford are the team many would look to for automatic promotion but they underachieved last season and I wonder whether they will handle this seasons expectations. Sides newly promoted to the league tend to do very well which will provide encouragement for Oxford and Stevenage. There is a financial story every season and this year it is Southend fighting off HMRC. Administration and a points deduction could open the trap door to non-league football.

PROMOTED
Chesterfield – This good squad may be inspired by their new stadium to a promotion season
Rotherham – With last seasons points penalty behind them they should be there or thereabouts
Gillingham – Some good players at this level and a popular choice for a top place

RELEGATED
Macclesfield – Cash strapped and unable to improve last seasons relegation threatened squad
Southend – Likely to struggle without a possible points penalty should they go into administration

DARK HORSE
Burton Albion – Looked good in their first season and have improved their squad over the summer.