Summer is usually spent finding ways to fill time before the next football season starts. No such problem this year, of course, with just four weeks between the end of the World Cup and the Football League’s opening fixtures. It may be an effect of the heatwave, but we’ve thought of a few reasons to feel optimistic about 2006-07.
A fair proportion of the prophecies of doom of previous pre-season editorials have thankfully failed to materialise. Mass extinction in the lower leagues in the wake of ITV Digital has so far been held at bay, if only narrowly in many cases. The Football League is still enjoying a mini-boom in attendances, defying the synthetic magnetism of the Premiership; its annual turnover in excess of £300 million makes it the sixth wealthiest domestic league in Europe. This season features the best comeback story in history with the return of Accrington Stanley, the club with the funny name who dropped out of the League two years before Match of the Day began.
While clubs right at the top, the Champions League cabal, continue trying to pull the ladder up behind them, the rest of the top flight is being steadily leavened with ambitious clubs on the rise. Wigan and Reading may not be to everyone’s taste, both benefiting from a home-grown Abramovich effect, but their progress over the next couple of years should at least make for interesting watching. Alongside Wigan, another of last season’s promoted clubs, West Ham, showed that survival in the Premiership doesn’t necessarily involve grimly hanging on to 17th place with a series of grinding defensive performances.
Martin O’Neill has returned to the Premiership, something to look forward to for anybody partial to his spontaneous gymnastics on the touchline and invariably interesting sound bites amid the blanket cliche of the post-match interview. Despite the fashion for bemoaning the foreign influence in our game, a surprisingly high number of British managers will be pointing, shouting and seething their way through the season.
The Chelsea experiment, for the first time, looks like becoming slightly interesting. Pre-season preparations for a surprisingly thinned-down squad were hampered by stories of player unrest, while the distinctly un-Mourinholike signings of Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko hinted that the owner is taking a hand in squad selection – never a good sign at any club, no matter how successful. There’s a meddling sugar daddy on the loose in the Scottish Premier League, too, but at least Vladimir Romanov’s Hearts are providing the first challenge to the Celtic-Rangers duopoly since the 1980s. One level down, Brookes Mileson’s Gretna are not widely popular with Scottish fans but nonetheless are a UEFA Cup participant no one could have predicted even two years ago.
Those of us alienated by a bunch of preening millionaires who hugely overrate their own abilities and achievements may have a moment to enjoy in September, when England take on Andorra in a Euro 2008 qualifier. They have encountered problems before against Europe’s smaller nations, struggling to a pair of 2-0 victories over Liechtenstein in 2003 and conceding a goal in seven seconds to San Marino in 1993. There is a new manager, one moreover who thinks that Terry Venables will be a useful addition to his coaching staff; injuries and suspensions mean the team will be without David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, and probably Joe Cole. Even if Andorra are dispatched, Croatia and Guus Hiddink’s Russia should at least present England with their first marginally interesting qualification campaign for six years.
But though, sadly, the cult of the celebrity footballer lives on, the World Cup also marked the beginning of the end for the most hyped of them all. As age catches up with England’s former captain, there will be fewer Beckham tabloid exclusive photo splashes, fewer stomach-clenchingly banal post-match interviews, less time spent watching him spot up another of those boringly theatrical free-kicks, and fewer adverts. True, his kids will turn up on Child Of An Ex-Celebrity Love Island in a few years, but the less and less prominent Beckham is as a player, the less his “personality” will infuse football coverage. Not long from now we may even reach the point where he is cut adrift from the sport, his name banished from the back pages. Well, we can all dream.
From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month