The forthcoming Premier League season will surely be the best yet. This year sees battles for the title and relegation being fought out by at least five teams each way. It’s so refreshing to see three brand new teams in the top flight. Norwich City achieved two promotions in two seasons to get here, as a club of such stature probably does deserve a place in this league. Finally, there’s some representation for football in the east of England again.
Another place which sees Premier League football now is south Wales. Swansea City came effectively from nowhere and beat neighbours Cardiff to the Premiership after years of the bluebirds looking the most likely. Queens Park Rangers are the third new edition, taking the number of London clubs in the Premier League back to five after West Ham’s relegation.
Now, the race for the title. Let’s start with Manchester United. They certainly aren’t as dominant as they used to be. I think a lot of people in England await the day Sir Alex Ferguson retires to see what change it brings. You’d expect to see them there or thereabouts. Teams around them are competing for three champions league places as Man U will no doubt be there, even without Gary Neville and Paul Scholes for the first time in nearly two decades.
Andre Villas-Boas. Who? That was my reaction to the announcement of the new Chelsea FC manager. This will surely either win Chelsea the league or be a total flop. Andre Villas-Boas is 32 years old, and managed a league winning side in Portugal (that’s right, Portugal), a league which the average fan knows two teams. How this is enough to justify challenging for the Champions League is beyond me. Though it could be Roman Abramavich’s best decision yet, we don’t know enough about their new manager.
Surely Arsene Wenger will move on next summer if Arsenal fails to win a trophy. The Arsenal fans are getting almost as bad as the Liverpool fans with the whole “look at our history” argument. I do feel sorry for Wenger though, he’s passionate about his way, the one that used to challenge for and win Premier League titles. He just can’t adapt. If he did go out and spend money then win the league, people would want to know why it took him so long. The Cesc Fabregas transfer story is just getting dire, he wants to go, let him go. I wouldn’t predict a league win for Arsenal, but they always seem to enjoy a phase at the top, we’ll no doubt see this again.
Back to the “look at our history” argument. Liverpool fans, we don’t really want to. What we do want is to see a little more substance. Had Kenny Dalgleish been in charge from the start last year, we would probably have seen that. They are in their best position in a long time to win something, and the fact that Steven Gerrard had to fight for a place in the midfield last year (well, he would have had to, but he was injured) speaks volumes. The partnership of Suarez and Carroll looks formidable. I’d bet fans would like to see them at least play at the new Wembley. That’d be nice, as they’re the last ’big team’ to have not done that. Liverpool owners may want to think seriously about a new stadium. The surroundings of Anfield are the least inviting of any ground I’ve ever been to. What must the likes of Milan and Barcelona fans think when they visit?
Manchester City … well, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does know for certain what to expect. I think a lot will be determined the weekend before if they can beat city rivals United in the community shield and worry the champions. That would be a perfect start but they have got to deliver something this season. What that is, is open to everyone’s interpretation.
People still argue that Chelsea did the same and ’bought’ the Premier League title. The truth is, Chelsea spent nowhere near the amount that City have, and on nowhere near as established players. Chelsea purchased some hidden potential from around the world and then got the special one to mould a team, Manchester City have just splashed out cash for the worlds biggest names and are relying on Roberto Mancini to come up with the goods. If City do win the league, they’d have bought it, not earned it. Then they’ll find themselves not very well respected from other supporters.
Now here in North London, the optimism of Spurs’ future is a little low. I think it is because Harry Redknapp will almost certainly leave next summer for the England job (barring a catastrophic flop of season). No longer in the Champions League, I predict a strong showing in the Europa League (even winning it). A performance like last year’s should do that. League wise, I’m not at all sure. I think Tottenham will be fighting for another Europa League spot and hopefully doing enough to attract new players and a manager for when Redknapp leaves. Last season saw a rumour that David Moyes is the intended replacement, they want him and he wants them. No disrespect to Everton, but they won’t win him anything.
So, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be boring and predict another win for Manchester United. I know, I know! We all want a change. Maybe I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen Andre Villas Boas at work. I think Chelsea will come in second, Liverpool in third and Arsenal in fourth. Man City will do what Tottenham did last year and enjoy an European season, and slip in the league. Spurs and Man City will look for fifth and sixth and Roberto Mancini will look for a new job. Relegation wise – I think the likes of Blackburn, Wigan and Wolves ought to be more worried about the drop than the likes Swansea, Norwich and QPR. Alex McLeish needs to wish upon his lucky stars that Aston Villa survive comfortably.
The Championship will be the hardest to call this year with every team in the league having the potential to do a ’Blackpool’ and surprise everyone. Starting with the bottom, I think it’ll be third time un-lucky for Crystal Palace. Last year I backed them to survive from day one but this year I think they’ll really struggle to stay up. I think they’ll be relegated with Doncaster and Coventry City where the attendance and funds are dropping each week.
This year sees the editions of Brighton & Hove Albion, Peterborough and Southampton. Peterborough don’t look too good, Southampton could make the top half and Brighton are such a team that have the nerve to challenge for promotion. I bet they’ll top the table early on until people figure them out. Coming down from the Premier League are Blackpool, West Ham and Birmingham.
It’s a very difficult prediction. I fear for West Ham. I feel they’ll take the attitude that Middlesbrough and Portsmouth took when they came down. Co-owner David Gold spoke recently, saying they ‘will’ be in the top flight next year. They should be careful not to underestimate the competition. Blackpool, well, I think the year in the Premier League got people into football, and I think relegation will dampen the mood a little and their supporters may lose interest, having to swap trips to Old Trafford with trips to Peterborough. It’s hard to see them going back up.
I think this is an opportunity for a new generation of playoff contenders to emerge. Nottingham Forest may languish in mid-table after sacking Billy Davies. Cardiff City are just becoming an irritation now, as they continue to hog the playoff places year after year knowing they’ll fall short. I think Dave Jones was the man to do it, while Malky McKay is probably not.
I do think that West Ham will go up, and be joined by Leicester City IF their attempts to ‘buy the league’ work out. Reading may struggle, as teams tend to struggle after losing a playoff final. Leeds and Millwall could return with stronger playoff ambitions. Also, Ipswich Town could get a rally going after a strong end to last season under Paul Jewell, who’s brought Premier League players Jay Emanuel-Thomas and David Stockdale to compensate for losing talented Connor Wickham to Sunderland.
For me, it’s West Ham, Leicester and Birmingham to go up and Palace, Coventry and Doncaster to go down, but don’t hold this one against me. Anything could happen in this league.
I think League 1 is harshly treated by outsiders. The standard is almost that of the Championship, which probably explains why promoted teams do so well in the league above. New editions come in the form of Sheffield United, Preston North End and Scunthorpe United, and Chesterfield, Wycombe, Stevenage and Bury being promoted from League 2. With seven new teams each season, League 1 sees the biggest turnover of teams, making it a very different division each year. Scunthorpe are a team who can’t really complain about being there given their infrastructure and following. Preston and Sheffield United will probably consider themselves ‘too big’ for this league and expect to bounce straight back up (very much like Charlton, Southampton, Leeds, Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday all expect to do).
Under Sven Goran Erickson and Sol Campbell, Notts County predicted Premier League football by 2012. Not sure about that anymore especially after finishing 19th last season and being in a relegation battle up until three weeks before the end of the year. Based on last year’s results, you’d expect Oldham and Walsall to be struggling, as well as Tranmere. Though again, this league is different each and every year and is almost as tough to predict as the Championship.
I’m going to predict that this is the season that Charlton Athletic finally get it together, with Chris Powell beginning his first full season with his own squad. I’d favour them for promotion, along with Huddersfield and Bournemouth. Although teams to watch this year include Leyton Orient and Exeter City, who went very under the radar last year, both finished on 70 points, just a single point from the playoffs, and also Colchester United. The Essex team drew 14 games last year and were in the playoffs at Christmas, and only needed to have converted four of those draws into wins to have made the top 6.
One thing I don’t predict is for any of last season’s relegated teams to make an instant return to the Championship. I think Bury and Walsall will go down with Tranmere, who’s luck may finally run out, particularly after selling 20-year-old home grown striker Dale Jennings to Bayen Munich where he’ll never play and could have scored Tranmere’s valuable goals.
League 2 is always a tough league too get excited about. Very rarely does this league make a name for itself (league wise anyway, it’s these teams we look to for upsets in the cup). AFC Wimbledon are back in the football league after securing their sixth promotion in quick succession. They’re joined by Crawley Town who made their names in their FA Cup tie at old Trafford last season and left with nothing to be ashamed of. Both of these teams are very much where they deserve to be, making it difficult to predict their final league places come next summer. I feel that at least one of them could be challenging for the league two playoff places at the end of the season but their progress will be interesting to track.
Swindon Town would naturally be the favourites to go straight back up after a very close relegation battle in the league above last season. They were joined by Dagenham & Redbridge, Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle. It’s hard to hold too much hope out for Dagenham through lack of quality and Plymouth, through lack of money. Torquay United will be hoping to go one better after losing out in the playoff final last season. It’d be nice to see Bradford City on the move as well, a club far too big for the fourth tier of English football.
With three automatic promotion places in this league, I predict a return for Bristol Rovers who will be joined by Shrewsbury. The third spot I reckon will be between Torquay and Accrington Stanley, which was predicted on last season’s league positions. Hereford United and the third North London team Barnet look most likely to drop out of the football league.