This preview, like all the other previews you are reading, has nothing to say about the League Cup.
Or the FA Cup for that matter.. oh, alright then. It’s over a century since we last had a winner from outside the Football League or Premiership. Non-league football is undergoing something of a renaissance at present. A knockout tournament between Division Two of the Football League, as I think it’s now called? (counts: yes, Division Two) and the Nationwide Conference top division would provide a host of thought-provoking results. When non-league teams play Premiership opposition, it’s difficult to guess the lesser team’s status simply from the ground or from the play. Only by reading the badge could you have been quite sure that they were Manchester United. So, were a non-league side to make it to Cardiff, it would be no more of a shock than when Spurs needed a replay to defeat Sheffield United in 1901.
I’m simply unable to decide between Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal for the title. What’s certain is that it’s going to be a great deal more fun than last year. Arsenal’s young team, fresh from a Champions League Final, will be augmented by the pace and endeavour of Tomas Rosicky, who will more than make up for the loss of Reyes, if not Ashley Cole. They will be better this season, and will be focussing on league success. Liverpool are going to swashbuckle in a major way, but the Pennant/Gerrard/Bellamy/Alonso show will go on in front of a steely rear midfield and defence. Fowler/Crouch must vie for the most crowd-friendly front two since McAvennie/Cottee.
Chelsea’s hat trick of titles, if they manage it, will be the greatest of the five (Huddersfield, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United) simply because of the strength of the opposition. They’ll have beaten the Invincibles, the European Champions, the European Finalists and even Manchester United. But I don’t think it’s what Ballack and Shevchenko are there for. They’re there to take advantage of the weakest field in recent European Cup history to win the trophy for Chelsea before Mourinho goes off for pastures new (I suspect, pastures north, if Manchester United fail to win back the title this year). Their hopes rest on the underperformance of their ambitious rivals, and the flywheel effect from their previous titles.
Only Sheffield United of the new kids on the block have anything to fear from relegation this season. Reading are the epitome of the new kind of top-flight club, a kind of ‘Boro for the west of London. The contrast between their situation and that of Sunderland or Birmingham last year could not be sharper. They will finish their first season slightly short of mid-table, and can aspire to a low top ten finish in two seasons’ time.
Watford are managed by Adrian Boothroyd. That, for me, is the single most interesting situation in the Premiership this year. He was appointed – in highly inauspicious circumstances – to keep Watford up, that is, to keep them in the Coca Cola Championship. Promotion, in those circumstances, is ridiculous, ludicrous. It’s practically satire. It’s like Alcock and Brown exceeding expectation from the rim of Tranquillity Base. What is it about Watford and brilliant young managers? And why isn’t that true of Sheffield Wednesday, or Aston Villa? What is it about Watford and the Premiership, the way they roll up at it every so often like a pinprick band of yellow-suited Milky Bar kids? That there’s that much goodwill, brio, humour and optimism in Watford as you always find on a visit to Vicarage Road surprises – the town itself looks and sounds worse than the M1 – but there it is. Easy survival, and a team to watch every step of the way.
My relegation candidates are Sheffield United, the only team in history to respond to promotion with a dose of the blues, Manchester City, and Charlton Athletic. United need no explanation. City are a team who seem to require a core meltdown every so often. The club just cokes up like an old petrol lawnmower, and nothing but relegation and horror can shake it loose. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s coach. It’s Stuart Pearce this time, and it really isn’t his fault. Did you hear the engine coughing towards the end of last season? As for Charlton, I don’t think it’s Dowie’s fault either. It’s just very hard to take over in those circumstances. Curbishley was Charlton’s Busby or Chapman. Those commentators who thought Curbs had run out of steam and it was time that Charlton “kicked on” to the “next level” have the wrong idea. Charlton are now a well-supported, prosperous, small club who have just had their miracle years. Far from holding them back, Curbishley was holding them up. Theirs will be a West Ham relegation, unfortunate, with a significant points total that would ordinarily do for safety. And they’ll bounce straight back up. But this won’t be a good year.