You have to work pretty hard to cut through the hype but, I have to say, it does feel pretty good to be back. Yep. Even the Premier League. The weekend saw the first full round of the new season and, whilst it’s probably worth mentioning that it all left this particular observer with more questions than answers, there was enough football of interest over the weekend for me to tentatively be able to consider that the 2007/2008 season might not be as desperately boring and predictable as we all might think it’s going to be.
First up (to get them out of the way, basically), The Massive Two Plus Two. Watching extended highlights of the Chelsea-Birmingham match left me thinking that I’ve seen this Chelsea team before somewhere, and then it hit me. I have seen them before. Chelsea are basically a Pro-Evolution Soccer team with all the players’ power, strength and speed attributes manually adjusted to be as high as possible. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this before, but my admiration of Chelsea has gone up slightly with the knowledge that Jose Mourinho has based his entire tactical system on his players running faster and belting the ball harder than anyone else in the Premier League. It was evident in their goals at Stamford Bridge (all of which came from the “run, run, run, run, pass, THWACK!” tactical school), in Didier Drogba’s attempt to score from the halfway line, and even in Birmingham’s opening goal, which saw Petr Cech hopelessly out of position for Mikael Forssell’s header.
Meanwhile, the rest them had a mixed start. The market price of European goalkeepers jumped by at least 20% after Jens Lehman gifted David Healey his first league goal for Fulham. Sadly, Arsenal spent the rest of the match battering Fulham into submission before eventually winning 2-1. Liverpool beat Aston Villa by the same scoreline at Villa Park (Aston Villa having made an art form of managing to lose this sort of match – step forward Martin Laursen, who belted in a quite magnificent own goal to give Liverpool the lead), and Manchester United… well, Manchester United provided this weekend’s best moment of schadenfreude by failing to overcome a ten-man Reading team at Old Trafford. Oh yes – and Wayne Rooney is injured again. I’ve cleaned my boots in anticipation of an England call-up.
The surprise form teams of the first weekend (and these are surely both doomed to end in some sort of heartbreak) were Manchester City and Newcastle United. City’s win at West Ham was most notable for proving what I’ve always said about Craig Bellamy (ie, that he is a curiously over-rated player), whilst Newcastle’s win at Bolton seemed to confirm that Sammy Lee is emphatically not (as has been stated by the Bolton chairman Phil Gartside) an “even better” manager than Sam Allardyce. Finally (since I’m not even going to think about Spurs’ pathetic capitulation at Sunderland), I should quickly mention the number of empty seats on display at the match between Middlesbrough and Blackburn. Such a lack of faith on the opening day of the season is almost touching.
Now then: how many of you lot ran off to the bookies on Saturday morning and lumped your mortgages on my pre-season predictions in the Football League? None of you, I should hope. My Championship predictions, Wolves and Leicester City, both contrived to lose at home, whilst Scunthorpe United, who I had heartily chosen to be relegated, picked up a well-deserved draw at Charlton Athletic. On that basis, I would like to modify my prediction to state that everybody will beat everybody else in the Championship this season and, for the first time ever, every single team in the division will finish on the same number of points. Apart from Barnsley, who will get no points whatsoever. None at all. In League One, nobody managed to win by more than an odd goal. The result of the weekend in the division was Leyton Orient’s 2-1 win at Southend United (who looked disarmingly tepid without Freddy Eastwood), whilst Leeds United kicked off their life in the lower divisions with 2-1 win at Tranmere Rovers. Leeds sold out their allocation of 2,000 tickets to support Ken Bates and Dennis Wise, in case you were wondering.
Finally, League Two. Did you guess the match that I was alluding to last night, when I mentioned that one result had pleased me more than any other? Award yourself a gold star if you worked out that it was Franchise’s damp squib of a home debut against pre-season relegation favourites, Bury. The crowd of just under 8,000 was probably less than they would have hoped for too (no matter what PR nonsense they come up with). Paul Ince and Milton Keynes. Absolutely made for each other. Elsewhere, there was a crowd of over 13,000 at Valley Parade to see Bradford City draw 1-1 at home against Macclesfield Town (more on the goings on that brought this crowd about later in the week), my (cough) pre-season promotion favourites Lincoln City contrived to lose 4-0 at home to Shrewsbury Town, and young Darren ensured that it wasn’t all cup throwing and grimacing in the Ferguson household, as his surprisingly highly-rated Peterborough United Rochdale 3-0 at London Road. He could give his old man a few lessons on how to see off limited but spirited opposition.