The players started returning for training this morning, and the countdown now begins to the 2013/14 football season. We start our look forward to the froth to follow with overviews of the pieces that, for now at least, lock together to form the English league system – starting at the top, with the Premier League. 

As we reach its halfway point, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that 2013 has been a pretty underwhelming year for the Premier League so far. After the fireworks and frolics of the end of the 2011/12 season, Manchester United cantered to the championship last season with greater ease than most would have considered possible, the Champions League Four all stumbled and stuttered before the semi-finals of that competition and even the scramble to avoid relegation ended up fizzling out before the final day of the season. The real entertainment all came elsewhere, in the form of Bradford City’s run to the League Cup final, Wigan Athletic proving that it is still possible to care about the FA Cup final, even if you don’t support one of the teams in the final (and before the FA start trying to bask in the reflected glory of that match, don’t think we haven’t forgotten about them doing their bit towards running their own competition into the ground by shunting the kick-off time to 5.15), the bizarre antics at both the top and bottom of all three divisions of the Football League, and the thrilling performances of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.

And how is the the Premier League being rewarded for this stultification? With a massive new television deal, of course, but that’s the rules of the market for you. This season, the club that finishes at the bottom of the table will earn as much from television revenues as the club that finished last year at its peak, meaning that there will be even more money to fritter away on young men with questionable haircuts, but will this improve the product at all? The answer to that question is probably that if this season is improved at all, it will most likely be as a result of changes that have happened away from the pitch at the biggest clubs. Manchester United resisted the temptation to replace Alex Ferguson with a scarecrow dressed as Alex Ferguson and opted for David Moyes instead, whilst Manchester City have opted for the relatively unknown in Manuel Pellegrini to replace Roberto Mancini and Chelsea have opted to go back to the future in bringing Jose Mourinho back to Stamford Bridge.

This might give some hope to the clubs that finished below them in last season’s table, but the question of the extent to which a manager can drastically change a team’s performance on the pitch is not necessarily an easy one to answer. We should have a better idea by the time a couple of months’ worth of matches have been played, and in the current hire ’em and fire’ em climate, it is entirely possible that one or more of the above named may be fighting to hang on to their positions by then. Still, though, it makes the pre-season for the coming season more interesting than it has seemed for many years. For once, there is uncertainty. It may only last for as long as the first three matches of the season, but even this would be more than we have otherwise seen in recent years.

The daggers aren’t drawn for Moyes, Pellegrini or Mourinho yet, obviously, and each club has a subtly different set of circumstances that might affect how their new managers’ fortunes play out over the nine months of the coming season. At Old Trafford, Ferguson is likely to be a near-impossible act to follow, and how long the patience of a support that has become completely accustomised to a constant stream of success will last in the event of a less than perfect start is anybody’s guess, although we might anticipate a large number of retweets from the madder end of the broad spectrum that makes up the club’s support if things don’t start without blemish. For Manchester City supporters, last season may have felt like a nine month long hangover, and the manner of Mancini’s departure from the club at the end of last season might mean that tempers also prove to be short at The City of Manchester Stadium with respect to Pellegrini’s arrival at the club.

In contrast to this, Chelsea supporters have the man that they wanted all along, and it is this that leads us towards the initial conclusion that the time might be right for the club to challenge more keenly at the very top of the table than it has over the last couple of years or so. Still, though, a new manager, whoever he may be, is no guarantee of success, but at least Chelsea’s support is better positioned to be right behind the manager than their likely rivals and Mourinho’s track record in the Premier League during his previous spell with the club of two titles and one runners-up in three years seems like a period in the club’s history that most supporters of the club would take in a heartbeat, but still a tiny hint of doubt remains over even this appointment. “Never go back” is a familiar enough refrain in many walks of life, but his skills as a coach should be apparent to anybody that has taken so much as a cursory glance at his record and, if his early press conferences have been anything to go by, he seems a little more reticent to act as a walking headline-manufacturing machine for journalists with no imagination beyond copying and pasting everything that he says than he used to be. For now, at least.

For all of the happy haze that has settled over Stamford Bridge, though, there has also been an air of discontent hanging over the Premier League in general so far this summer. This has ranged from a general form of anger, as could be seen from the recent Spirit of Shankly protest against the cost of ticket prices or Andy Burnham MP’s headline-grabbing speech at last weekend’s Supporters Direct conference, to the more club-specific, who has been most vocally expressed through the incandescent reaction of Newcastle United supporters to the appointment of Joe Kinnear, who was unpopular enough during last spell at the club and isn’t likely to have made himself any more so thanks to his recent comments upon his reappointment, as director of football, which many have interpreted as a precursor to the departure of Alan Pardew from the club. It should be remembered, of course, that Pardew hasn’t necessarily been terribly popular amongst Newcastle supporters himself since his appointment, and it says something for Kinnear’s unpopularity that Pardew may even have earned himself a little sympathy amongst the Newcastle support over Kinnear’s arrival. The four and a half decade long tradition of this club finding a way to shoot itself in the foot at almost every given opportunity shows no sign of abating while Mike Ashley remains in overall control.

There have been calmer waters ahead of the chasing pack behind the table’s top three, though, with the managerial changes that have taken place above them offering hope that one or more might just stumble this season. Arsenal finished last season with a fine run of form and look likely to strengthen this summer, Spurs look – at the time of writing, we’re going to take it as read that you have checked the date of this before reading it – more likely than not to hold onto both Andre Villa Boas and Gareth Bale and have the resources to plug the obvious gaps in their first team squad which cost them so dear in the latter stages of last season, whilst Liverpool made steady progress in the latter part of last season and look better-equipped than they have of challenging for a Champions League place than they have some time, all the more so if they can somehow hold onto Luis Suarez – and we can likely expect more on that saga after the conclusion of the Confederations Cup – and keep him out of mischief for a season. It’s not as close as we might like, and the Premier League remains sufficiently stratified for to be a major surprise if these six clubs didn’t make up at least six of the top adventure come the end of next season, but it’s a start.

As for the rest, well… they are likely to remain the flotsam and jetsam of the division, although the extra money pouring into the league from the new television deals will create some dilemmas for club chairmen. Supporters may well expect clubs to increase their spending in line with this new bounty, but a majority of Premier League clubs remain in debt to a lesser or greater extent and the temptation to use the extra money to pay down some of this debt or at least keep costs under control as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules kick in. With clubs limited to an average loss of £35m per year over the next three years, it is quite possible that tensions will rise if clubs don’t increase their spending, especially in the January transfer window, but which time it should be a little clearer who will be doing what. In the absence of spending through the roof to try and buy mid-table security or survival from the dreaded relegation trapdoor, managers might find their positions becoming even more unstable than they did last season, if such a thing is possible, especially at clubs at which the realities of Financial Fair Play limit quick fixes in terms of dangling shiny new players in front of supporters in the hope of pacifying them.

That panic may set in around the foot of the table will set in as winter turns to spring is a given, but it may be all the more accentuated from now on for the disparity between the revenues of the clubs in the Premier League and those in the Championship, and this may prove to be the biggest fault line of the coming season. The clubs of the Football League have already expressed their extreme displeasure at the size of the parachute payments that relegated clubs will be getting, and this is but one manifestation of the growing gap between the twenty that have and the seventy-two that have not.  With greater income comes a greater responsibility to try and use that money sensibly, and there has been little suggestion in recent years that football clubs are likely to start acting with their heads rather than their hearts in this respect, as the largesse shown by Queens Park Rangers during last year’s January transfer window amply demonstrated.

The level of transfer activity over the coming weeks may give us some indication of whether the clubs of the Premier League can tame the worst of their instincts to throw every penny of their new found wealth (plus an extra couple of shillings on the side) onto the bonfire that is players’ contracts and agents’ fees. For now, all is quiet in the Premier League, and there is a sense of nervousness in the air at the possibility that, after years of stasis, the division might actually be a little different next season.  It might not, of course. Things might just keep rumbling on in the same way in which they have for more than a decade, but there have already been substantial changes at several clubs at a managerial level this summer, and there is every chance that from this state of flux may result in something unexpected happening in the Premier League next season. After the non-event that so much of last season was, the brand could certainly do with a little revitalising.

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