Remember those happy days of last week, when optimism rained supreme and this season was going to be different to the previous nine or ten seasons? Arsenal supporters do. There is, of course, an alternative narrative to just about any set of pre-season pronouncements that can be made, and this year’s Arsenal philosophy, which has increasingly come to look like a social experiment in attempting to win the Premier League through the power of positive thought alone, came undone on Sunday lunchtime thanks to a West Ham United team who were indulging themselves in a bout of prediction-busting themselves. Controlled and patient in their two-nil win at The Emirates Stadium, they proved a lot of us wrong this weekend.
Still, at least Arsenal supporters could console themselves after this less than scintillating start to the season that, if their first team’s performance at the weekend comprised an almost eerie return to type, at least Tottenham Hotspur were managing to do exactly the same thing at Old Trafford against Manchester United. At half-time on Saturday lunchtime, the television screen flashed up a statistic that spoke volumes about the inevitability of supporting this particular club: “Manchester United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur – Shots on target: Manchester United 0-2 Tottenham Hotspur.” At least by full-time, the home side had one chance that might have awoken Hugo Lloris from the possibility of falling asleep, but it’s entirely fitting that Spurs’ first match of the season should have been decided by an own goal from a player who otherwise put in an entirely reasonable ninety minute shift, Kyle Walker. Manchester United, meanwhile, continue to have an air of “work in progress” about them – much as over the course of the previous couple of years, then, and not quite the return on investment that most around Old Trafford are likely to be expecting or hoping for.
It’s not completely implausible that Swansea City were matched with Chelsea as opening weekend opponents as a test to see of the defending champions were paying attention following their understated stroll to the title earlier this year, followed by a languid summer. The wake up call that they received was as loud as that which Arsenal did, though, throwing a lead away twice, before having to settle for a point from the subsequent two-all draw. We shall have to wait and see whether dropping two points on the opening day of the season jolts the Chelsea team to life, but we might also like to ponder whether the further plumpening of the Premier League’s television contract might even have benefited the division’s smaller clubs than its Champions League cast list. Talented players are now signing for clubs the length and breadth of the Premier League. Perhaps – and since it’s such early days to be making such a bold proclamation, just perhaps – there will be fewer “easy” games for the biggest clubs than in previous years.
Across the rest of the Premier League, there was little indicate with what lies ahead with a great deal of confidence. In a timely reminder that all the long-term planning in the world can be thrown off balance by one perfectly formed moment, late goals from Liverpool and Aston Villa derailed the unbeaten home records of Stoke City and Bournemouth at the first hurdle, whilst Leicester City became the first leaders of the Premier League after the Sunderland defence only remembered what sport it was playing thirty-five minutes into the new season, Southampton & Newcastle United cancelled each other out, Watford picked up a useful point at Goodison Park with their extensively remodelled team, and Crystal Palace lived up to at least a little of their pre-season hype with a convincing win at Norwich City. It felt, in all honesty, like a somewhat sluggish start to the Premier League season.
What, though, of the Football League? Well, the other seventy-two clubs likely found their exploits somewhat overshadowed by Channel Five’s atrocious television coverage of their opening weekend, but, a little like Football League Tonight, there were small pockets of the game breaking out in places for those who knew where to look. Only one of those relegated into it from the Premier League at the end of last season – Hull City, against Huddersfield Town, whilst Queens Park Rangers lost and Burnley drew – whilst those amongst us disheartened by the identity of the team at the top of the first Championship table of the season might at least be able to take some solace from imagining Steve Evans’ sad face at ten to five on Saturday afternoon.
In League One, two of the fancied teams for promotion this season, Bradford City and Sheffield United, conceded eight goals between the two of them at the hands of Swindon Town and Gillingham respectively, whilst the other pre-season favourites, Wigan Athletic, didn’t do much better themselves, losing two-nil at Coventry City. Of course, any team playing Wigan this season might get a little more inspiration from having the words of the Wigan chairman David Sharpe this summer printed off and handed out to them in the dressing room before matches this season. No-one likes a braggart, David. There was a little more sportsmanship to be seen at The Keepmoat Stadium, where Bury were allowed to walk the ball into the net to equalise in stoppage time of their draw against Doncaster Rovers after Doncaster took the lead inadvertently, whilst trying to give the ball back to their opposition.
Finally, the basement division. A crowd of almost 17,000 people turned out at Fratton Park for football’s least surprising result of the day, as pre-season promotion favourites swept Dagenham & Redbridge aside by three goals to nil. In what may be considered a show of defiance against a dismal last season, more than 6,000 turned out at Brisbane Road to see Leyton Orient blow off a few cobwebs in beating newly-promoted Barnet by two goals to nil, but another of the promotion favourites, Luton Town, came a little unstuck and needed a somewhat fortuitous injury-time equaliser to secure a point at Accrington Stanley. Still, props to Luton for a terrific away kit. Nothing rolls back the years quite like seeing Luton Town in a white shirt with orange sleeves.
Weekly, from a couple of weeks on, we’ll be publishing a weekly league table for the top division in England with results including Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur taken out of the equation in order to, you know, give the rest of the clubs in the division something to play for beyond mere subsistence. We’ll be calling this the Secondary League, and there will be a prize for the winners at the end of this season (although whether they accept it or not is, of course, far from guaranteed.) We’re not going live with this straight away, because in the olden days no-one used to publish any league tables until three matches had been played.
You can join us this evening for Monday Night Live, a live-blog of this evening’s Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City, along with score updates – possibly, depending on availability – from the Conference South matches between Chelmsford City & Hemel Hempstead Town, St Albans City & Oxford City, and Wealdstone & Concord Rangers. Kick-off at The Hawthorns is at 8.00.
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