Elite aim for a happy return

After 12 days' break the Premiership returns today
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The Independent Online
The Premiership? No, don't tell me, the name rings a bell. It'll come to me.

So much has happened, the nation has been so thoroughly and sadly diverted, since the last time England's elite football clubs took to the field, the Premiership has been neglected to the point of forgetfulness. All of a sudden Keith Burkinshaw's words "There used to be a football club over there" has become a jog to the memory as well as a philosphical point.

It has not quite got to the stage on Tyneside where old codgers take young boys to St James' Park and say "In my day they used to play League football," but it would be easy for the Toon Army to think the season is passing them by. Newcastle have the only 100 per cent record in England, but as they have managed to shoe-horn in only two home Premiership matches in the five weeks since the opening day the achievement is devalued somewhat.

"It feels like two months since the season started," Terry McDermott, Newcastle's assistant manager, said. "It's a bit strange to have only played two Premiership games. But we're undefeated, in the pack, and if we could string a few wins together now we'd be right up there with three games in hand."

It sounds good on paper but if any team has been designed to bring reality with them on the coach it is Wimbledon, who are smarting for two reasons. A reward of two points from four matches is one, the other is a controversial match at St James' Park last season when they had a perfectly good equaliser over-ruled. On that occasion their manager Joe Kinnear suggested the baying crowd had as much influence on the officials' decision as football's laws.

Ironically, given the stop-start character to date, the biggest influence today might be fatigue as England's polyglot players reassemble from all parts of the world. Last time international commitments intruded on the programme Newcastle had to do without Faustino Asprilla, who failed to get back from Colombia in time, while Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers dropped their only points of the season.

That could be a coincidence - Chelsea's league of nations walloped Barnsley 6-0 that same weekend - but the theme of tiredness will be a recurring one as player resources are stretched from Barnsley to Barcelona. Chelsea's player-manager, Ruud Gullit, summed up the mood of more than one manager when he desribed the situation as "frustrating".

"When the players come back they can't train properly," he said. "You don't get them back until Thursday and you've got the next game on Saturday. You can't work on anything tactically when you're together for two days." Any Chelsea tactical shortcomings will be exposed at Selhurst Park by Crystal Palace, who, unlike Gullit, have only one Italian to choose from after failing to sign Giuseppe Signori from Lazio.

Five Manchester United players figured in England's win over Moldova on Wednesday and it could have been six if Teddy Sheringham had been fit. The pounds 3.5m striker will also miss today's match at home to West Ham, although Ronny Johnsen should return to a defence that has yet to concede a goal.

"He needs to get a game before we start our Europen campaign," Alex Ferguson, whose side meet Kosice in Slovakia in the Champions' League on Wednesday.

Liverpool might include Oyvind Leonhardsen for his first game since his pounds 3.5m transfer from Wimbledon and if the Norwegian needs any reminding that a big fee might not lead to a big future at Anfield he will need only to look across the field to the Sheffield Wednesday opponents.

Nigel Clough arrived at Liverpool as "the new Kenny Dalglish" and departed the equivalent of Paul Stewart, and it is a measure of his decline since that he cannot now get a first-team place at Manchester City. A loan to Wednesday might in, his new manager David Pleat's words, "give him a chance to remind people of his talent".

Coventry will not have forgotten Kevin Richardson's talents, but will get an instant reminder because he returns to Highfield Road just three days after being sold to Southampton. He left as surplus to requirements, he returns as captain.

Bolton travel to Arsenal aware that this match will put their bright start into proper perspective. "This will be our biggest test to date," their manager, Colin Todd, said. "We have surprised a lot of people and we want to show how good a side we can be."

So do both Barnsley and Aston Villa, who meet at Oakwell with a the whiff of concern in the air. A defeat for either side could define their season but a reverse would be felt particularly by Villa, who meet Bordeaux in the Uefa Cup on Tuesday.

Blackburn, the Premiership leaders, can watch the tiring European efforts with mixed emotions. They would like to be involved, too, but at least their players are not going to get get jaded. They meet Leeds at Ewood Park tomorrow refreshed by the news that Roy Hodgson has won the manager of the month award for August. "He has already generated a renewed air of expectancy," a spokesman for the sponsors, Carling, said.

The player of the month was Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp, who, given his fear of flying, will not want to be accused of generating an air of anything.

More football, pages 28 and 29

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