Fanfare for the commoners

From the people's to the pay-per-view game. Football as we knew it is turning into the Old Curiosity Shop; Andrew Longmore sets the scene for a new Premiership season against a Big Brother backdrop
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The Independent Online
IT WAS once said about Graeme Souness that if he was a chocolate biscuit, he would eat himself. Much the same digestive process seems to be afflicting English football. A week dominated by murky revelations about some businessmen with a lot more money than you or I whose vision of the future stretches no further than the on-off button of Europe's television set, included confirmation by the City that the Premiership was officially the wealthiest league in the world and the re-emergence of the old Milk and Coca-Cola Cup as the Worthington Cup, the competition most threatened by the new order bolstered by a drop of harder stuff.

Such is the inter-galactic timescale of football, the World Cup already seems light years away. England travel to Sweden in three weeks for the first qualifying match of their European Championship campaign. On Saturday, it is back to the comforting rhythms of the Premiership. In the absence of Barcelona and Internazionale for the moment, Old Trafford will have to make do with the more prosaic endeavours of Leicester City. The ground will be full to its 55,000 capacity anyway for the unveiling of Jaap Stam, United's prime acquisition in the close season. Leicester might care to stick a few memos on the ankles of the league's playboys, just to remind them of their roots. United's flirtation with the powerbrokers will not endear them to the Premiership hoi polloi.

In the midst of all the smoke and mirrors, the startling point about the latest moves to establish an elite European league is the nakedness of the game in the face of a wealthy self-interested aristocracy. The Football Association has threatened to ban any club from the Premiership which joins an "unsanctioned" league. Players from those rebel clubs would not be available for England. A letter by Graham Kelly to Gerhardt Aigner, general secretary of Uefa, put the FA at the heart of a co-ordinated defence against the imposition of an outlawed super league. The letter suggested a meeting between all the nine countries with potential rebel clubs to discuss ways of countering the threat which could, with the backing of European law, propel football into the sort of market-led anarchy which has ruined boxing. But if some privateers can kidnap Europe's elite, how long before a bigger conglomerate impose a World League, consigning quaint little fixtures like Manchester United v Charlton Athletic to football's Old Curiosity Shop?

"If a European super league comes off, it will attract all the television money and all the best players and kill off the national game," says Roy Hodgson, manager of Blackburn Rovers. "Well, kill off might be a bit strong, but it would seriously diminish the Premiership. If it came off, it would presumably be a compromise of some sort, but in the long run one of the leagues would be doomed. We'll become a nation of armchair supporters."

If fans of the Premiership commoners anticipate the new season with less spring in their step than is usual for the one day of the year on which they can match points with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, few would blame them. When a gifted young player like Patrick Kluivert can reject a prime move to Manchester United - plus an estimated pounds 40,000 a week - on the grounds that he would prefer to live in London, or Pierre van Hooijdonk refuse to return to the City Ground to pick up his weekly pounds 20,000, when a national television channel allots two hours of prime time to a friendly between Internazionale and Liverpool - presumably because some bright spark in the boardroom thought it could be billed as Ronaldo v Michael Owen - the paying customer must be starting to view fantasy and reality as one big blur. But then this is an age where loyalty can be purchased for pounds 45 in small, medium or large at the club shop in rather less time than it takes to master the pronunciation of the club's new centre-forward.

At some point this season, Chelsea will field the first all-foreign XI in the Premiership. In the meantime, Danny Granville has taken his European Cup-Winners' Cup medal north to Leeds, while other home-grown talents like Michael Duberry and Jody Morris wonder how long their ambitions can be thwarted by the signature on a cheque. Doubts about the wisdom of this policy have already been voiced by Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, and Alan Curbishley, the manager of newly promoted Charlton, among others. Screams into the wind until England fail to qualify for the next World Cup.

Yet, for all the uncertainty, there is much to relish in the start of a new Premiership season, even if no one need take the red-and-white ribbons off the Championship trophy. It is hard to look for champions outside Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal, however much the success of unfashionable teams like Lens in France and Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga have lent hope to the smaller fry. "Arsenal and United have the shirts and they're entitled to say they are going to keep them," as Hodgson puts it. "It is up to the rest of us to do something about it."

It is a reflection of how quickly the top clubs have put distance between themselves and the rest that Blackburn, champions three seasons ago, boasting a generous, enthusiastic owner, a handsome ground and solid support in one of the heartlands of football are now struggling to hang on to the coat-tails of the gentry. The loss of Colin Hendry, their centre-half and captain, two weeks before kick-off has hit the club hard, but if the pairing of Chris Sutton and Kevin Davies, a pounds 7m purchase from Southampton, can approach the productivity of the old SAS, Blackburn should not want for goals. They, and Leeds United, another club anxious to upgrade their status, might lend variety to a two- dimensional league. Chelsea's fortunes will be followed with vicarious interest by non-partisans.

Ousted on the grounds that his rotating system of selection did not find favour with his Italians, Ruud Gullit will be interested to note an already bloated Blues squad augmented by the arrivals of Pierluigi Casiraghi and Marcel Desailly, the latter a candidate for what the Americans term MVP (most valuable player) in France's World Cup victory. If Vialli can keep that lot happy, his next stop should be the United Nations not, as most expect, Juventus. The flip side is that Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, will accept nothing less than the title in return for a wages bill worthy of ICI.

The close season has not quite produced the exotic purchases of recent years nor, given the fusion of styles prompted by the influx of foreign players, is France 98 liable to produce tactical innovations. Alex Fer- guson has already said that 4-4-2 will do for him. "What did we learn?" says Hodgson. "We saw good professionals with good attitudes playing football at pace, doing things Alex and myself will want their players to do every week. I think we have a pretty sophisticated level of tactical and technical ability already."

The Premiership will still be peppered with memories of summer. Wim Jonk, as near to an old- fashioned inside-forward as the Premiership is liable to see, will strike a chord with the Wednesday brass band and, by reputation, Olivier Dacourt, signed from Strasbourg for pounds 4m, should be the ideal foil for the more cultured talents of John Collins at Everton. Dieter Hamann, tall and versatile, one of the few successes in Germany's abject World Cup campaign, might prove the shrewdest of Kenny Dalglish's buys. Even the humbler denizens of the league can conjure up a name or two to flypost when the circus comes to town, though none will rival the crowd-pulling attraction of the fresh-faced youth who attracted flattering comparison with Pele a month or so ago. Fulfilling inflated expectations will be the weekly lot of Michael Owen just as surely as living down indiscretion will be a burden for David Beckham on every away day from Old Trafford.

Nine months on, both might view the prospect of regular trips to Milan or Madrid as blessed release. The shape of football into the next millennium might depend on whether the fans share the same worldly view. "The guys trying to push forward a super league are treating the fans as mindless," Hodgson concludes. "There might be people out there who will say: `I don't want to watch Milan v Barcelona, I want to watch my team play'. Perhaps they will watch Barcelona and Barnsley." The People's Game by pay-per- view. It is a thought worth cherishing through the long winter.

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