Football: Cards are marked for the people's game: Ian Ridley, football correspondent, argues that change will create a brighter season

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The Independent Online
THE WHINING of the engines on touchdown at Heathrow after the World Cup was all but drowned out by a similar noise welcoming us back from the United States. The sound of football managers reacting to change in the game can reach Concorde levels at times.

Their immediate response to a tournament, which the Premiership should be grateful for heightening anticipation for the season beginning on Saturday, centred not on its refreshing qualities but on plans to apply more strictly the laws of the global game and stiffer punishments in the English game. The supremos, as they confirmed in leaving ashen-fashed a briefing on the changes in London last Monday, fear the inevitable littering of our green and pleasant fields with red and yellow cards and a litany of suspensions.

Forget the freedom from fear that strikers will have as a result of sendings-off for the tackle from behind that takes player and ball; ignore the benefit of the doubt going to attacking players in matters of offside. There is nothing wrong with us that needs fancy measures to produce one extra goal every two games. Anyway, it's a man's game.

Actually it is a people's game, becoming more so with each theme night on BBC2, each television advert, each style magazine that seeks to capture, and capitalise on, the growing view that football is no longer anything to be ashamed of. Rather, now that lessons of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough have been absorbed and Taylored stadiums are less like khazis and more like sitting-rooms, it is acceptable openly to rejoice.

Such are the sums that spectators are now asked to invest, and seem willing to do so - not just through the gate but also in merchandise - that clubs have an even greater duty to cast aside the cynicism of approach that has disguised itself as professionalism and instead embrace the spirit of USA. Otherwise, boom could yet turn to bust, as Fifa, the game's governing body, feared after Italia '90.

Perhaps managers, and consequently players, will. It should all seem less threatening once they think it through, taking into account that their multi-million- pound strikers may spend less time on the treatment table, as sadly are several talents including Chris Waddle this Saturday. Also, the new guidelines may even have helped them sign some of the players who promise to enliven the English scene but who might otherwise have looked more towards France, Spain and Italy. Certainly the signing that most spiced the summer, Jurgen Klinsmann, had no need during the World Cup to employ the self-preservatory manoeuvres of his reputation. Neither was it probably just a deal worth pounds 15,000 a week that made him change his mind about playing in the English slog and clog.

Talking to the Nottingham Forest manager Frank Clark last week offered hope. At first he echoed the fears within the game, believing that the first two months would be confusing and chaotic as referees clamped down, with verbal abuse also on their agenda - one hopes they do not neglect the bane of the modern game, the flying elbow - and linesmen treat more liberally players offside but not deemed to be taking part in the action. Then he paused, and added: 'In the long run, it could be good. It might make for a more attractive game.'

It begs the question of whether football is an attackers' or defenders' game, depending on preference. Is cricket a batsman's or bowler's game? Of course, the fascination of both sports lies in the balance between their two aspects but for too long in football the case has hinged on the defence.

The Premiership had already made more forward strides last season, with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United coming close, under progressive managers in Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, to emulating the pace and grace that Alex Ferguson's Manchester United have brought to the domestic scene, and not only by throwing money into the chase. The new guidelines, seeking to reinforce in others just such a free-flowing spirit, could speed the process. It might in the future attract even bigger names as well as bring more depth to a league in danger of dividing itself ever more markedly into three tiers.

Into the top one fit those able to spend the inflationary wages and transfer fees - pounds 1m the starting price, pounds 2.2m for Vinny Sideways - provided more by the largest supports than by TV money, and the title is all but certain to go to one of the clubs who occupied the top four positions last season.

Ferguson has felt the need only to secure David May as a long-term replacement for Steve Bruce, possessing already one of the best players in the world in Eric Cantona and the potential of young players as squad supplements. United will again be the benchmark for standards. Though their experiences of last year should ensure that they progress further in the European Cup, they are scarcely better off for English players and may find the disruption of switching competitions as well as teams, along with the sheer number of matches, too demanding.

Arsenal will be as bloody-minded as ever, with their expert defence likely to adapt to referees' being forced to be less indulgent - as professionals do with time on the training ground - but until they integrate more invention and goal- scoring support for Ian Wright, from such as the object of their desire Tomas Brolin, they will probably not go the extra mile to the title.

After their brave pursuit last season, Blackburn struck this observer initially as natural successors to United. But a pre-season injury list that sees Alan Shearer struck down by Portuguese seafood and, more worryingly, David Batty out for several months with a broken foot, argues against them improving on last season's bad start which ultimately cost them. In addition, they will need to buy to replace May and there are also reservations about Chris Sutton, and not just because of that record transfer fee, as he faces the same problems of a young county batsman in his second season. He may yet still prove a better central defender, though managers do not spend pounds 5m on players to tuck them away at the back.

Even taking into account Tottenham's capture of Klinsmann and the brilliant Ilie Dumitrescu, it is at Newcastle that the best buys have been made. Kevin Keegan's capture of the unboring Belgian defender Philippe Albert to partner Darren Peacock could give them a solidity to do justice to the attacking variations of Ruel Fox, Lee Clark if he applies himself, Andy Cole and the treasured Peter Beardsley. Close last season, it could be the cigars of the championship this time, especially if a goalkeeper of top quality is signed.

Tottenham have probably eased their way into the higher echelons, with their signings likely to overcome comfortably the six-point handicap, even if they still need a dominant defender, while Liverpool, by reputation if little else apart from Robbie Fowler, remain there. Nottingham Forest could force entry on the back of the potentially sensational Stan Collymore and the intelligent signing of Bryan Roy.

Otherwise, for the second tier, in which a Manchester City free of long-term injuries and an Everton when they finally sign a striker may return themselves, it will be a case of Cup runs and Uefa Cup aspirations. For the third tier, it is more about trying to avoid it all ending in tears. Leicester City are naturally the favourites to lead four down but if they do so, one hopes it is by trying to play with the guile that Julian Joachim posesses rather than the excess of their play-off victory over Derby County.

Indeed, one hopes for just such from all. Of course the English game is physical but to settle merely for that is to insult its potential and paying customers. If the positive elements of the World Cup are drawn on, rather than its negatives dwelt on, this could still be a Premiership season of ballet with balls.

(Photograph omitted)

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