Football: Chelsea threaten the red throne

After the year of the Treble, the Knighthood and the Wedding, it could be time for some blue blood

A SUMMER dominated by sour grapes from the natives; whine from France. The advent of a new League season can't come soon enough, if only to divert us from another week of a soap opera entitled The Anelkas - An Everyday Story Of Avarice. Without the on-field heroics, dramas, and rumpuses that distract us during autumn, winter and spring, this football business appears even more tawdry, viewed in the desert of a close season.

Highbury, through no real fault of its own, has become a microcosm of much that has become undesirable about the game, with young Nicolas vowing never to play for the club again and his English team-mate Stephen Hughes having escaped to revive his career at Craven Cottage. For some, the Marble Halls have all the allure of the walls of Alcatraz.

A constant source of wonder is that those financing Circus Premiership, whether through the turnstiles, BSkyB subscriptions or sponsorship, don't become disillusioned by the spectacle of a sport laundering its dirty replica kits in public.

Most followers will indulge their clubs' spending and their players' wages. Boasting about your new multi-million player is akin to gloating over a new car. "That's right, mate. Just got a second-hand Chris Sutton, got automatic gears, powerful engine and a couple of hundred goals left on the clock." But what they won't excuse is poor value for that outlay, an absence of commitment, spurious sick-notes, time off in rehab, bad- mouthing team-mates, and worst of all demeaning the name of the club. There is no reason why footballers should demonstrate more loyalty than the rest of us who invariably tend to look after number one. It's just that Arsenal's number nine is taking the concept of liberte to extremes. No wonder Wenger concedes disconsolately: "Football does not control the game any more."

The elusive Frenchman has not been the Arsenal manager's only source of disharmony. While Anelka is refusing to strike another ball for Arsenal, there are British players like Hughes who would relish the opportunity to but who struggle to get a kick. In desperation, he has accepted a loan offer from Fulham, once Kevin Keegan assured him that dropping a division would not impede his England chances. Jody Morris is similarly said to be dissatisfied by the regime at Chelsea. Both clubs have been accused of filling their youth academies with foreign youngsters.

Keegan's sympathy is qualified. "You have to believe that if there were good enough English kids around there, Chelsea would not be doing that," he maintains. "I say, there's the challenge for you. You are going to have to be tough and a bit better than maybe you would have four or five years ago, but what's wrong with that? What's wrong with quality? If a lad doesn't get to Chelsea because there are a lot of foreigners, he will get to Fulham, or Wimbledon or QPR, and if he is good enough he will come through. I don't accept it when people say to me `I could have been a footballer, but...' The only thing that's not going to get you there is bad luck with injuries, or because you ain't good enough. The cream will still come through."

Nevertheless, the clear inference is discrimination by foreign managers against British players, with the result that down the line, the quality of the home nation teams will be impaired. The problem is that the evidence, certainly in Hughes' case, does not necessarily support his claim. When Wenger offered him his chances against Dynamo Kiev and Lens in the Champions' League, he failed to advertise his prowess.

Ultimately, a manager's primary instinct, which is first to ensure survival before building success, can be the only real arbiter of talent. The former Highbury defender Jason Crowe, who moved to Portsmouth on a free transfer, may well be correct when he says that "if there was an English manager at Arsenal a lot more of the [British] players who have come through the ranks would have played". Whether Arsenal would have secured a Double followed by a runners-up place last season is another matter.

Somehow, despite the more unsavoury aspects of football's summer bring- and-buy sale, the affinity between club and supporter remains like an umbilical cord, possibly because what occurs both on and off the field between August and June becomes all-consuming. A year ago today, as we surveyed the season ahead, if anybody had prophesied what dramas were to unfold, they would have had more ridicule heaped on them than Nostradamus.

Back in July 1998, plain Mr Alex Ferguson harboured ambitions of securing that elusive Champions' League, even if many of us suspected it could be a challenge too far. Glenn Hoddle, his international coaching stock still high, was about to embark on the surely straightforward task of qualifying for Euro 2000. Roy Hodgson and Blackburn were looking ahead confidently to their sortie into Europe, which was also a target for George Graham's Leeds, where a gifted teenager named Jonathon Woodgate was wondering whether he'd get his first-team opportunity under the then manager. At the FA, chief executive and chairman, Graham Kelly and Keith Wiseman, were scheming to advance England's cause in world football, while in west London a fellow named Kevin Keegan was intent on leading Fulham out of the Nationwide Second Division.

The reality of what happened next explains precisely why, as aficionados look towards the big kick-off, their homes having to be equipped with enough TV reception equipment to launch another moon mission, soothsaying on the national sport is rapidly becoming a futile occupation. It does not stop us. Even the Queen doubts if there can possibly be a season to emulate the last in this year of The Wedding (we speak, of course, of David and Victoria, not her Edward and Sophie), The Knighthood and The Treble.

Boasting the late Sir Matt, Sir Bobby and now Sir Alex, Old Trafford has become the Tintagel of Salford and the tales which have emanated from it rather more fantastic than the Arthurian legend. David Beckham and his lady Victoria have presumably entered into the spirit of it by deciding on thrones for their marriage feast.

The only force you imagine can conspire against Sir Alex and his elite knights of the Premier League table repeating their championship triumph is a huge sense of anti-climax. Certainly, the sense of camaraderie will remain strong. The players are each other's best man. Yet, inherent in the psyche of every other chairman, every manager, every player, is the belief that every dog has his day - United have had so many it's more like Groundhog Day - and one of the pack circling Old Trafford so voraciously may just possess the savage intent to overcome them.

There must be doubts about Arsenal. Their revered rearguard is in a transitional phase and their forward line will lack potency until Anelka is sold and Wenger consoles himself with the two strikers he craves. In the North-east and on Merseyside many will suggest it could be hoorah for Gullit and Houllier. But both require time to assimilate their newcomers. A European place may be the best they can hope for, along with David O'Leary's lively Leeds.

Chelsea, who at times last season appeared the most technically endowed team of the three principal contenders, look the likeliest threat. Gianluca Vialli has been a quick learner in the philosophy of management and, with Chris Sutton and Didier Deschamps installed, the jigsaw might just be complete. But that would be altogether too predictable, wouldn't it?

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