Football: Ince is the governing title factor

As a new season dawns, concern over imports and business pressures threaten to upstage events on the field
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The Independent Online
There Is no other day of the year like the one that brings in a new football season. Tradition instructs the sun to shine on an anticipatory August walk to the stadium, whose pitch is pristine green. Last season's promotion still warms; relegation has been softened by summer. That new championship challenge is about to take shape.

Winter's rude realities will seem distant on Saturday but - sorry to interrupt the reverie - come they soon will. It is almost worth checking the bookmakers' odds on exactly when David Mellor will start banging on about declining refereeing standards.

Delight at football's return apart, this has not been an especially auspicious summer for the English game, despite it beginning with a promising performance by the national team in the Tournoi de France. The following week a few Premier League elements, testing the waters, mooted the idea of only two teams being relegated. They should remember that, like their precious share prices, they can still go down as well as up and may one day themselves need the extra opportunity. One hopes that outrage at the proposal is not worn down by its repetition. Besides, the league with the highest standards, Italy's Serie A, relegates four.

Then came the new influx of foreign players, mostly to fashionable London. No xenophobia is intended in noting what a large proportion of playing staffs are taken up by the immigrants - 13 of them at Chelsea, 11 at Arsenal - merely a concern at the dwindling number of players for Glenn Hoddle to choose from.

It is also a reality of the post-Bosman market that the days when clubs recruited only an exceptional trio - though Italy always claimed the very best - are gone. Nowadays, decent squad players can be acquired more cheaply than the English variety and we may have to accept the idea of ordinariness from overseas.

With the odd exception, this year's crop have been largely unexceptional. Mostly, almost as a backlash to tribulations with more maverick Mediterranean talents, there has been a return to the good old Scandinavians, adaptable and professional. And less spectacular.

The market will always determine much, but sooner or later the Premier and Nationwide leagues, and the players' union, the PFA, will need some financial formula for the transfer of English players. Freedom of movement and contract are laudable human rights, as is securing the best deal possible, but when players' jobs are in danger of disappearing and the national team of suffering, sensible, enforceable limits should apply.

Youth policies are beginning to flourish anew, FA schemes being put in place. What use are they, though, if there is eventually no Premiership first-team place for young players? The hope must be that rising standards of coaching development negate the need for anything but the best to be imported. The move being planned for next year that will enable clubs to receive a fee for out-of-contract players up to the age of 23 is a protective step in the right direction.

If there is long-term concern for the English game, then one short-term worry is more pressing; the injury to Alan Shearer that is likely to preclude him from the crucial World Cup qualifying match against Italy in Rome in October. Following a fall in their share price, the suggestion emerged, as Newcastle subsequently tried to hold on to Les Ferdinand, that the club's plc had dictated the pounds 6m sale too good to turn down.

Earlier in the summer, yet another economic study had dropped on this correspondent's desk. "Football is as much an investment opportunity as a source of entertainment," it concluded. "Club management will face increasing scrutiny as pressure to maximise shareholder value persists." How depressing, as Kevin Keegan contemplated earlier this year at Newcastle. One plea for this season (another being for linesmen finally to give the benefit of the doubt to attackers in offside decisions): less obsession with financial figures in the game, most of which are approximations or concoctions anyway. Football now is big business but not as big as it thinks it is.

More controversies will doubtless present themselves over the next 10 months - where is the report of that bungs inquiry? - but enough of football's politics and economics for now. The reason, after all, why most of us will take that anticipatory walk this weekend is that when 11 men take on 11 all other peripheral matters become just that. You can tinker with the rules - something they should do more as physical capacities expand - but for those 90 minutes the contest itself is the simple attraction.

A season that concludes with the World Cup finals often produces high- quality play and entertainment, with players striving that much harder for recognition. The Premiership may have become a tad predictable with its three tiers - championship contenders, middling aspirants and relegation candidates - but within the mini-leagues there remains interest and intrigue. To those with the resources for a title challenge - Manchester United, Newcastle, Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa - can be added a deeper Chelsea. But United, with a combination of Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes potentially compensating for the loss of Eric Cantona, will again be the benchmark.

The Champions' League will undoubtedly preoccupy Alex Ferguson, whose new spectacles threaten to out-Wenger Arsene Wenger for scholarliness, but the domestic title is not yet something he disdains. It will still need to be wrenched from United's grasp. Under Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle begin to look a more pragmatic assembly whose priority is the Premiership rather than Europe. Shearer's initial absence is a huge factor but trophies are won in spring not autumn. It is a question for them of clinging to contention as it was for United two seasons ago when Cantona was suspended.

The capital's cosmopolitan crews could take time to integrate their new components but will surely also contend while Villa, listless last season, should be improved by the addition of Stan Collymore. Dark horses to muscle in among the big six: Roy and his Rovers at Ewood Park. Tottenham could also be better than expected.

It may look open, as it often does until Christmas when two or three begin to pull away. Chief among them should be Liverpool. Last season they could, probably should, have taken the title and the recruitment of Paul Ince, especially, and Karlheinz Riedle may make the difference this time. Ince's presence should add the midfield steel that general consent has deemed them lacking while also calming those just behind him, but David James and his defence will need to define each other's areas of responsibility more clearly.

As well as Riedle, they will also have Oyvind Leonhardsen as the supporting attacking player they have missed while Robbie Fowler has the chance to secure Shearer's place in the national team. The dignified Roy Evans would deserve Liverpool's first title in eight years.

Elsewhere, Barnsley's presence for the first time at the top level, like that of Leicester City in the Uefa Cup, will add an enjoyable dimension. And the Nationwide First Division should be excitingly cut-throat as they strive to dip snouts in Sky's pounds 9m-each-a- season trough, likely to expand when digital TV takes off next year.

Blast, back to money. While the sun shines, at least, and before the hysteria at the annual attempt to subvert the truism that there is only one winner of any trophy, let us enjoy the stadium stroll and events on- field. The game, after all, is the thing.

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