Football: More of the same, though perhaps not quite as good: Norman Fox on the prospects for the start of the Premier League era

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The Independent Online
NEXT Saturday brings the big kick-off. Well the kick-off anyway. The Premier League introduces itself with a fanfare of discordant notes: no sponsor, its best players lost to the Continent, still lacking in credible leadership and probably about to lose out to the televising of Italian League games. Welcome to the era of the 'Super' League.

Rightly or wrongly, this was to have been the season in which the big clubs finally dragged themselves away from the restrictive claws of the Football League and brought us a streamlined top layer with fewer but better matches full of the finest players who would have time to hone their skills for the sake of their international teams.

Predictably, the whole thing has become a sham. The only change is the name of last season's first division. The rest is a continuing battle for power and money with not much left over for the fans who have lost out all the way round. Progress has brought expensive debenture schemes, increased prices, fixtures made absurdly inconvenient for the sake of television, and the extraordinary sight of clubs still spending millions on the limited talent left in the country.

Who are the players you would cross a few counties to see? Certainly Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and John Barnes; possibly Des Walker and David Platt. Four have gone abroad and the future of Barnes is uncertain. Premier League spectators will not even see the return to Britain of the underestimated Trevor Steven, who has joined Rangers from Marseille. Thankfully, Chris Waddle's unpredictable skills will be enjoyed as a Sheffield Wednesday player but these are his twilight days and there is no way back into the England team despite Graham Taylor's need for such skill.

While the main criticism of the Premier League notion has always been that it will sustain the rich, ironically, for the moment, there is little evidence of that. Nothing that has happened this summer suggests that the leading clubs will become significantly better off by their decision to break away from the Football League, and the only club with an apparently bottomless purse these days is Blackburn Rovers, lately of the second division. They, or at least their rich chairman, finally lured Alan Shearer away from Southampton for pounds 3.6m, an inflated price for a player with meagre international experience.

The tangle over obtaining a backer for the Premier League reached farce last week when the astute and increasingly powerful Peter Robinson, chief executive of Liverpool, pointed out that to accept Bass as the main sponsor would be damaging to his club who are sponsored by another brewery. Several other clubs also sponsored by the brewing industry are in the same position. The Premier League is challenging the past reputation of the Football League for not being able to organise a party in anyone's brewery.

So the term is not approached with a sense of a new beginning. England's poor performances in the European Championship were in a small way the result of a season that was, and will continue to be, too demanding, but mainly they were reflections of a domestic game that in each successive season seems more aggressive, less subtle and ever more willing to rely on the hopeful punt. Fifa's latest efforts to 'improve' the game involve stopping players passing back to the goalkeeper. That will do nothing except cultivate alternative means of being defensive. On the other hand, they have instructed referees to be more strict about dissent and encroachments at free-kicks. About time too, even if it causes stoppages.

If England's World Cup qualification will be a hard struggle, the one for the first Premier League title is also bound to be exhausting, with only Leeds possibly having the depth of ability in their reinforced squad to take an early and decisive lead. Their hope is that David Rocastle will sooner or later take over from Gordon Strachan as the main drive in midfield. That remains to be seen.

Much as it would be refreshing to see, say, Sheffield Wednesday make a serious challenge, it is difficult to envisage this season's championship pattern being much different to the last. In spite of hopes that Dion Dublin will bring more goals, Manchester United, already without Bryan Robson because of yet another injury, are likely to suffer from exactly the same pressures and be just as vulnerable to collapse during the crucial run-in. Arsenal can hardly start this season as badly as they did the last, but apart from the pounds 1.1m (raised by Rocastle's move) they spent on John Jensen from Denmark, the only bank they have broken this summer is the north one, which, while it is being turned into more expense-account accommodation, will be screened by a mural showing the fans who used to stand there. Soon the time will come when the only noise from the spectators will be the clink of cutlery and glasses.

The future of Liverpool is by far the most interesting subject this pre-season. The convivial boot room atmosphere has obviously gone. Graeme Souness seems to have sailed through a storm of opposition and come out even stronger, though quite where his navigation will lead remains to be seen. The selling of Ray Houghton to Aston Villa seemed another curious decision and Spurs must have been delighted to receive pounds 2.3m for Paul Stewart who even in these days of an impoverished England midfield is not considered good enough.

Everything points to a season of difficulties internationally and the domestic game relying even more heavily on sponsors, who may feel the whole Premier League idea is a charade, and on the insulted loyalty of spectators whose number has been increasing in recent seasons but are still treated as if the game can survive without them.

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