Football: Supporters look on bright side: Clive White looks forward to the weekend's programme

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S supporters, urged (goaded would be more like it) by the Dutch to 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' when Wednesday evening in Rotterdam was at its gloomiest as far as the visitors were concerned, are expected to do just that this weekend with characteristic stiff upper lips.

Attendances in the Premiership are 16 per cent up on a year ago and officials expect the improvement to be maintained despite the blow to the national game. If it is, the 11 million barrier in the English game's top division will, by the season's end, be broken for the first time since 1980-81. Which would just go to show how parochial the English are.

With heavily supported clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal all at home today, in excess of 250,000 should pass through the Premiership's turnstiles which would put the 3m mark within reach next week.

While the biggest lift for national morale would be for English clubs to acquit themselves creditably - on and off the pitch - in European competition next week, fans will be looking for atonement today for the disappointment of Rotterdam, particularly from the returning international players, never mind how cruel their misfortune.

For some like England's Paul Ince and the Republic of Ireland's Dennis Irwin, both of Manchester United, scarred memories are not their only worry. Another legacy are injuries which could keep both out of the big match at Old Trafford where the Premiership's leading contenders will be looking to a rejuvenated Tottenham, unbeaten in seven games, to put the brake on the runaway champions.

Without the excellent Colin Calderwood at the heart of their defence that could take some doing. David Howells or Stuart Nethercott, 19, will deputise. Their best form of defence could be attack with the exciting England youth player, Nick Barmby, returning for his first senior appearance since shin splints surgery in the summer. The season could start here, too, for Justin Edinburgh, who underwent summer surgery on a knee.

Aston Villa have also been left counting the cost of the midweek internationals and their down-in- the-mouth Irishmen, Steve Staunton and Andy Townsend, are doubtful for the match at West Ham, Staunton the more so. Next Tuesday's Uefa Cup tie against Deportivo La Coruna in Spain is sure to take priority when assessing their fitness.

It will be interesting to see whether Ian Wright, feeling more morose than most in the aftermath of Rotterdam and threatening international retirement, keeps his promise to take out his frustration on Premiership defenders. Tony Coton, returning to the Manchester City goal, will no doubt do his best to frustrate Wright and company. Even so, Arsenal, who frequently show adverse reaction to midweek exertions, ought to be able to do enough to keep pace with United.

Similarly, Leeds, the form team of the Premiership - United apart - may fancy their chances of a sixth consecutive League victory at Ipswich's expense in BSkyB's televised offering tomorrow from Portman Road. The two Garys, McAllister and Speed, will need to be on their mettle to compensate, though, for the absence of Gordon Strachan, out for at least six weeks with a knee ligament injury.

Despondency about the state of the national game will not have been lifted by the news that there is still no room for someone as obviously gifted as Matt Le Tissier in struggling Southampton's squad at Coventry.

We are indebted, therefore, to Alan Smith, the forward-thinking new manager of Crystal Palace, the leading scorers in the First Division, for setting still higher targets. Palace, he said, were playing to only 60 per cent of their potential. He promises that tomorrow at Selhurst Park, in the ITV live match against Wolves, they will really go on the offensive. Pity Graham Turner.