Football: United the high priests of a broad church: England face a battle for World Cup qualification, but the domestic season kicks off tomorrow with the game in optimistic mood. Joe Lovejoy, Football Correspondent, looks forward to the new campaign

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The Independent Online
BALMY August, and hope springs eternal. That end-of-season whiff of bread, newly-banked rather than baked, gives way to the heady scent of fresh paint and new-mown grass, turning Football Man all a-tremble. Filthy lucre is sure to drag cynicism back before long (how else are we to regard pampered players who demand loyalty bonuses in the same breath as transfers?) but for now, optimism reigns supreme.

It is a time for accentuating the positive. The England Under-18 team have just won the European Youth Championship, and Lawrie McMenemy's Under-21s secured the prestigious tournament in Toulon, so all is not sackcloth and ashes at international level.

The clubs, too, are coming out of recession, with attendances on the up and up, for several good reasons. The hooligan has been put to flight, facilities are improving, and the top division (Premiership sticks in the craw) is more open and competitive than at any time since Shankly propelled Liverpool along the road to monopoly.

Manchester United, having kept their nerve long enough to win the title, are being tipped to emulate Old Bill's heirs, and dominate for years to come, but fleshing out the fantasy is not going to be easy. United are the best team in the country, but not by the margin some of their admirers would have us believe, and if they do become distracted, and bogged down in Europe, a whole host of eager beavers are capable of taking advantage.

One of the most - probably the most - encouraging developments last season was the sight of so many sides prospering, and challenging for honours, by playing cohesive, attractive football. In company with the champions, Aston Villa, Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur and Queen's Park Rangers all eschewed the biff-bang stuff in favour of a composed passing game, and more power to their, rather than Fash's, elbow.

Football is a broad church, and there will always be room for the long ball, but at long last it would appear to have been put it its place. That place is no longer at the top of the old Second Division it seems, with Newcastle United, West Ham United and Swindon Town all passing their way to promotion, and it is certainly not the international arena - a fact Graham Taylor learned the hard way.

Overshadowing the domestic season, or the first half of it, at least, is the World Cup, and England's increasingly stumblebum attempt to qualify for the finals. Failure to do so would be a colossal blow, in terms of finance, prestige and morale, and the omens, it must be said, are not good.

If they are to claim their place in the sun, England need a mimimum of three points from the next two games, at home to Poland (8 September) and away to the Netherlands (13 October). A tall order, this, for a team with three wins in their last 14 - against the might of Turkey (twice) and San Marino. Taylor will hang on as long as there is still a chance, however theoretical, of qualification, but could easily be gone before the autumn is out.

Newcastle, Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR have more reason than most to wish him well, with good managers at a premium. Recent performances and results insist a change would be for the best, but that is not to say that change is always progressive or beneficial. Commercial television (a pet hate to rival the change strip rip-off) is never happy unless it is messing about with one tradition or another, and would have the Cup Final played on Monday morning if their advertising paymasters so desired.

The power of the one-eyed monster is all pervasive in these money-grabbing times, and so, at the behest of a satellite station with a minuscule audience, the champions miss The Big Kick-off, and begin the defence of their title on Sunday. Arsenal and Tottenham, not to mention their supporters, are also put out by two games in the first three days, and so it goes on.

There are Premier matches on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, at which rate the dreaded cry 'Too much football' could be heard before the opening week is out. Unfortunately, he who pays the piper has the players dancing to the same tune as those ludicrous cheerleaders. Old fashioned? Guilty as charged if that means hankering after the days when The Big Match was just that - and played on a Saturday afternoon.

Still on the soapbox, it was good to see the Football Association scrutinising the role an agent played in the transfer of three Australians: Mark Bosnich (to Aston Villa) and Shaun Murphy and Bob Catlin (to Notts County).

Still, though, the impression persists that they are doing no more than scratch at the surface of a debilitating problem. Agents are a most unsettling influence in the game. It is clearly in their interests to have clients flit from club to club, Mr 10 or 20 per cent profiting nicely from each new signing-on fee.

Eric Hall, who once joked that he would sell his own grandmother if the price was right, is the most notorious of the breed. Hall was the one who had Neil Ruddock claiming loyalty money from Tottenham after he had badgered them into selling him to Liverpool, and an investigation into his activities, and one or two others, would serve as a sign that the FA is serious about ridding the game of these middle men.

Moral considerations apart, spiralling transfer fees and wages are ruinous enough without non-football people lining their Armanis at the sport's expense.

Talk of money, and the desire to wind up on a positive note, brings us back to Manchester United - the richest club of them all. Rich not only in financial terms, but also in a tradition which could be further enhanced in the European Cup. True, they will encounter a problem or two with their non-English 'foreigners', but no more than Rangers had when they did so well last season, and no more than United themselves overcame to win the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1991. Given the rub of the green, the Reds are good enough to go all the way.

Finally, a toast to absent friends. Spare a thought come three o'clock tomorrow for Terry Venables and Steve Coppell, both temporarily disenfranchised, but too good to be out of work for long. The game is the poorer without two such salutary sages.

(Photograph omitted)