Kick-off for the 'real season'

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The Independent Football

The country's best-attended football competition kicks off this afternoon with the intention of maintaining its popularity despite losing its biggest crowd pullers to the Premiership.

The country's best-attended football competition kicks off this afternoon with the intention of maintaining its popularity despite losing its biggest crowd pullers to the Premiership.

While the Nationwide League has lost Manchester City (and Maine Road's huge home attendances) it is still certain to attract more spectators this season than the top flight. The Nationwide's three divisions can expect more than 13.5 million people through the turnstiles, with around 60 per cent coming from the First Division alone. The Premiership will attract around 12 million.

The Nationwide has 72 teams to the Premiership's 20 and arguably has the genuine claim to being the game of the masses. Its attendances have almost doubled, from 7.5 million to 13.6 million in the 13 years since the play-offs were introduced and, unlike in the Premiership, there is capacity for significant growth.

The play-off finals have arguably usurped the FA Cup final as the most important, best-rewarded and passionate fixtures in the domestic calendar. And the Nationwide League is demonstrably more competitive and open than its richer, flashier, brother.

Since the league structure revamp in 1992-93, only three different clubs (Manchester United, Blackburn and Arsenal) have won the Premiership and only another two (Aston Villa and Newcastle) have ever had a top-two finish. Despite the movement of the so-called yo-yo clubs, the First Division has still seen seven different champions in eight years, and a further six different clubs have finished second.

As it stands this morning, the First Division comprises 11 clubs that have been good enough to play at least a season each in the Premiership during the last seven years in addition to the likes of Wolves, Birmingham, West Bromwich, Fulham and Huddersfield, none of whom are without top-level pedigree.

By quirk of the fixture calendar, the four First Division clubs with the most post-war experience in England's highest division begin their attempts to return there against each other this weekend.

Nottingham Forest (35 seasons in the top flight since 1946) host West Bromwich (34) this afternoon, while Wolves (34) host Sheffield Wednesday (32) tomorrow. It says much about the competitiveness of the division that, of the four, only Wednesday merit a place among most bookmakers' top eight favourites for promotion. Blackburn, Fulham, Birmingham, Barnsley, Bolton, Watford and Wimbledon fill out the other places. For Garry Flitcroft, who is the captain of the strong title favourites, Blackburn, this season should mark an about-turn in his side's fortunes.

"I've had a couple of frustrating years but things are looking good not just for me but the club as a whole," he said yesterday as he prepared for Rovers' curtain-raiser against Crystal Palace. "You don't stand a chance of winning anything unless you have the right sort of spirit in the camp, but Graeme Souness has brought a real togetherness to the place."

Flitcroft is certain to start against Palace, unlike Blackburn's new striker, Craig Hignett, who is struggling with an Achilles injury. The former Barnsley man's absence may allow Nathan Blake to partner Matt Jansen in attack.

If the referees in today's matches look strange then blame an embarrassing muddle between the Football League and new kit suppliers Nike. The League referees were supplied with oversize shorts for the new season. "We placed an order in UK sizings and we received the kit in US sizings," admitted the League's Referees' Officer, Jim Ashworth. Officials have been told to opt for last season's Umbro equipment if necessary.