When Ian Wright came to Burnley nine years ago he got out of the taxi and made the following observation. "I've not been in the north like this. I've only seen it on the telly. It's like going back in time."
I know this because during an afternoon in Burnley this summer – which felt to me like 2009 as much as any other part of the country – I bought the excellent "Burnley FC Miscellany" by David Wiseman in the club shop at Turf Moor. If you wanted to blow away any cynicism for the new season, then an hour at Turf Moor was the place to do it – the ground was full of anticipation. There was no Premier League fatigue, just sheer joy at being part of it all.
If we were, as Wright suggested, to go back in time then 50 years ago to the day, Burnley were embarking on their last league championship-winning season. Half a century on, 2009-2010 is another crossroads for the Premier League. At one end is the smallest town ever to be represented in the league – Burnley – and at the other are the big guns who have been bruised by a summer of transfer activity in which most have come off distinctly second-best.
It is rare for one of the big four to have had a summer in which they have traded down. For Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea all to have either lost key players or failed to sign primary targets is unusual. This league has become accustomed to getting what
it wants, to paying more, to bullying its European counterparts and yet the only team throwing their weight about has been Manchester City.
The people who say that the value of the league is diminished by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo – its global appeal, its marketability and all those other things that no one outside boardrooms care about – miss the point. I don't know any Liverpool fans or Spurs fans who care that he has gone. Most supporters do not see the league as one homogenous entity, or an exercise in sports business, they see it, as fans, as a competition.
City make it interesting but their buying has been nothing like the scale of Real Madrid's spree this summer, or even Chelsea in 2003 and 2004. In 2003, Chelsea took players from clubs all over Europe. One year later they appointed the most sought-after manager in the Champions League. City have taken players exclusively from other Premier League clubs. The most remarkable thing is that they have spent around £95m and yet no one is talking about them as champions, just that they might break into the top four.
The season will be interesting for the strangeness of certain situations – Michael Owen playing for United at Anfield, Carlos Tevez playing for City at Old Trafford – rather than the usual fascination we have with a new big name. There is no equivalent of Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Andrei Shevchenko or Fernando Torres arriving for their first big season in the Premier League this time.
I still back United to win it, even without Ronaldo, because I believe they will still score enough goals without him. Chelsea should push them close and I think fifth will still be the height of City's ambition. But having embarrassed myself before on predictions, I can safely say there is one preoccupation that will not change whatever happens in the course of the season.
Nothing will eclipse, for me, the prospect of the World Cup next summer. It will be a fabulous event and England have a chance. Of course there are many supporters who regard England fans with much the same cynicism that most of us reserve for devotees of evangelical churches who take donations by credit card. But who cares what they think? Next summer, the England team might just transform the way we think about English football.
There are lots of arguments for saying that football in this country is in fine shape regardless of the national team. The Premier League has bucked the recession, in fact studies have shown that most British families would sooner forego a holiday than throw in their Sky Sports subscription. Although it is debatable whether that is a cause for celebration.
Yet, a victory for England in South Africa would mean so much more to English football. It would have an effect on the country, and the perception of the game and its leading players, that would be more profound than the annual jousting between our top teams. It would cut through all the banality that surrounds English football: the ephemera of WAGs, Cheshire mansions and flash cars that somehow seem now to be central to it all.
Winning the World Cup would be the ultimate validation that this is a golden age of English football. Not, perhaps, the golden age but at least one of those times we could look back upon and safely say that the direction and organisation of our national game – for its many flaws – was fundamentally right. That as well as attracting some of the best players, by paying them handsomely, we also produced the best players as well.
That is why I will be wincing every time, from January onwards, Wayne Rooney stampedes after a defender who has just dispossessed him of the ball. I will be fretting every time Steven Gerrard rubs his leg and stares balefully at the Liverpool bench. I want Frank Lampard to go easy on himself and let Michael Ballack make some of those forward runs. I want David James to put his Xbox away for the next 11 months.
None of this is meant to diminish the league season. However much some would like to demonise the Premier League it is really only a cipher for the changes in British society: foreign ownership of major institutions, a risky attitude towards taking on debt and a newly-acquired national taste for spending on luxury. As a nation, we have got the league we deserve.
This summer I re-read "All Played Out" the classic inside story of Italia '90, by Pete Davies. The England team was very different then. On their days off they went to the beach and had a few beers. There was little security at their hotel. It was only 20 years ago and yet it feels like a lifetime. But the book gets you in the mood for a World Cup year and it is a reminder that sometimes there are even some things more important than a league season.Reuse content