Gravy train on a journey of scrutiny

Nick Townsend, football correspondent, says the game's mercenaries and millionaires bear a heavy responsibility
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Even an alien from one of those newly discovered planets many light-years away would sense that something is in the air. When Sir Alex Ferguson starts to grumble about referees in view of the new 10-yard rule; when Sol Campbell issues his first whinge about Spurs' lack of ambition; and when the first multi-thousand a week player kisses the club crest on his shirt (even though it may be the third he's had in two years) to declare his undying "loyalty", it is clear that the Premiership season is upon us.

Even an alien from one of those newly discovered planets many light-years away would sense that something is in the air. When Sir Alex Ferguson starts to grumble about referees in view of the new 10-yard rule; when Sol Campbell issues his first whinge about Spurs' lack of ambition; and when the first multi-thousand a week player kisses the club crest on his shirt (even though it may be the third he's had in two years) to declare his undying "loyalty", it is clear that the Premiership season is upon us.

It starts next weekend with new laws, renewed FA warnings over discipline, and wads of new money in players' pockets. It should have Gordon Taylor, chairman of the players' union, declaring, Ã la Macmillan, "Most of our people have never had it so good", even though he would prefer "our people" to contain a higher percentage of the local population.

After a summer of frenetic negotiation, when agents have sounded increasingly like the audience in that banal Bruce Forsyth TV game show where they yell "Higher, higher..." player power has never been stronger. In their own version of the programme, the players are playing with aces, not hearts. The impact of transfers and new contracts in Italy and Spain - epitomised by Rivaldo's £85,000 a week to stay at Barcelona - and the effects of Bosman have contributed to wages in excess of £2m a year becoming commonplace. Indeed, it is reported that Michael Owen is seeking nearly £4m a year in his next Liverpool contract.

But what do we make of the creaking 30-year-old Croatian Alen Boksic being paid more than £3m by Middlesbrough? And that for a striker who has reached double figures in only three seasons out of 14.In some cases the price of procuring excellence is, relatively speaking, more breathtaking - those church mice of the Premiership, Bradford City, have committed themselves to delivering a wage packet of £30,000 a week to Benito Carbone.

Can we blame the players for exploiting such a demand? Who can suggest that footballers are not entitled to purchase first-class tickets on a gravy train so packed with travellers they are having to send out for new supplies of Bisto? Yet that power in the market means such performers assume a heavy responsibility, both as footballers and as role models.

It possibly went unnoticed this week that in France a survey has revealed that the country's most popular person is a footballer. True, it is Zinedine Zidane, who happens to be arguably the world's finest player. But in a country where two thirds of the population also believe there are too many Arabs, such an acknowledgment for a son of Algerian immigrants is remarkable.

It requires a colourful imagination to see such an occurrence being repeated in Britain where, when levels of contempt are measured, the professional footballer is on a par with lawyers, politicians, journalists and estate agents. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the foreign imports are talented but temperamental mercenaries; the home players rather less gifted than they believe they are - particularly in light of Euro 2000 - and equally grasping.

That may be simplistic stereotyping; nevertheless, the Premiership as a whole has much to prove to a sceptical nation. And not just in terms of the quality provided for the faithful, many of whom believe they are being fleeced.

The players' sense of discipline, too, will come under the closest scrutiny. The 10-yard rule, under which a referee can caution a player who disputes a free-kick and then - rugby union style - move the kick 10 yards nearer to goal, will no doubt be much-criticised, despite proving successful in other leagues.

Ferguson has already claimed there will be inconsistencies. Maybe, but that doesn't make it wrong. Anyway, his team will be so far clear of their rivals by Christmas that the odd refereeing aberration should not trouble him, should it? By rights, a team who, apart from the goalkeepers, have barely seen transition in two years, should be vulnerable. Absence of competition and a certain staleness might elsewhere have taken their toll. Yet you still hesitate to question Manchester United's right to starting the season as odd-on favourites.

Under the remarkable Ferguson, the champions are seemingly capable of raising themselves sufficiently to defy one new challenge after another, both domestically and in Europe. This season, of course, apart from the distraction of the Champions' League, there will be no escape from the FA Cup, but a squad boasting the Footballer ofthe Year Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke should be equipped to maintain the progress of the last two seasons.

There are question marks; in particular over whether Beckham is in a settled state of mind when he is so coveted abroad, when he and his manager have been at variance, and when his wife Victoria's recent reflections about him being "an animal" in bed and his apparent delight at being a gay icon can only increase the spectators' venom. While the England midfielder at least came through Euro 2000 unscathed, together with Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, were not so fortunate. Even if the latter is not suffering from a dearth of confidence, the probable reaction of rival supporters will make it a difficult introduction to the campaign.

Last season, this observer suggested that United's invincibility might be harmed by the absence of Peter Schmeichel. In fact, although they did indeed feel the loss of the great Dane, their outfield players more than compensated. Ferguson will be hoping that the position is now in capable hands, those of the £7.8m Fabien Barthez, although the Frenchman still has to convince all the doubters.

Clues on that issue, and many others, will be garnered at Wembley today where United meet Chelsea in the Charity Shield. Last season, many of us expected the Londoners to pose a potent threat. Yet, although Gianluca Vialli's side performed with some distinction in the Champions' League, they were a grave disappointment in the Premiership. Little could we have predicted quite how impoverished their strikers would be, with only Tore Andre Flo's 19 an acceptable return. Confidence is soaring at Stamford Bridge in the belief that with the near £20macquisitions of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen, Chelsea now possess the striking prowess to claim their first title since 1955. They may also benefit from missing the Champions' League. They are taken - but with no great conviction - to provide the severest examination for United in Ferguson's penultimate season.

However, Liverpool, who have also strengthened an already powerful squad with Nick Barmby, Gary McAllister, Markus Babbel and Bernard Diomede, are the side many would anticipate to test United's resolve most seriously. Gérard Houllier has laid out nearly £50m while in charge, but has done soastutely. Much, however, depends on the return to fitness of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen's avoidance of injury.

Leeds maintained a championship interest last season until Uefa Cup commitments wearied them. This time, they start with several key players injured and possibly do not have enough strength in depth. Arsenal, with the wily Arsÿne Wenger in control, will continue to provide an irritation to Manchester United and Ferguson, in every sense, but what will be the true cost of the loss of Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit? Lauren and Robert Pires are unlikely to provide adequate compensation and you feel that the Gunners are possibly two players short of a championship-winning team.

Of the remainder, there are no obvious candidates, although Newcastle could be contenders for a European place. For too many the priority will be accumulating early points, not to scale the League but to avoid relegation. Outside the promoted teams, Coventry could be vulnerable following the departure of Robbie Keane, Noel Whelan and the influential McAllister, while the new Leicester manager Peter Taylor will find it a daunting task following Martin O'Neill.

So, a radical and possibly controversial new law and a battalion of new players; somehow you can't avoid the impression that this could be a season replete with high drama and a veritable minestrone of contrasting skills. If it is anything less, the multi-millionaires of the modern game will have much to answer for.

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