The Peter Corrigan Column: Ashes backlash: why the clean sheets need holes

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Whereas we cannot be certain that our football will return to the furious, ramshackle, crowd-baying action the world knows and loves, it is fair to assume that the game's shaky start to the season, fanned into a crisis by panicking pundits, is not a portent of doom. It is merely God's way of telling the Premiership to get a bloody grip.

Yet there are so many factors likely to be contributing to the lack of impact the new season is having on our enthusiasm it would be difficult even for wise men to evaluate them accurately.

Most certainly, the one-off wonder of England's Ashes triumph would have had a major effect. Invariably, the football season starts too early. This time they suffered for their arrogant gate-crashing into the summer because they had no hope of matching the sporting magic produced by the cricketers, and too many awkward comparisons could be made between the games and the men playing them.

Neither has the fine weather encouraged thoughts of football, and the downward trend displayed by Premier League crowds last season could have been expected to continue. The bubble of the previous few years has been pricked. Those new-age fans were never going to demonstrate any real staying power when the glitter wore off.

We have also endured a humdrum ration of early games, a rash of European matches that did nothing for the appetite and far too many of them on television. Add to this a greedy seat-pricing policy and staying home becomes tempting. Apathy requires no better accomplice than an empty wallet.

The prevalence of defensive strategies and the lack of goals have also been blamed for the lower attendances. I don't believe it. There hasn't been time for that aspect of the low-key start to sink in yet; but it undoubtedly will.

Statistics show that, before yesterday, fewer goals were being scored in the Premiership than ever before, and it seems that not conceding a goal suddenly occupies a higher place in the priorities of even our most star-spangled teams. The blood-and-thunder battlegrounds are in danger of taking on a sanitised appearance, and this is the most worrying part of the plot so far.

It is ironic that a game whose mass popularity was founded in a strata of society not accustomed to clean sheets should now be dominated by the coveting of them. Our football, its roots planted in decades of grime and mud irrigated by sweat, appears to be heading for a future cooled and controlled by clinical defences.

This trend may disappear as the season progresses, but it does not sit well with our traditions and, at the very least, it is an oddity. So much more so because Chelsea, who quickly established a place at the top of the League with figures of six games, six wins, 12 goals for and none against, seemed as happy with the six clean sheets as they were with any other facet of their opening onslaught.

Before yesterday, Liverpool had played only four games but were strangely comforted by the fact that they, too, had not conceded a goal. The fact that they had scored only one - and that it took them 52 shots to do so - appeared not to strike them as anything to be alarmed about.

After five games Manchester United could not boast a sheet 100 per cent clean, but it was only slightly stained by one goal, giving them an average of 0.20 goals against per game.

Arsenal have been a messy lot in comparison. In their first five games they let in four goals, which left Arsène Wenger's plea for more entertaining football sounding a little hollow, particularly to those who recall Arsenal's muted and miserly contribution to the FA Cup final. The grinding out of 1-0 victories was an Arsenal speciality before the Second World War and for a good while after it, so his was not the safest platform from which to be speaking. Wenger was right to bewail the general absence of carefree and ambitious football, but he has a vested interest in open football because that is what his team thrive on.

What he did not acknowledge was the wisdom of those clubs with Champions' League ambitions this season building and road-testing an efficient defence before reaching the serious stages of that competition.

Not that this has involved Jose Mourinho's Chelsea embarking on a new strategy. Their success last season was founded on the solidity of their defence. Indeed, if Mourinho had been forced to exchange goalkeepers with either Ars-enal or United, the title race would have been a lot closer.

If the top teams had good reason to begin the season cautiously, those destined to be involved in the bottom half of the table had more urgent need of a careful, safety-first start. Some of them may be regretting their extreme caution having seen what West Ham have achieved with brave and spirited optimism, and will adapt their styles as the season unfolds. Their supporters might even have an influence in that.

I like to think of it as a passing phase or, rather, a prodding-it-back-and-forth phase which will soon dissolve into a more recognisable and exciting format.

Nothing, of course, will diminish the fascination of the season more than the resignation that Chelsea have already won the Premiership title. I refuse to believe they cannot be beaten, that somewhere along the way in our treacherous Khyber Pass of a season there won't be an ambush or two laid by unexpected forces. And it will very disappointing if Arsenal, United and Liverpool cannot do them some damage. The Sun newspaper was reduced to the depressing gimmick of offering £10,000 to the first opponent who can score against Chelsea.

The game has ridden these rare-goal rapids before, and occasionally the rules have been changed to try to liven up the proceedings. The offside law was made easier 80 years ago for that reason, and it served its purpose. The introduction of three points for a win helped a more recent attack of constipation, but I am not sure banning pass-backs to the goalkeeper has helped a great deal.

Would we love goals as much if they were easier to score? I doubt it. Let us hope we can trust our attackers to start making holes in the clean sheets.

The debates of the past week have brought strong opinions about the long-term effect of television on our hunger for the game. There seems no doubt that we are seeing too much of it, and when the product is not of high quality that can't be helpful. There is a general acceptance that, over the years, the willy-nilly sprinkling of fixtures over many days has helped to break attendance habits.

If there ever comes a time when we can do an accurate audit of the effect of the Premier League's deal with Sky, football may well be seen to have suffered as a result. There has been an undeniable boost to the game's finances, but most of it seems to have flowed freely into the pockets not only of players and their agents but also the unproductive ranks of club chairmen and various executives.

Their good fortune may have been at the expense of the game's future health, but I doubt if it will change. As with the future Test match coverage, Sky have got sport by the bollocks. Since they have the Government by the same appendages, it would be folly to expect much improvement in that direction.

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