Here's to the Shearer era

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The Independent Online
Benvenuti, bemvindo, bienvenu to the wide, wide world of English football. Oh, and welcome. Suddenly the distance between Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Roscoff and Rochdale does not seem so great after all.

Neither was the gap between the home-grown produce and the best that Europe had to offer this summer in Euro 96, the launch pad for another round of soaring interest and spending in the Premiership. With the game on glossy pages, silvery screens and the lips of the literati, it would appear to be in rude, robust health.

Italians now see the Premiership as a financial rival to Serie A, Brazilians and Frenchmen are attracted by a style growing more sophisticated after years of its muscular virtues being almost totally dominant. No longer are solid Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans on a comparatively good earner the main imports.

Rocket-fuelled by the prospect of increasing Sky money - pounds 185m a year from next year - and the marketing of merchandise and sponsorship that trails in its slipstream, the Premiership develops at breakneck pace into a vibrant, colourful and cosmopolitan spectacle attended by more than 20 million people.

Consequently, it can afford pounds 15m for Alan Shearer, and wages of up to pounds 1.5m, as well as, almost routinely now, half that fee and similar salaries for foreign strikers such as Fabrizio Ravanelli. How apposite that satellite television is taking the game out of this world the rest of us, if we are lucky, work in.

But just as Terry Venables managed to mask the flaws of the national team this summer with some intelligent coaching, so the fiscal figures can hide some of the physical deficiencies. It is, after all, only nine months since the limitations of England's then champions, Blackburn Rovers, were so graphically exposed in European competition.

In the post-Bosman absence of restrictions, Manchester United can be expected to fly the flag with more distinction this season, but while the new openness may benefit this country in the short-term, what will be the long-term effect on young players of the international influx? At clubs seeking to clamber from the middle to top tier of the Premiership like Chelsea, Middlesbrough and particularly West Ham, whose youngsters were FA Youth Cup finalists last season, will the high- profile talent brought in from overseas be a positive influence or physical barrier to progress?

It is linked with the the potential short-termism of the money, much of which is being thrown, still, at the competent rather than the exceptional. The need in this country is not for more Croats, but more coaches, well- educated and funded, to verse players in the basics from an early age, and more coherent youth policies at clubs. We await eagerly the FA's new technical director, be it Glenn Hoddle's Monaco mentor Arsene Wenger or not.

In sport where there is money, there will always be an argument as to how it is shared out. The Nationwide League, for example, pointing out its importance to the health and depth of the game, wanted a slice of the satellite action. Duly it has got it, with pounds 25m a season starting this week. But now it argues within itself about how much each division, proclaiming its own importance, should receive.

The threatened players' strike in the Nationwide League is still a distinct possibility, with the PFA insisting on its traditional 10 per cent of the deal. The Premier League sits on the sidelines awaiting the outcome, aware of the precedent it will set for their own situation a year hence. What, too, of the mind-boggling possibilities of pay-per-view and digital TV?

What it does illustrate, yet again, is the need for a coherent structure of administration for the game, involving a streamlined executive of the most talented representatives from all the various governing bodies, rather than the fragmented factions all currently fighting their own corners.

As the chief executive of the PFA, Gordon Taylor, eloquently put it at the launch of the Rothman's Football Yearbook last week, the integrity of the game should be all-consuming, its beauty and its dreams and its glory, with the needs of its paying spectators' - sponsors through the dark days - paramount. And they produced a note of caution last season: gates in the Premiership were down, if only slightly, probably as a reaction to escalating ticket prices. Worth remembering, too, that Football League attendances totalled only two million fewer than the top flight.

But, the game being the most important thing, enough of the sideshows and on with the show. For all the flaws and foibles, it should indeed be another enthralling season to continue the improvement in standards and entertainment seen during the last few years. At 3pm next Saturday, all will feel, in varying degrees, an atmosphere of optimism, that Euro 96 stoked, as the sun will surely beam on the shiny shirt-sleeve order. At the season's conclusion, however, to state a truism that the millions of pounds and the atmosphere may have obscured, it will all yet again come down to one winner of the league and one of the cups. Unless your name is Manchester United, that is.

The Double winners, reinforced by Ronny Johnsen, Karel Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff, will undoubtedly again be formidable, and are bound to challenge for the title once more, unless the Champions' League, which is certain to pre-occupy them, proves too draining.

Though Aston Villa, Everton and Tottenham, notably, and Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest possibly, are likely to have their moments, after Christmas it may well come down to the "Big Three" of United, Newcastle and Liverpool all over again.

The signing of Shearer - the one player in this country worth a double- digit sum of millions (if one is at all) - will convince the North-east that the Tyne tease is over. This correspondent is not so sure, however. The conceding of goals, rather than the scoring of them, was the factor that ultimately undermined their challenge last season.

He is tempted to tip them for the third successive season, if only on the grounds that if they fail again he might get to keep them, but instead goes for the team whose football, at its best, surpassed even United and Newcastle's at times last season. And it is worth those inside the game noting - Liverpool are predominantly English.