High life after the low spot

Gareth Southgate, the Aston Villa and England player, accentuates the positive of the Premiership
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The Independent Online
Six days and counting. Has there ever been a football season which was more eagerly anticipated? Can Manchester United maintain their recent monopoly of our game? Will Newcastle United be able to put last season's disappointment behind them and capture the prize that their supporters so passionately desire? Throw in the Gullit revolution at Chelsea and the eternal challenges of Liverpool and Arsenal and we have an intriguing prospect ahead of us.

Many people have suggested that Alan Shearer's move to the "Toon Army" has guaranteed them the title. Add his phenomenal talents to a side who went so close last year and there is little need to look any further than St James' Park for this season's champions. At least that is the theory.

In truth, picking out the title winners before the kick-off is a precarious business. Not many pundits would have predicted a double- winning season at Old Trafford last year, following the departures of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis. Few would write Alex Ferguson's men off again. Their success last term while blooding so many talented youngsters must rank among the great sporting achievements. United have built a dynasty the rest of us must strive to emulate.

Newcastle's capture of Shearer confirmed not only that club's allegiance to success, but also the burgeoning status of England's top flight as the premier division across the globe. For years our league had the reputation of being the "toughest in the world", but this was more a reference to the physical demands placed on the players than the quality of the product.

The rest of the world marvelled from afar at the frenetic speed of our game and the commitment of the players, but few showed the inclination actually to venture across the water and sample it first hand. The reality was that the style of English football was not attractive to the top foreign talent and if it was, our clubs were unable to compete financially with the big guns in Europe to secure their signatures.

Like it or loathe it, Sky's involvement with Premier League football has pushed the game in this country on to a new playing field. The positive and in-depth nature of their coverage has helped to enhance the one-time dubious reputation of the game. In turn this has led to huge sponsorship deals for clubs, as big businesses use the opportunity to invest in football's attractive new image. This income, coupled with Sky's own financial support, has given clubs the clout to go and purchase the best.

The question is how long can this go on for. Spiralling transfer fees and wages have raised eyebrows in many quarters. People have suggested that the game cannot cope with the continual increases but the signs are that it can. Television money will continue to increase as more people turn to satellite coverage and the advent of the pay-per-view option becomes inevitable. Imagine the income from coverage of, say, the FA Cup final with every viewer paying pounds 10. Take this on to a global scale, as exists now with boxing, and the potential is there for all to see. When you consider the earning capabilities of the likes of basketball's Shaquille O'Neal (current contract in excess of pounds 10m a year) even the escalation in players' wages seems nominal.

With this sort of money now available, truly world-class players have been tempted to our shores during the last couple of seasons, adding their individual flair and guile to our game. This close season has seen more top quality imports than ever - in my opinion a real bonus for both supporters and players in this country. There can be no agrument that the likes of Ginola, Kinkladze, Juninho et al provided wonderful entertainment for the fans and added an extra dimension to their respective teams. They have boosted sales of tickets and merchandise and proved to be a cult figure for many followers.

But what of the players? There is a valid argument that big- money overseas signings stunt the progress of local talent, that perhaps some of our youngsters will miss out on a career in football as a result. The Professional Footballers' Association is understandably concerned, but there is a positive side.

Imagine being a striker in the youth team at Arsenal and being able to watch Dennis Bergkamp train and play every day. That is an opportunity that many senior players would relish, and it can only enhance the learning of their juniors. It is also great as an opponent to have the opportunity to pit your wits against the best and from this viewpoint I welcome the recent additions to the Premiership.

It would be wonderful if the success of the national team in Euro 96 could provide a springboard for the new season. We saw then how much the game can lift the country. From my position it was fantastic to be involved in the summer's highs, if not so much the lows. I realise there will be repercussions this season after the trauma of my penalty miss but I can do nothing about the past. The vast majority of letters have been tremendously supportive and have helped to inspire me.

With a serious English assault on Europe as well as a World Cup qualifying programme, a thrilling season is in store. And Aston Villa? A couple of places higher than last year would do very nicely.