Hot spots and the psychology of dissent

Blackburn's England full-back kicks off a new series as his team prepare for tomorrow's visit of Manchester United; Graeme Le Saux traces the pain of training and his joy at the start of the season
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The Independent Online
THIS year I experienced my most uncomfortable close season since I began playing football professionally in 1987. I wanted the Premiership to begin as quickly as possible so I could get some relief from the endless hours of running, weight circuits and fitness programmes all completed from mid-July to mid- August in one of the hottest summers this century.

But we all know that we have to do it. Such preparation is valuable and necessary -along with the personal discipline of diet - as the stakes rise and clubs seek still greater rewards. They are part of our job description.

I only wish that my careers adviser had explained all this to me after I had told her about my ambitions instead of just smiling and telling me to choose some other, possibly more realistic, direction such as banking. With all the money that has recently flooded into professional football, banking is far more relevant than I or she could have imagined.

Returning to Blackburn, I was well aware of the changes that the club had undergone over the summer. Our most significant signing was a "free", Ray Harford, the assistant, taking over as manager after Mr Dalglish became Director of Football.

Ray was quick to stress that things would be run in similar fashion to previous years, something with which all the players felt comfortable after winning the championship last season.

Indeed, the most complicated issue that arose from this change was the confusion of how to address Ray and the artist formerly known as Boss. The only solution available is a tough one: we have to avoid names or job titles and make sure that we make eye contact before we talk to either.

Opening day. Our home fixture against Queen's Park Rangers started the season in true Premiership fashion: it was frenetic, high-paced and physical. Nothing seems to prepare me for the first match of the season. The atmosphere and the desire are somehow even more intense.

Fortunately an early penalty by Alan Shearer, whose fame is such that a chip shop opposite Ewood Park is now selling the "Alan Shearer" chicken and bean pie - he once revealed on Match of the Day that it was his favourite pre-match meal. His goal gave us a platform to relax and play some good football. But I managed to squander an opportunity to give us a two-goal lead. I played good passes to SAS - Sutton and Shearer - but I slid the ball wide when I should have driven. It would have been a real picture goal. The miss is still on my mind and not only for selfish reasons. My sister has me in her Fantasy Football team -now that's pressure.

Thankfully, we went on to win the game with a competent performance, the downside being the sending off of Tim Flowers for a professional foul. Under the present rules he had to go and when he went down I think it was more because of injured pride.Anyhow, I think we were all relieved to succeed and have the game under our belts.

Losing 2-1 to Sheffield Wednesday after having played well left me frustrated. But I found myself going beyond analysing my own performance and contribution. I have suddenly become aware of how much responsibility the match officials have beyond the shape of the game. Their decisions also affect the mood of the crowd, the subsequent atmosphere and the attitude of the players.

If a match is well officiated, the public and players alike are far more accepting of the result. But a negative and aggressive atmosphere can easily be created by obvious mistakes that frustrate everybody and induce irrational and over-emotional reactions. Tonight Matty Holmes was booked for retaliation and Mark Atkins was sent off for dissent, for example.

Perhaps I have been reading too much Desmond Morris.

A huge weekend for the club and so early in the season, and one for which the Champions' League draw has heightened expectations. Moscow, Warsaw and Trondheim will be fascinating places to visit -and they offer us a good chance of progressing.

Hardly time to analyse it, though, with a Lancashire derby against Bolton - a disappointing 2-1 defeat as it turned out - and Manchester United on Monday. After last year's matches between the teams - Henning Berg's sending off, Eric Cantona's last goal for United and Tim Sherwood's disallowed equaliser - this is a match of limitless potential.

I suppose I should feel that two matches in three days is no way to conduct our game. But the opportunity to take part in matches such as these makes me feel nothing but privileged.