No logic as underdogs hold sway

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The Independent Online
Logic, unlike lady luck and sugar daddies, plays but a bit part in the drama that is football. Were it otherwise, much of the unpredictability that makes the game such a compelling spectacle would be lost. Just imagine a football history with scenes such as Sunderland's Jim Montgomery-inspired win over Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup final, Southampton's triumph over Manchester United three years later, and Wimbledon's victory against Liverpool in the 1988 final, written out; in which Wrexham, Sutton, Port Vale and York, hadn't actually giant-killed Arsenal, Coventry, Spurs and Man Utd respectively; in which David Gualtieri had never stunned England, Archie Gemmill hadn't run circles round the Dutch, Roger Milla hadn't upset the Argentinian (and World Cup) applecart, and Denmark had never conquered Europe. No, I couldn't either. It wouldn't be the same.

Because it's the beauty of the unexpected, the belief that every underdog will have its day, that keeps football so fresh, keeps bums on seats (and keeps the bookies in a job). And that is never more true than at the start of the season, when logic, and the form book, are turned completely on their heads.

There is no logical explanation as to how Sheffield Wednesday, a team boasting a strike-force with the combined age of 41 and no Premiership experience, a defender is who more beatable than not these days, and a manager who was among the favourites to get the sack before the season was even out of its starting blocks, are top of the table with maximum points. Nor how Sunderland have defied the critics who say that what comes up must go down again to start as the North-east's top team, while Newcastle trail in their wake. Plymouth only made the Second Division thanks to a solitary play-off final goal, yet the Pilgrims sit proudly on top of the division while relegated Luton, strong favourites to bounce back up, are propping it up. And Hartlepool, whose goal difference was the fourth- worst in the entire League last season and who finished fifth-bottom of the Third Division, have somehow started this campaign at the top.

But without wanting to take anything away from those who have begun with as much inspiration as David Beckham from the half-way line, the reality is that the start of a season is not an accurate barometer of what is to come. Last Sunday, after Blackburn had unsettled Man Utd (and the bookies) at Old Trafford, Sky's Richard Keys said: "And here's the League table, as if you can tell anything at this stage of the season."

An no wonder. United, as if you could forget, were 3-0 down at Villa Park by half-time in the first game of last season, prompting Alan Hansen's now infamous remark that "you won't win anything with kids''. Hansen is the last person who will need reminding what United won last season. Conversely, Millwall and Swansea City were top of the First and Second Divisions respectively after just three games last season, and both were relegated.

Remember the start of the 1974-75 season when Carlisle United were perched on top of the First Division with three games gone? However, they would probably rather you forget that by the start of the following season they were playing Second Division football.

League positions are not the only statistics which seem to make little sense so early in the season. Forget fresh starts, Manchester City obviously believe that a change at the start of a season is as good as a rest; Alan Ball resigned last Monday (26 August), just over three years after Peter Reid was kicked out of the Maine Road hot seat - on 28 August 1993. Graeme Souness was sent off in his first game as player-manager of Rangers, provoking speculation that his stay would be short. Souness replied by leading Rangers to their first Premier League title in nine years.

Only in Scottish football, where the top of the Premier League had a familiar ring about it from the off, has logic consistently seen off the surprise element. In fact there are 38 clubs in the Scottish League who, judging by the Old Firm - and Scottish media - preoccupation with a statistic involving the number nine, might just as well not have bothered turning up this season. That any other club other than Rangers or Celtic will win the League (or anything else) north of the border, is as unlikely as Alan Sugar buying a life membership to Scribes.

But to give in to such reality would be to deny those who concur with Rudyard Kipling, that it is the taking part, not the winning, that counts. The Rangers goalkeeper, Andy Goram, claims that theory is "a load of shite''. In football, Goram maintains, "it's the winning that counts. I take it Rudyard Kipling never kicked a ball in his life. . . '' Easy to say when your team has won eight League titles on the trot.

I'm not saying that a good start has no chance of being maintained until the bitter end. (Swindon were top of the Second after just two games last season, and were still there when the season ended.) Just not much chance. Let us hope, for instance, that Fabrizio Ravanelli does not suffer a goal drought (although Boro were a team of two halves last season: they won 33 points in the first 19 games, just 10 in the last 19). Ditto Kevin Campbell, Steve Bull et al. And let's also hope that Sheffield Wednesday are not involved in a relegation battle next May.

It would be romantic to think that the 1996-97 Premiership title could end up somewhere like Hillsborough. But as the gap between the best and the rest grows bigger by the season, reason dictates that come next May the title is more likely to be won by a team playing in red and white or even black and white, than one which plays in blue and white. The last time a team playing in blue and white stripes won the title was in 1929- 30, and it was Sheffield Wednesday. So you could say it's about time, but then that argument is too logical.