Preparing for a season of boom or bust

Glenn Moore looks ahead to the ups and downs of the forthcoming 50 weeks of action
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The Independent Online
For a few days this summer the plans of Premiership managers were thrown into disarray. They waited, mobile phones in hand, until the British Airways strike was lifted and they could go shopping again.

The immediate results of their pounds 60m summer spree on overseas players will be visible this afternoon as new recruits from Portugal to Georgia, but mostly from Scandinavia, open the new season.

They will run out in freshly painted stadiums, to the cheers of newly replica-kitted supporters, and all will seem right on planet football.

Down in the basement, however, at places like Scarborough and Exeter, anxious chairmen will be counting the takings and wondering whether a clutch of free transfers from their rivals' reserves will somehow create enough interest to turn a profit come May.

The game is in the midst of a boom, but it is also on the brink of bankruptcy. As this week's Deloitte & Touche report underlined, the game's wealth is increasingly being concentrated within the Premiership.

The combined turnover of Manchester United and Newcastle United, for example, exceeds that of all 48 clubs in the lower two divisions.

The boom is largely down to Sky Television who, this year, will pay Premiership clubs pounds 175m for the right to show their matches. This is 60 times higher than a decade ago. Undoubtedly this wealth has primarily been a force for good. The new and revamped grounds, the Bergkamps and Zolas, the increase in spectators of both sexes, all stem from this input.

But opportunities are being missed - in the last 12 months pounds 120m has been lost to the English game in transfer fees paid overseas. Vast amounts have also been spent on players' wages and agents' commissions. Used more wisely, this money could have been used to improve facilities and youth development throughout the game.

The Premiership chairmen have agreed to pay pounds 5m a year to the Football Trust and the same to the Nationwide League for youth development, but this largesse is still only six per cent of their Sky income. There may be further grants as, despite six months' debate, they are still arguing about dividing the spoils.

This may be an subject for the government's football task force to address, although one suspects this well-intended but ill-considered initiative will soon founder through lack of teeth and poor leadership. It is hard to see how David Mellor can force clubs to reduce admission prices while there are people like himself prepared to pay them, or what he has in common with those fans still pining for the terraces.

While the conclusion of the Winchester court case has removed one festering sore, we still await the bung inquiry's report more than a year after being assured by Rick Parry, then the Premier League's chief executive, that it would be out within a fortnight. Apparently it has been with the lawyers for months.

On a more positive note, November sees the Football Association Council consider Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality, which seeks to redress 30 years' misjudgment in the coaching of young players. By then, England may have qualified for the World Cup - if so, one hopes the council do not use it as an excuse to resist.

As the season goes on, the World Cup will increasingly dominate thoughts. The globalisation of the English game (the Premiership has 133 foreign players representing 37 countries) means the tournament is likely to be followed more closely than ever.

England, if they qualify, have an outside chance of making the final but, given the proximity of France, there will be almost as much resting on the performance of the fans as the players.

Before then, we have a domestic campaign to savour with a quintet of high-spending clubs threatening Manchester United's hegemony at home, while there is also room for optimism abroad.

While changes in the structure will make it harder for British clubs to progress in the Champions' League, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal look strong enough to ensure English interest in Europe well into the new year.

The fortunes of the latter two will be followed by Channel Five, who have become the latest company to pin their fortunes on football. Advertising executives seem as besotted as those in television and it is hard to recall the days when football was so unloved it was restricted to two television highlights programmes, a couple of boys' magazines and a page or two in the newspaper.

Next on the television agenda is pay-per-view, with Sky likely to try an experiment later in the season. By the early years of the next century, digital television could be established with every game available - at a price - and Premiership clubs rich beyond even current dreams.

Even then, however, money will not guarantee success. That is why Middlesbrough and Manchester City are in the Nationwide League and Barnsley and Wimbledon in the Carling Premiership.

This unpredictability is at the heart of football's success and, while it is hard to see Barnsley finishing above Manchester United, with so many largely unknown foreigners involved this season could see more surprises than ever.

Three players to watch this season....

Jason Euell

Wimbledon

Age: 20. Prem apps: 16.

Injuries, and the Marcus Gayle/ Efan Ekoku partnership restricted appearances last year but although competition for places remains intense, this South Londoner could make the breakthrough. Reminiscent of a young Ian Wright.

Jody Morris

Chelsea

Age: 18.

Prem apps: 13.

The outstanding player in a crop of promising youngsters at Stamford Bridge. He may be small of stature but has poise and confidence to play alongside the Zolas and Di Matteos.

David Watson

Barnsley

Age: 23.

Prem apps: 0. Make or break for former England youth and Under-21 goalkeeper. Will have plenty to do as his home-town seek to establish themselves in the Premiership. One concern is his height, at 5ft 11in he is short for a modern goalkeeper.

How Glenn Moore's 1996-97 players to watch fared...

Emile Heskey - Continued progress highlighted by last-minute Coca-Cola Cup final equaliser.

David Beckham - Young player of the year, a fixture for England. Hard to believe his club place was in doubt last August.

Andy Gray - Disappeared amid injury and management upheaval at Leeds.

David Ginola

Tottenham

Was losing his way at Newcastle even before Kevin Keegan went. White Hart Lane's traditions will be to his liking but not Gerry Francis' emphasis on work-rate. Has a World Cup place to aim for but little chance of getting it. Stan Collymore

Aston Villa

No excuses now for missing training, nor for wasting his talent. Villa, the club he watched as a boy, may prove the ideal stage for this complicated man, and Brian Little the perfect mix of tutor and nursemaid.

Gianluca Vialli

Chelsea

Given up smoking in an attempt to regain his place after the summer shock of finding no one wanted to buy him. Looking sharp but now has Tore Andre Flo to contend with as well as Gianfranco Zola and Mark Hughes.

Juninho - Outstanding in a losing cause. Proved ability to everyone.

Andy Cole - Goals remained scarce after pneumonia and Neil Ruddock cut season in half. Remains on trial.

David Platt - Discarded by England, continued injury problems. A move to Middlesbrough seems imminent.

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