The unpredictability of football is the key to its popularity

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
New Labour, new season. Just as Tony Blair's government swept into power in May on the crest of a wave of optimism, promising to be more dynamic and last longer than any previous government, so the new football season bursts into life this afternoon promising to be more spectacular and last longer - it won't reach its conclusion until next year's World Cup final on 12 July - than any of its predecessors.

The beauty of it is that, with last season's slate wiped clean, none of us really have the remotest idea who the winners and losers over the next 50 weeks will be. That wonderful unpredictability is the key to football's popularity.

Having said that, just as any government is guaranteed to suffer its fair share of crises during its term in office, so certain events occur each season without which... well, it would be football, but not as we know it.

The season has barely seen the light of day, yet we've already had a couple of familiar incidents: David James and Ian Walker dropping clangers in pre-season matches; and Roy Keane, who quite literally stamped his mark on the season by running his studs down Gustavo Poyet's face in the Charity Shield, eliciting the inevitable defence from his manager of Keane as "the most complete player in the Premiership".

Another of the most complete players in the Premiership is Ian Wright, who becomes rather less than complete when he oversteps the disciplinary mark. It's a safe bet that some time this season Wright will find himself hauled in front of the Football Association (the very organisation that has just paid him a hefty sum to promote it to potential sponsors).

Barnsley, like many unknown entities before them, will redefine the notion of beginners' luck by topping the Premiership at the end of August but eventually find themselves battling against the drop with Crystal Palace (where Ray Wilkins will be momentarily inspired by a player more follically challenged than him in Attilio Lombardo) and Coventry, who come May will reacquaint themselves with Houdini.

Aston Villa, so wonderfully balanced on paper but less so on grass, will suffer from the erratic nature of Stan Collymore's timekeeping and Savo Milosevic's finishing. At Spurs, Darren Anderton will make his comeback but break down again when someone writes his name too heavily on the team sheet, and David Ginola will backheel beautifully until November, when his indifference will have Alan Sugar mumbling under his breath about Carlos Kickaballs.

Matt Le Tissier will score the goal of the season in September, spark off a campaign for his inclusion in England's team to play Italy, and do little else of note for the rest of the season. Ditto Gazza, who, after weeks of will he, won't he debate over his role in Rome, will last 45 minutes, give the ball away for Italy's opening goal and spend the rest of his season being linked with moves to Everton and Sunderland.

In Scotland, Rangers will beat Celtic at New Year and run away with their 10th consecutive title, causing all the other teams to complain about Rangers winning everything. The Scottish national team will contest the title of most goal-shy team with Leeds, while Wales will continue their search for goalkeepers with second cousins born in Swansea.

Use of the word "giantkiller" will reach unprecedented levels as the third round of the FA Cup approaches in January but, for the second consecutive year, no non-League club is likely to progress beyond the third round.

By this time, the words "winter break" will have reared their ugly heads again as the weather causes havoc with the fixture list, causing Premiership chairmen to make noises about pulling out of the cup - the fizzy one, that is - and Alex Ferguson to start his habitual campaign to get an extension to the season.

Bobby Robson and Johan Cruyff will be linked with the managerial vacancy at every big club going, as well as at Everton, where Howard Kendall fails to lift the cloud of despondency hanging over Goodison, just as every Everton manager before him has failed since, er, Howard Kendall.

Elsewhere, the Football Association will cause the national press to cry exploitation when it launches a World Cup commemorative England strip in time for the Christmas rush, Reading will sign their 12th keeper in 13 seasons and Trevor Brooking will keep harping on about "my old team West Ham" and wearing his claret and blue tie on Match of the Day.

Plus ca change. At least there'll be no more oohing and aahing at Old Trafford, and dear old Ronny Rosenthal is no longer around to miss his usual hatful of sitters down at White Hart Lane. Strangely, he will be missed. The words "devil you know" spring to mind.

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