Welcome to the new world

PREMIERSHIP COUNTDOWN: At 3pm tomorrow, summer on 'planet football' will be over. Glenn Moore greets the season as it sets out towards Euro '96; Many Premiership clubs feel they can challenge Europe's giants, yet in many areas they are decades behind
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The Independent Online
The new Premiership season, which has been straining at the leash for weeks, finally bounds into the open tomorrow, bulging with more possibilities than an advertisement for a Club 18-30 holiday.

At the end of it, nine and a half months away, is the final of the European Championship. By then we may be either celebrating a glorious revival of English football - or contemplating a game thrown, once more, into shameful introspection by hooliganism and other unsavoury activities.

Last season - with a riot in Dublin, the bungs and bribes, Cantona's kung-fu kick and Paul Merson's confessions - should have been the worst in living memory. It will probably be recorded as such. Yet attendances rose again, for the ninth successive year, and the recollection is as much of thrilling games in packed and splendid stadiums as of FA inquiries and dawn arrests.

In one respect the various incidents appeared to prove the old adage about there being no such thing as bad publicity. It seems footballers can get away with anything as long as they keep playing good football.

Nevertheless the game cannot afford to be complacent. Hooliganism, in particular, has the capacity to reverse the game's rejuvenation. The possibility of camp sites, motorway service stations and city centres becoming international battlegrounds next summer is too awful to contemplate. Corruption, too, could empty the grounds, but only if the Grobbelaar trial reveals the game to be rotten to its heart.

That seems unlikely, but the case does highlight a further menace to the game's popularity - its growing obsession with money. As wages continue to escalate, to sums which the ordinary fans cannot remotely identify with, the avarice of players, agents and clubs seems to increase. The more there is, the more they want.

Two years ago, when the Premier League visited the United States to study marketing and management techniques, a senior executive was told: "You think you have problems now, wait until there is really big money on offer." American baseball has since discovered that there is a limit to supporters' tolerance. Attendances are well down since the strike, despite all manner of inducements, yet the players and owners have still failed to settle the original dispute.

There is no immediate likelihood of a similar situation developing in England, but the pursuit of wealth will have its casualties. In the Premiership they will be those supporters, often the most dedicated, who cannot meet spiralling admission charges. In the Endsleigh League it will be the clubs themselves who are priced out of the game, broken by the knock-on effect of rising wages at a time when the lottery is hitting their fund-raising and the national profile of the big clubs is eroding local support.

One reason for the increase in wages and transfer fees is that many Premiership clubs, having completed the redevelopment of their grounds, have become so cash rich they feel they can challenge the European giants. Yet, in many areas, our clubs are decades behind.

Take Arsenal. They have a magnificent stadium and expensively assembled team but they do not even own their own training ground. They rent one from the University of London. Compare this with the broad acres of Milan's out-of-town training centre, or even tiny Auxerre's many practice pitches, bordered by sports halls and accommodation for their youth players.

Some clubs are taking note: Manchester United, Norwich and Newcastle are among those building facilities for the future, but others have too limited a perspective. And even Newcastle, with their ambitious plans for medical centres and multi-sports youth development, neglect the basics such as having enough telephone operators to meet demand.

Such deficiencies in public relations are common. Arsenal, with a turnover counted in tens of millions, do not have a press officer. They are not alone. While other sports cultivate the media, and are rewarded with positive coverage, football regards it with suspicion and is often portrayed negatively as a result.

Even worse is the disdain some football people show to supporters. Few clubs throw open their training ground like Newcastle do, fewer still consult their fans. The need for greater understanding, between all parties, is an urgent one. The Cantona incident was just the extreme manifestation of a growing hostility towards opposing players and managers. There is a lack of respect and it is a dangerous trend, especially since the removal of fences.

Enough doom and gloom. Shortly before the advent of the Premier League, this newspaper's magazine reported on a sport in crisis. Aldershot had just gone bust, Northampton seemed about to join them. Three years on Northampton have survived and are prospering in a new ground; somehow everyone else has survived too, while Aldershot are re-formed and working their way back up the leagues.

The present mood of the game is reflected in a more recent article, in Sports Illustrated, the erudite US magazine. It is a celebration of British football, its worldwide appeal and domestic vibrancy. "Soccer World will one day be the name of our planet, and London will be the capital," it ventures.

That will be true on 30 June, though it is hard to envisage England being anything but hosts by the time the European Championship reaches its climax. For the domestic season the spotlight will be further north, probably Lancashire, possibly Newcastle. It is a big season for Les Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole and, in Italy, Paul Ince.

Ince's departure underlined that, for all the Premiership's cash and dash, Serie A remains king of the leagues. Bergkamp, Gullit and Silenzi will be welcomed to the English league; Stoichkov, Roberto Carlos and Ince to the Italian. European club results are likely to reflect this imbalance, although Forest may surprise.

But the world would rather watch English football. Sports Illustrated quoted Ivan Lendl's line - "English soccer is the only soccer you can watch". The frantic nature of our game is partly responsible for our failures on the global stage, but it is also the reason why so many cannot wait for 3pm tomorrow.

It should be a good, open campaign. There are arguments against all the main challengers and predictions are hazardous. Three seasons ago the usually prescient Andy Gray tipped Kevin Campbell as the coming man. Tell that one to Highbury - although it is a sure bet that he will score the winner when Forest visit.

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