10 Things To Look Forward to This Season (Other Than Chelsea)

1. New Managers In The Top Four

For the first time in my life, Man United have a manager who isn’t Alex Ferguson. For the first time since they last got impatient, Man City have a manager who isn’t Roberto Mancini. And Chelsea have a new manager who isn’t even new.

How well the new managers fit into their respective clubs will most likely be the defining factor in the title race. Mourinho has the experience of winning the Premier League, Moyes spent a decade getting the most out of an Everton team on a shoestring budget, and Pellegrini should be seen as a real upgrade over Mancini.

2. Return of Holloway

No real analysis or deep thought here, he is just hugely entertaining. Especially since his team is one of the favourites for relegation.

3. Liverpool

Going into year two of the Brendan Rodgers project, Liverpool are making some interesting signings, and seem to be shaping their squad to fit the manager’s system much more effectively than last season.

If they can figure out what they are going to do about the Suarez situation (though it looks like he is staying for the time being), then they might be in a good spot to push for European qualification, and possibly even top five – though top four might be a bit too far.

4. Will Arsenal Improve?

Arsenal have had a busy summer. They’ve been active in the transfer market and made more transfers than almost any other Premier League club. The problem with all these dealings is that they are neither exciting for fans nor hugely impactful on the quality of the first team.

They’ve dumped 27 players this summer (including loans) and brought in just one. While this has been a really impressive shaving of the wage bill, the question is whether all this activity will make the team better, or just less expensive.

None of the departed players were integral members of the squad, though some of them were paid like it. This is a positive, as is the fact that the team finished last season strongly, and seemed to have figured out who their best defenders are.

The question that will be answered this season is if they will be able to perform at a higher standard, and with greater consistency. I’m not sure they will be able to, but it will be interesting to watch.

5. The London League

What a shame QPR aren’t in the Premier League any more. Crystal Palace have stepped up to fill the shoes of Harry Redknapp’s latest adventure in prudent football management, so the league of London clubs stays at six teams. Chelsea topped the table last season, and following the close race for fourth last season, results against other teams in the capital might be key to Champions League qualification again this time around.

6. European Campaigns

Will Man City be better than their pathetic showings the last two years? Quite probably, given the experience and successes that Pellegrini has had in Europe, first with Villarreal then with Malaga.

Chelsea have won European trophies the last two seasons, but even a prolonged but unsuccessful Champions League campaign would be preferable to another Europa League fixture pile-up.

Arsenal will most likely do exactly as they have the last few seasons, and make it through the group before being totally outplayed by one of the main contenders, and it is anyone’s guess how United will perform in Moyes’s second Champions League campaign.

7. Sunderland

Di Canio’s Swindon team were incredibly fit. From all the reports, it looks as if Sunderland will be in similar shape. Superior levels of conditioning ought to help them against some of the less talented squads, but they will still need their manager’s tactical ability to show itself in order to push into the top half of the table. Whether or not Di Canio has the tactical nous to go with his chest-thumping sideline antics will define how successful Sunderland are this season.

8. Swansea – Second Season Syndrome?

Swansea were fantastic last season. They improved on their first season in the league, despite losing one of their most important players, and their manager. Michael Laudrup’s debut season even netted them a trophy.  The concern will be that after the League Cup triumph, they rather went off the boil. How they will cope with the raised expectations and the added European fixtures.

9. Aston Villa’s Youth Movement

Paul Lambert’s team swung wildly from inexperienced and naïve to bright and inventive last season. If they can be more of the latter, and with less of the former then they could be quite good to watch. Having jettisoned old and unnecessary players like Bent and Dunne over the summer (replaced by the likes of Jores Okore), the squad has the building blocks of a good side, as long as they can build on the experiences of last season, and keep Benteke scoring goals.

10. WTF?

Suarez biting people, John Terry being racist, Suarez being racist, Tom Huddlestone’s ever growing hair. Every league season throws up something unexpected. What it will be this season is anyone’s guess, but trust me, there will be something strange taking place before the end of the season.


Looking Forward to the New Season?

With the new Premier League season nearly here, and the Football League season already underway, this is usually the time of year to start getting excited. This year, it feels a little different.

That isn’t to say that I’m not looking forward to the new season. I am. We have one of the best squads in the league, one of the world’s best managers and our opposition are all either going through transfer sagas (Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool), adjusting to a new manager (Man City) or both (Man United). So it isn’t fear of being uncompetitive.

It can’t be because of the change of manager. The return of Jose Mourinho is one of the main reasons to be excited about this year’s Chelsea campaign. It certainly isn’t transfer activity, either by us or other teams – if I had to rank the player movement this summer, Chelsea would be pretty much at the top of the list, although Man City have done really well too.

I also know that I’ll be going to plenty of games. Dad and I have both renewed our season tickets for another year, and having been to both Munich and Amsterdam the last two seasons, we’ve been able to witness a lot of winning. It isn’t a separation problem, or knowing that I won’t be at the Bridge 25+ times this season, because I will. And I’m sure we will win. A lot.

Last season was tough. Knowing that the elation, tears and mindless celebrations of Munich would be tough to top, we went into the year looking to do well, but without much of the purpose and swagger that we seem to have this summer. The new signings were phenomenal, and have given a real base on which to build, both in terms of quality and age.

Then there was November. The Di Matteo sacking was painful, both because his goal against Middlesborough was one of my first great Chelsea memories, and because Munich was the most recent. He was responsible for both, and now was replaced by Rafa Benitez, who while being a top quality manager wasn’t someone who I felt comfortable supporting. I was at the FA Cup game at the Riverside that prompted his (very well timed and intelligent) calls for the fans to back the team. He had a point, because some of the chants directed towards him that night were really unpleasant. While he brought it upon himself by taking a job that he knew would make him a target, there isn’t much of an excuse for some of the stuff that got shouted that night.

With all that went on that year, Amsterdam was a good way to end the season. Winning trophies (even ones we never want to compete for again) is always a positive, but it was a tiring season, for both players and fans. There were so many matches, so many dramas and so much anger that it took an emotional effort to keep getting up for the next game, for the next competition and for the next headline.

I think this might have something to do with the lack of buzz I’m feeling right now towards the 2013/14 season. I don’t want to go through another season like last year, or like 2007/8 at the end of the first Mourinho era. While it didn’t test my fandom, or my desire to go to every single game, it made the matches themselves less of a special occasion. The season went on for so long and with such intensity that it has taken longer than usual to want to go through it all again.

I’m not ready for all the drama, the controversy and the endless terrible punditry. Last season the performance art piece that was the football season became too loud, too self-important and too long. It takes time to want to get back to it. That time isn’t up yet.

All of this being said, the first game of the season, of Mourinho 2.0, I’ll be there, in my seat, East Stand Upper, 21 59 on my feet as we walk out to the Liquidator, bouncing with excitement and glad to get back to what we do best: keeping the blue flag flying high.

Intolerance in Football: Fashanu, Terry, Suarez and UEFA

Intolerance in football is a problem. I don’t think you will be able to find many people who will disagree with that statement. Whether it is Luis Suarez and John Terry or the fact that there is only 1 professional football player who is openly gay, not in England, but in the entire game (for those of you interested, it is Anton Hysen of Utsiktens BK in Sweden). He is, for those who don’t know, only the second gay professional footballer ever, after Justin Fashanu. Out of the around 3,000 professional football players in England, there is not a single one who is able to be open about their sexuality. Not just for the sport, but for society, that is an embarrassment. But as John Amaechi pointed out recently, is this really a surprise when the board of the FA, who run the game in this country, have only just got their first female board member.

Some numbers:

3,000: approximate number of professional footballers in England

0: Openly gay professional footballers

£6,000: fine for former Leicester City player Michael Ball for tweeting homophobic comments

16: Number of professional clubs (out of 92) who are willing to openly back The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homophobia initiative.

These make for pretty depressing reading. The FA needs to do better – for a start by stepping up efforts to stamp out intolerance in any form (including anti-Semitism against Tottenham fans and players) by making the punishments for offences actually mean something. Suarez ought to have had a much stronger penalty – if fans are banned from grounds for racist chanting, why does a player only receive an 8 game ban? The fines for the likes of Michael Ball must be so steep that it is actually a disincentive to not display such bigotry. If clubs are made responsible for the actions of their players, then that would offer a real reason for them to police their own dressing rooms. For example, if Terry is found guilty, how about a points deduction. Similarly for Liverpool and Luis Suarez. If a player’s actions hurt not only him but his teammates, club and fans, do you think that might have an impact?

It is not just the FA who need to step up to the plate though – UEFA also need to make it known to clubs and fans that homophobia, racism and other abuse will not be tolerated. If fans at a match in Spain are making monkey chants, for example, then don’t fine the club €30,000 and say you are tackling the problem. That will make no difference to anyone. Games played behind closed doors, point deductions and exclusion from European competitions might. You did it for hooliganism, time to do likewise for bigotry. Make people think twice before they decide to hurl abuse at someone for the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual preference.

Do I think that these things will happen? Given the record of UEFA and the FA, no.

On Luis Suarez: He has been found guilty. His punishment ought to have been much harsher. Kenny Dalglish, those supporting shirts and the actions of some of their fans should make everyone involved or supporting of Liverpool football club look at what their club has been condoning, and they should feel disappointed at the action of some of their people. I will boo Suarez for the rest of his career in England.

On John Terry: He has not been found guilty of anything yet. As things stand, I support Terry as a Chelsea player and club captain. If he is found guilty, then he deserves to be neither of these things. The club dispensed with the services of Adrian Mutu when he was found to be using drugs, (a decision I supported), and I believe that a similar stance must be taken with racism and intolerance. Leicester fired Ball after his homophobic comments, which was exactly the right decision. We must, as a club, make the same stand with Terry. There can be no excuse, and although I have sung songs in support of Terry for a decade, the club and its responsibility to the community must come first. Innocent until proven guilty. If guilty, then he must be punished.

I am a Chelsea fan, and East Stand season ticket holder. I am disappointed every time elements of our fans chant about Hillsborough, Munich or sing anti-Semitic songs at Tottenham fans, and I did not boo Anton or Rio Ferdinand for their stance on John Terry. I do not do any of these things, and a lot of the people who sit near me in the East Stand upper also don’t. It is important to know that not all football fans who go to games week in, week out sing such offensive things. But until everyone in the ground chooses not to allow songs about the deaths of fellow fans, or a players race or sexuality, we need to keep pushing for better education, more pro-active administration and harsher penalties for those who persistently display such intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

The ongoing saga of the Olympic Stadium

We are still waiting to find out who is going to be moving into the Olympic Stadium after 2012. As someone who is a football fan (though not in any way supportive of any of the clubs involved in the bidding process) as well as an inhabitant of the Crystal Palace area, I have something of an interest in what is going on. Depending on what happens, it would very well be possible that the area where I live will be affected by the outcome in Stratford. As far as I can tell, the parties involved, and their proposals, seem to be:
1) West Ham: Their plan seems to involve keeping the Olympic Stadium much as it is, most importantly, keeping the running track so that the stadium can be used as a multi-event venue, in a similar way to how Wembley currently hosts football, concerts, rugby and NFL games. This option would seem to satisfy the criteria of the bid that won the Olympics, as it would allow UK Athletics to have a home venue, and would keep the promise about an athletics legacy post 2012.
For further reading:
2) Tottenham: The Spurs plan involves extensively rebuilding the Olympic Stadium, so that it is a football ground. This means that there will be no athletics track. This also means that there will not be a legacy of athletics at the venue. Given the issue of the legacy, and how athletics would be served by Spurs’ proposed move to the Olympic park, they have added as part of their plan a redevelopment of the National Sports Centre in Crystal Palace Park, so that there is somewhere for UK Athletics to be housed, allowing Spurs to do what they like with the Olympic site.
One question I would have of this plan is why Spurs would move to Stratford to build a new ground, on top of the essentially brand new Olympic Stadium. Surely they would be better served staying in North London with their fanbase, and building a new ground closer to their home? There was a proposal to build a new stadium closer to White Hart Lane floated last year, but it would appear that this plan has been shelved in preference of the Olympic site move.
3) Crystal Palace: As the club named after the area (despite being based in nearby Selhurst since 1924) it would make sense for the Eagles to return to their original home in the Park. They have submitted a proposal for a move from Selhurst Park to the National Sports Centre . This proposal does include a commitment to athletics, and would allow the NSC to retain its athletics heretige, as well as giving Palace a move away from Selhurst Park. This would seem to depend, however, on the outcome of the bids for who would take over the Olympic Stadium – if Spurs bid is the winner, then the NSC would be redeveloped for athletics only.
Those appear to be the three choices at this moment in time. If the West Ham bid is accepted then it is possible that the Crystal Palace move to the NSC would be possible as well. This would be my preferred option, as it would mean that the Olympic Stadium is retained as an athletic venue and not knocked down and rebuild for football. It would also mean that there would be redevelopment for the National Sports Centre, and hopefully it would mean a bit more activity in the Crystal Palace area, given the increased numbers of people using services in the area. It might make some weekends a bit more crowded, but I think that, overall, for the area having Palace move back to the park is the best option. The main benefit of the Spurs plan is that there will be redevelopment of the NSC, which, whoever wins, is desperately needed. If there is to be redevelopment it needs to take athletics into account, which both the Spurs and Palace plans do, but I think that overall the best result for both UK Althetics and the Crystal Palace area is to have West Ham move to the Olympic Park and have Crystal Palace move back to the park.