Football is still football
By Chris Lawton
With the Three Lions Song still ringing in our ears we have reached the start of another season. As always there is unbounded optimism by everyone that this year will be the that their team gets it right.
It was quite a summer. Euro 96 came and went and in many ways football really did come home. So on the crest of that particular wave attendances are set to do well - in the Premiership at least. Many clubs will step on the pitch tomorrow parading a galaxy of stars signed after impressive Euro 96 performances and the Bosman transfer ruling. The Premiership has never had it so good.
Away from the Premiership is a different matter. For the First Division clubs there is just about enough to survive, especially with a good cup run. But for most of the teams the glistening goal of the Premiership will become like a mirage and the season will be over by January. Lower down still it is a question of survival of the fittest. At the end of the season the team that has fought hardest on the muddy winter pitches will emerge triumphant from the pack to take a step up the footballing ladder.
So what about Watford? The bookies' choice to come straight back up. If only football were that easy. Watford should be able to tell very early on if they are to suceed. Other than Bournemouth all our fixtures up until Shrewsbury are against teams that will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
A good start is vital but so are a couple of other factors. Firstly to win. In recent seasons we have drawn too many matches and left ourselves too much to do in the run in. It is vital that we pick up points home and away against opposition much less skillful than ourselves. When it comes to playing the other contenders for the title we must ensure at least a home draw and preferably a win. Likewise when playing away a draw should be seen as a good result. At the end it will be how we did against the other top teams that counts.
Watford should go up. They have the players, if not the experience, to get out of the second division at the first attempt. It will be a long season with the usual highs and lows. Hopefully, just for a change, there will be more highs than lows.
When the Bosman changes were implemented it blew the world of football apart. The rich, tragically, get richer and the poor do get poorer. But football is still football. Thousands of fans will set out tomorrow expectant of that first goal, that first win. The Bosman ruling will never change that.
Utter, stinking hypocrisy
By Ian Grant
I saw on the news last week that UEFA is to open up the European CHAMPIONS Cup to the runners-up of the eight most successful leagues in Europe. This is as a direct result of pressure from the likes of David Dein (Arsenal's vile vice-chairman).
Big deal, eh? Well, yes, actually. It's a very big deal indeed. Not only is this the final nail in the coffin for one of the world's most prestigious tournaments (the Champions League had pretty much finished it off already) since the actual premise of the thing (a competition between the champions of Europe) is now to be abandoned, it also represents the total capitulation of UEFA to the demands of the rich few.
UEFA is, in case it gets forgotten, supposed to represent the interests of all its members. Yeah, and I'm Elvis Presley. After the farce of Blackburn entering straight into the Champions League (apparently due to their outstanding record in European competition and not, for instance, the large amount of money being paid for coverage by British TV), we now have this abomination. A level playing field? Don't make me laugh...
The same is happening over on these shores. I believe it's also just been announced that the winners of the Premiership will pick up double the previous prize money this time around - it's gone up to 2 million quid. Because, obviously, the winners of the Premiership desperately need more money, right?
What has all this got to do with Watford? Quite a lot, really. Wanna know why we're in the position of thinking about flogging our best player before he's played a dozen games for us? Pretty obvious - because we're poor and we're getting poorer every year.
That can't continue forever. The Bosman ruling is inevitably going to decrease transfer revenue for clubs in the lower divisions - that's money that's used to clear debts rather than build squads, so it's vital for those clubs. There is a limit to how long certain clubs can go on running at a loss - there are obvious cases, like Brighton (which is perhaps a more complicated situation but comes down to money in the end - and, yes, they're still moving to Portsmouth next season) but I'd say we fall into that category too.
By getting relegated, we've just missed out on the money from the Sky deal (we've also probably missed out on Friday night matches, which is a bloody relief to me - heaven forbid that the games should actually be at convenient times for travelling supporters) but that's a risible sum compared to the cash being dished out in the top league - particularly bearing in mind that there's a new deal coming up that will put even more money on the table for Premiership clubs. The Sky deal for the First Division was hailed as some sort of triumph - in truth, it won't make the slightest bit of difference to the gap between the Premiership and the First Division. It'll possibly balance a few books for the likes of Grimsby but nothing more. It certainly won't help those lower down the divisions to survive.
So the rich get richer and the poor get shafted. Y'know, most people think that the reason Man Utd are hated by everyone is jealousy. Wrong. The reason Man Utd are hated is because, implicitly, THEY HATE US. They hate us because we're still in existence, because next time they play us in the cup we might just beat them and lose them a lot of money in the process, because we're a thorn in the side of their expansion plans. They hate us like aristocrats hate peasants. Maybe we should think about that next time Luton come to town because Luton are not the real enemy - they're in exactly the same position as us (well, marginally worse, since their ground is in a state). The Premiership clubs are the enemy, along with their gutless partners in crime the FA, and we'd do well to remember that.
What's made me angrier than ever this summer is the utter, stinking hypocrisy of it all. During Euro '96 we heard so much about 'football coming home' and were force-fed adverts about the people's game. If anything, that tournament made it even worse - this was, after all, a sporting occasion that was declared a huge success by UEFA even though many games were played in half-empty grounds due to laughable ticket pricing and organisation. Sod the fans, the atmosphere, the football - money was made, that's all that matters.
That spirit of 'togetherness' will carry through to next season. There's a particularly fine article by Ed Horton in this month's When Saturday Comes, in which he describes how most of the country wants English clubs to be beaten in the European competitions. That's very true,sadly - if I hear Brian Moore say one word about Man Utd "carrying the nation's expectations on their shoulders", I swear I'll be moved to violence. I hope every single English club in Europe gets utterly and totally bloody humiliated, just as I hope that Newcastle finish 10th in the Premiership (behind Wimbledon - who are complete heroes, for obvious reasons) and Middlesborough get beaten by Sunderland. Man Utd do not represent my country in Europe...they represent their shareholders in Europe and don't pretend otherwise.
Is anyone actually looking after OUR interests in all this? The FA has been held to ransom by the big clubs since the formation of the Premiership - you only have to look at the fact that Alan Sugar was involved in the Sky deal despite his business interests to realise that they're not in control. Amazingly, it's taken this long for them to step into the Brighton dispute and offer to mediate - I mean, WHAT ARE THEY DOING???
Football is about dreams. It should be, anyway. It would be, if those in charge of the game had any feelings, any soul, any kind of heart. The fact is that Watford once finished second in the top flight of the English Football League - an incredible achievement, if only because it will never happen again. It couldn't happen again - Newcastle and Man Utd and Liverpool and all the other BUSINESSES couldn't afford for it to happen again. This is now a competitive and, crucially, unregulated marketplace. So maybe football isn't about dreams, maybe football is now about memories...
Anyway, the new season has started. I'm not suggesting for a moment we should silently accept defeat - quite the reverse, in fact. If lower division (and that no longer means the bottom two divisions - it means non-Premiership) football is to survive in anything like its current form, it'll have to do it by itself - no-one else is going to lend it a helping hand.
So, yeah, I'm quietly optimistic about my club's immediate future - I think we're capable of beating most clubs in the Second Division which means we must stand some sort of chance of promotion. But the long term future? I see nothing to be optimistic about there, I'm afraid. And if anyone tries to start a conversation with me about Alan Shearer, they're liable to get their head bitten off...