Yes, you’ve probably read about a thousand of these already. But humour me. I may even make a funny. Although I’m not promising anything.
“Is it back already? But the season’s only just finished!” The immortal words of my long-suffering girlfriend are more relevant than she probably realises. It’s been quite a short off-season, with the Europa League qualification meaning the season technically started on June 30. (I’m sure there was earlier stuff – FA Cup qualifying and the such – so let’s not split hairs.)
But tonight kicks off the football season proper. Hull and Blackpool have the honour of what is now the customary Friday night curtain-raiser, before a full programme of Football League action and the eagerly-anticipated no-one-cares-about-it-unless-they-win-it Community Shield between City and United.
So, who are the contenders and who are the tail-enders? Who will be cracking open the champagne, and who’ll be feeling the pain? Will I stop making crap rhymes? And more importantly, who I have I pinned my hopes – and five British pounds – on in a stupid accumulator bet? Of course, if I’m right, I’ll win £10,000 or something. But clearly, I won’t.
Have I built up my superb “knowledge” enough yet? Good. Then you’re ready.
[Disclaimer: The Premier League and League Two will get a lot more coverage, as they’re the ones I know the most about. Well, a fair bit about. A couple of things, you could say. There’s only so much capacity in my brain for in-depth football knowledge. Especially when you’ve got Red Dwarf/Father Ted quotes and obscure film references to contend with.]
Tip: Manchester United
Ones to watch: Sunderland
Outside the usual suspects, we have…no-one of course. Are you mad? I thought not.
Manchester United have added some young talent in Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David De Gea, without losing anyone they’ll really miss, except for talismanic goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. His departure could prove difficult, but they’ve got enough of a mixture of experience and fresh talent that I think they’ll do their best to show they don’t ever miss anyone.
Chelsea are entering a transitional phase with new boss Andre Villas-Boas – who, incidentally, has increased my girlfriend’s interest in football considerably – and will steadily look to replace an ageing squad.
Arsenal are STILL in their transitional period; it’s about time they cut their losses, sold Cesc Fabregas, invested it in a decent goalkeeper and a proper striker, and then – only then – would I consider them anything other than top-four contenders. Who knows? That could still happen before the end of the month.
Liverpool showed signs of things to come at the end of last season, and with a potentially deadly partnership of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, they could be in the mix. I’d even put a cheeky fiver on Suarez being top scorer this year. You heard it here first. (Probably not, actually. Better not say I was the first to say that. You never know, REAL journalists might be reading.)
And finally, Manchester City: the Beverly Hills 90210 of the north-west. They’ve not spent insane amounts – just the £38m on Sergio Aguero, plus the signing of Gael Clichy – not compared to last year anyway, but the squad is a strong unit and you’d be a fool not to consider them challengers.
The Tevez saga looms overhead, but many speculate their FA Cup victory in May will open the silverware floodgates. Metaphorically, of course. A flood of silverware sounds dangerous. And messy. And who would have to polish it all?
Outside these five, my team to watch is Sunderland. Steve Bruce has made some shrewd signings, with the likes of Craig Gardner, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, David Vaughan and Sebastian Larsson joining the ranks. Bruce has also gambled £8.1m on Ipswich’s Connor Wickham – a hefty fee – but it may be a risk that pays off. Expect to see the Black Cats challenging for a European spot this year.
Tip: West Ham
Ones to watch: Brighton
Should be a tight one, this (said the actress to the…no, no, mustn’t). Several teams have the potential to challenge for promotion, including last year’s playoff contenders Reading and Cardiff City. Nottingham Forest – another team to miss out on playoff glory last year – have a good manager in Steve McClaren (who’d have thought I’d say that 5 years ago) and have a strong chance. Leeds United will always be up there, but their leaky defence cost them last year and they could suffer the same problem again.
A lot of money will be on Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City. He’s been a busy man in the transfer market and is building a title-challenging squad, and if – excuse the upcoming cliché – they gel quickly, we could see the Foxes return to the top flight.
But for me, West Ham are the clear favourites. Sam Allardyce has the experience, the knowledge and the style to guide the Hammers straight back into the Premier League. They’ve lost some key players including Matthew Upson, but Allardyce has made some astute signings too; Joey O’Brien, Kevin Nolan and Matthew Taylor are reunited with their former boss at Bolton and have plenty of experience between them. Expect this to be a brief flirtation with the Championship.
One other team to look out for: Gus Poyet’s Brighton. The Seagulls have a new home – the superb-looking American Express Community Stadium (or Amex Stadium as everyone’s already calling it) – and Poyet has done an excellent job so far. They’ve made some good attacking signings, with Craig Mackail-Smith and Kazenga Lua Lua looking to replace the goals from former striker Glenn Murray, who defected to rivals Crystal Palace. They may even squeeze a playoff place in their first season back in the Championship.
Tip: Huddersfield Town
Ones to watch: Bournemouth
Here’s where I struggle for knowledge. But going on what I saw in The Football League Show last season, when I could be bothered to stay awake, I have to go for Huddersfield Town. Along with Brighton and Southampton, who ended up taking the automatic promotion spots, Huddersfield finished well clear of the chasing pack. Lee Clark has taken well to management, and after the disappointment of losing to Peterborough in the playoff final, he will be desperate for the Terriers to make the step up.
Other challengers, as far as I can see, will be Brentford, Carlisle, Leyton Orient and MK Dons. But my dark horses are Bournemouth. Not so dark, I guess, after their 6th place last year, but they lost influential manager Eddie Howe during last season and have a youthful squad. Young manager Lee Bradbury has his work cut out, but Bournemouth could be a stern test for many of their League One counterparts.
Tip: Oxford United
Ones to watch: AFC Wimbledon
“That’s the kiss of death for us, then,” cry my fellow Oxford United fans. My tips haven’t always fared well – I said Bradford would win League Two three years ago (oops) – but I found it too difficult to say no. Chris Wilder has assembled a superb squad, there’s a wonderful set-up behind the scenes, and in 18 years I’ve never seen such optimism at the club. Nine new signings have been made as Wilder has looked to improve on last season’s poor defensive record. Michael Duberry, formerly of Chelsea fame – and whose manager Ruud Gullit affectionately called him Mickey Dubes (I very much approve of this) – played in the SPL last year and could form a strong partnership with new captain Jake Wright. Several fingers are crossed for a solid start to the year and a further climb up the football ladder.
Other challengers include Oxford’s great rivals, Swindon Town, who the Yellows will be excited to play for the first time since the 2003 FA Cup (which Oxford won 1-0 by the way; thought that needed mentioning). New manager Paolo di Canio has renovated the squad so this could be a season too soon for them, but they’ll definitely be up there. The first meeting of Oxford and Swindon on August 20 is definitely one to watch.
Enough about that, though. Shouldn’t let Oxford monopolise my League Two preview. I’m trying, here, OK?
Several teams will challenge for promotion, including Football League new boys – and big spenders – Crawley Town. Some bookmakers even have the Reds as favourites for the title. They’ve got a strong squad and have every chance of back-to-back promotions.
As well as the new boys, challenging for the top three will be Shrewsbury – who missed out in the playoffs after coming 4th last season – along with Rotherham and Port Vale, both with new managers and are very much determined to return to the third tier.
But my team to watch has to be AFC Wimbledon. Everyone knows the story, and if the Dons could reach the same league as MK Dons and the prospect of a grudge match, the loyal fans would certainly be rewarded. The season could go either way for them – they could really struggle, but they could also spring a few surprises. Either way, it’s an exciting year for the London side.
Well done, you’re nearly at the end
So, that’s it. I guess I should also add that for my accumulator I’ve tipped Luton Town to win the Blue Square Bet Premier. I mean, it’s about time they did, right? But I’m not going into detail – I’ve taken up enough of your time. And to be honest, I can’t be bothered.
So, when I win my many thousands, you’re going to have to put up with one smug ginger man. We don’t have much cause for smugness, so if it happens, humour me, won’t you?
Enjoy the season. See you in May.