Season Preview: The Football League – As it Could Be…

It was always going to be difficult to wake up this week, turn on the TV and have to settle for a bit of ‘Homes under the Hammer’ rather than the mens hammer qualifying, and to find that ‘Escape to the Country’ wasn’t the latest stage of the womens cycling road race.  Reality has returned and post Olympic withdrawal symptoms are likely to be affecting most of the country, which is why the start of the football season this weekend is so timely.

Now I realise there will be those ready to take immediate issue with that statement on at least 2 fronts.  Firstly I hear the argument that after the captivating triumphs of genuine sporting heroes from London 2012 versus the return to the spotlight of overpaid, ungracious, foul-mouthed primadonnas from the Premier League is seen by many as something of a turn off.  Whilst Jessica Ennis was becoming the nations sweetheart and Mo Farah ran himself into legend, football has seen another penalty shoot-out flop at a major finals whilst being publicly dragged through the gutter in the courts during the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair which still rumbles on.

To counter this I could offer you a reminder of the last day drama in May, the Sergio Aguero goal in stoppage time that finally settled a sensational season in Manchester City’s favour.  But instead I will point you to the Football League – one of the most watched leagues in Europe, home to clubs integral to their local communities, and the source of some incredible stories and almost certainly genuine drama.  The grit and gore as opposed to the glamour and glory of the top flight.

Rarely have I looked forward to the start of a Football League season more than this one.  Primarily of course because after an 8 year absence my team York City are involved in it once again.  No more reading all the usual team by team previews only to feel the frustration when the alphabetical lists end with Yeovil Town.  That’s not how it used to be and it’s not how it is any longer.  And I realise I might still be a little high from watching York win at Wembley on successive weekends back in May.  But I genuinely believe getting out of the Conference was the hard part, and that competing in League Two having kept most of the squad together should be eminently achievable.

I also realise the season for Football League clubs has technically already started but I’ve chosen not to linger too long on the Capital One Cup after Saturday’s defeat at Doncaster.  Not because there was any disgrace in a 1-1 draw away to a team who were in the Championship last season.  Nor because of it’s latest new name.  But losing on penalties in the first match of the season was tough to take – particularly after Euro 2012.  Not even the Olympic magic dust could prevent a shootout defeat for Team GB.  Never before have I been forced to ‘concentrate on the league’ before the league has ever started, but that is what I shall do here.

But don’t worry, I won’t just concentrate on York City.  The new Championship season promises to be as fascinating as ever this year – both on and off the field – with so many clubs so desperate for a piece of the Premier League pie.  Of the sides that came down Bolton look best placed to bounce straight back.  They suffered, in my opinion, more than their share of misfortune last season, have rightly stuck by Owen Coyle and I wouldn’t be surprised if stability is rewarded with success.

Nuno Gomes: Signed for his youthful looks?

Blackburn, too have opted not to make a change in the dugout – in their case despite big pressure from fans.  Although to say they’ve kept faith with Steve Kean might be stretching it a bit given that new director of football Shebby Singh has already told a fans forum the boss will be sacked if he loses 3 games at the start of the season.  He’s now apologised apparently but it’s just the latest episode in a sorry tale of how not to run a football club.  The Venky family have long since appeared clueless, so have now brought in a Malaysian TV pundit to do it for them – Kean must have one of the toughest jobs in football and I’m not sure the signing of 36 year old Nuno Gomes is the answer to replacing the goals of Yakubu and Junior Hoilett, both of whom have jumped ship since relegation.  I can’t see a Rovers return whilst the chicken barons remain in charge.

Wolves now represent something of an unknown quantity after the appointment of Stale Solkbakken.  The Norwegian had great success with Copenhagen, much less so with Koln and there’s always an element of risk when opting for a foreign boss, particularly at this level.  It remains to be seen whether Solkbakken will be a Roberto Martinez or an Alain Perrin.

Leicester found to their cost last season the folly of throwing money at a boss with little (no) experience of the division.  That story was always likely to end with Sven pocketing yet another pay-off but if the owners continue to give the same backing to Nigel Pearson having brought him back to the club last season then the Foxes should be a force.

It’s also why, across the East Midlands, Nottingham Forest will be worth watching as well.  Their new Kuwaiti owner Fawaz Al-Hawasi may have a bit to learn about PR, having promised fans an iconic new manager and then given the job to Sean O’Driscoll.  But the ends might just justify the means in this case – O’Driscoll knows the club, knows the division having kept Doncaster punching above their weight for years, and plays an attractive style of football that should appeal to the Forest fans.

Gianfranco Zola: Ready to inject some Mafia mentality in to the Hornets?

By way of a contrast we have Watford.  Sean Dyche did a fantastic job last season on a very limited budget but was reduced to covering their Cup tie with Wycombe on Saturday from the Sky studio whilst Gianfranco Zola sets about dismantling the side (and possibly team spirit) he built with a series of signings from Udinese who probably have little idea what they’re walking into.  As players Zola and Dyche were clearly polar opposites but as the former Chelsea legend has already proved at West Ham, talent on the field doesn’t always (infact probably doesn’t often) translate into the dugout.  Frustration at your players not being able to do what you could do is likely to be an issue for Zola at Vicarage Road.

Expect plenty of headlines one way or the other at Leeds United.  When you have a potential takeover bubbling under, and Ken Bates, Neil Warnock and El Hadj Diouf all on the cast list then publicity is assured.  The signing of Diouf was a particularly interesting one, previously branded a sewer rate by his new manager, who’s also taken advantage of the problems at Portsmouth by seemingly signing half their team, as well as Paddy Kenny for approximately the 12th time in his career.

Talking of Portsmouth, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of opening day in League One will be to see their team-sheet for the game against Bournemouth, given that only persuading their entire first team squad to leave over the summer has kept the club afloat.  Except for Kanu who’s sueing them over unpaid wages!  But with no team and another 10 point deduction in place to start the season, another relegation already looks on the cards – who’d have thought just 4 years ago when Pompey were winning the FA Cup at Wembley that this particular south coast derby would see Bournemouth start as the big favourites with a solid financial base their opponents can only dream of.

After coming so close last season Sheffield United will be demanding promotion this time around whilst seeing Coventry at this level for the first time in 48 years will take a little getting used to.  They’ll be hoping to take inspiration from Norwich and Southampton in recent seasons, who having also dropped to the third tier went on to win successive promotions back to the Premier League.

League Two has been in the spotlight over the summer as well, although it now appears we won’t be seeing Joey Barton lining up for Fleetwood after all.  Not that that should adversely affect the Cod Army’s chances of successive promotions too much.  With significant investment again available I expect them to be up there.  I just hope they won’t be the only Football League newboys to be celebrating again.  Bring on Wycombe on Saturday – before this post Olympics hangover gets any worse.

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