One of the best things about the start of a new Premier League season is the potential for the League to have a topsy-turvy look after a few games. In an era when the premier league has become ever more predictable, it’s a welcome bonus for fans of the less heralded clubs to sit pretty at the top of the table. This season has seen Wolves, who only narrowly avoided relegation last season, joint top after two games and currently occupying an automatic Champions League qualifying place.
Wolves‘s great start got me thinking about other similar ones, and a few in particular that really captured the imagination.
Newcastle’s early season form in 1995/96 was not a complete shock (they had finished 6th the previous season, and spent big in the summer), but there was something quite wonderful about the way in which the Toon Army began their campaign. This was the team of Ginola, Ferdinand, Beardsley et al. and they ripped into the start of the Premiership season, winning their first 4 games and conceding only one goal in the process. As an 8 year old, this team had a dream-like quality to it, probably because they seemed to approach football like us year 4s did in the playground. It also felt to me that the ‘Newcastle Brown Ale’ emblazoned across their shirts was a sort of magical performance enhancing liquid that one could only buy in Newcastle.
Their form continued until February by which time they had built a 12 point lead over Manchester United. At this point, Kevin Keegan surveyed a squad with a surplus of attacking options but lacking defenders and tactical discipline and sought the obvious remedy: Faustino Asprilla (yes, this Faustino Asprilla). Sadly, we all know what happened next: points were squandered, United overtook them at the last and Keegan’s ‘love it’ rant entered football folklore for evermore.
No one has managed to start since with quite such panache, but there have been some other memorable openings. Unlike Newcastle the previous season, Sheffield Wednesday’s start in 1996/97 really did come out of left field. And this wasn’t just winning the first couple of games, Wednesday improbably won their first four games, the highlight being a 2-1 victory over Newcastle at St.James’s Park. Unfortunately the form didn’t last and the great start was followed by defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal. Yet, even if their form wasn’t entirely sustained, such a superb start helped Wednesday to secure 7th spot, their joint highest Premiership finish.
Newly promoted Charlton Athletic took up the mantle in 1998 and despite being widely tipped to go straight back down, led the Premiership after two games, mainly courtesy of a 5-0 thrashing of Southampton. In their third match they held Champions Arsenal to a 0-0 draw at Highbury, ensuring that they hadn’t conceded a goal in their first three games. In this case though, the pre-season predictions were correct and Charlton sank like a trolley in a river before being comfortably relegated.
More recent examples saw newly promoted Bolton win their first three games in 2001/02 (inspired by England’s one cap wonder Michael Ricketts) before finishing 16th, and Burnley winning two of their first three games in 2009/10, including a famous win against Champions Manchester United. They then decided to prematurely accept relegation by appointing Brian Laws midway through the season. Hull meanwhile started with a win and a draw in 2008/09 and memorably sustained their form until the end of October, at which point they sat inconceivably joint top of the Premier League.
It’s not easy to explain why certain clubs start so well, or to say how much of a benefit starting well really is. Certainly the element of surprise can help promoted clubs (Charlton, Burnley, Blackpool etc.), and a few big signings (certainly in Newcastle’s case in 1995/96) can catch rivals cold and lift the mood of a club. The implications of a good start also vary hugely and while the cases of Charlton and Burnley suggest good starts can often be dismissed as aberrations, Hull in 2008/9, buoyed by their first couple of results, then banked so many points by the new year that despite a complete collapse in the second half of the season, still avoided relegation.
Whatever the reasons behind why certain clubs start seasons quickly, the lesson is to enjoy it while it lasts. Wolves fans should savour the moment before the weary predictability of the league takes over and we see an all too familiar top 4. Their fans should also allow themselves private moments where they allow themselves to dream and think that maybe, just maybe, by some miracle, their team can sustain its form.
It seems to me that the footballing media should do their bit to augment this fantasy; I for one would like to see Wolves ‘s match against 4th placed Aston Villa on Saturday billed as a potential title decider, or least a tussle for Champions League qualification. Likewise, Arsenal’s fixture against Swansea the game after next should, according to form, be billed as a relegation six pointer.
So roll on Saturday, when Wolves will be hoping to pile on the pressure on the top two with a win at Villa in the weekend’s early kick off.