Tuesday, August 18, 2009

More football predictions...

As promised, and admittedly a week or so later than I would have liked, I have finally managed to dust off the crystal ball and to come up with my predictions for the forthcoming Premier League season.

But before I give you my predicted final placings, I thought it would be appropriate to write a little about each team to demonstrate my thinking. I doing so, I have broken the twenty clubs down into four groups, the Lancastrians, the Midlanders, the Londoners and the Odds and Sods.

As I noted at the end of last season, teams based in Lancashire now constitute 40% of the Premier League. However, I see this season as being something of a variation on the theme of the Curate’s Egg for the Red Rose members, with some enjoying good, successful seasons and the others potentially toiling to avoid being drawn in to the relegation dog-fight. Amongst the former, of course are Manchester United and Liverpool, both of which I expect to find in the top four next May. That said, unlike many pundits (most of whom it seems to me actually played for the club!) I do not subscribe to the theory that this will be Liverpool’s season to lift the trophy. I think that the combination of the loss of Alonso and the presence of stronger teams will see that particular Holy Grail remain out of their reach for yet another year. Manchester United, on the other hand, have an unparalleled record of success in this competition in recent years and will doubtless go very close to winning it again.

United’s opponents from across Manchester, with the bounty of Sheikh Croesus behind them will also have a very good season. Quite whether that will translate into a top-four position, I am not sure, because whilst they have more strikers than Bob Crow, they look a little short in defence to me, which will always make them vulnerable to conceding goals in a way that the top four simply don’t do.

Everton will also have a good season and I expect them to qualify for the Europa League, or whatever it will be called by then, particularly if they manage to fend off the predations of Man City and hold on to Joleon Lescott.

Moving on to the other Lancastrians, I fear that newly promoted Burnley will be returning whence they came, irrespective of their putting up a good fight to retain their status. They simply do not have the team or resources to survive: sad, but true. Meanwhile, their closest neighbours and fiercest rivals, Blackburn Rovers should be well enough equipped to secure a respectable mid-table finish, given the managerial skills of Sam Allardyce. Ditto Bolton Wanderers under Gary Megson; but I have a sneaking feeling that Wigan could find this season tough going, having lost an inspirational manager in Steve Bruce and a couple of important players.

Of the Midlanders, it will not surprise any of you to learn that I expect Aston Villa to lead their particular pack. However, shorn of Gareth Barry and with their one expensive summer signing (Downing) not expected to be fit until the New Year, I doubt that they will perform as well as they did last term. Birmingham City will regard staying in the division this season as a success and I fully expect them to do so. I cannot, however say the same for Mick McCarthy’s Wolves, who I think are in danger of becoming another yo-yo club like West Brom: too good for the Championship and not good enough for the Premier League. Finally for this group, and stretching geographical boundaries to breaking point, I see Stoke City having a season similar to the one that they enjoyed last time: their home form will keep them up, together with the odd point or three they collect on their travels.

Turning to the Londoners, no one will be surprised to see that I think that both Chelsea and Arsenal will be in the top four at the end of the season. Chelsea in particular have not lost any of their marquee players (unlike their northern rivals) and must have an excellent chance of winning the League for the first time for a couple of seasons. Arsenal, meanwhile, under the shrewd, but irritating Arsene Wenger will probably just about pip Man City to fourth place – but only just. Tottenham will be a far better prospect under Harry Redknapp than they were this time last year under Juande Ramos. That said, I don’t see them squeezing into the Europa League places unless seventh place would be sufficient for them to do so. Whilst I don’t foresee any problems for them, I don’t see Fulham repeating their success of last season and a solid mid-table finish is the best they can hope for. West Ham, on the other hand, under the mercurial Zola could, repeat could, be this year’s surprise package; however their financial position could spoil what would have otherwise been a season of progress and achievement.

No relegation worries for the Londoners, then.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for all of the members of my final group, the Odds and Sods. I fear that Portsmouth could collapse both financially and in terms of their haemorrhaging players at an alarming rate. Unless their Sheikh gets his hand in his pocket and buys the club very, very soon, I can hear the Pompey chimes ringing at Championship grounds in 2010-2011. Hull City, meanwhile will once again survive by the skin of their Tiger teeth, leaving Phil Brown a couple of shades lighter than his usual mahogany. Finally, Sunderland. I have a sneaking suspicion that this could be a breakthrough season for the Black Cats: they have a new, wealthy owner, an excellent manager in Steve Bruce and a squad recently reinforced by some quality players, such as Darren Bent. There will be no relegation worries at the Stadium of Light this year – far from it.

So, this is how I see the final league table next May:

1. Chelsea
2. Manchester Utd
3. Liverpool
4. Arsenal

5. Manchester City
6. Everton
7. Spurs

8. Aston Villa
9. West Ham
10. Sunderland
11. Fulham
12. Blackburn Rovers
13. Bolton Wanderers
14. Stoke City
15. Wigan Athletic
16. Birmingham City
17. Hull City

18. Wolves
19. Portsmouth
20. Burnley

Will I be as successful with my predictions as I was last season?

We will find out next May and once again, I will hold myself up to potential ridicule by comparing those predictions with what really happened…

Friday, August 14, 2009

How are the (self-supposed) mighty fallen...

How indeed.

Just fifteen short months ago, footballer David Bentley, then of Blackburn Rovers, had the world at his undoubtedly talented feet. He had just finished a successful season with his club and, having broken into the England team, was being spoken of as the 'new David Beckham'.

Those of us as interested in the back pages of the newspapers as we are in the front ones could not avoid acres of coverage, in which he explained, amongst other things, his love of DIY and how he overcame a gambling problem.

At the same time, those same articles began to mention that Bentley saw his footballing future away from Lancashire, at one of the four clubs then (and now) capable of launching a challenge for a Champions' League place, where he could also improve his international chances.

He and his agent began to openly court such a move, against the undoubtedly wiser (and possibly hypocrtical) counsel of his then manager, Mark Hughes, who, having advised him to stay at Ewood Park for at least another year, himself left the club for Manchester City and Thaksin Shinawatra's allegedly bloodstained Baht. Irrespective of that advice from a man who's pedigree was there to be respected, Bentley and his advisors believed their own publicity and the agitation for a move gathered pace.

Unfortunately for Bentley, none of the top four clubs were interested in acquiring his services, but then up popped Juande Ramos' Tottenham - the club Bentley supposedly supported as a boy - with a bid of fifteen million pounds, and the deal was swiftly done.

Indeed, by the time the transfer went through, I know a good many Blackburn fans who would have willingly taken the day off work, filled their car with petrol and driven him to London themselves, simply to rid their club of his disruptive presence.

Bentley described the transfer as his 'dream' move, but all too quickly from his perspective, the dream began to sour. For whatever reason - it is alleged that juvenile stupidity during an England get-together may have played a part - the famously professional Fabio Cappello jettisoned him from the national squad, never to return.

So far, so bad, but worse was to come. Ramos went the way of all flesh after a disastrous start to the season which saw Tottenham bottom of the league, to be replaced by everybody's favourite Cockney geezer, 'appy 'arry Redknapp, who quickly decided that Bentley had no place in his best (or indeed any) Spurs eleven and promptly dropped him.

Further humiliation was heaped on Bentley when, selected to play in the Carling Cup tie at Burnley - Blackburn Rovers nearest neighbours and fiercest rivals - he was withdrawn at half time, following a performance of quite unique incompetence.

To compound matters, from Easter onwards, Redknapp made it clear that Bentley had no future at Spurs, and was actively advising him to seek employment at another club, in order to 'rebuild' his career; the footballing equivalent of a failed X Factor audition.

So, twelve months after ignoring the advice of a man who had managed him into the England side, Bentley had lost his England place, lost his place in the Spurs team and had been told in no uncertain terms that he was surplus to requirements at White Hart Lane.

Then this happened.

Well at least he'll be able to afford a driver to take him to training whilst he serves his latest disqualification, but as I have titled this post 'how are the mighty fallen'.

I wonder if he wishes now that he'd followed Mark Hughes' advice and stayed at Blackburn for another year...