With just over a week to go until the 2001/02 football season, excitement is building
thePublican.com's Darren Barrett reviews last year's football and makes predictions for the forthcoming season of the beautiful game.
Firstly, an apology. This time last year this very page predicted a bleak season for Premiership newcomers Ipswich Town and Charlton Athletic. I haven't been more wrong since announcing in 1987 that I knew that nice Archer fellow wasn't telling porkie pies.
As it turned out, the Addicks more than held their own against the "big" clubs with boss Alan Curbishley being touted as a future England coach.
And as for the Tractor Boys from Suffolk, they were the revelation of a frankly dull Premiership race and surely exceeded all expectations to finish fifth and claim a lucrative UEFA Cup place.
Yes, European football is heading back to Portman Road this season and George Burley's brand of attractive passing football coupled with a superb team spirit should be the right ingredients for another memorable season.
But will Charlton or Ipswich end up winning the Barclaycard Premiership title? Well, of course not - for that honour look no further than the might of Manchester United.
Thankfully, this season does look like it will be closer than last, but come on, let's be honest, the Red Devils won the title last year at a canter. In fact the race was all but over just as a certain Mr S Claus was cursing the 17th revival of the Thunderbirds.
During the summer Sir Alex Ferguson, preparing for his final season as boss, has shown just how far ahead United are by spashing out £19m on Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and a British transfer record fee of £28m on Argentine midfielder Juan Veron. One word: frightening.
If there is a weakness in the red machine then defensive cover may be a problem. Expect United scorelines to read 6-4 instead of 6-0 then.
The chasing pack will pose more of a problem to United's dominance with Liverpool leading the way after their cup treble last season.
But with their Manchester rivals spending big, Liverpool have only added £4m Norwegian John Arne Riise from Monaco to the squad.
Maybe Gerard Houllier hopes the success of last term will boost the confidence of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard.
Arsenal on the other hand have hit the transfer trail with gusto and boss Arsene Wenger has smashed the piggy bank for England defender Sol Campbell from arch-enemies Spurs.
The move across north London certainly raised a few eyebrows as Campbell seemingly cast aside team loyalty for a quick buck. The fee? A Bosman free. His wages? A reportedly cool £100,000 a week.
Also joining the Gunners are goalkeeper Richard Wright from Ipswich, £8m Francis Jeffers from Everton, Giovanni van Bronkhorst from Rangers and Japanese starlet Junichi Inamoto for £3.5m. And with the influential Patrick Vieira finally making up his mind to stay at Highbury, Arsenal have assembled a fearsome squad.
Across the capital saw Chelsea keeping up with their neighbours with Claudio Ranieri spending in excess of £30m. Emmanuel Petit's return to London from Barcelona and Frank Lampard's move from East to West London after West Ham sacking Harry Redknapp were the most notable summer signings. Chelsea hero Dennis Wise headed to Leicester after a bust-up with Ranieri over whether red or white wine best goes with ravioli. Allegedly.
The other team in with a shout is Leeds. However, after reaching the semi-final of the Champions League last term, the Elland Road outfit have yet to make a big-money signing this summer. Manager David O'Leary obviously believes his kids will come of age in 2001, but with court proceedings still hanging over stars Jonathon Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, the club may be forced to strengthen.
One of the more surprising summer transfers was the Premiership return of big Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. However, the red-nosed 37-year-old will line up with Aston Villa rather than his former club, Manchester United. Boss John Gregory swooped for Schmeichel after the sale of David James to West Ham but, with Villa's season already under way in the Intertoto Cup, an excess of matches could be costly for an ageing team.
Tottenham Hotspur may be the surprise package of the Premiership after being somewhat of a laughing stock in recent years. Legend Glenn Hoddle has got his managerial feet firmly under the table and despite the loss of Sol Campbell to Arsenal, new signings at White Hart Lane could spark a Spurs revival. One thing for certain is that the capture of Goran Bunjevcevic from Red Star Belgrade will cause a few jitters to commentators.
I fancy Spurs to have a good cup run and challenge for a UEFA Cup place along with the likes of Newcastle, Sunderland and Leicester. These clubs are similar in that on their day they can beat the best but qualification into Europe, rather than the title, is the more realistic ambition.
Spare a thought for the likes of Southampton, Derby, Everton, Middlesbrough and West Ham. These are the clubs that deserve to be challenging for honours but, for some reason, mainly financial and, let's be honest, rubbish players, they spend most of the season floundering around the lower reaches.
And what about the so-called whipping boys - the newly-promoted sides Blackburn, Fulham and Bolton. Financial clout and experienced players should see Blackburn and Fulham survive and it would come as no surprise to see both finish in the top half.
Bolton, I'm afraid, are doomed to a quick return to the Nationwide League so, if my predictions are anything like last year, expect to see them take the Premiership by storm.
(pictured: the mighty Manchester United)
West Ham United
An early start in Scotland
While English and Welsh football fans are still in a state of restless anticipation, in Scotland they have been getting sweaty under their see-you-Jimmy hats for a whole week. Punters will be watching with eager anticipation to see if last year's champions, Celtic, can be knocked off their perch.
Sky Sports is screening 30 Bank of Scotland Premier League matches live during the course of the season, including three high-octane Old Firm clashes between Celtic and Rangers.
Twelve live games have been confirmed for the first four months with every club appearing live at least once.
They include the first Celtic versus Rangers derby of the season on the last weekend of September and newly promoted Livingston making their Sky debut with a daunting home clash against Rangers taking place on Saturday October 27.
Most live matches - with the exception of the Old Firm games - will kick off at the new regular time of 5.35pm on Saturday evenings.
Looking forward to "another very hard-fought campaign", Sky Sports managing director Vic Wakel