Premier League season preview – every team rated

Just over a week remains before the Premier League kicks off again after a three month hiatus. From what the transfer window has given us so far, this should be a tight, competitive campaign, but there will still be winners and losers and mid-table fodder.

Here, each team will be reviewed and rated, from Arsenal to West Ham United. Who will be the champions, who will face the drop, and how will your team fare?

Arsenal (4th)

So far, all their heavy transfer talk has come to no avail. Luis Suarez hasn’t arrived, and the chiefs at the Emirates put a deal for Gonzalo Higuain on ice to accommodate the Uruguayan. It could be another difficult summer, but Arsene Wenger has a knack for scarping into the Champions League places, no matter what faces him.

Aston Villa (16th)

Paul Lambert has made some clever acquisitions this summer but you have to fear that his unwillingness to play his more premium players – Darren Bent, Charles N’Zogbia – could come back to bite him. That said, he’s a good manager, who might be able to steer them clear of the drop.

Cardiff City (20th)

They come as the most prepared club from the Championship, having won the league and, more importantly, carrying forward the healthiest budget. Steven Caulker is a good full back, but £8 million is a lot to pay. It’s a similar tale with Andreas Cornelius. They are building a solid side but could be in for a tough campaign.

Chelsea (1st)

Jose Mourinho is back and the self proclaimed ‘Happy One’ has brought a buzz back to Stamford Bridge. The signings Chelsea have made are impressive and their new manager’s influence should make them a Championship winning outfit. Whether it will last beyond a year, though, is a different story.

Crystal Palace (18th)

Ian Holloway will return to the Premier League and will return with a team fond of attacking football but will, most likely, be leaky at the back. His side has many similarities with that of Blackpool’s 2010 team and a similar fate will most likely befall them.

Everton (11th)

Under Roberto Martinez, Everton are an unknown quantity. They will lose their relative solidity, that’s for sure, but their new gaffer’s style of play could work wonders at Goodison Park. The Merseysider’s could be in for a season of consolidation and would do well to break into the top half, taking into account some uninspiring signings.

Fulham (7th)

It’s difficult to say where the Cottagers are heading given their new ownership. Shahid Khan has funds but it is unclear just how much of his wealth he is willing to expose to Martin Jol. If he is prepared to splash a little more, and some major gaps are filled, a solid season is in store.

Hull City (17th)

Hull have something both Palace and Cardiff will be jealous of – a manager who has been successful at this level. That could make a difference for an otherwise Championship quality squad. A few good signings could mean relegation can be avoided.

Liverpool (6th)

Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool should continue to grow. Philippe Coutinho has the potential to be huge but losing Luis Suarez could dent any hopes of breaking into a strong top five.

Manchester City (3rd)

Manuel Pellegrini is a strong manager, and City have probably made the most influential investments of any top club this summer. They’re still not a complete package, though, with Chelsea possessing more quality and United possessing more guile.

Manchester United (2nd)

David Moyes is the most obvious choice to take United forward and his time will come, but this season could be too early for him. The Scotsman has inherited a good squad, but they are no vintage side. Robin van Persie will get him goals but the change in manager may dampen their season a little.

Newcastle United (14th)

Last season exposed the Geordies as a distinctly average side and the shambles behind the scenes with Joe Kinnear will not make things easier. The lack of European football will surely help, however, and a squad brimming with quality should achieve safety without too much trouble.

Norwich City (10th)

The Canaries have probably made the best signings in this transfer window, though they have concentrated somewhat heavily on a forward department that, with the early signing of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, is already strong. Leroy Fer is a superb midfielder and Nathan Redmond could break into the first eleven. Chris Hughton is an unremarkable manager, however, and 10th could be their limit.

Southampton (12th)

Another side that have spent heavily so far this summer, Southampton should have a campaign to get excited about. Mauricio Pochettino has proved himself a good manager, too, but they don’t come without some severe concerns. They have spent heavily on unproven players and have a knack for beating the big teams and stumbling when against the minnows.

Stoke City (15th)

With Tony Pulis gone, it is a new dawn at the Britannia Stadium. Mark Hughes will look to change the style of play – more through pressure than a desire to himself – and this transition could take its toll on Stoke. They’ll do well to beat the drop, and they probably will eventually.

Sunderland (19th)

Paolo Di Canio inspired something of a resurgence when he arrived late last season at the Stadium of Light. Not everyone will get on with his hard-line persona though and he could quickly lose the respect of an otherwise decent squad. If that happens, a slog is in store.

Swansea City (8th)

The Welsh side have a lot to be excited about this year, but the luxury of Europa League football has its inevitable drawbacks. Wilfred Bony will take the goal burden off of the shoulders of Michu, and Michael Laudrap has built a top ten side. Breaking into the top six could even be on the cards.

Tottenham Hotspur (5th)

Gareth Bale, Gareth Bale, Gareth Bale. Everything rests on Gareth Bale. The Welshman is probably the best player in the Premier League right now and retaining him is key to pushing for a Champions League place. That will be as good as it gets, though, and losing the winger could lead to a more troublesome season for Andre Villas-Boas.

West Bromwich Albion (9th)

The Baggies have lost their most vital asset last year in Romelu Lukaku but have replaced him well in seasoned veteran Nicholas Anelka. They are different types of player, however, and the speed at which their new Frenchman settles in will have a huge effect on how this campaign will go.

West Ham United (13th)

Everything is in place at Upton Park to do well. A good manager, a solid squad and a star striker should mean a positive year for the Hammers. Andy Carroll is not the answer to every prayer, though, and an over-reliance on the former Newcastle man could cost dear.

Predicted League Table

1 Chelsea
2 Man Utd
3 Man City
4 Arsenal
5 Spurs
6 Liverpool
7 Fulham
8 Swansea
9 West Brom
10 Norwich
11 Everton
12 Southampton
13 West Ham
14 Newcastle
15 Stoke
16 Aston Villa
17 Hull
18 Crystal Palace
19 Sunderland
20 Cardiff

Book Review – A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng

a-life-too-short-front-coverRobert Enke was a tremendously gifted goalkeeper. He had eight German caps to his name and had established himself as one of Europe’s most reliable, most talented players.

He was a splendid human being as well; caring, kind-hearted, thoughtful. But, as Ronald Reng shows in this remarkable piece of biographical writing, clinical depression can take whoever it wants and Enke was one of its unfortunate victims.

Reng, a journalist and friend of Enke, had begun work on this book before the goalkeeper’s suicide and with such a troubled life story to tell, he continued to write it after the footballer’s death. And we’re all the better for it.

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke is a fine piece of work and, justifiably, it was winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2011. Reng wonderfully balances Enke’s personal woes with his professional highs and lows and, more pertinently, he highlights with staggering honesty the way the two intertwine.

For Enke was a man afraid of his own success. He feared failure to an extent beyond comprehension for anybody who has not suffered depression themselves. That fear, that all-encompassing fear, led Enke to step in front of a passing train on 10th November 2009, leaving his wife, Teresa, and adopted daughter, Leila, behind.

Reng styles his writing sensibly and places significant emphasis on Enke’s most harrowing moments, one of which being a 3-2 defeat as Barcelona ‘keeper against FC Novelda, a Spanish Third Division side. His hesitance off the line was, in part, the fault that led to Novelda’s winning goal.

For most, it could be forgotten in weeks. But not for Enke.

His story, so well encapsulated here, transcends so much further than football, for depression is an illness that can affect anyone. It plays on your mind and for Enke, it made his thoughts dark and his days long, bleak and tiresome.

Reng, as a writer, cannot simply throw you into Enke’s mindset but he comes as close as is humanly possible and, as this life story reaches its nigh, you can’t help but feel saddened.

What is worth noting, though, is that while emotion proves to be the focal point of this biography, it also enriches you and open your eyes. When we talk of football, or sport, we usually talk of scandal, of competition, of victory and of defeat.

But the lives within it often carry the best tales. This story brings to the fore the terror and the heartache that depression can bring on families and on individuals.

Enke’s life, it’s meandering intricacies and relationships, is beautifully told by Reng. It’s harrowing in its substance but poetic nonetheless and is accessible to all.

RIP Robert Enke.

El Creekio – AFC Portchester 2-5 Fareham Town

It was dubbed the ‘El Creekio’ and in some, unfamiliar ways, it matched up to its somewhat more prestigious Spanish counterpart. This was no top-of-the-table clash, whichever way you twisted either side’s recent form, and the weather was certainly no comparison to what you’d find in Madrid or Barcelona.

But, in entertainment value at the very least, this local, Creekside derby had a lot to offer. Seven goals, some heated tackles and some worryingly feeble defending.

Though the scoreline would suggest so, Fareham weren’t hugely domineering in their display. They threaded through some decent passes and had control of the midfield but, ultimately, some naive Portchester defending made way for an emphatic result.

Fareham began the half shooting towards the netted end of the Wicor Recreation Ground, a cosy, if not elaborate non-league setting, and found themselves on the front foot immediately.

Matt Burt, the towering Fareham central midfielder, connected with a well placed corner in the opening minutes but saw his effort sail over the bar. A string of crosses and set pieces followed but nothing ended up troubling the Portchester goalkeeper.

The early pressure, then, wasn’t telling and the home side soon came into the game. But, despite making their presence felt, Portchester were soon behind. Bryn McKie who, up to this point, had looked off the pace, curled an effort in from the edge of the area. It really should have been saved but, regardless, the away support – who were particularly vociferous – had the early bragging rights.

It wasn’t long before Kieron Lewis added the second with a beautifully timed volley. A minor scramble in the area allowed the ball to sit up perfectly for the defender and he struck the ball home without hesitance. It all seemed over already.

Therefore, it was no surprise when, two minutes later, Fareham had a three goal advantage. Some brilliant work on the right wing from a lively Gary Austin resulted in a tempting ball into the box. So tempting, in fact, that Dale Clarke turned the ball into his own net.

Moments before half time, though, the home side won themselves a lifeline after Blu Boam knocked home from a free-kick.

With their tales up, you would’ve thought Portchester would come out in search for another goal but, in truth, they were only soaking up more Fareham pressure. There were a myriad of through balls, all of which the home defence seemingly couldn’t cope with, and only some dismal finishing was keeping the scoreline at 3-1.

Not that Portchester weren’t creating chances. Two goalmouth scrambles were eventually cleared – one from the line and one off of the post – as Portchester showed that, for all their dismal defending, they were an offensive threat.

But Fareham were, ultimately, showing the home side how it was done and it wasn’t ong before a fourth was added. Mig Dark drove a shot at goal and Tom Winzar, who had come off the bench, reacted quickly to slip the ball through the ‘keeper’s legs.

Portchester showed some style with their second, though, having hit Fareham on a tremendous counter attack. The right wing was seemingly their territory, as captain, George Way, steamed up the pitch. Substitute Jay Ripner finished the move well but it was Fareham who ended up leaving an indelible mark on the match.

After another hefty Portchester challenge, McKie lined up a free kick from outside the area and nestled it perfectly into the top left corner.

5-2 to Fareham, and another feisty Creekside derby to go before the season ends.

The life of a sports journo – Dean Jones interview

What could be better than waking up every morning, knowing your day would be spent talking about and watching football? 

It’s a nice idea, and it’s one that Dean Jones, football reporter for The People, subscribes to. Except for him, of course, it’s a reality.

There’s no fitting in matches around work, no catching up on interviews after the nine-to-five is over. Football is his job and he very much lives it. And he’s always wanted to.

“I knew from a very early age that if I did not make it as a footballer, I wanted to write about it,” Dean said.

“I read papers every day from the age of about 14 and by 16 I was covering matches for an agency, who are now called Hayters Teamwork.

“Thinking back, it was brave of them to let me do it so young but it kind of came naturally to me so I didn’t think about how old I was.

“I had a full-time job as a reporter by age of 20.”

As much as it came naturally, and despite a somewhat captivating façade to the role of a sports journalist, Dean admits it’s not all plain sailing.

The boom in social media has added a new aspect to his job and, unsurprisingly, instant interaction on sites such as Twitter isn’t always complimentary.

“It’s not easy. People seem to think journalists make up transfer stories and news stories but it’s simply not true.

“Making contacts and working out who you can trust takes time, and is not as straight forward as it sounds.

“Twitter has changed the game too, because so many stories/rumours break on there – and we also have thousands of people ready to tweet abuse when we get a story wrong!”

That abuse, seemingly, can even come from fans of his own club – Fulham. When breaking the news of Bobby Zamora’s spat with Martin Jol last year, Dean was met with disdain in some quarters.

He doesn’t let his allegiance to the Whites affect his duty, though, and feels breaking the story is what matters most.

“[Putting loyalties aside is] not something I have ever had a problem with.

“When I broke the story of Bobby Zamora having a bust-up with Jol and stated that he’d be leaving in January, some fans suggested on Twitter I was out of order because I was upsetting the club I support.

“But, ultimately, if you have a good story and know it is correct, you can not worry about who it impacts on.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Fulham’s fortunes don’t take their toll. He cites the club’s extra-time loss to Atletico Madrid in the inaugural Europa League final as his saddest moment on the job.

It’s not all bad, though,  being a sports hack:

“I was inside the Olympic Stadium reporting on the night Ennis, Farah and Rutherford won their gold medals,” he reminisced.

“That hour was unlike anything I have ever experienced in terms of drama and stadium noise.

“[I] will never see anything like it again, either.”

Story of Fabrice Muamba shows football’s less prominent side

There is a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol travelling around football right now. 

There is talk of racism. There is talk of scandal. There is talk of violence. There is even, as news reports in the Netherlands have shown, talk of death.

It’s not a sport, and it will never be a sport, that reflects well on itself. For every moment of brilliance, for every 92nd minute title-winning goal, there is a monkey gesture in the stands. There is a Gareth Bale, theatrically tumbling without the slightest of contact.

No wonder, then, that others look upon football with the greatest of disdain. They see the headlines and think: where is the morality? Where, even, is the sanity?

It’s a good question but if you find football repulsive, find its values repugnant, then you have probably missed some of its most treasured moments. Some are delightful, simply awe-inspiring. Others are harrowing and yet still, miraculous.

The story of Fabrice Muamba falls into the latter. It was told on ITV 4′s Sports Life Stories on Tuesday 4th December and it was a story that touched the heart as much as any other documentary. If not more.

A young boy, who travelled to England from the troubled Democratic of Congo, Fabrice had to work hard. He only spoke a smattering of English words but learnt the language within a year. He was athletically gifted but not so technically. Arsenal turned him down after his first trial.

Fabrice went back, though, keen to impress and, from then on, he wrote his own history.

But, on 17th March 2012, he collapsed while playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup Quarter Final. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and the ground could only watch on in absolute horror.

Still quite unaware of the extent of Fabrice’s state, though, the fans began to chant. He couldn’t hear them, of course. First the Bolton fans sang, and then the Spurs fans joined in. The whole stadium supported him.

And then, a Tottenham fan ran onto the pitch. He had explained to three stewards that he was a consultant cardiologist but only one was prepared to let him on. He helped the medical team prepare Fabrice whose heart, by now, had not beat independently for a good 10 minutes.

It wouldn’t go on to do so for another 68. He was rushed to the London Chest Hospital where it was deemed that, if he did survive, he would likely be brain damaged. He wasn’t.

Fabrice didn’t wake up for two days while, in the meantime, supporters of myriad teams flocked to the Reebok Stadium, eager to show their collective support to a rival player. They left scarves, replica shirts, anything that could prove they were behind him, that they wanted him to get better.

Fabrice-Muamba-Shirt

People left messages, leaving both love for Fabrice and his family.

Players for various other teams wore t-shirts that read “pray 4 Muamba”. Rest assured, many, many did.

Seven months later, Fabrice returned to White Hart Lane for the first time, the home of Tottenham Hotspur and the place where it all happened. The whole ground stood in appreciation and applauded similarly. Fabrice, understandably, cried. And so did many others.

For this is a story that was felt by so many – way beyond the spectrum of football.

But, within it, Fabrice Muamba’s ordeal has shown that football isn’t completely rammed with resentment, with rivalry and with rancour.

Patrick Vieira, former Arsenal team-mate of Fabrice’s, summed up the sentiment beautifully:

“The way the fans sent in the messages, I think, it just showed that football is unbelievable. We’re talking so much about the negativity, about our game that we love so much.

“And, we should not forget the time when that happened, how football reacted. It was fantastic.”

Because yes, football gets a bad press and deservedly so. But in times like these, perhaps it’s the best place to be.

Fareham Town hold table-toppers

It was tremendously nervy work at times but Fareham Town held league-leaders Christchurch to a 1-1 draw at Cams Alders on Tuesday night, with the visitors dropping points for only the second time this season.

Christchurch were keen on revenge after their hosts knocked them out in a dramatic FA Cup tie earlier in the campaign and if form was anything to go by, doing so shouldn’t have been an overly difficult task.

Town have looked good this season but Christchurch have been the early pace setters and, for that matter, have set an extremely high target for rivals to meet.

Of their first 12 league games, they have won 10, scoring 35 and conceding only 7 in the process. It has left them top with some quite considerable breathing space.

The opening exchanges suggested something entirely different, however, with Fareham’s Gary Austin in particular causing a number of problems to a static Christchurch back line. When they did decide to press the winger, his abundant pace and nonchalant twists and turns on the ball left them in their wake.

When it mattered most, however, there was no-one in the box to aid his direct, spontaneous bursts into the Christchurch half.

It only made the job easier for Christchurch who, before long, settled into their game plan which appeared to mostly consist of containment. They were still creating their own chances, though, with two opportunities going begging either side of a corner.

Austin then again stretched the visitor’s back four but, after the receiving the ball back from the ever-present Graham Lindsey, had his shot blocked.

It told the tale of a close first half which had little in the way of genuine action.

Half time had its effect though and Christchurch returned keen to exploit their status as table toppers. A free header for Brad McGookin wasn’t converted but Fareham didn’t heed the warning signs and soon fell behind.

Ben Osborne met a drilled cross at the far post and it was now up to the Creeksiders to show some urgency.

Though that urgency never truly materialised, Fareham did look marginally more expansive as the bitterly cold night drew to a close. Some long Danny Thompson throws were causing confusion in the box and there was a sense that, despite their admirable defensive record, the Christchurch defence was somewhat susceptible to a well placed set piece.

And so it proved as Lindsey jumped highest from a 61st minute free kick, bringing the tie back to parity.

It seemed to inspire Fareham but, without anything genuinely penetrative, before long, enthusiasm began to dwindle in the home end and the away side pressed with ever-greater intent.

They could easily have won it in the final few minutes when Dan Thompson – of Christchurch this time – managed to fire a close range volley high and wide of the goal.

Fareham fans, at the opposite end of the pitch, blew a collective sigh of relief and, moments later, the final whistle went on what was a plucky, ungracious but ultimately satisfactory point for both sides.

Gosport Borough 1-4 Portsmouth

Gosport Borough were handed no favours in their friendly with neighboring Portsmouth, with the young, fluid away side running out as 4-1 winners.

The match, set up as an official opening of Gosport’s new Harry Mizen stand, was overly one-sided, even with Bradey Norton grabbing a consolation goal for the home side.

And it was Pompey’s Dan Thompson who proved to be the ultimate difference between these two sides, taking, as he did, the away sides complete haul of four goals.

That will get Michael Appleton thinking about Thompson ahead of their Capital One Cup clash with Notts County at the weekend but, in truth, this game was supposed to be all about the hosts.

And, in the opening stages, Borough boss Alex Pike would have been somewhat impressed with his team’s composure. They fell short of dictating play but they were allowing Portsmouth little space and even less time on the ball.

But, when four leagues separate two sides, resilience can only last a certain amount of time. 24 minutes to be precise.

Appleton was watching on from the stands as Thompson put Pompey into ascendancy. Liam Walker, of former Gibraltar fame, was classy throughout and provided the assist, with Thompson finishing from close range.

Moments later, Walker struck the post from a free kick and the warning shot wasn’t enough to tempt Gosport into tightening the ranks.

Jack Maloney this time got the assist with Thompson again providing the final touch.

He should have scored his third soon afterwards after Borough goalkeeper Nathan Ashmore made a hash of controlling the ball. Thompson had the goal at his mercy but, perhaps in an attempt to preserve home dignity, sought to roll the ball wide.

It was the kind of moment that could have easily spurred Gosport into life, but it didn’t happen. Their most exhilarating first half moment was a shot from the half way line.

Thompson secured his hat-trick five minutes later and it was up to Ashmore to deny him his fourth moments into the second half. The Borough goalie was as resolute as you may have expected but, understandably, his earlier error somewhat tarnished his display.

Sammy Igoe, of former Pompey fame, then made way for Norton to grab his five minutes of fame. Portsmouth, under the tutorship of Guy Whittingham, began to sit back and settle into relative safety.

It allowed Gosport to push further forward and Norton’s goal was both deserved and one of genuine quality. But the respite was brief and normal services soon resumed.

Another former Gosport and Pompey player, Steve Claridge, was caught looking on from the sidelines but his most recent side only imploded further. He enjoyed his last moments in football at Borough’s Privett Park, helping them to promotion to the Southern League Premier Division.

They have looked weak so far in their new league though, and Thompson rounded off the evening, heading home from a free-kick.

4-1 to Portsmouth it was and the new Harry Mizen stand emptied in relative silence, more in awe of Dan Thompson than their fresh, new piece of architecture.