The Championship goes back to school
Three words that plagued me as a child. You would barely be out of the door for the final time at the start of the summer before those three words would appear in big, bold letters whenever you went anywhere near a shop. Three words that would magically become four when spoken out loud. Back to bloody school.
Alright, fine! I’m coming back, don’t worry! I don’t have much bloody choice about it, do I? I don’t need reminding. I’ll be dragged to the bloody place when the time comes, whether I like it or not. And I didn’t like it and neither did anyone else. But it was inevitable and unavoidable.
And it is almost time again.
This weekend, the seventy-two clubs of the Football League return, kicking and screaming, to grounds up and down the country – ready for another nine-and-a-half months of hard graft and the odd bit of genuinely exciting talent.
Some pupils, such as Hull City’s Richard Garcia and Ipswich Town’s Tommy Smith, have been to summer school in South Africa since the last league campaign ended in May and will probably be heartily sick of the sight of that familiar green rectangle. Others, the likes of Leicester City’s DJ Campbell and Swansea City’s Stephen Dobbie, appear to be returning to their old class-mates, having thought they had managed to better themselves with moves away.
All will nervously line up at the weekend in an orderly line, waiting to be judged, marked and criticised for their homework over the last few weeks ahead of the new term. This summer, few have had the money to buy new uniforms or a dashing new crew-cut. In fact, many will be sporting the same bedraggled look they wore on the final day of last term.
Like a gaggle of schoolchildren on the first morning back in the old routine, each one dressed by their mother and sent out into the world, that first lineup will provide no hiding place. This season, two bright-eyed and bushy-tailed combatants will be pushed into the playground one day ahead of everyone else and the whole school will be watching to see the first scrap of term.
Norwich City fans will be hoping things go more smoothly than they did twelve months ago, when Colchester United came to town and brashly bullied them out of their lunch money on their own doorstep. Lessons were learned that day and it is inconceivable that Malky Mackay’s young Watford side will emulate the U’s achievement. At least Paul Lambert will know what to guard against.
Then there’s the fitness issue. Why does that kid know all the answers? Has he swallowed an encyclopaedia over the summer? How come I don’t know the capital of Burkina Faso? Ouaga-whatnow? How does he know that?!
Some managers will have done a thorough job of ensuring their pupils swotted up ahead of the first proper exam. Having all prepared separately on training grounds up and down the country, it is only the paper is turned over that supporters get a chance to see whether the revision has gone swimmingly or not.
Swansea captain Garry Monk reckons that new manager Brendan Rodgers pushes the Swans harder in training than previous boss Paulo Sousa, now at beaten play-off semi-finalists Leicester. Monk’s theory will be put to the test when his side travel to Hull City tomorrow for their opening league game. Leicester’s success last season was built on Nigel Pearson’s dedication to fitness and the new man in charge at the KC Stadium should have his men well-drilled, despite turbulent times for the club.
Elsewhere, David James will hope for a low-key return to Football League action as Bristol City take on newly-promoted Millwall and two strongly-fancied teams meet at Turf Moor with Burnley and Nottingham Forest both aiming for promotion.
Portsmouth supporters will travel to Coventry City, partly relieved there is a trip to be made at all after yesterday’s positive High Court judgement. Crystal Palace fans are a little further down the same road. The Selhurst Park club’s future looks bright thanks to the CPFC2010 consortium and they kick off at home to Leicester, who have had a whole new footballing language to learn ahead of the new term.
Middlesbrough are many people’s favourites to graduate next May and a home clash with Ipswich will be a decent test of their credentials. Preston and Doncaster meet at Deepdale, while QPR take on Barnsley at Loftus Road. All four will be keen to prove they are capable of troubling the top six this season.
Reading will be expected to see off Scunthorpe United comfortably at the Madejski Stadium and Leeds welcome Derby to Elland Road in the late kick-off tomorrow. Sunday sees Cardiff City and Sheffield United face off in south Wales.
Back to bloody school. I can’t bloody wait.