Premier League: Minnows bring romance as they chase glory

Michael Walker looks ahead to the new Premier League season which starts tomorrow

 

It has not come too soon for Bournemouth. If your initial reaction is that the first week of August is much too early to contemplate this season’s Premier League in England — never mind throwing yourself into it — then consider the club known as AFC Bournemouth.

It has, in various guises, been around since the 1890s – as Boscombe FC they signed a first professional in 1910 and as Bournemouth & Boscombe they joined the Football League in 1923. But it has taken until now for AFC Bournemouth to mix it in the top flight in English football. So, no; no way is it too soon for them.

For many, however, including their first opponents, Aston Villa, it may well feel too soon. Villa played in the FA Cup final on May 30th; from that starting XI they have lost Shay Given, Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley and Christian Benteke. There are seven new faces but, as for other clubs, Villa’s squad that will see them through the season will not be finalised until August’s transfer window closes.

By then the Premier League season will be four games old. It makes August a difficult month. There is the treadmill of the 24-hour news cycle, which can sometimes threaten to overwhelm not just football but other sports. Then comes the first of the international breaks leading to Euro 2016 in France next summer. It is sobering to think that for some Premier League players the season will end next July 10th in Paris in the European Championships final.

They will have to deal with it. It is a test demanding stamina and nourishment. The same goes for the audience.

Premier staples

This time last season there was a focus on Chelsea, on whether Diego Costa could transform Jose Mourinho’s second season back at Stamford Bridge into a title-winning one.

By early November we had our answer. After defeat at Swansea Arsene Wenger declared: “It doesn’t look like anybody is capable of challenging them [Chelsea] at the moment. There’s no obvious reason, but they have had a good start and as long as you don’t lose you don’t question yourself. Maybe a little bit more extra spirit in the team helps them when it gets tight.”

It was a damning assessment of Arsenal’s “spirit”, but also evasive. Costa scored seven goals in Chelsea’s first four league games. The “reason” Wenger mentioned was in fact pretty obvious.

Costa, despite injury, scored 20 league goals in his first season in England. He is a brilliant brute of a striker.

Chelsea won the title by eight points from Manchester City. That gap, from first place to second, was the biggest in the Premier League. City were four points ahead of Arsenal who were five ahead of Manchester United.

United, in Louis van Gaal’s down-up first season at Old Trafford, finished 17 points behind Chelsea. It was an improvement on David Moyes’s curtailed year, but only by six points, and there was no European football to distract. And how come a player as gifted as Angel Di Maria did not thrive under Van Gaal?

United’s volume of spending means that Van Gaal is under pressure to get much closer to Chelsea, but 17 points is a chasm to bridge.

In that sense, City’s task is easier and they have signed Raheem Sterling from Liverpool. Sterling’s surname is open to interpretation in this football world but if he reconnects City’s detached talents, it might make sense. Either way, though, it feels like a last season for Manuel Pellegrini unless there is dramatic success.

Brendan Rodgers’s position at Anfield is under even greater scrutiny. The isolating removal of his lieutenants – Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh – looked like an invitation to resign. Rodgers has soldiered on but faces a worrisome trip back to Stoke City on this opening weekend. Liverpool’s lacklustre season ended in humiliation there in May, beaten 6-1. Rodgers has to show immediate progress. Liverpool’s next six away games are at Arsenal, United, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea and City.

With Jurgen Klopp on the market, if Rodgers is still in post in November, Liverpool will be holding their own, and maybe more. For the first time since season 1998-99, there is no Gerrard on Anfield’s changing landscape, but there is Benteke, Roberto Firmino and a returning Daniel Sturridge.

Danderous radical

As a manager, O’Driscoll spent six years at Bournemouth and with them being the first visitors to Anfield next weekend, O’Driscoll is the tie that binds.

O’Driscoll was Eddie Howe’s manager for a spell and Howe, just 37 but already experienced, and his wee club from Dorset will be this season’s story. Bournemouth — the Cherries — are to this year’s Premier League what Barnsley were in 1997, or Wigan Athletic in 2005, Swansea City in 2011.

Bournemouth possess novelty, difference and a rags-to-riches modern history. Previously peripheral, like Barnsley and Wigan, their freshness – and scale – will magnetise attention. A question is whether they will they be a one-season entertainment such as Barnsley or more enduring. Howe has spoken of Swansea as an example to follow.

Like Swansea in 2003, when the Swans required – and got – a last-day win in the fourth division to stay in the Football League, Bournemouth needed to beat Grimsby Town in their final home game of 2008-09 to maintain that status they gained in 1923.

Trailing 1-0 at half-time, Bournemouth were staring at non-league football. But with Howe, then 31, an emergency caretaker-manager, they secured a winner with just 10 minutes left. Chester City and Luton Town went down instead. Chester have not returned. It was a sliding doors moment for Bournemouth.

The scorer of the Cherries’s winner against Grimsby, Steve Fletcher, had a stand named after him at Dean Court. That’s gratitude. He is now the club’s UK head of recruitment.

As such, Fletcher has been busy this week. Middlesbrough’s lithe inside-forward Lee Tomlin has been bought for £3 million, becoming Howe’s eighth summer signing. The players are born around the world but they have come from seven domestic clubs, bringing experience.

Christian Atsu, signed on loan from Chelsea, made little impact at Everton last season – when some of us predicted otherwise – so it will be interesting to see if the Ghanaian international will prosper under Howe.

The young manager – labelled “special” by Gary Lineker, with all its connotations — has already talked a lot. Howe has a winning smile but in person, he can be dry, polite, reserved, and it was no surprise to read his response to the idea that after May’s promotion, this was a sweet summer for him.

“It doesn’t feel sweet to me,” Howe replied. “Everyone said: ‘Have a great summer, you’ll really enjoy it,’ but I haven’t enjoyed the summer. I’ve been focusing on the next challenge.”

He also does not take too well to notions that Bournemouth have somehow ‘bought’ their status. But then having a Russian millionaire, in this case a low-profile businessman called Maxim Demin, as owner brings that sort of accusation. Certainly when it came to wages, Bournemouth began to spend more a couple of years ago.

Floundering clubs

The two clubs met in the FA Cup in January at Villa Park, when Paul Lambert was still in the home dugout. Villa won 2-1 but Bournemouth had rested several players. A few weeks later Sherwood was where Lambert had been.

Sherwood kept Villa up and brought some smiles back to a club worn grey. Of the £40 million Villa received for Benteke and Delph, most has been reinvested in players coming from France. Micah Richards has been recruited too and is Villa’s new club captain. But Villa’s last four finishes have been 16th, 15th, 15th, 17th and Sherwood will have succeeded if Villa reach mid-table.

They are likely to reinvest again because with the new enhanced TV deal kicking in next August, this is most definitely not the season to be relegated. Next January could be very busy indeed.

As always the pressure on the promoted clubs is immediate. Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City tended to win last season; now they will tend to lose.

Leicester City offer short-term encouragement – and Swansea, Crystal Palace and West Brom in the longer term — but there is the knowledge that Burnley and QPR, promoted with Leicester, went straight back down.

Leicester’s peculiar appointment of Claudio Ranieri as Nigel Pearson’s replacement has reduced confidence in them repeating last season’s achievement. Leicester look as vulnerable as Villa, or Sunderland, or the promoted trio.

For West Ham, in their last season at Upton Park after 112 years, relegation would be embarrassing and economically disastrous. How Slaven Bilic handles that will be a strand in the multi-weave of a Premier League season, as will the new interpretation of the offside rule. It will be hyper, that’s for sure.

Too soon? Let’s get started.

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