And Another Thing
Four football fans in a round-(pub-)table discussion
Our panel, left to right:
Gary Ellis, art director, Newcastle United
Ian Burke, media planner buyer, Fulham
Andy Morris, account manager, Aston Villa
Vince Nieszwiec, builder and entrepreneur, Charlton Athletic
What are your expectations for the season ahead?
Newcastle If we made the UEFA Cup without having to resort to the Intertoto Cup, the fans would be happy. I think we were going down under Graeme Souness and all we want is progress.
Aston Villa Our ambitions are similar, but as we have had to sell to buy players, we may be stuck in the bottom five again. A decent Cup run is the best we can hope for, and maybe the kids we have like Gary Cahill, Liam Ridgewell and Steven Davis can hold their own.
Charlton Our fans tend to be pessimistic but we're still building as a club. I'm not silly so a top-ten finish and a Cup run would be fine, but let's remember we did well in the Cups last year, beating Chelsea in the Carling Cup and reaching the FA quarter-finals. If we get a few more players in, Europe may not be out of the question.
Fulham Mohamed Al Fayed said he wanted us to become the Manchester United of the south, but to be honest I'll be happy if we're in Charlton's position in five years' time: with a nice ground, 20,000 season tickets, and a family club with a good fan base. It's hard to get fans in London and with Chelsea up the road. Of course, you have to take everything Al Fayed says with a pinch of salt, but we're used to that! Every year I still expect us to finish in the top ten, though.
Realistically, the title is beyond the teams you support, and relegation should not be a worry either. Will that make the coming season a boring one for you?
Charlton Not at all. I concentrate on what's going on at my club and we have a new coach in Iain Dowie, who's an ugly sod and was at Palace but I think will do a good job. It's not a total closed shop at the top: we could have got into the top four three seasons ago when Scott Parker was playing brilliantly for us. But Chelsea, who were below us at the time, bought him. We then kept losing and dropped to seventh when we could have qualified for the Champions League. It's unlikely to happen now but we are going in the right direction. Which is why out of all of us, I would be most disappointed if I was a Villa fan: they have been as big as you can be, winning the European Cup, but constantly under-achieve.
Aston Villa Well, Doug Ellis is 82 and named a stand after himself, so what do you expect? But it's true. I look at Fulham and Charlton and they have the right people in the management positions and that's what we need to progress. Ellis is always changing managers and there are other backroom changes that you never know quite what's going on. I think we value the success of a season not just on results, but also steady improvements to the club in terms of infrastructure, stadium, that kind of thing.
Newcastle I agree. Although I wouldn't expect us to break into the top four, I wouldn't be happy with just a mid-table finish. I want to see some movement, some progression to know the club is going the right way.
So Chelsea's dominance won't ruin next season for you?
Newcastle No, but they have given me a new team to despise. When Manchester United won the Champions League in 1999, I didn't like them but I was grudgingly pleased for them, and the same goes for Liverpool in 2005 and I wanted Arsenal to do well last year. But Chelsea: whenever they lose, I can't stop laughing. Why? For a start, Didier Drogba spent all season diving, and then there's Jose Mourinho, who started off as a character but now tries to rewrite history after his team is beaten.
Charlton Yeah, when we beat them on penalties he said it wasn't a defeat, it was a draw, because it went to penalties. What a joke! But I want Chelsea to do well, because if they can attract the best players to England and they are managed well, then we're getting to see the world's best footballers in this country. That's a huge part of enjoying the Premiership for me: the away games to look forward to at Chelsea and Liverpool and teams like that. I will still to go to Blackburn on a Monday night, but that's more for the social aspect, the camaraderie. I would go if it was to Grimsby or Wycombe but I enjoy seeing the big teams, anyone would.
Aston Villa For me, those games against Chelsea and Manchester United are a big day out and we just try and get something out of them. The fans approach the games as mini-Cup finals. Some think Villa are still a big club but the truth is we are in a rebuilding period and have young players and need to be patient: we had a great day against Chelsea last season, we drew 1-1 with them and were the first team to score against them all season.
Fulham Chelsea have always been ahead of us so they've never been a proper derby opponent but I will never forget our win last season. I'd never been to a Cup final but beating them, when they were still fighting for the title and needed points, that felt like winning a Cup final. It was the highlight of the season. It's great now that everyone else hates them as much as we do. Superb.
Is beating your local rivals and finishing mid-table enough?
Charlton There are times when one match can make a season. The season before last, we finished eleventh, and Palace needed to beat us on the last day of the season to have any chance of staying up. With eight minutes left, Johnny Fortune scored an equaliser for us and sent them down. The whole place went mental. Palace chairman Simon Jordan had just called all the Premiership chairmen tossers, and when he walked into the boardroom, our chairman Richard Murray said "Enjoy the Championship, you tosser." So the Great Orange Man walked out again. That was like a Cup final. Fantastic.
Aston Villa Last season was so much better for us because Birmingham went down. We beat them in a six-pointer, and it was my highlight of the season. I've never known anything like it. I think with southern clubs, there never seems to be the same kind of rivalry. It means so much more to get that result. Maybe that's not the case with Fulham.
Fulham What do you mean? We're only a mile up the road from Chelsea: that's only a Molotov cocktail away!
Charlton Bloody hell, you should be supporting Millwall!
Newcastle I would agree that the rivalry issue makes the league much more exciting for fans, but from my point of view, Sunderland were so excruciatingly poor last season that when we beat them, my first reaction was, "Oh well, if we had lost it would have been horrendously embarrassing."
What about being involved in a relegation scrap, which at least keeps you interested. Would you rather survive on the last day or be safe all season?
Aston Villa No thanks, I'd rather be safe. I hate the stress of that every week, you just can't enjoy the football because there's so much at stake. Newcastle I agree. I genuinely believe that if Souness had stayed on last season, we would have gone down, no doubt. I was convinced of it and I hated it: I felt nauseous, I fought with my girlfriend, it was terrible.
Fulham We still feel a bit like new boys: we've only been in the Premiership for five years and before that we were running away with the leagues below that. Though it's great winning games, you just can't beat watching Premiership football. So I don't mind the struggle.
Last season there was a lot of talk that Chelsea had changed the tactics in the Premiership, by winning games 1-0 and playing a 4-3-3 with only one striker. Are you jealous?
Fulham If you want to know if the Premiership is boring, you'd be better off getting four Chelsea fans and asking them. I know a lot of them and they don't like it any more. They score an early goal, say against Everton or a team like that, and then it's game over. That is boring. It can't be fun to watch that after paying all that money. Their favourite games last season were against Charlton and Fulham, games they had to scrap in, fight for the result and it wasn't a dull one-goal victory.
Aston Villa In some respects I'm jealous because they are getting the results but the truth is, I like the fact that we have to scrimp and scrap for a few results. It makes it interesting.
Charlton I'm the opposite. I'd love to win every game 1-0 with a last-minute own goal or penalty. I don't care. I want Charlton to win at all costs. I don't really care about the entertainment I'm served up, I will entertain myself before and after the game - just give me the points.
Newcastle I agree, even winning 1-0 in the last minute is enough for me. Although with our club, it's a bit like watching England: it's never boring, and there's always something going on around the team, always some drama.
Do you want your team to go for it against the bigger teams?
Charlton We're not naïve, we play with one up front against the big teams and try and get something on the break and hope for the best. Against other teams, it's two up front. You've got to know your limits.
Fulham We generally go for it and a lot of our best results are against those better sides: we're stronger when we're attacking, and we play better against better teams. We have nothing to lose, and therefore have a more relaxed mindset going into the game, and Chris Coleman always goes for more attacking formations.
Aston Villa We go for it against big teams too and we're cautious against the smaller teams. We've had good results against some big clubs: there is a mentality that the bigger team, the more we want to beat them.
What effect does TV have on your enjoyment of the Premiership?
Charlton It destroys it for me. The times of matches change every weekend, there are games on Saturday mornings, Monday nights, which are a nightmare to get to. As an away fan, it screws up your week, you have to book trains and planes to get a better deal and it constantly mucks you around. You end up paying double-money.
Fulham I wouldn't watch Wigan play Blackburn or a game between sides that you have less interest in but if it's one of the big teams or a side that a mate supports, then I will go down the pub and watch it. I pick and choose.
Aston Villa I don't have Sky Sports as if I know there's a game I want to see, I will go to a pub. I think Prem Plus is a huge scam for the public, as they're already making you pay to watch a certain number of games. Anyway, I like making the effort of going to the pub and meeting other Villa fans.
Newcastle I don't have Sky Sports but not for the money or principle just because I know that if I did, I would watch it the whole time. I'm sure I'd be single: my girlfriend would walk out of our flat in Theydon Bois and not come back.
Fulham I don't have Sky either but we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them: they've given the clubs the money that has provided the platform to make the league what it is.
Newcastle I think every team should have their own channel, so you can just subscribe to one team's games and not others.
How does the Premiership compare to foreign leagues?
Aston Villa There are more teams in this country that have a chance of winning the league than other countries in Europe. In Italy it's only two teams, and we know what they've been up to lately.
Charlton I go to Valencia quite a bit and I don't find the atmosphere and the style of play as exciting as in England.
Fulham Some of the players in England are amazing and it may be sad to say but I'm a bit in awe of the teams I see week in week out. The great thing is, we've got a chance of beating any of them on our day. Player for player our league is the best in the world. It's not boring at all.
You all seem to love being part of the Premiership package.
Fulham Definitely. We were at rock bottom about ten years ago. We almost lost a ground, and we almost lost the club as we were going to merge with QPR, so I will always appreciate Al Fayed for that. We almost didn't have a club and now we're in the Premiership. How can that be boring?
Charlton I agree. We've got an unassuming multi-millionaire in Richard Murray who has built the club up slowly and improves on it every year. He doesn't need self-publicity like Tango Man Jordan, he just runs Charlton in the most professional way. That gives us the stability for us fans to enjoy ourselves.
Newcastle I look at Charlton and then Freddie Shepherd and I pray for more stable running of our club. We could explode at any second: Freddie is passionate and that's his weakness as much as his strength. He is a dreamer and he wants us to dream with him.
So what are you most looking forward to next season?
Charlton Seeing a group of new players and some fresh ideas from our new boss.
Fulham Hopefully we can finish in the top half and if we beat Chelsea along the way, I'd be happy.
Aston Villa It will be transition for us and whoever is in charge, I want to see our young players do well and us get a decent league position and a decent Cup run. I'm being a bit hopeful.
Newcastle When we run out for the first game of the season at home to Wigan, that's what I'm looking forward to. I just want to see them play. I can't wait for the season to start!
Interviews: September 2006
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