This feature appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
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1 Record attendances
The click of the turnstiles. The wafting scents of a burger van. The hubbub of a crowd. Oh, how we’ve missed you so.
Back in March 2020, perhaps we all took that experience for granted. Not since the Second World War had the matchday ritual been interrupted, and few foresaw a reason why it ever would be again. Then the world changed, and football grounds closed.
Last season set attendance records that may never be broken... but for all the wrong reasons. The Premier League’s average turnout was just 461 – a figure that would have been even lower, had crowds of up to 10,000 not been allowed in for the final two matchdays in May. Liverpool (opens in new tab), situated in one of the regions permitted to briefly welcome 2,000 fans in December, topped the charts with a season average of 837.
In the EFL, the surprise attendance leaders were League Two Carlisle, who had four home fixtures during that December amnesty, plus a 1,000-capacity test event in September. Their average crowd for the campaign was 391, dwarfing the League Two figure of 78 – itself still higher than the Championship average of 56, and 47 for League One.
In the Scottish Premiership, the average crowd, incredibly, was three – Aberdeen and Ross County each hosted 300 fans during test events, while 50 ghostly souls were registered for St Mirren vs Livingston.
Fans across the UK were able to watch their teams play on television or iFollow, but it just wasn’t the same. No community, no atmosphere. Fake crowd noise might just haunt us all for a little while longer yet.
For 33 EFL clubs, however, August will mark their first home game with fans for 17 months. In Brentford and AFC Wimbledon’s cases, fans may be able to fill – or even visit – their new stadiums for the first time.
After so many supporters were deprived of the matchday experience for so long, this time attendances could break records for all the right reasons. Euro 2020 showed what sort of atmosphere crowds like that might produce, such is the enthusiasm about this grand return to grounds.
Football is nothing without fans – a phrase that’s been uttered so often in recent times. But it’s just true. Finally, they’re back, baby.
2 Buffon back at Parma
In the summer of 2001, Gianluigi Buffon left Parma for Juventus (opens in new tab) for €52m – a world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper that stood for 17 years until Alisson’s £67m move to Liverpool in 2018. Two decades later, Gigi’s gone full circle. Aged 43, Buffon has rejoined Parma, the club where he won the UEFA Cup in 1999. The Gialloblu are now in Serie B… but not everyone’s thrilled about his return. “You left as a mercenary, you cannot return as a hero,” one banner read. Guiding Parma back up may just change those opinions.
3 A non-league season that finishes in full
The pandemic has created non-league chaos in each of the past two seasons – the National League was curtailed in 2019/20, with lower levels declared null and void. COVID got in the way again last term as many divisions were cancelled after just a few games, while even the National Leagues North and South were voided. The fifth tier carried on without Dover, who withdrew mid-season for financial reasons, so start this term with a controversial 12-point deduction. Smoothly does it from here.
4 Scottish clubs to finally crack Europe
Since 2007/08, only two Scottish sides have reached the group stage of a European competition – Rangers (opens in new tab) and Celtic (opens in new tab). Aberdeen made the UEFA Cup’s group stage 14 years ago, but since then the Dons, Motherwell, Hearts, Hibernian, Dundee United, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Inverness, Falkirk and Queen of the South have all failed.
St Johnstone made a decent stab this year in the Europa League, drawing 1-1 at Galatasaray before succumbing in the second leg, to drop into the newly formed Europa Conference League play-offs, where they'll face LASK of Austria.
Hibs fell to Croats Rijeka in the Conference League third qualifying round, but Aberdeen will join the Saints in the play-offs. The Dons beat Icelandic side Breiðablik to reach the Conference League play-off round against former Champions League group stage veterans Qarabag from Azerbeijan. Success is overdue...
5 A four-way title battle
Nine teams topped the Premier League table last season. Arsenal (opens in new tab) were first on the opening day – by virtue of having the early kick-off – before Tottenham (opens in new tab), Everton (opens in new tab) and Liverpool put in early bids for glory. Also climbing to the summit were Manchester United (opens in new tab) and Chelsea (opens in new tab), while Southampton (opens in new tab) and Leicester (opens in new tab) also threatened to tear up the script in a frantic opening salvo.
In the end, a strikerless Manchester City (opens in new tab) mercilessly marched towards immortality after storming to the top in January and planting their flag with a smirk. From there, open season became a closed case.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that teams have to fight tooth, nail and Vincent Kompany rockets if they want to retain their titles. City racked up 98 points in 2018/19 – ending that year with a relentless romp of 13 consecutive wins – just to hold a 97-point Liverpool side at arm’s length. Sometimes, it takes something pretty damn special to keep the challengers at bay.
No doubt, Pep Guardiola has spent all summer in his bunker, concocting plans of how to stay on the throne. His last tactical innovation of playing with false nines was the most Guardiolan philosophy yet – so how could he possibly top it? Fielding midfielders across the whole pitch and reinventing Total Football? Or going full circle, signing Harry Kane and sticking it to the targetman?
Well, in the end it may well just be a bit of all the above: City will likely be prepared for a patient game of brinkmanship with Spurs over Kane this summer; failing that, when Daniel Levy says no for a 64th time, Ferran Torres could be shunted forward to let rip. Then there's £100m man Jack Grealish to load the bullets. Oh, and the story that Guardiola has become obsessed with geese in flight after studying some drone footage. Yes, really.
In the blue corner – well, the slightly darker blue – Pep may well have met his match in Thomas Tuchel; a man who’s so forensically studious that he beat City three times in the five months after arriving in England. Chelsea have the deadly combination of a tactical boffin in the dugout and an owner prepared to pump in his billions wherever they’re required. It’ll be five years next May since John Terry lifted the latest Premier League trophy earned in west London – that’s an ice age in footballing years. Quite reasonably, Tuchel will be targeting domestic dominance this time around and the imminent arrival of Romelu Lukaku is a statement of intent.
Manchester United, meanwhile, are playing the role of noisy neighbours these days. This is arguably the most electrifying team that we’ve seen post-Sir Alex – not that difficult admittedly, but now worth discussing with quality across the pitch and depth in key areas. After finally landing Jadon Sancho following a year of chat-up lines, plus Real Madrid (opens in new tab) centre-back Raphael Varane, perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally has that missing weapon to fight City with every stride now – a little like how Virgil van Dijk transformed Liverpool from competitors to world beaters.
He’s back, by the way. The Dutchman spent his summer snubbing the Euros in favour of returning stronger for Liverpool, and is now looking to make roughly the same impact as when he first strolled into an unkempt and inconsistent Reds side. Misfortune dogged Jurgen Klopp’s side last time around – surely football’s pesky mischief-makers will be much kinder this time. Ibrahima Konaté has come in to strengthen the defence, Diogo Jota should thrive in his first full campaign at Anfield, while Thiago is now up to speed with the English game. Most importantly, the Kop’s red wall will be back in place.
Whichever direction those silver handles are pulled towards, this looks like it’s going to be a lot closer than last time. The big four are packed full of talent, but each have their weaknesses and there are plenty of banana skins along this road. Is Nuno Espirito Santo just what Spurs needed to launch their first assault at the top four in three seasons, for example? Can Leicester finally bridge that agonising gap to the elite, having fallen at the last for two seasons running? Are the ambitious Aston Villa (opens in new tab) or a Rafa-led Everton capable of applying some more pressure?
Four clubs have strong cases for the crown, with bookies shortening their odds on all of them. Another four or five have the quality to ruffle feathers and have a say. This one could well be going down to the wire.
6 England Women's new era
Now is a pretty great time to be English in football – and not just on the men’s side. The Women’s Euros takes place on home soil next summer and, just like their male counterparts, the Lionesses could well benefit from the tournament’s delay which gives their developing squad 12 additional months to fix up plans for glory.
Not least as there’s an imminent change in the dugout, too. Former PE teacher Sarina Wiegman coached her native Netherlands to the last Euros title and 2019 World Cup Final, and will become Phil Neville’s permanent replacement now the Olympics is over this summer. She’ll take the job at a good time, with English sides faring better in Europe these days – Chelsea reached their first ever Champions League final last season.
The parallels with the men don’t end there, either: just like this summer, we can confirm that football is coming home. With England set to hold a delayed Euros next July, the Lionesses will also benefit from local support in Manchester, Brighton, Southampton – and should they reach the final, at Wembley too.
Then there’s the Women’s Super League’s new TV deal, which comes into effect this campaign and runs to 2024. The WSL will be broadcast on the BBC and Sky, which not only means more investment in the game (worth £7m-8m per year), but more exposure than ever before too. Progress continues...
7 Newcastle finally signing Mbappe
Last year, one of the planet’s greatest footballers was rumoured to be joining an oil-rich Premier League club. But while Man City’s flirtation with Lionel Messi hasn’t rekindled 12 months later, 2021 may finally – finally! – be the year that Newcastle United (opens in new tab) sign Kylian Mbappe.
Er, maybe. Remember those wild weeks of speculation last year? A consortium from Saudi Arabia preparing Mike Ashley an offer he couldn’t refuse – a mean feat, considering that usually involves a tanking department store or Joelinton – as the Toon Army became afflicted with takeover fever. Names such as Mbappe, Mauricio Pochettino, Gareth Bale, Edinson Cavani, Antoine Griezmann and Nabil Fekir were seemingly pulled from thin air.
In the end, the only Magpies boss nabbing Mbappe was Griezmann on Football Manager, prompting the former to remark, “Where? It’s not very warm there.” Clearly, no amount of bare-chested Mags could say otherwise.
But despite Ashley’s war with the Premier League, who blocked the takeover in June, there may yet be hope of new ownership. The Saudis haven’t given up, and ongoing arbitration (delayed until "early 2022") makes for an uncertain future. But whatever happens from here, someone, somewhere will surely end this state of purgatory soon.
After that? Well… haway, Kylian lad.
8 A proper Scottish title scrap
Despite what the narrative may suggest year on year, it’s been far too long since Scotland treated us to a proper Old Firm tug of war for the title. Since Rangers clawed their way back to the top flight in 2016, the tightest margin of victory for either Celtic or Rangers has been nine points – in 2018/19, when Neil Lennon dragged the Bhoys to victory following the departure of Brendan Rodgers.
So what are the chances of a fight to the finish this time around? On paper, it looks far-fetched. Last time out, Rangers trashed Celtic’s best-laid plans for their historic 10 in a row, with Steven Gerrard masterminding an unbeaten Premiership season that ended with a 25-point advantage over their bitter rivals. En route, Gers battered Bhoys four times in five matches across league and cup, with the crescendo coming in May’s 4-1 rout at Ibrox. The only mercy for Celtic fans last year was that they weren’t allowed to see the horror unfold in person.
Amid that grim scenario and since, the wounded Hoops have dispensed with Lennon and been led a merry dance by the preferred candidate to replace him, Eddie Howe (who eventually rejected the job “for reasons outwith his or Celtic’s control,” read a curious official club statement).
Long-serving chief executive Peter Lawwell was already stepping down before his house was firebombed in May, while long-serving skipper Scott Brown made the difficult call to choose a player-coach role at Aberdeen despite his beloved club of 14 years’ best attempts to keep him. Throw in several key players who have clearly had one eye on a move to pastures new, and it’s easy to see why Rangers are red-hot favourites to build on last year’s success.
But things are rarely that straightforward, and a freshen up may well be exactly what’s required in Parkhead. After initial confusion about the left-field choice of ex-Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou, Celtic fans have rallied behind the straight-talking Australian – a theory backed up by impressive season ticket sales after last season’s lockdown.
While Gerrard and Rangers sporting director Ross Wilson are able to build from a position of strength, the blunt reality is that Celtic’s under-fire hierarchy can’t afford a repeat of last season, and are under huge pressure to fund a quickfire turnaround. Rightly or wrongly, incoming chief executive Dominic McKay will be judged quickly; it’s just the nature of the beast in Glasgow.
The same applies to Postecoglou, who will walk into a very different job from his previous gig at Yokohama F Marinos, whom he led to their first title for 15 years in 2019. Being knocked out of the Champions League by Midtjylland and an opening day defeat at newly promoted Hearts hardly helped the new guy.
The stakes are high for both men, then, but some smart signings can yet inspire the title tussle that Scottish football has long been lacking. Revenge is in the air...
9 A new WSL club
Last July, Leicester City Women were still a non-professional club independent of the men’s side. Over the past 12 months, however, they’ve been bought by the Foxes’ Thai ownership group and stormed to WSL promotion via a 12-game winning run last term.
The mastermind behind their title win, manager Jonathan Morgan, joined the club in 2014 when there were just 12 players. His father Rohan is chairman; his sister Holly the team’s captain; while another sibling, Jade, is general manager. There’s certainly no family dysfunction here...
10 Mourinho meddling in Serie A... again
Asked if he’d be taking a break after getting sacked by Spurs in April, Jose Mourinho’s response was typically blunt. “No need,” he smirked. “I am always in football.” Announced as Roma (opens in new tab)’s new boss just 15 days later, the Portuguese sourpuss was a man of his word.
During his trophy-laden spell in Serie A with Inter (opens in new tab) from 2008/10, however, Mourinho had form: he was repeatedly fined for insulting officials, claimed he ‘didn’t like’ Italian football and was forced to deny roughing up a journalist. Same again then, Jose?
11 Gary Neville to become the great angry watchdog of football
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” a seething Neville told Sky Sports’ Dave Jones after the shock announcement of what would end up being a doomed European Super League back in April. “I’m disgusted. We have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top – and that includes my own.”
While football fans are used to seeing Red Nev riled up by anything as minor as zonal marking, this was another level. As part of an impassioned speech one spring Sunday afternoon, Neville became the spokesperson for every fan as he lashed out at every elite club in the land. His own Manchester United and Liverpool were labelled “impostors”; Tottenham a “joke”; Arsenal “a shambles”.
As ever, though, G-Nev’s rage was polished as he aired the collective opinion of millions watching. “It’s a criminal act against football fans in this country,” he hissed into his microphone. “Deduct points, deduct their money and punish them… the owners of these clubs are bottle merchants.”
😡 | "I'm a #MUFC fan and I'm absolutely disgusted."💥 | "They are an absolute joke."@GNev2 gives a brutally honest reaction to reports that England's biggest clubs are expected to be part of plans for a breakaway European Super League.pic.twitter.com/qvAPKdLxwNApril 18, 2021
Neville hasn’t often stuck his neck out in dismissing the Glazers, United’s owners, directly before – but this was different. This time, they’d gone too far. And there was a reaction: soon after his speech went viral amid a slew of social media hysteria, the Super League was scrapped as owners, organisers and co-conspirators backtracked faster than a politician caught with his pants down. Bumbling apologies and letters of resignation were mocked on social media, as a rare victory for the little man was savoured.
Two months later, Joel Glazer even replied to Neville’s criticism directly in a rare fans’ forum appearance. “I know Gary has been, to say the least, pretty hard on us, and it’s OK,” said the American. “Everybody has their views. Sometimes things are a little more complex, but Gary’s a legend. Gary did so much for this club. Gary has good ideas, good thoughts. And they’re heard.”
By then, however, UEFA had already doled out their ‘punishment’: a combined fine for the nine offending clubs who later pulled out, totalling… er, €15m. Move along folks, nothing to see here. Neville duly launched a petition to introduce an independent regulator in English football by December 2021, gathering over 142,000 signatures. The government responded by declaring an imminent, if undetailed, “wide-ranging, fan-led review of football governance”.
Football’s new watchdog has been calmed, then... but only for now. Good boy.
12 West Ham to banish their Euro demons
West Ham (opens in new tab)’s last Europa League appearances were… well, very West Ham. Having been dumped out in qualifying by Romanian minnows Astra Giurgiu in 2015/16, the hapless Hammers faced the same opposition 12 months later… and somehow lost again.
Now they’re back in Europe after a terrific sixth-place finish last term, however, and desperate to make it count. Best of all, not even Astra can cock it up for them this time: David Moyes’ men are already in the group stage for the first time ever in any European competition.
13 Lewandowski to score 100 goals
We all know a bloke like Robert Lewandowski: you say you’ve been to Timbuktu, and he’s been to Timbukthree. Lewy’s been one-upping his Bundesliga rivals for yonks; the Pole’s 41 league goals last season even broke a Gerd Muller record which had stood for 49 seasons. But now the Bayern Munich (opens in new tab) striker has serious competition for the top-scorer gong, with Borussia Dortmund (opens in new tab)’s Erling Haaland bagging 27 in 28 league outings last term. Expect the Norwegian to score 99 goals this season, only for Lewy to pip him on the final day. Some people...
14 Wrexham to have a Hollywood ending
A tale as old as time: non-league club gets bought by Hollywood A-listers, who draft in TikTok as their new sponsor. And how Wrexham fans laughed when Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and actor pal Rob McElhenney used their loose cash to buy a club that hasn’t played in the Football League since 2008. From then, it’s always been sunny in this corner of north Wales, where the club’s LA-based overlords have set to work. Let’s hope it’s no tear-jerker...
15 FC Isle of Man's English debut
It’s well over a year since FC Isle of Man were accepted into the English non-league pyramid – but now they’re finally ready to play their first game. The Manx team were forced to withdraw from North West Counties Division One South last season because of travel restrictions, but they finally made their long-awaited debut with a 1-1 draw at Maine Road FC on July 31, followed by another point on their travels at Wythenshawe Amateurs. The Ravens face consecutive away fixtures for two months, their first home game currently scheduled for September 29 against New Mills in Douglas.
16 Promotion king Jokanovic's return
Neil Warnock, Ian Holloway and Steve Bruce might make for a dodgy party list, but Slavisa Jokanovic wouldn’t mind joining the famous trio on the champagne-soaked dancefloor. Sheffield United (opens in new tab)’s new gaffer is targeting a third promotion from the second tier, having taken Watford (opens in new tab) and Fulham (opens in new tab) up previously. Holloway (three) and Bruce (four) are ahead of Slav, but Warnock is the runaway leader on five. Then again, the Boro boss is roughly six times Jokanovic’s age...
17 A non-Spanish Europa League winner
Spanish clubs had a tough time in the Champions League last season – but La Liga still took home the Europa League. With serial hoggers Sevilla (opens in new tab) not involved, Villarreal stepped in to bag the trophy – the sixth time in the last eight seasons that a Spanish side has triumphed. Real Sociedad and Real Betis are this year’s entrants, although don’t bet against Sevilla or Villarreal finishing third in their Champions League group just so they can win it again. With any luck, they’ll give someone else a chance.
18 A bonkers season in the 2. Bundesliga
If you thought that the Championship was competitive, Germany’s second tier could prove to be one of the biggest bunfights of all time in 2021/22.
Hamburg became divisional giants when they were demoted from the Bundesliga for the first time in their history in 2018: Der Dino (so called as they’re one of Germany’s oldest clubs) were expected to immediately bounce back to the top tier, only to collapse in the final weeks of their first 2. Bundesliga season and finish fourth.
In 2019/20, they contrived to miss out on the promotion play-offs again in particularly hapless fashion with a spectacular 5-1 home loss to Sandhausen in their last game of the season, then faded from the top spots again in 2020/21 to finish fourth for a third bleak year running.
Now, though, they’re joined in the division by fellow former Champions League clubs Schalke (opens in new tab) and Werder Bremen, who were both relegated last season – Schalke after going on a woeful 30-match winless run (only one off Tasmania Berlin’s all-time Bundesliga record of 31 from 1965-66) to finish bottom of the table with only 16 points.
In 2018/19, the last full season to feature crowds, the 2. Bundesliga boasted an average attendance of 19,115, compared with 20,181 in England’s Championship. Hamburg averaged 48,864 fans at home games that season, ahead of city rivals St Pauli (29,503) and Dynamo Dresden (28,434), but several more well-supported clubs have joined the division since then – in addition to Schalke (a 60,941 average in 2018/19) and Werder (41,321), there’s also Fortuna Dusseldorf (43,857), Nurnberg (40,372) and Hannover (38,365) in the mix.
Combine the 2018/19 attendances of the 18 clubs in the 2. Bundesliga this season, and you get a rather grand total of 7.5 million – or an average crowd of 24,611. The all-time record for a second tier in any country is 26,592, set by England’s Second Division in 1947/48, although a limit of 30 per cent of capacity has been imposed for the start of the new German season.
Regardless, the battle for promotion – which began with Hamburg winning 3-1 at Schalke on the opening day – will be fierce. Clubs compete for only two assured promotion places, with third spot going into a play-off against the side that finishes third from bottom in the Bundesliga. If it’s anything like the last three seasons, expect plenty of surprises in a genuinely entertaining league... except Hamburg finishing fourth. Obviously.
19 Steve Cotterill to thrive after COVID
Shrewsbury had to play the second half of last season without their manager, after Cotterill contracted coronavirus in late December. Assistant Aaron Wilbraham took the reins when his boss was hospitalised by the virus – Cotterill stayed in contact with his players via phone and Zoom as he recovered, but returned to hospital after a February setback. Thankfully, he’s back this summer and will aim to bounce back from a very difficult few months.
20 Crouchy's return to Dulwich Hamlet
CROUCH RETURNS:We’re delighted to welcome @petercrouch to the board of Dulwich Hamlet. The ex-England international, who enjoyed his first professional football at The Hamlet (on loan from Tottenham aged 17) returns to Champion Hill, this time as a director. #DHFC💖💙 pic.twitter.com/JWgwvkMiB7June 22, 2021
He’s back where it all began. Crouch came through the ranks at Spurs, but made his senior debut on loan at Dulwich in 2000. Champion Hill housed significantly fewer bearded fans sipping craft IPAs back when Crouchy made his bow – indeed, one bunch of supporters called him ‘the 20ft chicken’.
Twenty-one years later, though, he has rejoined the National League South side as a director. With Dulwich reeling from the pandemic, Crouchy’s keen to lend a hand.
21 Raul Jimenez back with a bang
Jimenez’s future in football seemed to be in question when he fractured his skull in an awful clash of heads with David Luiz during Wolves (opens in new tab)’ win at Arsenal last November. Tottenham’s Ryan Mason was forced to retire after a similar injury, but Jimenez is expected to make his return soon after a full return to training this summer.
Wolves badly missed their Mexican talisman during his absence, and the striker will hope he can help them restore their swagger under new boss Bruno Lage.
22 Eden Hazard to rescue his career
Hazard’s first two seasons at Real Madrid (opens in new tab) went down like a steaming hot sangria. A string of injuries followed his £143m switch, and upon his return he was condemned for joking around with his old Chelsea team-mates after Los Blancos’ miserable Champions League defeat at Stamford Bridge (seriously: treat yourself to the El Chiringuito segment above).
Having also raised eyebrows with his bulkier physique, this season may be his last chance to salvage something.
23 Kai Havertz's second season
“To be honest, I don’t give a f**k about that right now – we’ve just won the f**king Champions League...”
Havertz was in a bullishly jubilant mood after May’s victory over Manchester City in Lisbon. Pitchside, and not for the first time last season, Chelsea’s match-winner had just been asked about his £72m transfer fee live on TV by reporter Des Kelly, who could only respond with a sly grin to the camera and apologise for the “fruity” language.
Beneath the bluster, though, there was some meaning to Havertz’s declaration – an up-yours response to those who made his tough transition to Chelsea that little bit harder. Because if football is a game of two halves, then the 22-year-old German’s first season at Stamford Bridge reflected the old adage perfectly. A sluggish start matched that of his club, and by the time Havertz contracted COVID-19 in early November, the young midfielder – previously renowned for his terrific scoring levels at Bayer Leverkusen, for whom he’d thumped home 38 over the previous two seasons – had netted just one goal in his opening nine Premier League and Champions League appearances.
To add to fans’ scepticism, Havertz’s best position remained unclear – in September, he’d been dragged off at half-time in a poor defeat to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, having started as Chelsea’s main striker.
Blues boss Frank Lampard pleaded patience following his player’s return from isolation in late November. It had been a “severe” case of the virus, said Lampard, with a significant “physical fallout”. What’s more, the player was away from his family for the first time ever. Regaining fitness while adapting to life in a new country was a tough introduction in west London. The support from his manager was appreciated – but Lamps wasn’t around to defend him for much longer.
Results had been underwhelming in the league, and the Englishman was sacked in late January 2021 – replaced by former Borussia Dortmund and PSG (opens in new tab) boss Thomas Tuchel. Lampard had been an important factor in Havertz choosing Chelsea in the summer, a kindred spirit in terms of playing style – but that managerial change would spark his, and Chelsea’s season, into life.
CHELSEA LEAD! 🔵A superb pass from Mason Mount and Kai Havertz is cool enough to round the keeper and slot the ball home! 🎯#UCLfinal pic.twitter.com/P2auOn6yk7May 29, 2021
Despite the Liverpool calamity, Havertz was instantly installed as Chelsea’s go-to centre-forward: a false nine tasked with dropping into midfield and stretching play with runs behind the defence. His intelligent movement and creativity helped his Blues team-mates flourish, and played a key role in helping Tuchel’s side secure their eventual top-four finish.
“I play somewhere upfront – No.9, No.10, something in between,” Havertz said, likely not even sure himself, before the Champions League final. “I feel very good there. I think it’s the perfect position for me.”
He proved that in the most emphatic way possible, the midfielder’s winner against Manchester City capping a fine turnaround in the second half of the season under compatriot Tuchel. In that moment, any talk of fees or fitness issues, any lingering doubts over his ability to succeed in England, were expunged. Fickle, perhaps, but in reality merely confirming what most thought about Havertz originally: that in time, Chelsea will have a fine player on their hands.
Now it’s time to kick on, especially with Romelu Lukaku now back on the Stamford Bridge scene. Back to full fitness with a manager who knows how to get the best out of him, and in a team that appears to be far better placed to challenge, 2021/22 promises to be Havertz’s breakout year in English football.
“The first year wasn’t very easy for me, but I think I’m getting better and better, getting more confident,” he reflected, echoing the thoughts of every Blue anticipating a big year ahead. They’ve got every right to.
The Aachen native will be desperate to improve on last term's tally of nine goals in 45 appearances, only four of which arrived in the Premier League. But with his difficult spell already behind him, Chelsea’s European hero knows blue skies lie ahead. Just don’t ask him about that f**king price tag.
24 Sutton United in the EFL
Is anything worth waiting 123 years for? Sutton United haven’t had much choice – only now, having formed in 1898, are they a Football League side for the first time.
The Us, based in south-west London, had been promoted to the fifth tier only five years ago and achieved their highest ever finish – third in the National League – in 2017/18. They were tipped for a third straight mid-table finish last term, but Matt Gray’s side instead surprised everyone – not least their own supporters – by winning the title.
“If I’m being honest, it’s still sinking in,” Sutton fan Andrew Youngman tells FFT. “Nobody expected us to win the title at the start of last season. It’s just incredible.”
Despite their minnows status, Sutton fans are used to seeing their side pull off a miracle. The club’s 2-1 victory over Coventry in the 1988/89 FA Cup third round remains one of the competition’s great giant-slayings; the Sky Blues had won it two seasons prior.
United actually went one better than that in 2018/19, defeating AFC Wimbledon and Leeds (opens in new tab) en route to a fifth-round exit against Arsenal that was famous for pie-eating veteran goalkeeper Wayne Shaw landing himself in hot water for influencing a betting market. Despite those successes, Youngman ranks this historic promotion to League Two as Sutton’s greatest achievement yet.
“Those cup runs captured a lot of people’s imaginations,” he says. “But joining the Football League is another step up from that. I never really thought that this would ever happen as a Sutton fan.”
Those FA Cup runs may pale in comparison, but at least fans could be at Gander Green Lane to witness them. Last season, fans had to make do with streaming matches on their laptops, with only a handful of fixtures open to attend amid the pandemic.
“We’re looking forward to making up for lost time,” explains Youngman. “We’ve got some semi-local games against Leyton Orient and Crawley, and Bradford sticks out because they’re ex-Premier League. They have a 25,000-capacity stadium, so that’ll be a good one to go to.”
Staying up promises to be tough, but history remains firmly on Sutton’s side: since election/re-election was scrapped for the 1986/87 campaign, no side promoted to the Football League has ever plummeted straight back down. No pressure...
25 The James siblings to make history
If you’ve ever endured a younger sibling copying you, you’ll know just how annoying it can be. Fortunately for teen forward Lauren James, her big brother will be proud to see her following in his footsteps. Lauren joined Reece at Chelsea this summer after a three-season spell at Manchester United and she has risen through England’s youth sides and is now hoping – expecting – to become a senior Lioness.
When it happens, the pair will make history in becoming the first brother-sister duo with Three Lions caps. Scenes in the James household...
26 Villa joining the European fight
“We even conquered Europe in 1982,” goes a line from Aston Villa’s best-known chant. It might not get an update anytime soon, but the club’s rise from Championship failures to European hopefuls in the space of three seasons has been remarkable nevertheless, and their 7-2 shellacking of champions Liverpool last season showed they’re more than capable of taking on the best. Jack Grealish may have departed, but Villa are more than one man and have recruited Emi Buendia, Leon Bailey and Danny Ings to fill the void – Holte Enders are rightfully looking to the sky.
27 Every Football League club to survive
In August 2019, Bury fans went through the agony of expulsion from the EFL after a succession of owners ran the League One club into the ground. Technically they still exist as a club, but merely as a hollow shell with no team nor league to play in. Macclesfield Town can’t even say that, however, having been booted out of League Two last August and been declared insolvent. They now reside in the North West Counties Football League. Is it really too much to ask for everyone to make it through the season unscathed?
28 Virgil van Dijk's big return
Perhaps the Netherlands (opens in new tab)’ chances of winning Euro 2020 ended in the same moment that Liverpool’s defence of their Premier League title did: on October 17, with Jordan Pickford’s reckless lunge on Virgil van Dijk at Goodison Park.
A cruciate ligament injury sidelined the seemingly indestructible colossus, nudging Jurgen Klopp towards a natural conclusion. “Every team in the world would miss Virgil van Dijk,” the German said a few days later, oblivious of the true horrors that were about to unfold without his transformative stopper.
There was no hyperbole involved – if anything, it turned out to be something of an understatement. With Van Dijk, Liverpool had only leaked 22 league goals in 2018/19; largely without him, they conceded 42 last season, even if the anomaly was that seven came against Aston Villa in Van Dijk’s final 90 minutes for Liverpool of 2020/21.
Without him, though, and then Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, the Anfield side had so many central-defensive partnerships that Klopp lost count. It was 20 in an exhausting season when Liverpool’s best centre-back, Fabinho, also happened to be their best defensive midfielder; when losing Van Dijk disrupted an entire playing style. Liverpool’s front-foot football was feasible because they had the most authoritative, coolly reassuring insurance policy of all. The side with the best centre-back in last season’s Premier League, Ruben Dias, cruised to the title as Klopp’s hastily assembled pair of rookies – Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips – performed a minor miracle by helping Liverpool qualify for the Champions League.
Now Van Dijk is nearing the end of what he called a “very, very long road”, and the context will change. Liverpool have already got their belated Dejan Lovren replacement, in the £36 million Ibrahima Konaté. The 22-year-old recruited from RB Leipzig (opens in new tab) may prove to be Van Dijk’s long-term successor; in the immediate future, the Frenchman should at least benefit from his new team-mate’s remarkable capacity to make any and all of his sidekicks look better.
Van Dijk’s status as the great catalyst is reflected in results. Liverpool’s first league title for three decades came with him as the cornerstone of their defence. They have only lost five of his last 82 league games, while his only Premier League defeat at Anfield came in Southampton’s colours; without him, Liverpool lost six in a row at home in their bleak midwinter. He was so good that Jamie Carragher, himself among Liverpool’s finest ever defenders, said he couldn’t lace Van Dijk’s boots as a centre-back.
Now he’s back. Whether that’s enough for Liverpool to instantly get back on their perch remains to be seen. But he’s done it once...
29 Barnsley being bold again
Barnsley were the surprise package of 2020/21’s Championship campaign, making the play-offs after only surviving by the skin of their teeth the previous campaign. Some Tykes fans understandably feared the worst when former boss Gerhard Struber left for MLS last October, but then Valerien Ismael cranked up the tempo and led the club to new heights. West Brom (opens in new tab) proved too good an opportunity for the Frenchman to ignore this summer, however, meaning the Yorkshire side are on their third manager in nine months.
Former Austria midfielder Markus Schopp, previously in charge of TSV Hartberg, is the chosen man to follow a pair of tough acts – but his clever club will give him every chance of succeeding. It doesn’t matter that they have one of the league’s lowest budgets: thinking smart and recruiting with the help of cold, hard data is paying off.
Frankly, being bold is the only way to go for Barnsley – and long may it continue.
30 More unexpected champs in Europe
Manchester City might have stormed to the Premier League crown with relative ease in the end, but other title races across Europe threw up some surprises last season.
Lille pipped PSG to the post in Ligue 1, Atletico Madrid (opens in new tab) got the better of Barcelona and Real Madrid again, while Inter ended Juventus (opens in new tab)’s recent monopolisation of the Scudetto by winning their first since 2011. The fairy dust didn’t stretch quite as far as the Bundesliga, where Bayern gobbled up their ninth German title in a row.
More unexpected champions wouldn’t go amiss. The top flights of France, Germany and Italy have grown increasingly predictable over the past decade, while only the genius of Diego Simeone has disrupted Spain’s duopoly since 2004. For all that top-four races and relegation battles can thrill, there’s nothing like a good ruckus for trophies.
Lyon and Marseille will crave progress at PSG’s expense even with Lionel Messi's arrival; Juve, Bayern and Real Madrid all have new managers. Over to you, then, Arminia Bielefeld....
31 Aguero to have one final hurrah at Barça
“You are going to the greatest team in the world,” Pep Guardiola told Sergio Aguero.
While the former Barcelona captain and manager is hardly an impartial judge, there is something extraordinary about the striker’s next move after leaving Manchester City.
Barcelona first appealed to Aguero as a kid; now in his footballing dotage, the club are his employers. When he learned that Barça were interested, he told his agents not to talk to anyone else.
But a romantic tale may be one forged by hardship. Rather than collecting Galacticos, Barcelona have been forced to bargain hunt – and Aguero was available on a free transfer. Then came August's car crash that was Lionel Messi's departure because Los Cules simply couldn't afford to keep Aguero's best friend.
There are doubts about which player Barça have acquired: his Premier League career ended as it began, with a two-goal cameo that showed his predatory instincts remain as finely honed as ever. Yet Aguero's body has started to break down. He will miss the first eight weeks of the season through injury and only six of his record 260 City goals came in his final 15 months, when his spells on the sidelines were more frequent and sharpness elusive. Is the finisher supreme finished?
Or was last season just an unlucky one-off? In 12 of the previous 13 campaigns, Aguero had bagged at least 20 goals; 17 in the other. Only Messi and Antoine Griezmann topped 11 for Barcelona last year, explaining why they wanted someone to lead the line.
There’s also an encouraging precedent for a striker discarded at 33 inspiring his new club to the La Liga title: Aguero may be a belated replacement for Luis Suarez, one year after another of Messi’s best buds joined Atletico.
If Barcelona lacked a natural No.9 last year, now they look more potent with two new candidates. Ronald Koeman’s long pursuit of Memphis Depay succeeded, and if the Dutchman looks like the manager’s choice and Aguero a club signing, there is probably only room for one in the strongest side. Or, at least, there was until the Messi situation.
The pair's friendship dates back 16 years and Aguero was heartbroken he couldn't finally share a pitch with his great mate, even to the point rumours abounded he tried to cancel his contract. Still, Kun has come this far without Messi at club level, don't bet against an Indian summer.
32 Fewer attempts to kill football
Getting through a full season without some baffling scheme from Florentino Perez would be good – but don’t be surprised if he’s concocted a new plan after that whole European Super League thing. Such is the Real Madrid overlord’s philanthropic desire to ‘save football’, FFT has managed to obtain some of his brilliant new ideas:
a) All VAR decisions to be taken by Perez. If Madrid aren’t playing, Perez will weigh up his decision on what’s best for football, or if that’s not clear, which team he dislikes the most.
b) In place of the away goals rule, a new regulation where all Madrid goals count as double. Or if this still doesn’t work, kick out Chelsea.
c) Never-ending transfer embargoes for all teams except Madrid, and maybe Juventus. Man City and PSG forced to field their current teams for the next half a century – by the time Kevin De Bruyne and Neymar get to about 60, Champions League glory will be Madrid’s once more.
d) Kill Javier Tebas.
33 Leicester to justify Lineker's BT exit
Getting time off work for midweek games abroad is tricky, so Leicester (opens in new tab) nut Gary Lineker has decided to simply pack in the night job. The poacher turned presenter says he’s given up his role as BT Sport’s Champions League frontman in part so he can follow the Foxes with his sons in the Europa League, for which they qualified by finishing fifth last season.
“It’s time to do things that I’ve always promised myself I’d do... how many opportunities will we have?” Lineker pondered on Twitter.
This, though, will be his beloved side’s third season in European competition since 2016/17, when they made it to the Champions League quarter-finals after seeing off Sevilla in dramatic fashion. Leicester will now take their place in the Europa League group stage for the second season running, hoping to fare better than last season’s run to the last 32 and their limp exit to Czech champs Slavia Prague.
Better dust off that Romanian phrasebook, Linksy...
34 Nuno to scoop a trophy at Tottenham
Stop sniggering at the back. After an oh-so-painful 72-day search for a new manager (opens in new tab), / ended up plumping for a pragmatic Portuguese gaffer with Premier League experience. What could possibly go wrong?
The Jose Mourinho experiment ended in acrimony – and much sooner than most onlookers imagined. Daniel Levy didn’t even give him the chance to take charge of the League Cup final, pulling the trigger just days before April’s trip to Wembley and instead letting a 29-year-old former player, Ryan Mason, manage the team for it. Mason’s second ever game as a gaffer was said major final and, as Mourinho contemplated how to spend his pay-off, Spurs slumped to a soft 1-0 defeat by Manchester City in which they mustered just one shot on target.
It’s safe to say that former Wolves boss Nuno wasn’t Tottenham’s first choice (or indeed, second, third or fourth) to succeed the Special One, but his appointment has merits. Progress may have stalled at Molineux last term, but the former goalkeeper’s overall job of transforming Championship strugglers into Europa League quarter-finalists was nothing short of brilliant. Masterminding two seventh-place finishes running earned Nuno plenty of plaudits; few opposition sides ever enjoyed facing his Wolves side.
They also played better football than the Nuno naysayers would have you believe, too. Injuries to key players made last season a slog, but the West Midlanders’ exhilarating counter-attacks were a sight to behold in 2018/19 and 2019/20 – the latter, in which they improved their goals for and against, and their points tally. Truthfully, their games were rarely thrill-a-minute, but as Mourinho would tell you, there’s no shame in keeping things tight at the back.
And that doesn’t quite join up with Levy’s thinking. Upon Nuno’s appointment, Spurs’ head honcho declared how he had “spoken already about the need to revert back to our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football”. In each of Nuno’s three Premier League seasons at Wolves, their matches ranked in the bottom four for goals per game. He didn’t have Harry Kane or Son Heung-min, granted, but Levy’s bold claims about the whirlwind period to come are hardly based on the evidence of history.
Entertainment value won’t matter all that much if Spurs are winning under Nuno, of course – but there’s plenty of work ahead if the club are to ensure that their Mauricio Pochettino era wasn’t just a thrilling one-off. The show-us-your-medals brigade continue to miss the point about those five and a half years: Tottenham had a clear identity and consistently punched above their weight. In what looks like a particularly strong Premier League season to come, Nuno must aim for similar outcomes.
Winning a trophy remains the ambition for every Spurs manager, though – however it’s delivered from here. The Premier League will surely be out of reach, even if Kane stays and carries last season’s form into this one, but Spurs should take each of the FA Cup, League Cup and Conference League seriously – a shiny piece of silverware has a useful knack of winning over doubters. Here of all places, the seasonal failure to add anything to the honours board is a millstone around any manager’s neck. Tottenham, after all, have stuck nothing in their trophy cabinet since 2008, when they came from behind to see off Chelsea in the League Cup final.
Nuno guided Wolves to the Championship title in 2018, but medals from higher up the ladder in his own coaching career are absent from a weighty collection amassed during his playing days.
Serious change is afoot in north London this summer, but it remains to be seen how big – or indeed, positive – an impact it will make. Nuno isn’t the only new face: Fabio Paratici was influential in his hiring after joining as Tottenham’s new managing director of football in June, after 11 years as Juventus’ chief football officer.
And yet still, the biggest talking point in N17 this summer isn’t even about those two major arrivals. Kane’s future will be sweated over by every Spurs fan until the window is closed – life without him seems too torturous to bear. Last season was bleak enough with his 23 goals and 14 assists keeping them in Europe; remove them and watch the life drain from any fan with hope in their heart.
One way or another, though, Nuno will need to plan for a scenario where Tottenham aren’t entirely reliant on their Chingford destroyer – that’s just good sense. New signings Bryan Gil and Cristian Romero, both young and talented, offer hope. Ultimately, clever management can still make this team competitive and end the agonising wait.
If Nuno delivers, Levy might even claim it was his plan all along...
35 Emmanuel Dennis to troll everyone
Watford’s new striker may not be well known in England, but he is at Real Madrid. The 23-year-old Nigerian made headlines in 2019 after trolling Los Blancos in Europe, doing Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Siuuu’ celebration when he scored twice for Club Brugge at the Bernabeu.
Expect more merry japes this season: slaphead gestures at Pep; a comedy beard in a sock against Burnley (opens in new tab); or a huge Saudi Arabian flag at St James’, perhaps...
36 Ed Sheeran to guest Ipswich
The famed singer-songwriter is Ipswich’s official shirt sponsor for the season – a lifelong Tractor Boys fan, the jersey will promote his catchy ‘+-=÷x’ tour. Sheeran follows other musical shirt sponsors, including Jake Bugg (Notts County), Goldie Lookin Chain (Newport), The Libertines (Margate) and Wet Wet Wet (Clydebank).
But why stop there? If Ipswich are coasting one afternoon, get him on. We’re just thinking out loud.
37 More brilliant non-league cup runs
The FA Cup began with its extra preliminary round on August 7, with 348 teams dreaming big. Among them were Sporting Bengal United, Baffins Milton Rovers and Leicester Nirvana – the latter accurately describing the outcome of last season’s final.
With 14 rounds and 729 clubs in this season’s competition, here’s hoping there’ll be a few unlikely heroes to come. Chorley were the stars of last season’s competition, overcoming a lack of match action in the curtailed National League North to beat Wigan, Peterborough and the club officially known as Wayne Rooney’s Derby County – even if Wazza himself was absent, with the Rams’ first team unable to play because of COVID issues and subsequently replaced by a youthful line-up.
Boreham Wood and Stockport also made it to the third round, as did eighth-tier Marine, giving everyone the amusement of seeing Jose Mourinho, Gareth Bale and Dele Alli forced to show their faces at a tiny non-league ground on a Sunday evening. Spurs won 5-0, the spoilsports.
This season, we hope to see Mo Salah at Pontefract Collieries, Edinson Cavani at Ramsbottom and Marcelo Bielsa bossing it at Maidenhead. Magic.
38 Jadon Sancho replicating his Bundesliga form
In July, Manchester United completed the signing of Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. Apparently, they’d been tracking him for a while and even attempted to sign him last summer. Who knew?
The transfer saga may have been tedious, but there’s nothing dull about Sancho the footballer – even if we didn’t get to see much of him before penalty heartache at Euro 2020.
The England international left for Germany in 2017 as an unknown quantity. Yet to make his professional debut then, he’d turned down a lucrative contract offer from Manchester City. Unfairly but predictably, whispers of a bad attitude abounded. The assumption was that Sancho, not City, would be the one harbouring regrets four years down the line.
His move to Dortmund was a brave one, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been seen that way given the German giants’ well-earned reputation as European football’s foremost finishing school.
But moving abroad just wasn’t something that English footballers did – especially those barely out of short trousers. It’s a measure of Sancho’s success that so many others have since felt sufficiently emboldened to move overseas, however; the 21-year-old has established a clear pathway, and arrives in the red half of Manchester as the second-most expensive English player of all time.
Talk about making an impact! 💥A 17-year-old Jadon Sancho made a bold move to join Dortmund in 2017.He leaves having achieved more than anyone could ever have dreamt of 🖤💛 pic.twitter.com/z8XaEHiFfAJuly 23, 2021
United will pay around £73m for Sancho – a significantly smaller sum than the reported £108m that Dortmund demanded in 2020. Still, keeping hold of him for another year had its benefits: without him, BVB might not have won the DFB-Pokal nor qualified for the Champions League .
After a patient start, Sancho established himself as a Dortmund regular in the 2018/19 campaign. His dazzling displays earned him a spot in the Bundesliga’s team of the year – one he retained in 2019/20. He didn’t make the cut last term, but only because he started slowly and then missed a chunk of game time through injury.
His numbers were outstanding. In three full seasons as a starter, Sancho scored 49 goals and added 53 assists in all competitions – frankly absurd numbers for a young player under the age of 21 in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Indeed, no one in that age group can match Sancho’s tally of direct goal involvements since his Dortmund debut in August 2017. Sancho racked up 83 in the Bundesliga – nine more than Kylian Mbappe in Ligue 1. His returns surpassed every English player in a top five league since 1992; none of Robbie Fowler (76), Michael Owen (73) nor Wayne Rooney (66) hit Sancho’s output level.
This is a big season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is still trophyless at Old Trafford. United finished second last term, but never really challenged. With Sancho, they should get closer. He might yet give Manchester City something to really regret...
39 European games in the 'right cities'
Europe’s knockout stages were an oddity last term – Atletico vs Chelsea in Bucharest, Real Sociedad vs Man United in Turin, Arsenal vs Benfica in Rome and Athens, and nearly every other match switched to Budapest’s Puskas Arena.
The Champions League final had to be moved from Turkey to Portugal (again) – but things might be different this season. Istanbul isn’t due to host the showpiece in any case, with Saint Petersburg getting the nod.
Home games actually at home this season, then? A novel idea...
40 Comoros at the AFCON
An extra international break has been added this season, allowing for some delayed World Cup qualifiers in late January. It partly coincides with the Africa Cup of Nations, being held in Cameroon from January 9, although Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy and more could still miss at least two Premier League games.
English clubs won’t be affected by Comoros’ fairytale debut, though. The tiny island nation have a squad largely based in France’s lower leagues, and qualified ahead of Kenya and Togo.
41 Less nonsense from VAR
VAR has been a source of frustration in the Premier League for some time, with video intervention arguably making some decisions even more nonsensical than were before. The Euros generally showed how VAR should be done – smoothly, with few controversies – with the scrapping of the bizarre accidental handball rule and the use of thicker lines for marginal offside calls should also help.
All we’re asking for is a game that everyone understands, where decisions at Stockley Park don’t dilute the passion and spontaneity which make football brilliant. Please?
42 Rafa to prove his doubters wrong... again
Quiz question: which Premier League club has employed two former Real Madrid bosses back to back?
Rafael Benitez might not have been every Evertonian’s first choice to succeed Carlo Ancelotti (to put it mildly), but it’s very hard to argue with the Spaniard’s trophy-laden CV and a managerial career that’s set to take in a 13th club.
After 18 lucrative months in the Chinese Super League, Rafa is back where he feels like he belongs: the Premier League... or more specifically, Merseyside. Benitez has genuine affection for the region that’s been home to his family since being in charge of Liverpool.
Ah yes, that lot. Everton’s new boss is still hugely popular in the city’s red half, having led Everton’s arch-rivals to Champions League glory in 2005. Six years at Anfield is the Spaniard’s longest spell of a career which began with Real Madrid B in 1993.
It’s only natural that the Goodison Park faithful weren’t instantly delighted with Benitez’s arrival – but when you take a step back and remove the partisan lens, he looks like a solid appointment. The Spaniard knows the Premier League as well as anybody from his time with Chelsea and Newcastle, as well as They Who Must Not Be Named. He’s won trophies in England, Spain and Italy, and worked with world-class players in all three countries. And as the 61-year-old has since tried to explain, he really didn’t mean to call Everton a small club – ‘team’ was the subtly different word he was looking for.
Granted, Benitez’s football isn’t always easy on the eyes – even his best sides have tended to be solid rather than spectacular. Yet pretty passing patterns didn’t do much good for Roberto Martinez in this part of the world. Benitez’s team certainly won’t be pushovers, and that’s a start.
Everton seem to occupy a place of their own in the Premier League. They haven’t done well enough in recent years to justify being included in conversations about the elite, yet they’re clearly a huge club with vast potential; more so than almost every other side outside the division’s richest sextet. And yet, the Toffees haven’t finished in the top six since 2013/14.
Put simply, Everton have punched well below their weight for far too long. Provided he’s properly backed by financiers and fans alike, Benitez could be the manager to break a depressing cycle at Goodison.
As he proved at Chelsea, he doesn’t need to be liked to be successful...
43 De Bruyne to rack up 25 assists
Kevin De Bruyne 😍😍John Stones heads home the perfect cross as KDB gets his 💯th Man City assist 📺 Watch on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #MCICRY here: https://t.co/WbpPaJBupf📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/2oGcWwvmftJanuary 17, 2021
Death, taxes and Kevin De Bruyne assists. The sight of Kev lasering balls into boxes like a trained sniper is a glorious one – but it’s hard to shake the feeling there’s even more out there for him. His 20 league assists in 2019/20 equalled Thierry Henry’s long-standing record, but a new campaign avoiding injury could take him one giant step further. It’s time for City’s star-spangled attack to return their many favours...
44 Spurs to win a Conference game 10-0
After the miserable Jose era, unwanted entry into the new Europa Conference League provides new opportunities to Tottenham: namely, rekindling their entertainment value.
The prospect of welcoming third-placed sides from Azerbaijan and Slovenian cup winners to north London might well offer them the chance to play with a bit more freedom outside of the Premier League.
Leeds demolished SFK Lyn of Norway 10-0 in 1969 – could Nuno’s side top it?
45 More goals from goalkeepers
Here it is... Alisson's remarkable header deep into injury-time that handed Liverpool an incredible 2-1 victory over West Brom! 🇧🇷 ⚽📺 Reaction on Sky Sports PL📲 Download the @SkySports app!📱 Follow #WBALIV reaction: https://t.co/4Ko9z3MRwQ pic.twitter.com/AJmXwiXuvnMay 16, 2021
Only one thing can equal the excitement of a stray keeper in the box – the nutcase actually bloody scoring. Alisson’s astonishing winner at West Brom in May reminded us all why we love the genre so; that Labrador-esque bound of a wild custodian, followed by chaos.
🚨 STOPPAGE TIME GOALKEEPER GOAL ALERT! 🚨Torquay have thrown absolutely everything at it and FINALLY get their reward. 😱🔥This isn’t over yet! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/zEWLSb7fTDJune 20, 2021
The National League play-off final went wild too, with Torquay’s Lucas Covolan notching a 95th-minute leveller against Hartlepool, then saving the resulting shootout’s first two penalties… and still ending up losing. More madness, please.
46 Tariq Lamptey's injury comeback
‘Like a new signing’ are the dreaded four words no fan wants to hear, delivered as they usually are with the subtle undertones of thriftiness. Tariq Lamptey’s development, however, was cruelly derailed by injury in mid-December, and Brighton fans are as excited to see their fine young right-back return as they are about welcoming new faces. They’re not alone.
47 Vieira's Prem return
“Serie A is really different to the Premier League,” Patrick Vieira told FourFourTwo back in 2008, three years after departing English football. “It’s less pleasure, more business. It feels more like going to work, rather than going to enjoy yourself.”
Boy did Vieira enjoy himself in the Premier League: the Arsenal legend won three titles with a box-to-box bluster English football had barely seen before or since. He was a titan at his best, the leader of the most breathtaking team in the land.
Perhaps the Frenchman’s passion and sheer enjoyment for English football is what made Crystal Palace (opens in new tab) pick up the phone this summer – after all, the Eagles are hoping to enjoy themselves a little more this season.
After the false dawn of ditching safety-first Allardyceball and hiring Frank de Boer in 2017 – a tenure lasting 450 league minutes – the Eagles settled for ousted England boss Roy Hodgson and four years of acceptable stasis.
But they’ve not given up their ambitions to aim higher – and that’s what Vieira’s new job is all about. From 2016-18, the Frenchman coached a possession-based, press-heavy New York City FC. He exploited the talents of Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Jack Harrison to set up a founding philosophy upon which he could build the club, before leaving to succeed Lucien Favre at Nice. It was a tough act to follow: there was regression in Ligue 1 after Favre’s overachievement, not especially helped by the likes of Dalbert, Alassane Plea and Allan Saint-Maximin being pilfered.
Vieira was eventually sacked in December after a shaky start to the season, but his notebook will have similar bullet points at Selhurst Park. Blooding starlets like Tyrick Mitchell will be key, while mercurial figures like widemen Michael Olise – newly acquired from Reading – and talisman Wilfried Zaha will be given licence to thrill. Palace fans want to stay up, but they’d love to achieve it with a little more panache if possible.
“Vieira is the umbilical cord between the team and the fans,” Arsene Wenger once said of his prodigal son. Two decades on, the Eagles will be hoping their new manager can re-connect the two post-lockdown – all with the same swagger that he once treated an adoring public to in London.
48 The second-scariest Hannibal around
Hannibal Mejbri made his debut for Manchester United in the final game of 2020/21, and the midfielder is clearly a headline-maker in wait. Mejbri is highly rated after signing from Monaco aged 16 in 2019 – for a fee that could rise to £9m – after interest from Barcelona, PSG and Bayern.
Now 18, the midfielder earned his first three caps for Tunisia this summer and is pushing for more game time at Old Trafford. Luckily, he’s only eaten his opponents alive in a figurative way so far. No liver-eating or chianti-drinking here, guv.
49 Coventry back at the Ricoh
After two seasons groundsharing at St Andrew’s, Coventry are back at the Ricoh Arena for 2021/22. True, their fans weren’t able to go to a football ground for a lot of that period anyway, but there was widespread disgruntlement when the club were forced to leave their city for a second time in 2019, because of a legal dispute with the Ricoh’s rugby owners, Wasps.
Thankfully such aggro has has now been resolved, and Cov have returned to their ground on a 10-year deal. Scoring two goals in the last nine minutes in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Nottingham Forest on the opening day showed just how much the Sky Blues had missed the place.
50 Big Sam turning up... somewhere
A new campaign can mean only one thing – a new opportunity for Sam Allardyce to turn up at an ailing club mid-season. Blackburn, Sunderland and Crystal Palace were all rescued from the drop after Big Sam stepped in, although he bit off more than he could chew at West Brom.
Having washed down that disappointment with a pint of his finest wine (probably), Allardyce is no doubt ready to go again – so place your bets on which flops he might take over. Derby? Valencia? Colo-Colo? He’s at your service.
51 Jude Bellingham becoming a superstar
Bellingham has a way of making us all feel old. When he was born, David Beckham’s Manchester United career was already over. Gareth Southgate’s England playing career had two more games to come. Jose Mourinho had already won the UEFA Cup, while little James Milner had scored in the Premiership, as it then was.
A year ago, Bellingham’s only senior football had come in the Championship with Birmingham. Now, his impact has come on much grander stages.
This summer, before even blowing out the candles on his 18th birthday, he’d become England’s youngest player at a tournament. He was already the second-youngest scorer in the Champions League’s knockout stages, and was voted the Bundesliga’s newcomer of the year – as previous winners include Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, Jadon Sancho and Alphonso Davies, it tends to be a pretty good marker. Bellingham is at European football’s finest destination for youngsters; Borussia Dortmund don’t just sign diamonds, but make them shine even brighter.
The midfielder has been praised by two of those who’ve converted his kind of promise into performances worth talking about; the kind which have elevated them into the bracket of world football’s most coveted players. “The sky’s the limit for Jude,” said Sancho. “Top guy, top talent, top player,” stated Erling Haaland.
What a finish from Jude Bellingham! 🎯That's his first #UCL goal and it's so composed for a 17-year-old... 📈 pic.twitter.com/vMoYMmWcXJApril 14, 2021
Bellingham’s decision to snub Manchester United for Dortmund has paid off, although like with Sancho, it feels only a matter of time before a scramble to bring him back to England kicks off. Dortmund got him for an initial £25 million last summer, making him the most expensive 17-year-old of all time. His next move will be for three times that.
Bellingham’s capacity to make huge steps year on year should take him to another level – not least as he has an admirer in the England manager. “I couldn’t be more impressed with him as a human being,” said Southgate. The “humility” he identified should help the youngster develop, while the technical skills he possesses – his choice of the No.22 shirt is because he can play as a No.4, 8 or 10 – equips him to add another dimension to the England midfield. The admirable, but largely industrious combos of Declan Rice with either Kalvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson contain others whose characters Southgate likes – but Bellingham could provide more creative qualities which allow England to dominate the ball better.
For club and country alike, superstardom is beckoning. Qatar 2022 has his name on it. And, hey, not a Beatles pun in sight. Oh, shi*t.
52 N’Golo Kante to be man of every match
N'Golo Kante was named as man of the match for Chelsea in both legs of their Champions League semi last season, then for the final victory over Manchester City.
But why stop there? The midfielder will aim to go several better this season, bidding to be named star man in all 38 of Chelsea’s Premier League fixtures, every FA Cup and Carabao Cup game, and even as an over-age player for the Blues’ U21s in the Papa John’s Trophy. The Frenchman’s insatiable desire for total domination will stop at nothing.
53 Home Nations to make the World Cup
Europe’s qualifiers conclude later this year. England currently top their group, while Scotland are fighting Denmark, Israel and Austria for a top-two spot. Wales are facing Belgium and the Czechs, though even finishing third should offer the fallback of a March play-off, thanks to their Nations League displays. Alas, it’s not all positive: Northern Ireland look cooked.
54 Graeme Souness to adopt Billy Gilmour
Gilmour’s Euros didn’t end well after he contracted COVID, but his display for Scotland at Wembley continued to prove his exciting potential – and that Souey can be happy (as he proved with around 327 interviews about the performance after it). We’ll now get to see much more of the 20-year-old on loan at Norwich (opens in new tab) this term. Just watch for our Graeme going all Miss Honey.
55 Oldham to keep a manager (for once)
See 2013/14 for the last time that Oldham didn’t change their manager mid-season – since then they’ve gone through 16 bosses, with veteran Keith Curle the latest after replacing Harry Kewell in March.
Some stability would be nice at Boundary Park, although at least the football has been entertaining recently: only one League Two team scored more goals than the Latics last season, although they also conceded 12 more than the next-worst defence of bottom side Grimsby. Can they ‘do’ dull this once?
56 Louis van Gaal's one game at Telstar
It’s four years since Louis van Gaal retired from football – but everyone’s favourite mental Dutchman is on the comeback.
Even before the Netherlands job came back around for a third time following the (very mutual) resignation of Frank de Boer after Euro 2020, the 69-year-old had already agreed to take charge of Dutch second-tier club Telstar... for one match only.
Situated in spellcheck’s IJmuiden, just west of Amsterdam, Telstar finished 13th in the Eerste Divisie last season – thankfully, not enough to deter them from an amusing scheme that would see Van Gaal taking the reins of a September league match against Jong AZ in place of normal boss Andries Jonker, his former assistant at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
As a player, the former Manchester United boss spent one season at the club in 1977/78, but is now set to return for this one-game stint.
There’s more, too: Telstar even offered one supporter the opportunity to be Van Gaal’s number two for the day – a lottery has been taking place for the chance to sit next to him on the bench for the game, with all of the money raised going to charity.
It’s quite a prize: for the price of a humble lottery ticket, you too can listen to all of Van Gaal’s odd sex masochism jokes, and be the first person to receive his notorious stare when Jong AZ take the lead.
57 Zlatan signing a 10-year contract
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s best-laid plans were ruined this summer – but he’s not done yet.
The striker made his much-heralded return to the Sweden setup in March, coming out of a five-year international retirement just to play at the Euros... only to then get injured.
Thus follows a slightly awkward situation where the veteran has to figure out whether to quietly retire again, or somehow battle on for the 2022 World Cup, when he’ll be 41 and fully in Roger Milla territory. Zlatan being Zlatan, he’s dropped hints that he might go for the latter and attempt to break his goal duck at Planet Football’s showpiece.
Before then, he’ll hope to get back on the goal trail with Milan (opens in new tab) in Serie A, having shocked one and all by hitting a highly impressive 28 goals in 47 games since returning from LA Galaxy 18 months ago. Ibra helped his side finish second, sealing a Champions League return for the first time in eight years.
Zlatan turns 40 in October, but age hasn’t looked like much of a barrier so far. Just give him a new 10-year contract now and let him crack on until he’s 50.
58 Just a normal bloody season
The ‘new normal’ came to mean several things in football over the past year or so – but finally, it’s time to bring the old normal back again.
For the first time in three years, there’s hope that some sort of tradition can return. A league season that runs from August to May – not August to July with an unexpected three-month break in the middle, or from September to May with the world’s most ludicrously packed fixture list.
Minus international breaks, Manchester City played in every midweek but one during that eight-month period – and that break was only because a match at Everton was postponed because of COVID. Tottenham had to cram a League Cup match and Europa League tie into the same midweek during the opening weeks of the campaign, while Manchester United and Rotherham were required to play four games in a week during the run-in.
The League Cup final is set to return to its traditional late February date, rather than being played in April. This campaign will feature only one final of the Scottish Cup, EFL Trophy, FA Trophy and FA Vase – not none, like two seasons ago, or two, like last season. Sadly, last season’s Women’s FA Cup will resume with the quarter-finals in September... but we’re getting there.
Kick-off times will return to something approaching sensible – midweek EFL games to 7.45pm, not 7pm or even 5pm, when people were still at work. Midweek Premier League clashes at 6pm have been banished.
On the opening weekend of the Premier League season, five games are scheduled for Saturday at 3pm, rather than the staggered kick-off times which made it feel like no matter what day or time it was, a top-flight game was being played somewhere. 4am on a Thursday, you say? Sure. Probably.
The frenzied rush to get through all of the fixtures, all of the time, has come to an end. Fake crowd noise has gone, to be replaced by actual human voices. Imagine! Away fans at matches, not just home supporters or their cardboard cutout equivalents.
August to May, the old normal is back. It’s football as it was always meant to be – the football we fell in love with. So watch it, and drink it in. Go and support your local club; experience it all in the flesh.
If FFT gets our wish, none of us will ever see anything like the nonsense of the last 16 months ever again...
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