Jim White

Fasten your seat belts

Jim White

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Not long to go now. Soon it will be over: the empty feeling, the dull Saturday nights, the Sunday afternoons at a loose end. No more will you be reduced to scrabbling round the television schedules for late night highlights of Argentine league matches, just to feed the need. No more visits to the garden centre to forlornly fill the time. It starts on Saturday, and the wave of relief among right-thinking people will be felt from Fratton Park to the Stadium of Light.

Whatever you might say about the Premier League, about its silly presumptions, about overpaid players demonstrating all the loyalty of a hungry flea, about rising prices and falling value, we can't do without it. It is the greatest soap opera, the biggest drama in our lives. EastEnders is nothing compared to plotlines about Wenger against Scolari and Ferguson against the world. Without it, how would we pass the time? How would we spark a conversation? What would we say as we sat in the back of a taxi?

Not that there is anything unexpected lying in wait. Sir Alex Ferguson has already told us who will be crowned champions next May. He thinks it will be one of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or his own club. Thanks for that, Sir. You really stuck your neck out there. Went out on a limb on that one. We would never have guessed.

We can add to what we will from now on call the Fergie prophecy, the certainty that for much of the season the relegation zone will feature three of the following: Hull City, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke. Also that those clubs running for the UEFA Cup places will be Portsmouth, Tottenham, Everton and Aston Villa. Though not necessarily in that order.

Which means the real excitement will come somewhere in between. In the marzipan layer somewhere between bloated top and impoverished bottom. Here is where the edge of the seat will be explored. Here is where unpredictability lurks. Will West Ham finish above Middlesbrough? Can Fulham edge as high as 15th? Will Paul Ince manage to impose his sizeable character on an apparently less than impressed bunch of Blackburn players? Has Roy Keane spent wisely this summer in his mass annexation of under-performing Spurs personnel? Plus, how long will it be before Kevin Keegan tires of the politics at St James' Park and decides to slip away to spend more time with his pay-off?

Talking of which, there will be the sackings to look forward to. Bizarrely, the bookies have installed Mark Hughes as the most likely first managerial casualty. This can only be a reflection on the flakiness of the Manchester City boardroom, as Hughes seems to me the sharpest of the new generation of managers around: harder than Southgate, better with the media than Moyes, less self-obsessed than Ince. As any Blackburn fan will tell you, Hughes is a superb operator. A detail man, he ensures everything is done properly, from training, through sports science, to the tactics. He is pretty impressive on the touchline too: you wouldn't want to mess with him.

Indeed, far from him heading out of the door at the City of Manchester Stadium, here is my tip for the new season. My bet is by the end of the year, after successfully transforming City into one of the league's hardest-to-beat sides, he will have firmly placed himself at the head of the most intriguing race in English football, the one that gets ever more pressing and exciting as the seasons roll on. It is the charge to replace the grand old man across town. At the end of this coming season, Hughes will have emerged as the man most likely.

Though of course he will never really replace the great knight. When he does go, we will miss the old chap dreadfully. After all, who else will we get to tell us that only one of the big four can win the league?

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