THIS weekend marks the return of the Football League, a full week before the Premier League’s big kick off. Something that has been an unsettling concept for me ever since it was introduced a fair few years back now. I mean, why can’t we all kick off the new season together like we used to?
For me the opening day of Liverpool’s season loses a bit of its excitable edge, especially when it comes 10 days after the first competitive game of the season to involve an English club (Hull City this evening take on AS Trencin in the 1st leg of their Europa League qualifier), and 9 days after the first game of the Football League campaign, when Blackburn Rovers face Cardiff City at Ewood Park tonight in The Championship. These mild grumbles aside it is good to see competitive football back.
The Football League or at least the post Premier League version of the Football League is a strange place. It’s on a hiding to nothing trying to chase the coat tails of the Premier League commercially, and it’s strange naming of its divisions has to be confusing to non-football centric beings that peer in from the outside, I mean you try explaining that League One and League Two are actually the third and fourth divisions of the English game, rather than first and second divisions to the uninitiated and you draw the kind of looks usually reserved for someone dressed only in Bermuda shorts, flip flops and sporting a rubber ring around their waist, idly strolling around in the open air on a cold and rainy day in Salford (a sight that actually greeted me the last time I drove through Salford).
Still its competitive football and after the limbering stretches of pre-season games that seem to either whet the appetite in a positive manner for some, or goad the impatient soul in an angst ridden way for the real thing to others, it will be a relief to see it back and there are at least a couple of Football League items of interest to keep an eye on this season. Sami Hyypia is about to launch his time in charge at Brighton and Hove Albion, while 1980/81 ‘accidental witness’ Richard Money is leading Cambridge United back into the Football League after a nine year exile in the Football Conference.
Richard Money. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with players like Richard Money. It’s that concept that they were essentially an extra in the backdrop of classic moments of Liverpool’s all conquering era, the players that had vital cameo roles to play in massive games before disappearing onto the horizon for regular football elsewhere. For every other player from that era who clocked up hundreds of games in ‘HITACHI’ sponsored shirts, there was another that played a relatively fleeting number of games. For every Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy there was an Avi Cohen, for every Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen there was a Colin Irwin. For every Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Case there was a Kevin Sheedy, for every Kenny Dalglish and David Johnson there was a Howard Gayle.
Accidental witnesses to unmitigated glory in an era when the starting line-up tended to pick itself week in week out, there was no squad rotation during the ‘HITACHI’ days. Only injury, a player’s time being up or a dramatic loss of form would make a position available for players like Money, Cohen, Irwin, Gayle and Sheedy. They were basically the backing dancers in the greatest footballing boy band this country has ever seen. If it had been an episode of Star Trek then they’d been the cast members you’d never seen before, those who were teleported down to the surface of an inhospitable planet with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu and Chekov, the one’s that you immediately knew wouldn’t make it back from the mission in one piece.
What was great about these players was how they tipped up in some of the biggest games of the season. Cohen had his main moment in the spotlight in the 1979/80 title clinching game at home to Aston Villa scoring for both sides on a day when, with the BBC’s John Motson in an iconic frame of mind implored “and here comes Avi Cohen, oh I say, at the same end he’s got one back”. Irwin even managed to get a game at Wembley in the 1981 League Cup Final when Phil Thompson was ruled out injured, picking up a winner’s medal as unused sub in the Villa Park replay. Money played in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final that very same season against Manchester City, while most impressively of all both Money and Irwin started the European Cup semi-final second leg at the Olympic Stadium in Munich against Bayern on a night when Gayle also came into the equation with less than 10 minutes on the clock, and Sammy Lee in his first season as the regular number 8 was shepherding Paul Breitner around like a player with more than a decade of experience to his name.
Money, Irwin and Gayle all picked up winners medals from their places sat on the bench in Paris against Real Madrid, Cohen missing out totally, then within a year they’d all been moved on as part of the mid-1981 to mid-1983 reshuffling of the squad, before the managerial baton was passed on from Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan. The likes of Mark Lawrenson, Steve Nicol, Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush who arrived at the club in the case of the former two, and survived the cull in the case of the latter two might have gone on to legendary status, with appearances and medals galore but there will always be a part of me that has a bit of a soft spot for those ‘accidental witnesses’. So as much as I’m wanting ‘Our Sami’ to get off to a flyer with Brighton on Saturday at home to Sheffield Wednesday, it will be Richard Money’s Cambridge United opening day result at home to Plymouth Argyle I’ll be looking out for first.
Competitive club football, oh how I’ve missed you.