Kick-off: Here we go, here we go
PUBLISHED: 19:00 11 August 2017
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Football is back, but did it really go away this summer?
Another competitive football season is already upon us then and it really does now appear to be a year-round sport.
By my calculations, there was not one football-free weekend this summer, with Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph on June 3 followed by England’s World Cup qualifier in Scotland seven days later.
It could be argued that last season finally ended with England’s 3-2 friendly defeat in France three days later, although the under-21s were in European Championship action until June 27, when the 2017/18 campaign officially began with the first qualifying round ties for the Champions League!
Our clubs have had a bit of a longer rest, but the gap between West Ham United’s last Premier League fixture at Burnley (May 21) and the first pre-season friendly played by Essex Senior League outfit Sporting Bengal, against Punjab United (July 1), is a mere 40 days in the wilderness.
Football, of course, remains one of the dominant stories on TV and in national media during the summer, given the endless stream of wild speculation stories regarding player transfers.
But now it is truly back for good, with several of our Essex Senior League clubs opening their accounts on July 29 and the National League starting up at the weekend.
Leyton Orient had the honour of getting things underway with a lunchtime kick-off at Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane on Saturday and the sheer fact they are still able to compete will be a huge relief to their supporters given the fact that the very existence of London’s second-oldest club – founded in 1881 – had been in serious doubt at one point, with a winding-up petition hanging over their head in the High Court.
But they thankfully avoided the worst-case scenario of going into liquidation and having to start again on the very bottom rung of football’s pyramid, although they do find themselves playing outside the Football League for the first time. They were on the brink of the Championship just three summers ago.
New owners, new management and a host of new players are on board in E10 – along with some returning heroes such as David Mooney and Jobi McAnuff – and there are smiles on the faces of the O’s fans once again, but it will be a long road back to former glories, as Saturday’s loss showed.
They will be able to lock horns with east London rivals Dagenham & Redbridge once again, though, and the fixtures computer was very shrewd in setting up Boxing Day (Victoria Road) and New Year’s Day (Brisbane Road) derbies.
Daggers went close to a Wembley return in May, before losing their play-off semi-final to Forest Green Rovers, who went on to defeat Tranmere in the final.
And veteran boss John Still will be looking for his squad to push once again, despite the exits of club legend Paul Benson, Joe Widdowson (to Orient!), Josh Staunton, Luke Guttridge and Frankie Raymond.
Michael Cheek, Morgan Ferrier and former West Ham youngster Bondz N’Gala are three of the new faces in the ranks and with six play-off places up for grabs for the right to join the champions in the Football League, Daggers got off to a winning start.
Premier League West Ham are ready for their second season in the London Stadium and will be keen to avoid some of the issues that dogged their debut campaign on the Olympic Park.
Slaven Bilic’s men struggled to settle in their new surroundings in the early stages of 2016/17, as the supporters also took time to get used to the move from their beloved Upton Park.
The famous Boleyn Ground in Green Street is sadly no more, with the demolition crews having done their bit, and Bilic has been rebuilding his squad after their 11th-place finish last term.
The Croatian has done some good business too, snapping up England goalkeeper Joe Hart on loan from Manchester City, as well as free agent defender Pablo Zabaleta, and paying out big money for Marko Arnautovic – for a club record fee of up to £25million – and Javier Hernandez (£16m).
The key now will be to avoid the injury problems that plagued his players last time out and get the Hammers pushing for a higher placing in the table.
As for our other non-league clubs, Hornchurch will hope it’s third time lucky in the Bostik (formerly Ryman) League, after losing in the play-off final and semi-finals these past two years.
Romford will look to maintain progress under Paul Martin, who will take charge of his 500th match at some point, and Barking will aim to make their presence felt following their Essex Senior League title win last term.
Clapton had to settle for the runners-up spot behind the Blues, having ended a 27-year wait for silverware a year earlier in the shape of the Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy, and were regularly playing to crowds larger than many ‘bigger’ clubs.
Ilford finished sixth and, after avoiding expulsion from the league on appeal, will look to keep moving in the right direction under Allan Fenn, while battling for bragging rights with Redbridge and Barkingside.
Mile End Stadium co-tenants Sporting Bengal and Tower Hamlets are also aiming to climb the table this season, along with Old Spotted Dog-based Hackney Wick (formerly London Bari).