Editor’s Column: State of Play in the Premier League, Dulwich Hamlet and Smoking Footballers

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A look at the state of play in the Premier League, Dulwich Hamlet in the Ryman Isthmian League and the top five smoking footballers…

Seven games into the Premier League season and with the second international break upon us, the table is beginning to take shape.

At this stage of the 2012-13 season Chelsea sat above the two Manchester clubs at the summit, with Everton, Spurs, West Brom and Arsenal clinging on to their coat tails.

At the bottom sat Queens Park Rangers, whilst Norwich, Reading, Southampton, Aston Villa, Wigan and Liverpool perched precariously above them; all with less points than games played.

This year only Crystal Palace and Sunderland have less points than games played; Norwich have seven off seven and yet occupy the remaining slot in the relegation places – a year ago they’d have sat in 13th.

What does this tell us? Firstly, that Crystal Palace and Sunderland have been cut adrift by the second week of October. One has already parted with its manager, whilst it would be foolish to believe the other will see the season out.

Both oversaw an extraordinary turnover period during the summer window. It’s inescapable to believe that Palace were promoted a season too soon. Their transfer dealings were pragmatic; they valued numbers, rather than star quality, and though it may backfire this year you’d imagine they will be in a strong position, especially with the multi-million pound windfall that relegated teams now benefit from, to return for the 2015-16 season.

Chronicling Sunderland’s mismanagement over the past 18 months, or even six years, has been well documented, but this summer felt a watershed moment in its unravelling. The combination of 14 new players yet to gel together, no manager, no win by the second international break and six defeats in seven is season-wrecking.

And thus despite there still being 31 games left to play in this Premier League season it feels as though there is only one relegation candidate left to predict. Last year the league was divided into a top seven and bottom 13. There’s been little to suggest that that will change drastically this year, though the 12-point chasm between 7th and 8th may well reduce.

Of the bottom 13, the final relegation spot seems be a toss-up between Norwich, Stoke, Newcastle and Fulham, with West Brom, Hull, Cardiff and West Ham having too much about them to be sucked into the vortex.

Arsenal and Liverpool may be the early pacesetters this time around, but Southampton’s continued ascendance under Mauricio Pochettino should gain applause. They are one of the hardest teams to break down, and with their setup based on a high intensity pressing game, it’s all the more remarkable that they’ve conceded just two goals all season.

The sacking of Nigel Adkins last year was roundly deplored, but Southampton are a side transformed. Their ambition is to be admired, as it could easily have backfired, when others – Fulham, Stoke and Sunderland – have simply been treading water for years.

Fulham were fortunate to enter the international fortnight with an overdue win under their belts. Martin Jol’s face when his side secured three points against Stoke City was a sight to behold. It wasn’t simply the joy of a winning goal, but the sheer relief of keeping himself in a job for the next fortnight. Greg Johnson wrote that Fulham would be this season’s chaotic relegation flirters and nothing they’ve done so far this season has suggested otherwise. They could be so much better than they are; you wonder how much longer the new ownership will tolerate being mediocre.

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My Saturday afternoon was spent taking in some non-league football action at Dulwich Hamlet, who climbed up to second in the Ryman Isthmian League with a 4-2 win over Lewes.

The match itself was like being transported back to a bygone era, so far removed as it was from the mass medium that we are presented with every week. A crowd of 712 gathered on an overcast autumnal day in South London and Champion Hill was a picture of rustic resplendence.

The football on show was creative, adventurous and not short on quality; the very antithesis for which non-league football is stigmatized. Dulwich Hamlet’s no. 10, a Turkish footballer called Erhun Oztumer stands at 5’2” but was head and shoulders above the rest.

His left foot was magnetised to the ball, his touch was delicate and his delivery was supreme. He is simply too good to in that league. It’s not a failure of his own making, but another reflection of the insularity of English football, not just at the top but at the bottom of the food chain.

Oztumer has been touted around numerously, but coaches and managers in the non-league regard his size as a hindrance, a luxury they cannot afford.

I watched Wrexham regularly in last season’s Blue Square Premier, and after falling at the final hurdle of the play-off final they find themselves stuck in the non-league system still. Their slow start to the new season sees them hovering above the relegation zone, a consequence of a lack of innovative thinking when it comes to player recruitment.

There were footballers on show at Champion Hill on Saturday who would be an asset to any side in the Skrill Premier, but the stigma of playing in the Isthmian League is hard to shrug off for the uninitiated.

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In tribute to Jack Wilshere’s midweek escapades, here’s a roundup of my top 5 smoking footballers:

  1. Socrates
  2. Dimitar Berbatov
  3. Johann Cruyff
  4. Zinedine Zidane
  5. Mario Balotelli
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