Up and down
By Matt Rowson
Another August, another football season. This one, just like the last, follows a summer of upheaval and controversial departures, and just like last time we kick off with a tough-looking fixture away to one of the newly relegated sides.
The last game Leicester City played at this level was at Vicarage Road, in front of an expectant, and (for the most part) ultimately disappointed 20,000 crowd. The Foxes' 1-0 victory on that occasion drew the bolts on the relegation that had been confirmed elsewhere and squeezed our visitors into the play-off places. They went on to claim promotion, and haven't been back since.
So much changes, so much stays the same. Both Leicester and Watford have undergone a lifetime's ups and downs since then. We've suffered two relegations, won a Championship and a Play-off final, said goodbye to a legendary manager, appointed a former European Cup winning captain and player of the year, then sacked him again. The Foxes have enjoyed Premiership mid-table stability, Worthington Cup success and European campaigns before the departure of Martin O'Neill and friends, the black cloud that was Peter Taylor and the spectacular collapse back into Division One. Parallels there of our own first spell in the top flight and its messy demise (for Ade Akinbiyi read Trevor Senior); City will do well not to be haunted by Peter Taylor for as long as his successor, Dave Bassett, haunted us.
And yet both clubs are back pretty much where they begun. Watford, looking forward to a fresh start, City with a strong-willed young manager and a gritty competitive side hoping to claw their way back out of the Division. It's worth remembering also that prior to 1996's promotion, Leicester had spent all but one (and that an inglorious one) of the previous nine seasons in the second tier having been relegated in 1987 with the expectation, in the words of City fanzine The Fox, of "a year or two of kicking Division Two asses, a great promotion party, and then back up.". Whilst City, by virtue of the manner of their relegation, are engaged in considerably less chicken-counting than the other two sides to drop into the Nationwide, this spell shouldn't be long enough ago to forget what an energy-sapping momentum-stripping bog Division One is.
And that's without the backdrop of some taxing boardroom politics, a financial hit exacerbated by the well-documented ITV Digital farce, and one of your higher-profile players breaking a team-mate's jaw, apparently over a game of cards, before being contentiously dismissed at the same time as the club seek to reduce their wage bill. Ouch. (Incidentally, my football-indifferent sister, a resident of Leicester, described a City footballer she met in a nightclub as "a nasty little man, surrounded by little blonde girls". Guess who.)
On top of this, Muzzy Izzet, World Cup semi-finalist and arguably City's best player, has been about to leave for around six months. He scored the winner in that game in 1996, from which he is the only survivor in either camp. However, he was only on-loan at Filbert Street then (from Chelsea), and his current ties to City seem even less secure as he has spent much of the summer courting Middlesbrough (so let's face it, he really wants out). The News of the World even reports today that City are considering letting him go on a free in order to save on his expensive wages.
In goal for City will be Ian Walker, who appears to have won City fans round after some early scepticism. Tim Flowers still seems to be hanging around as his deputy, despite no end of loan-deals last season and stories of moves this summer, notably from Coventry.
At the back, the return from injury of Gerry Taggart leaves City with a defence that looks formidable by any standards. The brutal Irish centreback will once again partner Matt Elliott; the Scottish International is perhaps not the player he was and, as one of City's higher earners, is another to be (optimistically) listed by the scrambling Foxes, but it's hard to think of a more fearsome pair of centrebacks in the Nationwide. Except possibly Vega and Issa, if for different reasons. Cover in the centre is provided by youngster Matt Heath, used as an emergency striker at one point last term, and by £100,000 capture from Scarborough, Aaron Lyth. Gary Rowett, however, has left to join Charlton.
In the fullback positions, own goal specialist Frank Sinclair has the same stance on being beaten by his marker as our own Paul Robinson. Andrew Impey, Sinclair's main competition, is recovering from injury. On the left there is a three way tussle for the starting spot with one contender, Callum Davidson, having been quite literally knocked out of the running for the time being. Of the other two, former Forest man Alan "the Tank" Rogers is the more experienced, but England U19 international Jordan Stewart is highly rated. He also had the honour of scoring his side's first goal in their new Walkers' Stadium, in the 1-1 friendly draw with Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. Richard Edghill may also prove to be an option at fullback, the former Manchester City captain having been on trial with City over the summer.
In midfield, injuries and other developments have limited Mickey Adams' hand. Muzzy Izzet, if he's still around, looks like partnering Vicarage Road favourite Lee Marshall in the midfield - Marshall at one point looked like making an improbable return to the Premiership with West Brom over the summer. This fell through, to many Foxes' disappointment. Young winger Matthew Piper will be dicing with death down the right, whilst Jamie Scowcroft has been played wide on the left in recent friendlies. Irish midfielder Damien Delaney, loaned to Stockport last season, the inconsistent Stefan Oakes, brother of ex-Luton midfielder Scott, and another youngster, Jon Ashton, are further options. Robbie Savage has left for his natural home at St.Andrews; his most obvious heir, Matthew Jones, is injured. Junior Lewis, seen by many as symbolic of Peter Taylor's shambles, also has a knock and Darren Eadie, as ever, is also out. Further summer trialists have included the nomadic Nicky Summerbee and the psychotic Billy McKinlay; in their absence, Mickey Adams looks short on options for the weekend.
Up front is where the Foxes are most likely to struggle this season, however. Brian Deane and Paul Dickov form an experienced and awkward but hardly prolific pairing, and unless Scowcroft comes in from the left, the lumbering Trevor Benjamin is the only alternative.
Saturday's is a big game, with a huge gate already guaranteed at Leicester's impressive-sounding new stadium. To allow for teething problems associated with such days, it might be advisable to get there early. The Foxes will want to chalk up their first win at their new ground, and at the very least maintain Mickey Adams' unbeaten record in charge. The Hornets will be looking for a team taking shape, and a reminder (after last season's infinite gelling period) that progress doesn't have to be a static process - Saturday's friendly showing was encouraging on that score.
For both sides, however, there will be particular enjoyment in the occasion just for what it is. Leicester and Watford, scrapping in Division One. Blue versus Yellow and Black (or Red). In the current climate, the continuing dependability of these things cannot be taken for granted.