It’s that time of year again – the fixtures are out. Drew Heatley casts his eye over our Premier League schedule.
Every year it’s the same. What’s our first game, what’s our last game, when do we play our closest rivals (league depending) and who are we playing on my birthday? That’s the order I check the fixture list every year, usually in June.
This year, it’s August, and most of these things don’t really matter. I’ll be watching most, if not all, games on TV. No away-day weekends, no all-day pub sessions in the run-up to a tea-time kick-off, no dashing from the office at 5pm to cram in a few jars before a game under the lights.
Yep, it’s weird. But as I said many times leading up to the play-off final: behind-closed-doors football is still football – it matters.
With so much football crammed into a short space of time, and with no fans to consider for the foreseeable future, you’ve got to think this fixture list is pretty much set in stone, despite disclaimers it’s subject to change. So let’s take a look at the key areas in our return to the Premier League.
Anything can happen on the opening day, right? We destroyed Bolton at Loftus Road in 2002 to top the Premier League for the first time in our history. We smashed Norwich 5-0 in the August sun in 2012. We’re at the Cottage this time around, starting our campaign against Mikel Arteta’s FA Cup-winning Arsenal. They’re not the force they once were, of course, finishing 8th in the league. And we should still be on a high, just one month removed from Joe Bryan day™. A draw would be great, right? Last time round, we called far too many games against so-called big teams “free hits”. We should look to exploit Arsenal’s weaknesses and start strong.
Then onto Elland Road. Leeds United wait 16 years to return to the top table, and the first team to come to Elland Road? Us. Ha. In front of no-one too. You love to see it. It’s a chance to pick up some points, of course. It’d be foolish to think otherwise. Though the memories of our 3-0 defeat and Mitro’s subsequent ban are still fresh.
It’s the first of a run of seven games where we should be looking to gain some momentum. Villa are the second team to visit the Cottage, and having dispatched them in the FA Cup last term, we shouldn’t fear them. Trips away to Wolves and Sheffield United follow, with the Blades particularly under pressure in their difficult second season. Home games against Roy’s Crystal Palace and fellow promoted side West Brom round off October. This is a Palace side that lost seven of its last eight games – that sort of tailspin is tough to get out of.
If we play to our strengths, I’d expect us to be fairly pleased by the time we start carving our pumpkins.
The festive period
Like Santa, we’re on the road a lot around Christmas. A trip to Newcastle on the 19th presents an opportunity for an early Yuletide gift, while Southampton at home on Boxing Day gives the boys the chance of Christmas Day with their family, which is bound to boost morale, even if Scott’s sat having a beer and eating turkey, thinking about the next game.
A trip to the new White Hart Lane follows just days later – and again, the opportunity to spend time with loved ones can’t be understated. Spurs will be spending Christmas in the Black Country ahead of Wolves on Boxing Day, so it’s a definite advantage. And it sets us up nicely for a trip to turf Moor to kick off 2021. A year that can’t be as weird as 2020, right?
If the first half of the season is kind to us, fixture-wise, then the run-in is where the footballing Gods collect the debt we owe them. We face Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Man United in our last seven games, with only Tottenham being played at the Cottage.
There are opportunities to pick up points at home against Burnley, then Newcastle in our final game, and a trip to St. Mary’s in our penultimate outing offers the chance to get a result, but make no mistake – this run-in is tougher than a Tesco Value steak.
Last time out we managed just seven wins, drawing five and losing a massive 26. It was utter dross. The bar is low this time around and so are our expectations. But let’s get excited, because it all still matters. It matters a lot.
Now, I just need to find a pub for Palace away on my birthday weekend…