Time to take this season by the throat in the neck

It's half way through the season, time to take socks. I'm sitting here, with the Christmas games over, and it's no clearer who will win the Premiership. Awfully crowded, innit, though those wiser than me are naming four teams. I think only one will win it, personally, and I'll give you that name in a wee minute. First, let's look back over the half-season.

Best news Graham Kelly going. Very like Mandelson going. Both guilty of dodgy judgements involving money and another person, which they hoped to keep secret. Then the so-called honourable and sudden resignation. Strange how football is so often like politics. And they each have a Big Bad Murdoch hovering off-stage.

The difference in their goings is that I have now almost forgotten what Graham Kelly looked like. He was a charisma-free zone and now he's gone. It's hard to believe he was ever here. Mandelson is still with us, still talked about, still being tipped for positions. Yet no one has mentioned the obvious. Chief executive of the FA. Get that application in, Pete.

Best players Who have done jolly well, so far. Zola, with all that talent, was bound to find form again, hence Chelsea's good run. Dion Dublin perhaps did best of all, but I sense his second half to the season might not be as good. Yorke and Cole together have done better than most predicted. Ditto Ginola, who was not expected to flourish under George Graham. Garry Barry, best newcomer, so far. And best name. OK, it's Gareth Barry, but I get a lot of simple pleasure out of saying to myself, now, is it Garry Barry or Barry Garry . . . ?

Most disappointing players Most is expected of strikers. They get the most praise when they perform, and the most stick when they don't. Shearer and Ferguson have done little, Michael Owen only a little more. Robbie Fowler is but a shadow, but the saddest has been Kevin Davies at Blackburn. What ails him? Is it lack of confidence? That's what they always say in football, even managers, and naturally that makes the poor buggers worse. If modern medicine can invent Viagra to boost the penis, why can't they find something to boost the ego?

Leonhardsen, a midfielder, is a more curious but equally sad case. He was so vital, so creative at Wimbledon, yet the moment he arrived at Liverpool he seemed to shrink. It doesn't appear to be just a matter of confidence. More of environment. People can be with the wrong team, at the wrong time, in the wrong surroundings. It happens in politics, and in journalism. I remember Jill Tweedie coming to the Independent from the Guardian, writing the same sort of stuff, yet she wasn't as good. Somehow the setting, the ambience, the surroundings, didn't suit. As for Suzanne Moore leaving the Indy for the Mail on Sunday, how long before she decides she's joined the wrong team?

Puzzles of the season so far How do you pronounce AXA, that new lot sponsoring the FA Cup? Gawd knows. And those funny symbols that look like Oxo and stand for a PlayStation, whatever that is. A simpler puzzle is why only Premiership players have their names on the backs of their shirts. Is it because players and supporters in the First, Second and Third Divisions can't read?

Best quotes of the season I write them down, all the pearls, as they trickle from the mouths of the babes, the suckling pigs and the Big Rons, he's my favourite. He was perceptive on David Beckham: "He hasn't got a great technique, technically." Barry Venison also scored high points with: "They must concentrate on the way they've concentrated." But my best so far has been Trevor Steven doing an expert commentary: "They've got the game by the throat in the neck."

Worst football TV programme Mentioning Barry Venison has reminded me. When I was trying to forget. Have you seen On the Ball, ITV's Saturday lunchtime programme? It's a must, if only to try and work out the rationale. His partner is Gabby Yorath, who has a degree in law, so she should be able to talk some sense, oh yeah. She also comes from a football family, so must have picked up something, yet she is there as the token airhead. Barry wears his intellectual specs and his job is to talk sense. But they are defeated by the length of every item, every thought, which lasts about three seconds, presumably because the attention span of all viewers is assumed to be four seconds. It makes Gary Lineker look like a fellow of All Souls.

Most worrying news The report that Ashley Ward of Barnsley, in the First Division, has turned down Blackburn of the Premiership as they have been really, really mean and won't pay him £1 million a year. Has the world gone mad? Not at all. That's clearly normal pay for a run-of-the-mill, pretty average, only half-decent striker who's 28 and never played for a top club. Where will it end? And how do economists explain it? I meant to ask my neighbour Sir Alan Budd when I met him yesterday but he was too busy telling me about his new and wonderful pension scheme, sorry, new position as Provost of Queen's. Lucky beggar. I'm the same age. Yet no one has offered me such a nice job. Oh well. Might as well send that application off to the FA, before Pete gets ahead of me . . .

Predictions I don't see Aston Villa lasting the pace. Yes, all season that's been predicted, and they've still done brilliantly. Arsenal won't keep up the pace, either. Chelsea will, till almost the very end, then be tipped at the post by Man Utd. Right, now eat this prediction after burning it, so in May I can deny all knowledge . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour