The first day of the football season is exactly like the start of the London Marathon. Different sections of the field leave at different times and from different places but will spend most of the journey travelling the same route over the same distance.
This is primarily because, as George Orwell held, some are more equal than others. Leaving from the elite start at 12.45pm on Saturday are Birmingham City and Sheffield United. Their clash at St Andrew’s has been cherry picked as the game to showcase what the television broadcasters will advertise as the Big Kick Off, Balls Out or some other fatuous nonsense.
Huddled together like fat blokes in a phone box are the lesser lights of League Two. They’ll leave the line at 3pm and will not trouble the pacesetters. There’s even a runner in a diving suit, step forward, if you can, Luton Town and show us your 30-point deduction. Competing in the part of Rod Hull’s emu are Bournemouth who are not as encumbered as Luton but whose 17-point handicap will also keep them somewhere near the back.
In truth very few people care who finishes at the base of the pyramid, friends and family will feel justifiably proud but most attention will be focused on the top of the Championship.
Those same television broadcasters have invested so much money into the Premier League the race to win the second tier is not just a story but the story. Victors can expect access to a pot of £50 million to go with their foil capes, energy-boosting chocolate and chintzy medals.
If the field is fewer in number than in London, 72 compared to several thousands, so too is the list of potential winners. Birmingham and Queens Park Rangers are most people’s favourites for promotion, with some bookmakers offering Alex McLeish’s men at a very short 5-1 against to claim the title. Depending on who you listen to Iain Dowie has a 6-1 chance of redemption.
Leaving aside the barely credible fact Dowie, the man who used his tenure of Coventry City to suggest he’d have a problem organising a session at a free beer stall, is in charge of one of the most richly backed clubs in the world, the reasoning behind Birmingham’s expected elevation is clear.
In James McFadden, Marcus Bent, Kevin Phillips, Garry O’Connor and Cameron Jerome City have the best cordon of forwards in their history. The only shame is they weren’t all available for the entirety of last season. Two are current Scotland internationals, two have played for England Under 21s and the other is Kevin Phillips, a striker who would and could blow a football past a goalkeeper and into his net if required.
Another twenty-something season from the thirty-something poacher will go a very long way to ensuring Birmingham’s stay outside the Premier League is as short as possible.
Behind them a midfield comprising Sebastian Larsson, the recovering Gary McSheffrey and the new signings Kemy Agustien and most spectacularly Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, will ensure the supply line is bountiful while Lee Carsley, one of the free transfers of the summer, will oversee its security.
They must, however, be aware that each of their three central defenders are prone to mistakes and that their cover at full back, both left and right, is a bit thin. The biggest threat will therefore not be the opposition strikers, most of whom will require four chances to score once, but the exhausting course they must travel. Forty-six games plus cups will test McLeish’s resources.
There is also the pressure that Birmingham need a fast start. The way things ended last term, with the board being roundly abused and protestors on the pitch, it will not take many disappointments to turn the atmosphere at St Andrew’s from focussed to febrile.
McLeish must show his public he can do what Steve Bruce did twice to keep the supporters of his and the owners’ backs. Ensuring McFadden and Larsson are not sold would help in every way.
It seems most bookmakers, I don’t think it was Orwell who claimed you never see a poor one, have more faith in Wolverhampton Wanderers than their supporters do. Prices are as short as 9-1 for them to finish top, a vote of confidence that must stun many Molineux regulars.
It is still not clear how Mick McCarthy will be remembered, for his first season heroics or last term’s bluntness - both off the pitch and more worryingly on it.
The retention of Michael Kightly is hugely significant, however. The winger has played just six times in 2008 and - when he injured his ankle against West Bromwich Albion, was his team’s only source of attacking inspiration. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake continued to score in spite of his team-mates’ efforts rather than because of them.
Missing out on the play offs by goal difference last season was harsh but probably a fair reflection of where they stood in the pecking order. Like McLeish McCarthy needs to get his side moving quickly if a pretty uninspiring summer’s business and last year’s faults are not to come back to haunt him and even end his reign.
If the region’s third Championship club, Coventry City, can replace Michael Mifsud with Clinton Morrison, Chris Coleman’s men could be the surprise package of the division.
The Sky Blues travails since they dropped out of the Premiership, as it was in 2001, have been so extensive they haven’t even been able to produce enough light for a false dawn. Instead those inside Ricoh Arena have busied themselves producing heat, and a lot of it too.
But Coleman seems to have brought some sanity to the organisation, helped no doubt by Ran Ranson’s brokered take-over, and finally City seem to be moving forward and if Freddy Eastwood could produce the form and goals he was supposed to last year Coleman’s cause could benefit directly at the expense of McCarthy’s.
In League One Walsall must hope the transition from one regime to another can be as smooth as possible. Few expect the Saddlers to get as close to the top six as they did under Richard Money but there should be enough troubles down West Country way, at Hereford, Cheltenham and Yeovil, to afford them another season of relative comfort.
The addition of the experienced Michael Ricketts and Stephen Hughes could prove masterstrokes, particularly if the former can rediscover his goal-scoring touch and the latter his ability to control relatively modest football matches.
What Walsall must not do, until they are absolutely secure in the division, is undermine Mullen as they did Money by selling two of their best players halfway through the season. Daniel Fox and Scott Dann were more important to their old club than they were their new.
Whatever happens over the next nine months players, managers and supporters across the Midlands should remember, and I can’t believe I’m about to write this, their season is a marathon not a sprint.