The Joe Royle column

HAPPY New Year to everyone. As is traditional at this time of year I will give my predictions for the coming year and share with you some of my wishes for 2004.

HAPPY New Year to everyone. As is traditional at this time of year I will give my predictions for the coming year and share with you some of my wishes for 2004. At the beginning of the season I said Arsenal and Manchester United would contest the Premiership title and came down on United's side, and I see no reason to change that.

Sir Alex Ferguson has cleverly reminded everyone how they come into their own late in the season and they are already a point ahead today.

Chelsea surprised me at how well they knitted, but a couple of defeats recently means the two ahead need to lose a couple of quick games and I can't see that happening.

Arsenal have not lost a game yet, which is a fantastic achievement going into the New Year but I wonder how an injury to Thierry Henry would affect them.


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United have more men able to do that vital job of sticking the ball in the net. Paul Scholes has shown it, Diego Forlan has discovered at last how to do it and of course there is Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The hardest division to predict is ours. Our neighbours up the road are going great guns at the moment and with West Brom just behind them there is still no one that far clear of anyone else. There are sides who can make a late play-off surge, perhaps Crystal Palace and maybe Nottingham Forest if they can find their scoring form. It is wide open.

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I'm not going to tempt fate by predicting we will finish in the top two, although I have said all along we should do.

We have suffered a couple of setbacks of late so we need to re-adjust and go on again.

Sunderland are right up there, you can never discount Sheffield United and of course the top two.

Reading have had a bad spell but are capable of a run, while Millwall are having a little gallop.

So there are lots of sides involved and it is the closest I have seen for a long time.

In Division Two I can see QPR and Plymouth staying up there. They each have outstanding leaders in charge. Ian Holloway has done a terrific job at QPR with no budget.

It is hard for Plymouth geographically to do well but to go on the road as often, and as handsomely as they do, then well done to Paul Sturrock and his boys. It has been a long time since Plymouth have been as high as they are, so good luck to them.

Down a division, you can see how close the gap is between Division Three and the Conference because Doncaster and Yeovil, who have not been up that long, are bombing on.

It shows what spirit and togetherness can do. You so often see promoted sides from the Conference go straight up, as Macclesfield did a few years back.

I know John Ryan and you will remember the Doncaster chairman created a little history last season by getting on for the last few minutes of a league game. But if you put that much money in the club then you can do what you want.

Michael Knighton once famously juggled a ball at Old Trafford but we have not yet seen Roman Abramovich do a Russian sword dance at Stamford Bridge, although with the amount of cash he has pumped in he would be entitled to.

My New Year wishes start with a hope for some good news for the game. We have had too many headlines for the wrong reasons last year. Too many FA bloomers if you like. I have said before in this column I do have faith in Mark Palios and while I know people think an eight-month ban was harsh on Rio Ferdinand, whether it was right or wrong, not too many more players will miss drug tests.

There were too many off-pitch incidents which we read about and I hope players come to terms with the fact that along with their raised salaries and profiles comes raised interest from the public and the tabloids.

These players are seen as idols and role models so they need to be more careful.

LOOKING ahead to the summer I hope for an England victory in Portugal. I'm not sure yet if I will be there in some shape or form but I will certainly be with them in spirit and cheering them on. I fear we have too much to do. I don't see us as European champions but I would love to be proved wrong.

For me Italy look strong. The Italians have a tournament mentality and although they let themselves down in Korea by being too negative, if they can shake off their attitude that one goal will do, then I would not be surprised to see them come out on top.

I'm fed up with Spain letting me down.

They have Raul, one of the greatest-ever Spanish players, but as a team they let themselves down in tournaments.

You can't discount France when they have World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane and the runner-up Thierry Henry. But I have a few reservations about them defensively. Laurent Blanc has gone, Marcel Desailly is in the 30s and Bixente Lizarazu is not the player of four years ago. Still, when they have got the ball, they will have teams chasing all over the place.

In the world of football – possession is still king.

I discarded Germany before the World Cup as the worst German side I have seen, yet they got to the final. I still have not changed my mind about them.

But you have to respect their big game mentality, which took them to the final, and a side which would not get a player in an all-time German-team.

OF course I can't ignore referees. I would like to see managers and players banned from talking about referees for a good 20 minutes after a game. Unfortunately when someone sticks a microphone under your nose just after a game when passions are running high then people say things they should not.

But if we knew we were going to be fined for doing so then we would not and reporters would not ask us about them.

I had a lovely surprise after the Millwall game when a referee's coach told me that my after-match reports were seen as among the fairest given by managers to referees.

That pleased me because too often there are Royle Rants at Refs headlines.

And quite honestly it is not so.

I do respect referees and they have the hardest job there is.

I would not do it for the world.

I'm not brave enough to go out there and be abused for 90 minutes by two sets of supporters and 22 players.

I will continue to respect and support referees and give fair reports.

So I would like to see a return to the days where we were taught the referee is always right and not argue with them. We need to learn a lesson from rugby union where these man-mountains accept decisions and just get on with the game.

FINALLY I wish for Ipswich Town to win promotion. This club deserves it for so many reasons. Even after the stigma of administration Ipswich Town remains one of the most respected clubs in football and has come through some dark days.

A lot of people have worked very hard to make that happen and have had to take some very difficult decisions. The supporters have seen many favourite players go and things have not been easy.

But we are going in the right direction and everyone continues to work hard behind the scenes for the club, and I include the players in that. Despite what a fanzine may suggest, the players here do a lot for the club off the pitch in terms of its community work, far more than many clubs and I talk from experience there.

So, we put 2003 behind us and we look forward to 2004 with a great deal of optimism and well-founded confidence.

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