Ferguson bears the burden

The Premiership kick-off: Manchester United's errant genius is destined to dominate the season again; Ian Ridley, Football Correspondent, discusses the issues as a new campaign begins
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE blue summer skies of memory's youth and the blue- remembered skills of old Match of the Day programmes seem to have prompted a nostalgia for the seemingly more innocent, less cash- obsessed days of both life and football. The latest Eric Cantona episode last week serves to remind us that history is cyclical. Plus ca change.

The midweek footage on MOTD saw Manchester United players gathering pre- season in the Seventies. They may have sensed, but did not yet know, that the team was in decline and George Best was about to walk out. It was poignant stuff: you wonder whether the modern United are looking in the same mirror.

Much has been made of the unrest in Manchester during the close season, with Paul Ince and Mark Hughes having departed and Andrei Kanchelskis about to. Match days would be like turning up for Reservoir Dogs to find that Bambi was being screened instead, noted one disgruntled fan. According to the Manchester Evening News, 53 per cent of fans thought that Alex Ferguson had lost his touch and should resign the managership.

Then came Cantona's little grenade and Ferguson's flight to Paris to do what was necessary: put an arm around his favourite son's shoulders, tell him how wonderful he still was and bring him back to the centre of attention he so craves. The United fans are clearly hoping that the manager has not returned with a piece of paper similar to that of Neville Chamberlain (no, not the former Port Vale forward) which promised peace in our times.

The FA's investigation of Cantona's behind-closed-doors appearance against Rochdale was minor stuff considering what Cantona had been through in disciplinary hearings and courts in the Spring. What probably got to him more was the sight of his team-mates frolicking in the August sun and the likes of David Ginola, not his favourite fellow Frenchman, and Dennis Bergkamp stealing his thunder. Ferguson revealed that Cantona, in his gloom, had even made a call to Inter Milan.

Cantona was probably just as concerned as United fans have been about the departures, especially that of Ince. Inter's new man used to take the pressure off the Frenchman on the field. Perhaps Ferguson, the most audacious of transfer dealers, as he showed in signing Cantona and Andy Cole, was able to reassure him. One suspects that Cantona needs more support than is at present available. In the past he has shown, particularly at Marseille and Montpellier, that he will enhance a side but not necessarily carry its burdens on his own shoulders; he is a gilder of the lily rather than the lily itself.

Ferguson certainly deserves the indulgence of the United public. Indeed, his Double-winning record demands it. As his friend Joe Royle, the Everton manager, said last week: "Alex knows what he is doing. Don't write him off. And I couldn't believe his own local paper. For people to want to vote on that, that tells you about the madness in football." It is possible that a sizeable chunk of that 53 per cent were Manchester City fans.

United will have two starts to the season, next week against Aston Villa and on 1 October against Liverpool when Cantona becomes available. Even if Cantona sees the season through, this could be a term of transition for them. When the new stand is completed, and Old Trafford is enlarged to a capacity of 55,000, United may once more have the spending power to dominate English football financially in a way that no other club ever has.

Meanwhile they will hope to cling on to the fellow favourites' fetlocks in what looks like the now traditional three-tiered Premiership - the moneyed, the middling and the morass. After Christmas we will see whether those with championship pretensions, who this season include Newcastle United, Arsenal, Liverpool and possibly Leeds United, can stay the course. Only Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United have had the required power for the previous two seasons.

It is Newcastle who have most excited this summer, as they did last August, and indeed September. After the club has invested pounds 14m in Les Ferdinand, Warren Barton, David Ginola and Shaka Hislop, silverware of some sort is required this season if the disillusion of the past is not to reappear. The rehabilitation of Philippe Albert will be just as important as the new signings, though. One hopes for an extension of their fluent, flexible style that offers hope to English football.

Arsenal, despite the expensive arrival of Bergkamp and David Platt, still look two players short of a title challenge (Alan Stubbs and Jason McAteer?) while Liverpool's procuring of Stan Collymore should take them close, if not close enough for the cigars.

As thrilling as he can be, pounds 8.5mfor Collymore is a ridiculous sum. But probably the most amusing moment of the close season, one which was indicative of the fever affecting the Premiership, came in Brian Little's signing of Savo Milosevic for pounds 3.5m. Little hadn't, he said, seen Milosevic play in person, but he had watched a video and just had to have him. In my local Woolworths you can buy videos for pounds 6.99.

One can only hope that such sight-unseen spending is not mere folly. As Bruce Rioch said at Arsenal: if you gave every manager pounds 50m, there would still be only one winner at the end of the league season. And one trusts that it does not presage a bust to follow the boom, as the pounds 1.5m fees of the late Seventies did. There seem few signs at the moment. Also, this year nobody is complaining that the new season has come too early. Rather, it seems to have been a long time since the last; such is the anticipation.

The game appears in Ruud health with Gullit, Bergkamp and Platt all prepared to enjoy its new riches and reputation. The Premiership should not kid itself, however. These are players that Italy no longer wanted; this is Serie A minus. It will be interesting to see how the touch of Andrea Silenzi, found wanting at Torino, looks at Nottingham Forest.

The test of development will come in Europe. Blackburn, as would any side in England containing Alan Shearer, will again be powerful on the domestic scene but look to be in need of some subtlety for the Champions' League. The Uefa Cup, containing Milan, Barcelona, Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich as well as Manchester United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Leeds, looks a fascinating competition.

Above all, the game hopes for a season without the off-the-field shenanigans that blighted it from last October onwards. Reminders will come when Channel 4 screens a wickedly funny comedy drama at the end of this month, entitled 11 Men Against 11, featuring bungs, drugs, match fixing and hooliganism. This October will again be the crucial month, with the Bruce Grobbelaar case due for trial and England playing in Norway. With this country staging the European Championships next summer, the game needs a season free of violence.

All reservations apart, including those concerning England's chances in that tournament, these are exciting times for the game at home; more exciting than much of the Seventies at least. Four of the years in that decade were among the worst 10 in the English game's history for average goals scored, with the fabled 1971 - Arsenal's Double year - the lowest, at 2.35 per game. The Premiership has averaged 2.59 in each of the last two years.

Was the game really better in the Seventies? England, after all, failed to qualify for the World Cups of 1974 and 1978. And watching unedited old Match of the Day programmes on UK Gold also reveals frequent fighting on dangerously cramped terraces, and much obscene and racist chanting.

If we are in search of a lost time, let it be late summer last year when Newcastle were in full flight, when referees were applying the laws of the game more strictly - that is, properly. And when Eric Cantona was a twinkle in the English game's eye rather than the bile in some lout's foul mouth.