Football: Another 26 years, or birth of an era?

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The Independent Online
HARDLY have Manchester United finished their celebrations than we frowning sceptics are warning them to think of history, including their own, and to remember that if they are to become lasting successors to the sadly leaderless and no longer respected Liverpool, next season will be the determining test. Of late, Leeds and Arsenal have been pretenders to the mantle but United seem to have everything: a still developing team, a club in profit and, in the wings, young players reputed to be the best there is. So why scepticism?

First it has to be remembered that it was not until near the end of the season that they broke away from an exciting though largely low-grade first Premier League championship. It could be said that in view of the particular pressure heaped upon them and their nerve-wrenching struggle last season, the breakthrough after 26 years was never going to be achieved with much to spare. Yet along the way they suffered defeats from such negligible teams as Sheffield United, Oldham, Ipswich, Wimbledon and Everton, and were dismissed in the first round of the Uefa Cup. They also failed to beat their main rivals, Aston Villa, in three meetings.

Perhaps that was nothing more than representative of the season itself, which was full of unpredictable results, plenty of close matches and a lot of indifferent football. Or was it evidence that they are unlikely to become the dominating force that Liverpool were? For a long time Liverpool almost seemed invincible. United are some way from holding that reputation.

The allure of United, leading to a permanent sense of expectancy, is remarkable and at once illogical and self-defeating. Many of their fans have no personal recollection of the last time the club won the championship and immediately lost it while they concentrated on the European Cup. Significantly, Alex Ferguson confesses that not having the diversions of cup competition late this season has been of great benefit. They have seen plenty of domestic cup success over recent years but it always diverted rather than concentrated their attention.

The veneration of United's distant past has been extraordinary. While a trophy here and there may have given them some comfort, the belief that they will again dominate in England and on the Continent has been maintained almost religiously since the Munich air crash. The question now is whether United will cope with even more intense expectancy.

In theory they have the most progressive team in the Premier League and a thriving club. They have seen off the challenges of the quickly and expensively built Blackburn Rovers, who have nevertheless achieved notable success, and Aston Villa, who were a pleasure to watch but in the end lacked the hunger. Unlike last season, United overcame tension. They enjoyed moments of crucial luck, and two players in particular, Paul Ince and Eric Cantona, made a world of difference, one through becoming mature and influential, the other because he could not give a damn for local history. He came to Old Trafford, as he said, like a strolling minstrel who beguiled everyone and made the manager, coaches and other players realise that effort alone would bring limited rewards. He changed attitudes towards preparation, emphasising the importance of honing skills, and he brought a romantic attitude which we can safely assume owes more to the inspiration of Jean-Paul Sartre than Charles Hughes. And with his skill on the field, he also deflected some attention away from the still comparatively inexperienced Ryan Giggs, which was no bad thing.

Now United are returned to the demands of presumption: the European Cup is talked of as something they should win as if by right, and so is a prolonged reign as champions. While history warns of the odds against retaining the championship, there are good reasons for believing that even if they fail to retain their title, they can be the team to beat for a long time. But as for dominating Europe? Unlikely. The situation is much different to a quarter of a century ago, not least in the problems of fielding limited numbers of 'foreign' players and the changes in the competition's organisation. Also there is the consequential matter of power being magnetised by Italy.

Domestically, though, there could be no better time for United to begin their quest to replace Liverpool as the principal club in England. The opportunity came too soon for Leeds. Their team of last season was based on a squad that was not deep enough to achieve continuity. United have reorganised themselves financially and have a squad good in depth with youngsters waiting to take senior places. Ferguson has also seen the wisdom of continuity.

With Liverpool now in disarray, United also have the opportunity to attract good quality players who might otherwise have chosen Anfield. Blackburn Rovers may be able to outbid them but it would take a mercenary player (or more likely his agent) to consider Ewood Park when Old Trafford calls. Roy Keane is likely to be given the choice. Clearly United see him as a likely successor to Bryan Robson, and if he moves talk of a new dynasty can probably be taken seriously. Equally, attempts to bring Des Walker to Old Trafford are more likely to succeed now that United can expect to earn anything up to pounds 10m from next season's European Cup.

The arrival of United as champions after a tight, exciting race has allowed the Premier League people to bask in reflected glory. They were lucky. The passage of the season itself would have been no different had they not come up with their breakaway division giving them negotiating rights over television and sponsorship without being tied to any responsibility towards the lower divisions. However, the argument against the proposal was always more that it was to be something new rather than that standards might deteriorate. Fortunately, the Football League has survived fairly well while the Premier League's bowing to television at least has the advantage of allowing clubs to reap the television fees while not losing much at the gate. Satellite dishes are still thin in the air.

The disadvantage is the continual alteration and cramming of fixtures, playing havoc with the plans of supporters and doing nothing to encourage clubs to spend more time doing what Cantona suggests rather than merely resting in between games. But the biggest hinderance to improving skill levels remains not the number of games but the pace at which they are played.