Football Commentry: United's title helps new league take care of business: Old Trafford's triumph adds gravitas to the inaugural Premier League as Liverpool's board decides to press on with Souness at the helm

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The Independent Online
TWO dead games on their last Super Sunday was not quite the dramatic denouement they had in mind, but relief rather than disappointment is the overriding emotion shared by the Premier League and their Sky paymasters.

Manchester United as champions is the stuff of which their elitist dreams were made, and the partners in the new Greed is Good League, as one percipient critic dubbed it, were partying more enthusiastically than most at Old Trafford last Monday.

United, the most glamorous club of them all, have given the breakaway competition instant gravitas. They could hardly have done better in their inaugural season. From their prestige-is-all point of view, they could certainly have done a lot worse. One Sky grandee confided last week that the prospect of Norwich City winning the League had horrified them. No kudos to be had there, darling. The Super League is for super clubs - not country bumpkins.

Romance? Try Mills and Boon. Football nowadays is big business. The rich had become richer, the poor poorer, which had been the object of the exercise all along. Rick Parry was in his counting house, and all was well.

To Joe Public, of course, the Premier League has been no more than the old First Division by another name. Changes have been cosmetic, and few of them beneficial.

For starters, clubs and spectators are entitled to ask why, when we now have matches every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the League season has spilled over into Cup final week, and the finalists seem to be playing every other day.

Too much football, the managers tell us, which is true. Unfortunately, they forfeit all claim to our sympathy by filling free dates with spurious, if highly lucrative, friendlies abroad.

A rigid restriction on the number of such games is needed, as well as the agreed reduction in membership of the Premier League, if England's international ambitions are not to be undermined by fatigue. For stress-related injuries to force Graham Taylor to change 29 of the 30 squads he has picked is symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the system. Fewer League matches and more free weekends in which to prepare for internationals must be the progressive path.

It is, by common consent, no coincidence that United's overdue success has come in a season in which they were unencumbered by cup commitments. The message is clear: even with the biggest and best squad in the country, it pays to play fewer games.

It is not only the champions who have done the new League proud. Despite the overwork, Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday have all played lovely football, and the insidious spread of the long ball would appear to have been slowed, if not entirely halted, by a welcome renaissance of the passing game. In this context, the comparative failure of Leeds United and Arsenal, both of whom can long-ball it with the worst, may serve a constructive purpose.

On the other side of the coin, it was sad to lose Nottingham Forest. Much of that too-good-to-go-down stuff was pure sentiment, Cloughie's lot having long since lost that telepathic cohesion which once made them a joy to watch, but their principles are still the right ones. They never stopped passing. It was just that, without a striker worthy of the name, they found themselves passing into a void.

Forest will be missed, but the money men will not be displeased by a quid pro quo which brings Newcastle United, West Ham and, if there is any justice, Portsmouth in exchange for Forest, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough.

Newcastle have been a sleeping giant for an eternity, allowing too many Jacks to slip up their beanstalk, but Kevin Keegan has thrust them into the wide-awake club, and there could be another Blackburn in the offing.

It is anybody's guess where all the money is coming from, so soon after last year's financial crises, but they are talking about taking Gazza and Chris Waddle back to Tyneside, and intend to rival Manchester United, Villa, Blackburn and the rest for Forest's Roy Keane.

Liverpool have been casting covetous eyes in Keegan's direction, and could certainly do with his revivalist management, but Special K, as they call him in the North-east, is determined to finish the job he has started at St James' Park. Ditto Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn and, in the absence of suitable alternatives, the directors who seemed intent on unloading Graeme Souness have instead performed what looks suspiciously like the largest of U-turns. The man who was offered six-figure compensation to go last week has now been asked to carry on regardless.

The prospect of abusing either Souness or the board who wanted rid of him had Anfield bursting at the seams on Saturday, and it was not without irony that the 43,000 present should witness the most impressive result of the manager's two-year tenure. Liverpool's 6-2 demolition of Tottenham flattered them a little. It was, nevertheless, ironic that Souness was not there to see it, having gone instead to watch Coventry City's 3-3 draw with Leeds.

Cynics said he had 'bottled it', avoiding what his favourite newspaper had billed as 'a public hanging'. Those of more charitable disposition suggested he was watching Coventry's Peter Ndlovu with a view to providing Ian Rush with a decent partner for next season.

Whatever the reason for his absence, Liverpool played as if an albatross had been cut from their necks.

Rush, John Barnes and Bruce Grobbelaar, three of the senior players with whom Souness had been at daggers drawn, went about their work with an unbridled joie de vivre reminiscent of the good old days. Rush scored twice, taking his tally for the club to 301, Barnes supplied two more, but the last word went to the Kop's favourite clown.

Back in goal after six months in limbo, Grobbelaar produced three saves of the highest order, from Darren Anderton, Gary Mabbutt and Neil Ruddock, and, good old trouper that he is, kept the best for last.

In the dying seconds he was treated to an ovation which might have been heard at Highfield Road when he stretched to his left to repel a very respectable penalty from Teddy Sheringham. 'Brucie is back, Brucie is back.' How they love him.

And Souness? There were desultory cries of support, but any mention of his name was swiftly booed down by the majority. It will be interesting to see how season-ticket sales stand up after yesterday's announcement that he is to stay on.

Scouse wit has it that they will bring in Gerry Francis to work alongside him, and put their faith in Gerry and the Pacemakers, but fans accustomed to success do not take kindly to supporting a laughing stock, and the joke was on Liverpool last night.

Goals: Rush (21) 1-0; Barnes (44) 2-0; Sheringham (46) 2-1; Harkness (49) 3-1; Sedgley (78) 3-2; Walters pen (83) 4-2; Rush (87) 5-2; Barnes (89) 6-2.

Liverpool: Grobbelaar; Jones, Burrows, Nicol, Wright, Redknapp, Harkness, Hutchison, Rush, Barnes, Walters. Substitutes not used: Fowler, Piechnik, Hooper (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur: Walker; McDonald, Van den Hauwe (Nethercott, h/t), Hill, Mabbutt, Ruddock, Sedgley, Watson (Hodges, 68), Anderton, Sheringham, Allen. Substitute not used: Dearden (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

(Photograph omitted)

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