Football: Hard graft as valuable as hard cash

The Premiership season: As Blackburn showed, investment is not the main reason for Manchester United dominance
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The Independent Online
THIS SPRING Manchester United and Charlton Athletic each decided to invest around pounds 1m in order to enhance their prospects of maintaining their status.

Charlton thus spent pounds 1.1m, a club record, on Graham Stuart, a 28-year- old midfielder from First Division Sheffield United. He did well, scoring the winner against West Ham, but was unable to keep Charlton in the Premiership.

Manchester United, meanwhile, bought a sweeper to help them compete with the Barcelonas and Real Madrids. To be precise, they bought a roadsweeping van, part of a pounds 1m package of measures for local residents agreed during negotiations for planning consent for the club's expansion of Old Trafford's capacity to 70,000.

Different clubs, different perspectives but, until Sunday, the same division. Given the gap in resources even within the Premiership it is no wonder that the likes of Charlton (and Southampton, Leicester, Wimbledon and others) cannot even contemplate challenging United for the title. The miracle is that these "lesser" clubs do occasionally take points off the champions and their ilk and usually give them competitive matches.

Not that they beat them very often. Between them Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea lost 10 of their 114 Premiership matches, only eight against teams outside the top three. Arsenal won this mini-league, defeating both challengers, but failed to brush aside the small fry as effectively.

This illustrated the difference between the teams, United's attacking capacity - they have scored 124 goals in all competitions - gave them the edge.

While Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole have scored 53 goals, the 17 contributed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been equally significant underlining a reserve strength neither Arsenal nor Chelsea matched. Chelsea paid the price for their lack of pre-season investment but were unlucky with injuries, notably Gustavo Poyet, who seemed poised to seize the season when he was cut down on Boxing Day.

Though Leeds had a promising season these three ended it pre-eminent, much to the disappointment of supporters of Liverpool who were tipped, pre-season, to figure in the final reckoning. The managerial partnership of Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans never quite worked and the Frenchman is now embarked on yet another re-building job.

Elsewhere the most striking thing, comparing this year's league table to last, is how similar it is. With the exception of Blackburn, who plunged 13 places, and Southampton, who dropped five, no team has moved more than four places up, or down, from last year. The elevated positions of West Ham and Derby are not a one-off, nor are the more lowly placings of Everton and Newcastle.

The encouraging position is Middlesbrough's, though the knowledge they had to spend pounds 9.6m to achieve ninth place will concern Sunderland, Bradford City and whoever else comes up through the play-offs. The fate of Charlton and Nottingham Forest underlines what will happen if they are not prepared to invest.

The solution is a more equitable distribution of Sky TV's munificence. Unfortunately there is still no indication that the bulk of the Premiership chairmen will stop bickering and grasping long enough to realise that boom could still be followed by bust.

Not that the Premiership's ruling class is set in stone. Chelsea gate- crashed the aristocracy this season, Aston Villa briefly upstaged them and Leeds suggested they will intrude next year. Meanwhile Blackburn, the only team besides Arsenal to beat Manchester United to the Premiership, proved that money does not guarantee success, not even pounds 40m in a year.

Rovers' decline is one of the stories of the season, not least because Jack Walker seemed to have done the right thing when appointing both Roy Hodgson and Brian Kidd. Neither had just taken off his playing boots, both came with big reputations. However, to Kidd's despair, many of the players failed to follow the credo he had left behind.

That was encapsulated by Alex Ferguson on Sunday. He said: "The players who have achieved and left, the Steve Bruces and Gary Pallisters, can reflect on what they have done but the ones who are still here cannot slacken. Manchester United is like a bus, we're going to the next stop and if anybody is left behind it is their own fault. But I don't think any of these players will be, they are as ambitious as me."

No wonder the bookies have already installed United as 11-10 favourites to win next season's title. Ordinarily this sort of dominance - five titles in seven seasons - would be regarded as a bad thing but United play with such style, with such a strong thread of youth, and to such a high standard, the usual reservations are suspended. As Ferguson added: "When a team commits itself to winning games they way we do they deserve success."

When my vote, for the Football Writers' Association's player of the year award, was cast in March it went to Yorke. With the benefit of a full season it would now go to Roy Keane, who has been magnificent all season and could be grievously missed in Barcelona. David Beckham, who has emerged triumphantly from his post-St Etienne vilification, would be a close second, with Jaap Stam another contender with Yorke. While such a variety of candidates from Old Trafford is the reason David Ginola won a split vote for the players' and writers' awards, it is also the reason the title went to Manchester United.

Their success may be built with riches, but the foundation is hard graft.

TEAM OF THE SEASON

MEMORIES

FIVE MOMENTS TO CHERISH

David Beckham's rejuvenation; the emergence of the Leeds United youngsters; David Ginola's artistry; and two involving Premiership clubs in the FA Cup: Ryan Giggs' goal and Arsene Wenger's offer to replay their tie with Sheffield United.

FIVE MOMENTS TO FORGET

Joe Kinnear's heart attack; Paolo Di Canio pushing over referee Paul Alcock; two of the three promoted clubs returning to the Nationwide League; Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne falling off the wagon; more one-eyed criticism of referees, from Martin Edwards to David Mellor.

Special mention should go, outside of the Premiership, to Ray Graydon, the manager of Walsall, for steering them to promotion on a pittance.

DAVID BECKHAM

Manchester Utd

ALBERT FERRER

Chelsea

DWIGHT YORKE

Manchester Utd

ROY KEANE

Manchester Utd

MARTIN KEOWN

Arsenal

ED DE GOEY

Chelsea

JAAP STAM

Manchester Utd

GUSTAVO POYET

Chelsea

NICOLAS ANELKA

Arsenal

HARRY KEWELL

Leeds United

NIGEL WINTERBURN

Arsenal

Player of the year: Roy Keane (Manchester Utd) Manager of the year: Alex Ferguson (Manchester Utd)

MONEY MATTERS

BEST BUYS OF THE YEAR

Kevin Campbell (loan, Trabzonspor, Turkey to Everton), James Beattie (pounds 1m, Blackburn Rovers to Southampton), Jaap Stam (pounds 10m, PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands to Manchester United), Dwight Yorke (pounds 12.6, Aston Villa to Manchester United); Marians Pahars (pounds 800,000, Skonto Riga, Latvia to Southampton).

WORST BUYS OF THE YEAR

Kevin Davies (pounds 7.5m, Southampton to Blackburn Rovers); Christian Dailly (pounds 5.3m, Derby County to Blackburn Rovers), John Hartson (pounds 7m, West Ham United to Wimbledon), Javier Margas (pounds 2m, Universidad Catolica, Chile to West Ham United); Duncan Ferguson (pounds 7m, Everton to Newcastle United).

SEASONAL VARIATION

How they fared compared with last year

Pts Change

1 Manchester Utd (C) 79 +1

2 Arsenal 78 -1

3 Chelsea 75 -l

4 Leeds 67 +1

5 West Ham 57 +3

6 Aston Villa 55 +1

7 Liverpool 54 -4

8 Derby 52 -1

9 Middlesbrough 51 New

10 Leicester 49 -l

11 Tottenham 47 +4

12 Sheffield Wed 46 +4

13 Newcastle 46 -l

14 Everton 43 +3

15 Coventry 42 -4

16 Wimbledon 42 -1

17 Southampton 41 -5

18 Charlton (R) 36 New

19 Blackburn (R) 35 -13

20 Nottingham For (R) 30 New

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