Football: Twice as hard the second time: Manchester United will be under pressure both at home and abroad in 1993-94. Norman Fox reports

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IF ENGLAND failed to qualify for the World Cup and Manchester United were knocked out of the European Cup in the first round next month, most football fans would feel humiliated but still turn up afterwards. The trouble is that those who keep on going through thin and thin are all but ignored, and many clubs now think they can secure their future by turning their grounds into places where not only the fans who pay the lowest admission prices are virtually irrelevant but so is the game itself.

The season just begun could begin to tell us whether clubs who increasingly put their prospects in the hands of rich and passive spectators will still prosper if England and United are seen to be incapable of making football grounds in England suitable up-market places to which one invites one's clients.

Since most people have already written off England, what chance United of not only rescuing some credibility but of saving the faces of a lot of Commercial Managers who have been selling the square feet of executive space in the hope that no one will notice if many of the players also appear to have problems with their feet. Even United's Scottish manager, Alex Ferguson, admits that he dreads the idea of England failing and leaving all the pressure on him.

After England's botched jobs at the end of last season and the failure of Arsenal and Leeds to do anything significant in Europe after their recent championship wins, the task United face in their ambition to repeat their 1968 European Cup win is important since their success would act as a symbol of renewed health to go with the renovation and building going on all over the country. The spectre of huge new grandstands left half-empty because that important group of interested but not totally committed potential spectators refuse to pay inflated prices to see players who may have shown themselves incapable of living with the best from abroad, is haunting. In United's case, that ought not to happen but if they and England fail almost simultaneously, the deflation would be a serious blow to prospects of new prosperity.

Ferguson is understandably cautious about talk of United successfully coping with the challenge on the European and domestic fronts. He says the introduction of the Premier League with its television commitments has made his task far harder than it needs to be. Bryan Robson agrees and points out that when Liverpool reached European Cup finals they were allowed to finish their League season after the FA Cup final, reducing fixture congestion. This season United know that there is no chance of avoiding the bottle-necks not only in the crucial last days of the League campaign but as early as next month, when they play six games in 19 days.

Popular opinion outside Manchester seems to be that United are only going to retain the Premiership (a hideous title invented by some promotions man who should stick to selling cornflakes) if they are quickly put out of Europe and can concentrate on staying ahead of a useful if less well-stocked pack of chasers. Tell that to the faithful United fans - especially the younger ones - who seem to have convinced themselves that there is no reason why they should not compare the side of the present with that of 1967-68; for Law and Best, read Cantona and Giggs. But for Bobby Charlton? Is the present squad really as outstanding and flexible?

A team with the potential to win the European Cup, or any other major competition, usually require three exceptional players. Ferguson bought Roy Keane at great expense and perhaps he could become the third, but having another 'foreign' player complicates United's problems of eligibility. Unlike 1968, the rules in Europe restrict clubs to three 'foreign' players and two 'assimilated' or residentially qualified ones. That penalises Premiership teams since for European purposes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish players are considered 'foreign' and United also have Eric Cantona, Andrei Kanchelskis and Peter Schmeichel. United's reserve strength is solid, but, unlike Milan, it does not offer the opportunity to slot in several players without undermining the overall strength and balance. Additionally, Ferguson has not the best of records when offered too many choices.

The loyal argument that the Old Trafford squad are large enough to overcome the eligibility problem is based on numbers rather than practical considerations. Certainly Ferguson has a sufficiency of useful players capable of taking United through a League season without too many worries about replacing the inevitable victims of injury, but when it comes to competing with the best in Europe, arguably in the outfield only Ryan Giggs and Cantona are of the highest international quality. So a lot still depends on good organisation.

With the arrival of Keane from Nottingham Forest, United's total of 'foreign'- born players in the expected first team pool reached 10. When he made the signing Ferguson said it gave the club 'unbelievable options'. If Robson could be guaranteed not to spend weeks of perhaps his last playing season on the treatment table, if Keane vanquishes those doubts about his ability to move up from the comparatively quiet life at Nottingham to the big-time distractions of Manchester, and if Paul Ince copes with rising expectancy as an England player, then certainly United's options in midfield would be enviable, though not unbelievable.

Ferguson has already given the 36-year- old Robson the squad number 12, indicating that Keane, Ince and McClair are his first choices. Yet in Europe, Robson's experience could be as decisive as the talent of Giggs, who is being all too oppressively linked with United's potential and the memories of George Best. At 19, he is still bubbling with coltish natural talent, the ball and the world at his feet, but as we saw in the Charity Shield last week, his crossing and dead-ball kicking can be infuriatingly negative. While inevitable, comparisons with Best are premature, as are fears that he could suffer Best's self-inflicted damage. After all, Best had won a European Cup winner's medal before the attention destroyed him. Ferguson's determination to shield his protege from the off-the-field pressures now needs to be balanced against the harm he could be doing in treating the boy like the best china, only to be brought out for Saturday tea.

Best himself says that he anticipates that by the end of the season Ferguson will have developed the team 'to match our steps of 26 years ago'. His view is that the present United are no more totally dependent on the form of Giggs than the 1967-68 side were on him. He feels that people forget that generally United were at their best when Pat Crerand was dominant. He senses that Ince is growing towardsthat status.

Best also says Cantona and Mark Hughes are the equivalents of Law and Charlton. Equivalents, certainly. Equals? Why spoil memories with pointless comparison?

(Photograph omitted)