Football: United prepare for an extended reign

At the dawn of the century, with the Football League still in its infancy, it must have seemed Aston Villa would never be toppled. In 1900 Villa won their fourth title in five seasons, and their fifth in seven, with a record points score. They were a power in the land, well supported and replete with internationals. A century of promise stretched ahead of them. Yet in 86 seasons since they have won just two further titles.

So there is hope yet for the challengers to Manchester United who on Wednesday secured their fourth title in five seasons. Nothing, in this game, is permanent.

United do, however, seem likely to maintain their hegemony longer than Villa managed. Graeme Souness, who won five championship medals in six years with Liverpool, said: "To win four out of five is an incredible achievement. The frightening thing is that given their youth and their economic power things are going to be their way for the foreseeable future."

Maybe. United have been resilient but not invincible - their 6-3 defeat to Souness' Southampton side was probably the nadir of a season in which they also lost 5-0 to Newcastle and slipped out of the top five for the first time since 1992.

Nor can it be said that they have bought the title. United are one of only two Premiership clubs not to buy during the season - Wimbledon are the other - and of their five summer signings (for pounds 6.7m) only the two Norwegians, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronny Johnsen, have made significant contributions.

Both are young, in keeping with Ferguson's policy of long-term building. While Eric Cantona has shown signs of decline, and the defence has wobbled of late, there is no reason to think that United will not be dominant for seasons to come. Their reserves, A and B teams have also won their respective titles.

Can this sustained supremacy be good for the game? One would think not. Unlike this month's other red triumph United's success was not greeted with a national wave of euphoria. Outside Upton Park on Tuesday West Ham and Newcastle supporters were buying T-shirts marked `Better dead than red - I hate Man Utd'. Not that Liverpool, Arsenal or Newcastle would have been greeted with anything other than `it's nice to have a change'. The prospect of the football world feeling as rejuvenated as the political one had last week went when Kevin Keegan left Tyneside.

Yet, since Keegan departed, Manchester United have regained their status as the Premiership's most cavalier team. They have outscored all their rivals, as they did last season, and frequently done so in style.

This positive approach is good for the game as is Ferguson's faith in his young players and their bearing, on and off the pitch. The image of United as a team of snarling whingers is outdated, even the manager has mellowed to an extent.

Yet the club could do more. To begin with they could set an example by reducing admission prices rather than raising them as is planned. There is enough revenue from television and sponsorship to subsidise the paying spectator (or reduce the profit made from him or her).

This would not be purely altruistic. As ticket prices have risen, the audience demographic has changed. The theatre of dreams too often sounds like a theatre these days. Apart from a hard core, which increasingly feel unwanted by the club, the spectators spectate, rather than participate. The team is expected to rouse them not the other way around. It is no coincidence that, after long unbeaten home runs in Europe and the Premiership, United have lost five home games this season.

United could also take a lead in helping smaller clubs maintain the unique structure of the English game. Ferguson, having begun his managerial career at East Stirling, knows the value of the smaller clubs and he regularly loans players out to them for experience - as with David Beckham at Preston.

There are limits - United can hardly play a fundraising testimonial at every lower League ground. They can put their weight behind moves to preserve something of the transfer system and to devoting a large cut of the Premiership's new television deal towards helping smaller clubs rebuild to their grounds and pay their bills. It would be more helpful than threatening to go it alone on pay-per-view, and thus weakening the strength of the body politic's bargaining power, as Ferguson did recently in a fit of pique at the Premiership's refusal to extend the season. Sharing their expertise in marketing and administration would not go amiss either.

There is one other service United can do the English game. That is to mark its revival by winning the European Champions' Cup. Next year, maybe next year.

Managerial roll of honour

English championships won

Six

Bob Paisley (Liverpool): 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983.

Five

Sir Matt Busby (Manchester United): 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965, 1967

Tom Watson (Sunderland & Liverpool): 1892 (S), 1893 (S), 1895 (S), 1901 (L), 1906 (L)

Four

Alex Ferguson (Manchester Utd): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997.

Herbert Chapman (Huddersfield & Arsenal): 1924 (H), 1925 (H), 1931 (A), 1933 (A).

Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool & Blackburn): 1986 (L), 1988 (L), 1990 (L), 1995 (B).

Alex Ferguson's changing fortunes

1986-91

P W D L F A Pts

183 76 55 52 256 194 282

Average points per game: 1.54

1991-97

P W D L F A Pts

242 144 67 31 445 211 499

Average points per game: 2.06

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