Football: United up against the odds

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The Independent Online
It was history not prejudice that persuaded an acquaintance, a man known as much for logic as boldness, to snaffle up the 25-1 that was on offer against Manchester United being left without a trophy to show for their efforts this season.

After hours of devoted research, and relying on Aston Villa to thwart Alex Ferguson's team in last week's Coca-Cola Cup final, he concluded that the odds represented excellent value.

Considering the pressures of an English League season, United's lead in the Premiership was always likely to be whittled down, and even against patently inferior opposition FA Cup ties are never a foregone conclusion.

Because English football is so competitive it was foolish for anyone to suppose that United, even when they had a cushion of 16 points, would win the Premiership on the bridle. As the record shows, it usually comes down to a tight finish, never tighter than in 1965 when United, level on 61 points with Leeds, took the old League championship on goal average.

Even when approaching the height of their powers, Liverpool twice got there by just one point, from Queen's Park Rangers in 1976 and Manchester City the following year. The first leg of Arsenal's Double in 1971 was not achieved until they defeated Tottenham at White Hart Lane just five days before the FA Cup final.

Goal difference was again the deciding factor in 1989 when Arsenal finished level on points with Liverpool. Only Tottenham in 1961, their Double year, can claim to have won in a canter; going off the boil they then struggled to Leicester City at Wembley. 'It was a big disappointment,' recalled their manager, Bill Nicholson.

Shortly after the turn of the year, I put it to three leading managers, Ron Atkinson of Villa, George Graham of Arsenal, and Howard Wilkinson of Leeds, the possibility that Manchester United might draw away to establish a position of unassailable authority in English football.

While conceding that United have considerable advantages, especially a strong squad and the revenue generated at Old Trafford, they could not see this happening. 'We may not have the quality of other countries,' Atkinson said, 'but no League title is more difficult to win than ours. It doesn't take much working out that there aren't any easy matches, certainly none you approach with the utmost confidence. So far United have avoided a bad patch, but let's wait and see. There are so many twists and turns towards the end of a season.' A criticism levelled at United is that they are getting above themselves, hints of a persecution complex evident in their response to injustice. This is nothing new, but unless Ferguson can control it, a comparatively young team may not fufill its potential. One of the tricks, as the late Danny Blanchflower used to say, is never to embarrass or provoke the referee.

When something occurs to put a team in an unfavourable light, somebody is quick to say 'the manager should have anticipated this,' and it is being said about Ferguson.

Probably the results over Easter will prove critical for him but that isn't to say they will be conclusive. Easter is more likely to be the time when clubs at the wrong end of proceedings at last face up to the reality of their fate.

These days none in the bottom half of the Premiership can feel safe, and, leaving aside the principal contenders, the rest are trying to win a place in Europe. If nothing else it ensures absolute honesty.

According to an informant who played in the long ago this was not always the case. The tale he told was of two First Division teams, one safe in mid-table, the other threatened by relegation. Thus a deal was struck concerning the former team's goalkeeper and its three main scorers.

They were happly contemplating the fruits of a 1-0 defeat when disaster struck. The ball went from one wing to the other and immediately back again, the defence dummied by a conspirator who was actually getting out of the way. Striking the back of the original dispatcher's head it flew in for an equaliser. 'Marvellous goal,' enthused their manager, great wing to wing play, terrific dummy, and what a brave finish.'

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