Football: Why United need the FA's support: England's European trail-blazers are handicapped by domestic demands. Glenn Moore argues their case

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The Independent Online
THOSE clubs struggling to compete in the lower reaches of the Premiership, or to survive in the depths of the Endsleigh, may beg to differ but the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal deserve the game's help and sympathy this week.

While United face the first of what could become a series of hefty fines by the Football League for playing a weakened team in the Coca-Cola Cup second round, Arsenal face two games in three days next week in a worrying precedent for their European campaign.

In both cases self-interest, the dogma of modern football, is responsible and the Football Association with its wider perspective on the game should step in.

United are this season's standard bearers for English football. They may not be universally liked - successful big clubs rarely are - but most English supporters want them to do well in Europe and a Champions' Cup triumph would reflect immense credit on our national game and the brave new world of the Premier League.

The same principle in smaller measure applies to Arsenal and the other four clubs competing in Europe next week. Yet appeals for assistance to ease the demands of European competition are greeted with the small-minded view of 'stop whinging - you are lucky to be in it'.

The League are honour-bound to ask United to explain whey they fielded seven reserves - including five teenagers - at Port Vale on Wednesday since the rules forbid unnecessarily weakened sides. However Rule 18 does allow them if there is 'satisfactory reason'.

United will argue that the pursuit of European glory is such a reason: it appears that the League do not agree, their trenchant comments recalling the Fifties when clubs were discouraged from entering Europe at all. Then Sir Matt Busby defied the League and Alex Ferguson, the current manager, intends to follow suit prompting the likelihood that he will be a regular visitor to Lytham St Annes.

That United won at Vale Park is seen as irrelevant though there are unlikely to have been as many protests from Vale fans if United had lost. While there is sympathy for those supporters, Ferguson had widely publicised his policy in advance and did the same at neighbours Stoke last season so they should not have been surprised.

United escaped punishment last year because the League felt the team was acceptable - this despite fielding four players (Lee Martin, Mike Phelan, Dion Dublin and Darren Ferguson) who each started one League game each all season.

As the competition developed last year United played stronger sides - but then, they were knocked out of Europe by early November. This year they are committed to December at least, and probably March and beyond.

The League's move smacks of pique and fear. Having already lost the top teams to the Premier League they now face devaluation of their cup contest. If unchecked that could eventually lead to the loss of the European place which is the competition's main carrot.

However, they would be better served accepting that for a few teams it is a low priority, allow them to field the teams they want, and thus retain them in the cup. It would remain a key competition for most clubs, Everton and Spurs are both deperate to do well in it this year. It would also prevent what threatens to be a pathetic recurring saga the further United progress.

The only club harmed by United fielding a weakened team in cup competition is United themselves. While several clubs have been punished for such actions in League matches - which could affect promotion and relegation - the League cannot recall a previous case in cup competition.

The most likely punishment is a fine (expulsion would not especially bother United) which United could then appeal against. The hearing would be conducted by the FA who would then have the opportunity to make the point that United's actions, though motivated by self-interest, are also for the greater good of the game.

The FA are already looking at the case from that standpoint and are also monitoring the problem of fixture congestion highlighted by Arsenal's situation.

The Arsenal manager, George Graham, joked last year that it was about time a competition was started on Thursday as it was the only day without one. To his horror, Uefa have obliged this season by moving the European Cup- Winners' Cup to Thursday to increase television revenue. Consequently, Arsenal have spent the last few months trying to move those Premiership matches that follow a European week to Sundays, with mixed success.

Though Newcastle, who had also played in Europe, were happy to shift last week, Crystal Palace, who visit Highbury next Saturday, were not. Their refusal - despite a request from the Premier League - stems from a chain of events that end at the door of Sainsbury's supermarket which abuts the north end of the ground.

It begins with Palace's Coca-Cola Cup second round, second leg with Lincoln City which is scheduled for Tuesday. Palace's lease agreement with Sainsbury's states that they will make their best endeavours to play on Tuesday nights as the supermarket naturally likes its opening hours to be regular. This in practice is what happens unless Palace are ordered to do otherwise by a higher authority.

There are other factors: Palace's supporters and the police are accustomed to Tuesday matches and, the secretary, Mike Hurst, said, there was a reluctance to give Lincoln - who won the first leg 1-0 - an extra day to prepare for the second leg. If Palace cannot play on Wednesday, moving the Arsenal game to Sunday would mean that they, instead of Arsenal, would have to play twice in three days.

'It is not as if the match is before their European one,' Hurst said, 'that would be different.'

Arsenal are at home in their Cup-Winners' Cup tie on Thursday but what if a similar problem arises with Arsenal due to play in, say, eastern Europe on Thursday and Lancashire on Saturday and the Cup tie were postponed because of fog. Under Uefa rules the tie would have to be played on Friday and they would arrive back at Luton Airport about seven hours before having to play the Premiership match.

This is the sort of problem that was supposed to be eased by the 18- team Premiership. We will be down to 20 at the end of the season, but 18? Terry Venables is more likely to invite Alan Sugar for Christmas dinner.

Apart from this delay in reducing the number of clubs, the Premiership appears to have worked - one consequence being English clubs' ability to compete with

Europe's in attracting players. It is time for the FA to go further and encourage, or if necessary enforce, a sense of priorities which enables their clubs to compete with

Europe's best in playing terms as well.

(Photograph omitted)