Brian Viner: Double cream revel in financial riches while modern game sinks into emotional poverty

At times this season Arsenal have played attacking football to make the gods weep
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The Independent Football

So the devaluation of the once-elusive League Championship and FA Cup Double continues apace. Arsenal stand on the verge of clinching the fifth Double in 10 years and their second in four. It is as if King Arthur and his knights, after years of blood, toil, sweat and splintered lances, started to come across the Holy Grail on every other hilltop.

If Arsenal don't add the Premiership title to the FA Cup at Old Trafford on Wednesday – and I fancy they might not, since Roy Keane for one will use everything in his armoury to prevent it, up to and perhaps including a Kalashnikov – then at Highbury on Saturday they will almost certainly need all three points against my own beloved Everton.

There are precedents for the kind of shock it would be if Everton beat Arsenal on Saturday, but off the top of my head I can't think of any. Even Daniel's away win in the lion's den was achieved at shorter odds. So the Double will be Arsenal's again, another reminder that while English football's two great competitions have become vastly more valuable in a financial sense, their emotional value is fast diminishing.

The statistics tell a disheartening tale. Between the end of the Second World War and the advent of the Premiership, Doubles, like the proverbial London bus, were rarely sighted. There were only three, won by Tottenham in 1961, Arsenal in 1971, and Liverpool in 1986. But since then there has been a glut, in 1994, 1996 and 1999 (Manchester United) and 1998 and now almost certainly 2002 (Arsenal).

Arsenal's latest triumph tells us nothing we didn't already know about how trophy-winning opportunities have expanded for the four or five clubs with huge financial resources, and contracted almost to the point of invisibility for everybody else. But it is worrying all the same.

Of course, Arsenal fans might argue that the Double has (nearly) been won again not by a balance sheet but by a marvellous manager in Arsène Wenger, and some fabulous footballers at the peak of their form, notably Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and, before his injury, Robert Pires.

They might contend that expenditure does not guarantee success, and to an extent that is true. None the less, had Wenger spent this season in charge of Leicester City, and Dave Bassett in charge of Arsenal, I feel pretty sure that the Foxes would still be staring into the abyss, and the Gunners still reaching for the summit.

Don't get me wrong. At times this season Arsenal have played attacking football to make the gods weep. I don't deny that they deserve the Double. I just think that their achievement is worthy of more distinction than recent history is able to bestow.

To name Arsenal's Double-winning team was once an easy matter: Wilson, Rice, McNab, Storey, McLintock, Simpson, Armstrong, Radford, Graham, Kennedy, George. These days, Arsenal fans ask different questions of each other.

Selecting players from all our Double-winning teams, they say, what would be your all-time XI? Which is fun for them, but regrettable for football.

In the meantime, those of us whose clubs are excluded from the golden loop – i.e. qualifying for the Champions' League, which earns enormous revenue, which attracts fine players, who win games, which secures qualification for the Champions' League – muster optimism however we can for our clubs' and indeed football's future. For example, we celebrate Newcastle United's top-four finish this season, and add our voices to the growing clamour for Bobby Robson to be knighted, while at the same time noting that Newcastle are not quite the outsiders at the banquet that Robson would have us believe.

The genuine outsiders were eloquently represented by an Independent reader, K Patrick, whose letter was published here on Saturday. "What do Cardiff City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United have in common?," he (or she) wrote. "First answer: they have all tried to buy success. Second answer: they have all just lost semi-finals against clubs with fewer resources. What a great week it has been for football-lovers everywhere." As a football-lover who lamented Manchester United's exit from the Champions' League not least because a Man Utd v Real Madrid final was such a mouth-watering prospect, I can't quite bring myself to endorse K Patrick's sentiments, but many will, the more so as this summer's transfer dealings will deepen the chasm between the Premiership's haves and have-nots.

It is said that Sir Alex Ferguson wants Lazio's Alessandro Nesta and/or Lilian Thuram from Juventus, while Gérard Houllier is chasing Djibril Cisse of Auxerre, a scoring sensation in France. Evertonians, meanwhile, are hoping that David Moyes can scrape together the cash to buy Dean Ashton from Crewe Alexandra. And praying, possibly with Man Utd fans everywhere, that a miracle comparable with the sighting of the Virgin Mary might happen on Saturday afternoon in north London.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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