Brian Viner: United in gloom but Hereford's play-off pain will linger the longest

In pursuit of greater revenue, football has lost, through the play-off system, another smidgin of its integrity
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The Independent Football

Have you noticed what a bad season it has been for footballing Uniteds? Leeds of that ilk have had the worst of it, but the Uniteds of Hereford, Carlisle, Manchester and Newcastle all have reason to look back at 2003-04 with regret, if not downright gloom.

Have you noticed what a bad season it has been for footballing Uniteds? Leeds of that ilk have had the worst of it, but the Uniteds of Hereford, Carlisle, Manchester and Newcastle all have reason to look back at 2003-04 with regret, if not downright gloom.

Let me first examine the woes of Hereford United, for that is the club closest to where I live. Edgar Street is only a 25-minute drive from my house, but to my shame I still haven't been to a match there. And if ever there was a season to break my duck, this was it. Of all the clubs from the bottom of the Conference to the top of the Premiership, Hereford alone scored more than 100 goals. Not that Edgar Street was the place to see most of them. An astonishing 69 were scored away from home. Dagenham & Redbridge were despatched 9-0 on their own turf, Forest Green 7-1 on theirs.

This extraordinary glut of goals yielded 91 points but only second place in the Conference, a point behind Chester City. The third-placed team, Shrewsbury Town, were 17 points adrift of Hereford. Yet the Bulls will not be joining Chester in the Third Division next season, having lost their play-off semi-final against Aldershot on penalties, and that after the highly dubious first-half sending-off of defender Andy Tretton, a decision even the Aldershot manager said was dodgy.

Can there be a better example than this of the iniquity of the play-off system? Over an entire football season, a team playing rampantly attacking football proves itself indisputedly one of the top two in its league, yet it is not one of the two promoted. Of course, there are lots of things to be said in favour of the play-offs; that they inject excitement into what for many clubs would otherwise be a moribund March, April and May; that they give the supporters of lower-division clubs a chance to enjoy an M4 traffic jam followed, if they're lucky, by a final at the Millennium Stadium; that they are a useful source of income.

And of course, everyone at Hereford United knew the deal before the season began. One up automatically, the next four into the play-offs. But still it seems to me that in pursuit of more drama and greater revenue, football has lost, through the play-off system, another smidgin of its integrity.

Joining Hereford in the Conference next season will be Carlisle United, relegated from the Football League after 101 years, including a season in the top flight 30 years ago. Lifelong fan Hunter Davies wrote a lovely valediction in these pages last Saturday week; he still has the old First Division table for August 24 1974, pinned above his desk, with Carlisle in first place after three wins in three games, and no goals conceded.

Another striking thing about that 1974 league table is what's missing:

Manchester United. Carlisle United the top team in the country, if only for a few days; Manchester United not even in the top division. Never mind a different era, it sounds more like a different planet.

But it happened, and memories of the Second Division should offer some perspective to Man United fans, those over 40 anyway, as they consider a season in which an FA Cup final, third place in the Premier League, and a Champions' League quarter-final, constitutes disappointment.

Not that there were any obvious signs of dejection following the win over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. But those delirious fans might have pondered the irony, or even hypocrisy, of the FA Cup rejuvenating the season of a club which dropped out of the competition four years ago, citing bigger fish to fry.

There aren't many human characteristics more weaselly than disregarding someone because they're not big or important enough, then embracing them when you realise they can help you. I don't see why it should be any different with football clubs and cup competitions. And I know that the decision to forego the FA Cup to play in the absurd World Club Championship was sanctioned by the FA, but that never made it excusable.

As for Newcastle United, their season might yet be redeemed by achieving fourth place in the Premiership, but defeat in last Thursday's Uefa Cup semi-final still leaves a sense of what might have been.

Like many football fans who don't live in Sunderland or Middlesbrough, I have a soft spot for Newcastle. I wish they'd made it to the Uefa Cup final and I hope they finish fourth. By contrast, like many football fans who don't live in Leeds, I have no soft spot whatever for Leeds United. But I take no pleasure at all in their disastrous season. There, but for the grace of God and perhaps the goldfish of Peter Ridsdale, go the whole bloody lot of us. So in a way, we're all united.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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