The Nick Townsend column: We already know the top four and the bottom three. Keegan's right, it's dull
Sunday 18 May 2008
Barely had a saturated, satisfied Sir Alex Ferguson completed that curious jig of exhilaration – the one that appears more appropriate to the front row of a punk concert than a season's football finale – than the Premier League's ruling junta were flexing their muscles and ominously rearming themselves. Chelsea have already acquired £16.1 million of defender in Jose Bosingwa. United have any number of possibilities, including the strikers Dimitar Berbatov and Ajax's Klass Jan Huntelaar. Meanwhile, Liverpool's Rafa Benitez has been offering rather more than a come-hither glance towards Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. It's what they do; ensure the power continues to be vestedin the self-same ranks and, in Liverpool and Barry's case, wresting it away from those with pretensions of competing with them.
Ferguson's joy unconfined was understandable at the denouement. A 10th title was all about his United, no one else's hand-me-down; indeed it was the fifth incarnation of it, as Ferguson demonstrated yet again what insight he possesses into the psyche of the professional footballer. He is a man who recognises when to hold and when to fold where individual careers are concerned. And he can be the astute politician when required, notably when the Glazers, a family with whom you would not consider him a natural bedfellow, acquired his club.
Yes, it was United's day. And Ferguson's and Ryan Giggs's. But did last Sunday provide quite the climactic 90 minutes some would have us believe? Though the champions and their challengers began the final Sunday effectively only a point apart, Avram Grant's men performed as though they were just waiting to hear the worst from the JJB; his team bore the demeanour of men aware their owner's priority was the trophy waiting in Moscow next Wednesday. The instant Cristiano Ronaldo scored, Chelsea knew the game was up, and played like it.
What emotions were experienced by the vast majority of football watchers as they witnessed Ferguson, his staff and players cavorting at the JJB Stadium? One suspects envy, respect for the manager's achievements over 22 years, but not inspiration. Not, say, like those golfers who would fancy their chances at one of the majors in the knowledge that Tiger Woods, for all his brilliance, is fallible. Those who follow Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and Newcastle will keep the faith. David Moyes's men will have their eyes on fourth, Martin O'Neill's will seek further increments in performances, and significant improvement will be anticipatedfrom the fans and the powers that be of the teams managed by Juande Ramos and Kevin Keegan. Yet those aspirations must inevitably be limited. To borrow from that rather tasteless analogy of Birmingham City's David Sullivan, albeit that he was actually alluding to the likeli- hood of a super-rich benefactor acquiring his club: "It's like when you've been with the same bird for years but you think Miss World is around the corner. Well, she isn't."
The title, even making a challenge for it, is as relevant to most observers as the Sex and the City's air-kissing quartet are to real-life relationships. And after that, what else is there on offer? There are four trophies available for distribution and as Kevin Keegan recently pointed out, two of those are accessible only to four clubs. The truth is that of the 16 clubs who had absolutely no chance of claiming the title, over half of them were more busily employed avoiding the purg-atory of the Championship. What kind of competition is that?
At around the same time as Ferguson was jig-jogging, three clubs were being cast adrift, amid tears and in some cases wicked recrimination, at the culmination of a desperate 10 months, punctuated by managerial changes and millions being spent on players intended to provide buoyancy. True, they received a parting gift of £11.5m for two years, which sounds generous and yields them considerable advantage over Championship rivals, but bears no comparison to the rewards of those who barely eluded the same fate – in Fulham's case, by three goals, thanks to a late winner from Danny Murphy (pictured left) – and significantly less than those whose finances are buttressed by more than a fair share of television income and the spoils of European competition.
Of last year's promoted clubs, Sunderland survived by three points, but at the cost of Roy Keane's £45m scatter-gun transfer assault. Birmingham were returned to sender, again, as abuse was hurled at the board and the signings of Steve Bruce, now long gone. Derby County need not have bothered making the effort. Reading's Steve Coppell, erroneously, remained faithful to a squad of insufficient quality. This summer's Premier League intake look like cannon fodder unless they gamble, spending more than they can afford.
Again, next season, there will be a certain fascination in this for onlookers; just as they would once flock to the gallows. But one has to question, as Wigan Athletic's chairman, Dave Whelan, did recently, whether this enormous disparity of rewards for success and failure is truly beneficial to the health of the game at the elite end. It is not a matter of fairness; merely whether the current fin-ancing system, under which the leading clubs continue to mop up not just the title and European qualification but also richeswhich help sustain such an uncompetitive set-up, deserves to maintain our interest.
The Premier League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, commends it all to us as a highlysuccessful brand. Yet remove the Big Four, and maybe Spurs and Aston Villa and one or two other traditionally famous names, and ask foreign television executives whether they would still want to buy it. A levelling of the income stream to clubs may mean that the magnet which attracts leading players from around the world loses some of its power. Maybe some would be attracted elsewhere. But would that be a bad thing, for England's young, developing players? For the clubs in the rest of Europe?
The reality here is this: 14 clubs, those who did not finish first to fourth, or who did not win the contest necessary to enter Europe, are not destined to do too much next season either, except contest one of the increasingly devalued cups. The vast majority of Premier League clubs are doing nothing except fighting manfully, and expensively, to stand still or inch forward, many in the midst of enough collective debt virtuallyto refinance Northern Rock.
It will be argued that it was always thus. Indeed, there was a time when Liverpool had their knee seemingly pressed perpetually on the throat of the old First Division. It is true that in the two decades before the genesis of the Premiership, they won the title 11 times. However, Arsenal, Everton and Leeds (all twice), and Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Derby County, also got a look-in. Just as significant, however, was the fact that during those years another 11 clubs, including Watford, West Brom-wich Albion and QPR, finished in the top four, and fans of the relegated clubs did not regard their condition as terminal.
Intriguingly, though the quality of the Championship has been debatable it has yielded genuine fascination, probably because it is far less influenced by money. Attendances have risen, and for the third year in a row they are better than Italy's Serie A (which admittedly has four less clubs). In contrast, at some Premier League stadiums there has been embarrassing evidence of either a refusal to pay the entrance price, a lack of interest, or both.
Scudamore's justification for the Premier League's perpetuation is based on the theory that it is actually three compelling competitions within one. He would be better advised to address the inequality of opportunity within that league, and work with the Football League to enhance the financial standing of the Championship teams.
That is not a simple proposition. Yet one senses that increasingly the football-following public who fund the whole show are realising that though the Premier League cash cow readily supplies cream, it is only to the chosen ones. Ferguson was the cat that lapped it up last Sunday. For too many others, it is turning distinctly sour.
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