United's hegemony threatens the game

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The Independent Football

Such is the level of hype surrounding the Premiership the few surviving members of Channel 4's Big Brother house could, by 4.50 this afternoon, be the only people in the country unaware that it is back.

Such is the level of hype surrounding the Premiership the few surviving members of Channel 4's Big Brother house could, by 4.50 this afternoon, be the only people in the country unaware that it is back.

Whether that is a blessing or a curse for the incarcerated navel-gazers depends on your point of view. The number of acquaintances who have groaned "is it back already?" rather than exclaiming "it's back at last", suggests the game's widespread popularity may, after a summer of hooliganism and lunatic transfer fees, finally be on the wane.

Against that u>direct's seven-figure acquisition of the television rights to England's World Cup qualifier in Finland indicates the bean-counters' continuing faith in football's ability to put bums on seats and, once the roller-coaster gets under way, they are likely to be proved right.

Roy Keane has already stoked the fires and, with new laws on dissent, new penalties for misbehaviour, and a new ball worrying goalkeepers, the opening weeks could be sizzling enough to revive even the most jaded appetite.

Whether such interest can be sustained when it comes to the championship race is open to doubt. There appear five contenders, but the field looked to be similarly open last season before Manchester United,despite coming off the back of a demanding treble followed by a world tour, strengthened only by a goalkeeper now reduced to the third XI, romped home by a record 18 points.

It was their sixth title in the Premiership's eight seasons during which they have never been below second, a dominance only exceeded in the domestic game by Bob Paisley's Liverpool. Thus, while Arsenal, Chelsea, Leeds and Liverpool still seek to add to their collective £62m expenditure, Sir Alex Ferguson, for the second successive summer, has only bought a goalkeeper.

His confidence is understandable but the good of the game will be best served if it proves misplaced. No disrespect to United. They play football the right way, the occasional outburst of temper excepted, and have an admirable core of home-grown players. However, their reign is so complete it threatens the sport's continued health. Last season's dip in Sky's viewing figures highlights the danger, people switched off as soon as it became clear, post-Rio, that United would triumph again.

None of the other mainEuropean leagues is so onedimensional, even Milan, Barcelona and Bayern have only won four titles in that time while the French championship has gone to seven clubs in eight seasons. And it is not just the titles - though they, in themselves, are enough to wonder whether United should join Rangers in seeking a more competitive environment.

The champions have also achieved the biggest home win (9-0 v Ipswich in March 1995), the biggest away win (8-1 at Nottingham Forest in February 1999), and hold or share the seasonal records for most wins, fewest defeats, most goals scored, fewest goals conceded, most points won. Sir Alex Ferguson is the only manager, of the 78 to have managed in the Premiership, to average more than two points per game.

Not one of the other 32 teams to have competed in the Premiership have a positive win-loss record against United with some being utterly embarrassed. Local rivals City return to the top flight seeking to improve on a record of one point from 24, Coventry have four points from 48, West Ham, a supposed bogey side, five from 42. Erstwhile champions Blackburn Rovers have won only once in 14 meetings while Liverpool have won two in 16.

The Premiership is already split into three relatively clear divisions, contenders, survivors and strugglers, there is now a danger of the top group subdividing into United and a quartet chasing the remaining Champions' League places. United may not be prepared to spend £37m on Luis Figo but their massive commercial operation and 68,936 capacity, twice as large as most Premiership clubs and 17,000 higher than the next largest (Newcastle), means they, alone in the Premiership, could do so if they wanted.

United's players are confident, despite the lack of investment. "Apart from a couple of seasons ago, when we spent a few million on Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam, the chasing pack invariably go out and buy more players than us," said Ryan Giggs. "Obviously the manager feels the current squad is good enough to challenge for the title again."

Others agree. "It's difficult to look beyond Manchester United," said Kevin Phillips, of Sunderland. "When you expect the chasing pack to close the gap, United just step up a gear. I can't see anyone catching them."

Certainly not Liverpool, according to Gérard Houllier, their manager. He said: "If you look at Chelsea and Manchester United, and then you look to us, we need to make more progress. This is an honest assessment, but I still feel we are progressing, and progressing in the right direction."

Ferguson's own view is that Liverpool and Arsenal will be his main rivals, followed by Leeds and Chelsea, though, typically, he said that only "eccentrics" would bet against his own team. He added: "I can't see anyone outside the top five breaking in, it would be a shock to everyone if someone did and a bigger shock if they won it."

That the next favourite with most bookmakers, Newcastle, are widely available at 50-1 underlines this view.

The top five, incidentally, have signed 17 players to date of whom only Liverpool's Nick Barmby is English. Meanwhile Jay Bothroyd, Neil Clement, Nick Crittenden, David Thompson, Danny Higginbottom and John Curtis, all promising young Englishmen who, in less moneyed and cosmopolitan times might have expected a better crack of the whip, have been cut loose.

The clubs will argue that the best young players still come through, a view supported by the emergence of Jon Harley, Steven Gerrard and Jonathan Woodgate, but no one has successfully broken into the Manchester United team from the ranks since David Beckham and Phil Neville in 1995-96 while Arsenal have to go back even further for a youth graduate, though there are high hopes this season for Ashley Cole and Graham Barrett.

At least they are likely to have more chance than any budding strikers at Bradford City where the signing of Benito Carbone who, at 29, joins his ninth club, could prove the worst deal of the summer - with Chelsea's acquisition of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink potentially the best.

Since being in next season's Premiership will be worth £20m per club - more than the entire expenditure of 22 First Division clubs put together (independently wealthy Fulham and Blackburn being excepted) one can understand the motivation of the Bradford chairman, Geoffrey Richmond.

Perhaps he is ahead of the game, perhaps, like Italy, we will become used to players moving on a yearly basis - mercenary missionaries, spreading the gospel of the pass while reaping a golden harvest.

It is a bleak prospect, rather the sense of continuity developed at Portman Road. If there is one wish for this season it is that they, and Charlton, two clubs with a feel for their communities and a sense of perspective, survive to prosper.