Thrills and glory overshadowed by transgressions

FOOTBALL: It has not been a season to look back on with much pleasure, but nor has it been one that will be forgotten, says Glenn Moore
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It has been an immense season, one of shame and scandal, but also of gripping and sometimes glorious football. How will it be remembered?

It seems inevitable that the image which will always be used to illustrate this season will be that of an airborne Eric Cantona heading feet-first into the chest of a Crystal Palace supporter.

It was the incident that linked the season's two strands; off-field trauma and on-field drama. Cantona's moment of madness symbolised the game's descent into infamy and proved to have a telling impact on the distribution of its honours.

We had an absorbing, ultimately compelling, championship race; a relegation battle that engulfed half the Premiership, and an FA Cup campaign that produced an unlikely winner and some very good ties.

But all this was overshadowed by an unprecedented series of alleged and actual misdemeanors. Four players - Cantona, Dennis Wise, Duncan Ferguson and Ray Parlour - have been found guilty of assault, while Paul Ince awaits a verdict.

Bruce Grobbelaar was accused of bribery; George Graham sacked for allegedly taking transfer "kickbacks"; and Paul Merson confessed to a series of addictions including gambling and alcohol.

There was a resurgence of hooliganism, notably in Dublin but also at various Chelsea matches. Tragically, there was also the death of a supporter before the FA Cup semi-final between, once more, Manchester United and Crystal Palace.

Roy Keane's subsequent stamping on Gareth Southgate in the replay - and the lack of condemnation by his club - was an exasperating demonstration of the way many football people fail to grasp the wider significance of their actions. As the game and salaries get bigger, so do the responsibilities.

Some administrators are catching on. The Premier League is making strides to clean up the game's financial practices and the Football Association, although understandably wary after its legal defeat by Tottenham, is attempting to adopt a tougher line, despite being hindered by its archaic bureaucracy.

The legal influence is a malign one. The cases of Grobbelaar and Graham could rumble on for months and the reward for success - and the cost of failure - has become so great that clubs are increasingly keen to win at all costs, whether it means suing the governing body or playing convicted felons, even as they prepare an appeal against a jail sentence. That pressure has led to a ridiculous number of managerial casualties - but very few departing chairmen.

Enough doom and gloom. If football is embroiled in a sleaze-induced crisis, the Conservative Party would gladly swap it for theirs. Supporters, sponsors and television continue to queue up for more.

At last week's Footballer of the Year dinner, Bobby Robson mounted a passionate defence of the English game. The former England manager's views may be coloured by his strong patriotism, but they have been formed with the benefit of perspective from his base in Portugal.

Robson noted that English football was still avidly followed across the Continent and elsewhere. He also observed that the bottom clubs can still beat the top ones. Indeed, Leicester drew at Old Trafford while Ipswich won at Anfield and beat Manchester United at home. However, these shocks are rare.

Manchester United won the return games 4-0 and 9-0 respectively and, were it not for the loss of Cantona and latterly Andrei Kanchelskis, might well have repeated their double.

They are still lacking in Europe, but with Old Trafford heading for the heavens and the club's youth system and marketing department both outstripping their rivals, Manchester United are well placed to dominate the domestic game into the next century.

That would be a mixed blessing, but at least there is a determination at Old Trafford to play football the right way - even if it was occasionally disfigured this season.

A sense of style and adventure also applies to many of United's challengers, the bulk of whom come from an elite moneyed group - Blackburn, the Merseyside clubs, Newcastle and Leeds. Nottingham Forest are somehow hanging in there; Aston Villa and the north London pair have potential. The rest are now reduced to an annual battle to stay in the Premiership while hoping for a large dash of luck in a cup.

At least they are at the races. Robson also made the point that, for many clubs, survival is now the height of ambition. "The Carlisles, the Torquays, the Halifaxes are just as important as the top clubs," he said. Very few of those top clubs appear to appreciate this.

One noted Premiership chairman snidely told a lower division equivalent recently: "If you cannot stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." He seemed unaware that his team's last centre- forward, and a key current player, had been discovered and developed at that club.

The Premier League's administrators make polite noises about helping the lower clubs, but do nothing to effect such aid; the Football League itself seems bent on a policy of "natural wastage" and is obstructive, rather than helpful, to the clubs in crisis.

Premiership Two is a possibility at the top; long-overdue regionalisation would then be a probability at the bottom.

The play-off finals remain, but, for most, thoughts now turn to England. Terry Venables' squad for the summer's Umbro Challenge, which he announces today, should indicate how he sees the national team developing. It is to be hoped Matthew Le Tissier will be included, for the England coach shows signs of copying his predecessors' lack of faith in individual talent. Le Tissier was dropped for England's last game because he was out of form. Hardly surprising - no one can maintain their form throughout a season as demanding as this one has been.

Newcastle showed that to be true - their domination of the thrilling fields back in August now seems an age away. Efficiency, in Blackburn and Everton, ultimately took the main honours, but they too produced moments to savour. Not a great season, but not one that will be easily forgotten.


1994/95 VERDICT

Best match: Tottenham's 2-1 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter- final.

Most thrilling match: Arsenal's extra-time and penalties win over Sampdoria in the European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final.

Player of the Year: Colin Hendry (Blackburn)

Managers of the Year: Frank Clark (Nottingham Forest) and Joe Royle (Everton).

Chairman of the Year: Michael Knighton (Carlisle).

TEAM OF THE YEAR (4-4-2): Flowers (Blackburn); Berg (Blackburn), Watson (Everton), Hendry (Blackburn), Irwin (Manchester United); McManaman (Liverpool), Beardsley (Newcastle), Howells (Tottenham), Le Tissier (Southampton); Shearer (Blackburn), Klinsmann (Tottenham). Substitutes: Schmeichel (Manchester United), Le Saux (Blackburn), Pallister (Manchester United), Collymore (Nottingham Forest), McAllister (Leeds).