The Matt Holland Column: Premiership delivers the dream – a real title fight

Matt Holland Was Talking To Iain Fletcher
Sunday 11 November 2001 01:00 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Ever since the Premiership started back in 1992, it has been dominated by one club. The extent of its superiority has been so great that it is not necessary to name it. The Premier League is supposed to be one of the most thrilling leagues in the world where legions of the world's best talent compete for a grand prize. At least that is how it is marketed, and yet can that really be the case when one club hogs the show?

Consider this: only two other clubs have lifted the trophy, Blackburn Rovers and Arsenal in 1993 and 1998 respectively, and last year the title was pretty much secured as the Christmas decorations were being packed away. What happened to the rest of the season? Not a lot if your interest in football is about who proves themselves the best over nine months.

There was still plenty of controversy and excitement but it was not to do with becoming champions. No, the attention shifted from the quest to be best, to the quest for money. It became a scrap for the remaining incredibly lucrative Champ-ions' League spots and the less lucrative but still attractive Uefa Cup spots; and the battle to avoid the dreaded drop.

I cannot deny that these on their own provided some entertaining football. I know we at Ipswich felt as if we were winning the Premiership itself when we were in contention for the Champions' League and considered qualification for the Uefa Cup as an incredible achieve-ment. Conversely the players, staff and fans at clubs like Manchester City and Coventry City would have lived every second of every game until relegation was confirmed, but the fact remains that the greatest interest in any league is about who is going to win it.

It may seem harsh to those involved, but the truth is that all these issues are mere sideshows to the main event. Winning the Premiership is the real deal and that is why I believe the League this season is far better than in recent years. Leeds United, Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal. Who do you think is going to win the title? Now ask other people and I bet you end up in a lively debate.

If you had done the same this time last year, Manchester United would have been the only sensible answer. Personally, I still think Sir Alex Ferguson's side will do it but they are going to have to work hard and probably up until the final match of the season. Immediately, this season is made more exciting, bringing much cheer to the assorted vested interests such as the sponsors, TV companies and the Premier League itself. All have products to sell, and a high-octane, thrill-a-minute season which reaches a climax in May with three or four massive clubs in the shake-up for the title benefits everybody. Benefits everybody – sounds like a Utopian dream but the supreme quality of the top clubs at present could well realise the dream.

Alas, there seems little chance of the Professional Footballers' Association and Premier League negotiating to secure a deal that benefits everybody. The strike ballots have been counted with 99 per cent of players supporting action. If it is deemed necessary it will occur after 23 November. A strike, though, will tarnish the brand image of the League, who will have greater difficulty selling their product to the suffering TV companies, and the players will be branded as greedy and selfish. It is curious that, at a time when the League is at its most vibrant and the players are excelling in producing exciting and truly competitive football, this argument should rumble on.

By Thursday evening I will know, (injury and selection permitting) whether I am going to the World Cup with the Republic of Ireland. If we get there we will have certainly earned it. When we were grouped with Portugal and Holland, few gave us a chance but we knocked out the Dutch, and now we must do the same to Iran.

On Tuesday night we had a meeting with the Republic manager Mick McCarthy and he talked us through his recent fact-finding trip to Tehran and what we should expect. He was so confident about our security that he hardly mentioned it and instead concentrated on what he perceived as the real threat – the Iranian team. At home, in front of 100,000 supporters they are going to be difficult to play against.

There were some confused looks, however, as McCarthy informed us of certain do's and dont's for the trip. Apparently our female supporters will be allowed into the ground but Iranian women will not be, due to the potential for swearing. Also, those in the party whose reading material consists mainly of pictures have been warned against taking them. Good news for the moral brigade but bad news for us – it means someone is going to have to talk to Jason McAteer to keep him occupied!

Still, as I fret about Ipswich being in the bottom three, the fact that I am so close to representing my country in the World Cup that I can smell it and the imminent arrival of Italy's Internazionale for the first leg of our Uefa Cup tie, I am reminded constantly that my football is the second most important in the Holland household. Jacob, my eldest son, has been picked for the school "B" team alongside boys a year older than him.

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