03 June 2011

Mancunian Myths and the Futility of Fidelity

Lots of the sporting talk in Britain lately has been of the retirement of the football legend that is Paul Scholes, the revelation that Scholes' fellow legend Giggs has feet of clay, and Manchester United's having decisively dethroned Liverpool as the most consistently successful football club in English history.

There's no denying the fact that United's achievement is impressive, and that Giggs and Scholes have been among the most successful players the English game has ever seen, but the praise heaped upon Ferguson's United is sheer hyperbole; they may be legends, but we should be careful how we build our mythologies.

The Myth of the Perch
To take one example, a few weeks back I kept hearing talk on how United had knocked Liverpool off their perch, and how Ferguson had announced back in 1986 on his taking the job of managing United that his ambition was to knock Liverpool off their perch.

Nonsense. Ferguson said nothing of the sort back in '86. Indeed, he has admitted as much, saying just a few weeks ago in the Telegraph that:
'That thing about knocking Liverpool off their perch, I don’t think I actually said that but it’s more important that United are the best team in the country in terms of winning titles.'
What actually happened is that when interviewed by the Guardian back in September 2002, on the day of his 400th game, years after United had supplanted Liverpool as England's preeminent team, Ferguson said that his toughest task as United manager up to that point had been taking Liverpool's place at the pinnacle of the domestic game:
'Ferguson does not seem like a man in a corner. "I don't get paid to panic," Ferguson said. "We have had plenty of stuttering starts." Neither the topics of Juan Sebastian Veron nor Diego Forlan could stir Ferguson into a crimson caricature of his legendary wrath. But Hansen's analysis did. "My greatest challenge is not what's happening at the moment," Ferguson countered, "my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that."'
This, of course, should make perfect sense to anyone who thinks for a minute instead of unthinkingly repeating lazy journalistic claptrap. After all, when Ferguson became manager in 1986, United had just seven League titles to their name, and hadn't won the League since 1967. They were widely regarded as a cup team, unlike Liverpool, which by that point had won the League sixteen times, seven of those victories being in the previous ten seasons. If Ferguson had said that he planned on overtaking Liverpool's record he'd have been locked away.

The Myth of Honest Home-Grown Success
Nobody in 1986 could have predicted what would happen over the next few years, with the development of the Premier League and the Champions' League -- oiled and fed by Sky money -- transforming English football from being a broad competition where a host of teams could plausibly compete for the title, into, in practice, an oligarchic system where a handful of rich teams were guaranteed to hold the top four slots year after year, so that each season began with most clubs knowing that the best they could hope for would be the glorious position of also-rans.

One of the great ironies of modern British sporting analysis is that people too often and too lazily repeat cliches about Blackburn having bought short-lived success, about Chelsea having bought more sustainable success, and about Manchester city trying to buy success; United, it is generally held, did it properly, training up youngsters and earning success the hard way. The conceit, basically, is that United are an honest team, and that the others have merely tried to lie and buy their way to the title.

Obviously, it's blatantly clear that the current United team isn't a home-grown one. We can all see that. Indeed, if we look at the teams that faced off in the Champions' League final on Saturday, we can see that of the thirteen players in the defeated United side, only two came through their youth system, both of them progressing to the senior team almost twenty years ago; even with the club's most expensive ever signing not making the bench, the eleven imported players that took the field cost the club about £130 million. Against that, it's interesting that the Barcelona team that beat United fielded fourteen players, half of whom had come through their own system...

Still, I don't think it's ever been true that United's success in the Ferguson era has been home-grown. There's a figment of truth in this, but when you get down to it it's as nonsensical as the Myth of the Perch. Back in the early nineties United did indeed have a clutch of gifted young players they'd reared from scratch -- the Nevilles, Giggs, Scholes, Butt, and Beckham, but this shouldn't blind us to the fact that United's success was largely bought, and it was bought at exactly the right time.

Ferguson's first years with United were bleak ones, but in the summer of 1989, armed with a uniquely wealthy war-chest, and desperate to turn things around after having come eleventh in the League, without a trophy of any sort in four years and without having won the League since 1967, Alex Ferguson embarked on what was then an unprecedentedly spectacular spending spree. He spent £8 million on five players, the £2.3 million spent on Gary Pallister in August 1989 breaking the national transfer fee, and a further £2.4 million being spent on Paul Ince. The money proved well-spent: United won the FA Cup in 1990, their first trophy since 1985, and Ince and Pallister formed the backbone of the team for the next few years.

With the addition of Denis Irwin to the squad, bought for £625,000 in June 1990, United won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, thereby becoming the first English team to win a European trophy since Everton's victory in the same competition in 1985, just before the Heysel Stadium disaster had led to Mrs Thatcher pressuring the FA to withdraw English clubs  from European competition.

June 1991 saw Manchester United being the first football club floated on the Stock Exchange, raising £6.7 million. The following year, with the squad bolstered by Andrei Kancheskis who had been bought for £650,000 in March 1991 and by Peter Schmeichel who had been bought for £500,000 in August 1991, Manchester United won its first ever League Cup. In August 1992 the club bought Dion Dublin for £1 million and in November 1992, when they were lagging behind Aston Villa and Blackburn, the club also bought Eric Cantona for £1.2 million from League champions Leeds; United went on to win the inaugural Premier League.

Hardly had the Premier League been won that United broke the national transfer record again, buying Roy Keane for £3.75 million from Nottingham Forest, and with him in the team they again won the Premier League and also won the FA Cup, thus earning their first ever Double. Indeed, in the first seven years of the newly lucrative Premier League, Manchester United won the title five times along with three FA Cups and the European Cup, in the popular mindset having done so with the kids Alan Hansen so famously disparaged.

It's true that the likes of  Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt, and the Nevilles all became stars during the 1990s, but the thing is, it's not as if United weren't continuing to buy at the same time. With the money they had from being a PLC, and with the Sky money flowing into them from the Premier League, they bought David May for £1.2 million in 1994, and broke the national transfer record for the second time in less than two years when they bought Andy Cole for £7 million in January 1995. Solskjaer was bought for £1.5 million in July 1996 and in summer 1997, United added Teddy Sheringham to the squad for £3.5 million and broke the national transfer record for a defender by spending £5 million on Henning Berg. The following summer saw even more being spent, with £4.4 million being spent on Jesper Blomqvist, the national transfer record for a defender again being broken when £10.6 million was spent on Jaap Stam, and a further £12.6 million being spent on Dwight Yorke.

And thus the Treble was won. Nine of the thirteen players who played in the UEFA Champions' League final -- including both injury-time goalscorers -- had been bought by United. They hadn't been bought cheaply either: the team that won the FA Cup that year included two players whose transfer fees had broken the national record, and other players who were even more costly but who'd been bought in more expensive seasons.

Since then, of course, the Champions' League has become an absolute goldmine and with the money United made from that they were able to break the national transfer record three times running, spending £19 million on Van Nistelrooy, £28.1 million on Veron, and £29 million on Ferdinand, since going on to spend £25.6 million on Rooney, £14 million on Carrick, £17 million on Hargreaves, £14.7 million on Nani, £17.3 million on Anderson, and £30.75m spent on Berbatov.

Those figures are difficult to substantiate, unfortunately -- this very interesting site gives different figures though reveals the same trend -- but it seems clear that even under the Glazers, despite their fans' refusal to believe otherwise, they've bought six of their ten most expensive ever players. Granted, City and Chelsea have bought, respectively, 14 and 19 players in the price range of United's top ten, but that's largely because they've bought them in the last ten minutes or so, with prices being higher nowadays than even three or four years back. To put this into context, Liverpool have bought seven players in this price range, Spurs have bought five, Arsenal have bought only two, and Everton and Villa have bought just one apiece.

Anyway, it's with such a pricey brigade of players that United have won the the League a further seven times since winning the Treble, along with an FA Cup, three League Cups, and another European trophy.

And none of this gets into the issue of wages, with almost a third of the total Premier League wage bill being accounted for by just three clubs, one of which is United, the others -- predictably -- being Chelsea and City, who are really just spending to try to catch up, just as with their ultra-expensive squads. It's like watching people turning up late at a party when everybody else is already tipsy, and then hammering back the drink to try to match them.

I'm not criticising, as United have been very fortunate in coming good just as football became big business; any other team would envy their luck, their brand name, and how well Ferguson et al have built well on the success they've had. All I'm saying is that the notion that United haven't bought their success is claptrap. They have. They've bought in spades, and they keep buying, and they're going to keep buying, and though some of their purchases haven't paid off, many have.

What does all of this mean?

The Myth of a Competitive League
Well, I said the other day, prior to the Barcelona match, that I hoped United would lose. Not because I take pleasure in my friends' disappointment, as I don't and I would have liked them to be happy, but because I didn't believe it'd do the English game any good for any member of English football's dominant cartel to receive a cash injection of £109 million in order further to enhance its dominance in the English game.

The Premier League, quite simply, isn't as good, as interesting, or as meaningful a competition as the old First Division was. I don't dispute for a moment that the football is better -- I think it probably is, especially given the sheer quality of foreign players that now play in England, albeit at a clear cost to the quality of the English national side. However, if you look back at the last fifty years or so of English football, it's quite clear that over the past fifteen years the English top flight has become a stitch-up.

Don't believe me?

Well, think of what I'm saying, that back in the day pretty much any team could rise to win or at least challenge for the title, but that in recent years the competition has been predictable and stale, with the same teams forming the same hierachy year-in year-out. This is easy to test. All we have to do is look at the top four teams in any given year, and see how many of them had been in the top four the previous year, tracking this back over the decades. I'd pick the top four as I think the Champions' League formalises a top four elite nowadays, and since the difference between fourth and fifth place nowadays can effectively be twenty million pounds or so, which buys you a top-notch player.

Look at the chart.

Interesting, eh? Before 1997 it was typical for two teams from the previous year's top four to make it into the top four; the odd year three teams would make it, and sometimes only one made it, but on balance two would typically retain top-tier positions. Since 1997, though, there hasn't been a year when fewer than three top-four teams from one year made it into the top four spots the following year, and there've been four years when the same four teams had retained their collective position at the pinnacle of English football.

It's worse, though. Only nine teams have won places in the 60 top-four spots that have been available over the past fifteen years, with just four teams having held 52 of those places. To put that into context, eighteen teams -- twice as many -- won places in the previous fifteen years' 60 top-four spots, with the top four teams overall having held just 35 of those places.

What's my point?

English football's top flight has become a rigged game, where victory is pretty much guaranteed to one of a handful of foreign-owned superwealthy clubs, those clubs that feed at the Golden Trough of the Champions' League. Victory in the Football League had long been dependent on cash, but even so that cash was more evenly spread about than it's been since the rise of the Premier League. The prize money -- especially from the Champions' League -- is such as to enable teams that do well to guarantee that they'll do well henceforth, so that success is rewarded with cash and cash buys further success.

United have won their nineteenth title. They'll win their twentieth in a year or two. It won't mean much, though. It'll be a victory in an unofficial mini-league, informally nestling at the top of a bigger and messier one. I hate to say it, but Liverpool's eighteen titles all mattered more. The League was a real competition then. Winning was more romantic, and being beaten didn't mean being vanquished: teams could lose, and regroup, and come back in the real hope of triumph. That doesn't happen anymore.

On Love and Loyalty
I still support Everton, of course, even though I do not believe she will ever win the League again, unless she's bought as a rich man's toy, as Chelsea and Manchester City have been.

That's the nature of love and of loyalty: we may admire things and people for what they can do, but we love them for who and what they are, for that royal blue strip, that church in the corner of the ground and pillars we've to crane around, that statue of Bill Dean, that fleeting moment when I was a little boy and Everton might have been the best team in Europe, my brother being at the other semi-final and a city mourning together, a battered schoolbag bearing the badge and the teasing it brought, a sense of secret fellowship with those few Dubliners I'd meet who supported a team that didn't wear red, years of squandered promise and too frequent a survival by the skin of our teeth, the occasional magnificent performance, too much mediocre dross to mention, going to my first match on the day I was persuaded to move to England, bitterness boiling over when playing our offshoot and oldest rival, quiet calm appraisal from the stands in match after match, wry head-shaking with family and friends and people who could be either in the pub afterwards, a friend trying to hide her pleasure at her first top-flight game as her team demolished mine, a cousin grabbing and shaking my shoulders in a frenzy of delight as Everton turned the tables with rare style, the smug pleasure in establishing that Everton are my local team with their ground being the closest Premier League ground to my home in Dublin, and decade after decade of family fidelity.

I don't support Everton because she's good. I support her because she's Everton. My blood's blue.

Chesterton nailed this idea of attachment, talking once of Kipling's lack of true patriotism:
'The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism -- that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.'
I like Arsenal because they play more creative football than any other team in England and because even when their rivals at the top splash money around like there's no bubble waiting to burst tomorrow they spend sensibly; but while I admire their elegance and their prudence, I don't love them. I freely recognise that United are the best team in England, though I'm suspicious of their fans, as there are too many of them who have never known anything but success; I often wonder how deep their loyalty runs, and whether they'd fly to another team if United's sun were to set. Certainly, I suspect the future may belong to Manchester City, who are only too frank in admitting that they'll soon be acquiring their own legions of gloryhunters, all too keen to contribute to City's coffers, and I'll doubt their new fans too. I'm highly dubious about Chelsea ones too, not least because so many of them are recent converts, lured by cash-fuelled success.

While I wouldn't go so far as to embrace claims that the followers of the most successful English football teams are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners and spouses than those who follow less successful teams, I do wonder whether if a person's loyal in one aspect of his or her life, he or she's likely to be loyal in other areas. Terry Leahy, Tesco's erstwhile CEO, had a mantra that said he believed in 'one religion, one football team, one wife, one firm'. Taken at face value, that's obviously facile and trite, but I suspect he had a point. Certainly, people who support teams that look destined never to succeed must be the sort of people who stick by those they love through thick and thin.

If there's a moral to this story, it's that United's success is real but not as glorious as it might look, and that you should never marry a Chelsea fan.  Against that, a friend of mine married a Blackburn fan a couple of years back. I tend to think that'll prove a wise move in the long run, as a man who's supported Blackburn over the last decade is  clearly a man of unshakeable faith. I think theirs shall prove a long and happy marriage.

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