Of course, if Manchester United do win a fourth consecutive title next season, they will be the first team do win four, and it will be at the fifth time of asking. That alone makes it unlikely – dominance of the top division has to end some time, and in the past, this is where the end’s come. But this time might be different.
Keeping the Manager
First Huddersfield, then Arsenal, made it to three titles between the wars. In each case, the teams had been assembled by a certain Herbert Chapman. Chapman was the sort of manager whose flywheel would go on spinning for some time after his departure – the thriving remnants of his Huddersfield lost to his up-and-coming Arsenal at Wembley in 1930, walking out side-by-side in his honour under the shadow of the Graf Zepellin. Chapman left before Huddersfield completed their sequence, and had passed away before Arsenal completed theirs.
Without Chapman, four titles proved too much to ask. There are many reasons for supposing that a title was a great deal harder to win before the end of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer. But harder still without the oversight of the general. Barring accident and ill-health, Manchester United go into title race number four with the same man at the head.
Money and Squad Size: Don’t Try to Rebuild
No team would earn themselves the chance of four again until Liverpool in 1984-5. But they began the season terribly, and although the team recovered to show championship form from the start of the year on, they were up against Howard Kendall’s Everton in its sudden, unexpected pomp and fell well short. Management was again a question – Bob Paisley had overseen the first two titles of their three, Joe Fagan the third – but given Liverpool’s continued dominance of Division One for the rest of the decade, the change of managers is hardly to blame.
Everton’s wonderful football aside, ’84-85 was a nadir season. Anyone who was there and interested will remember a long, hot spring and summer of rioting. On the 13th of March, Millwall fans tore 700 seats from a stand at Kenilworth Road. On the 11th of May, fire killed 56 people in Archibald Leitch’s main stand at Bradford City. Then, on the 29th, came Heysel.
1984-85 was not a season deserving of a great record, but Liverpool’s early season collapse needs explanation. Since the end of the maximum wage twenty years earlier, squad sizes in the First Division had halved. This, combined with the end of the talent gold-rush that had led to nine different title-winning clubs in 1960-72, presented Liverpool with a problem in 1984-5 that might, under lesser hands, have sent them the way of post-Busby Manchester United. With Rush injured for the first part of the season, the talented but markedly inferior Paul Walsh stepped in. And there was no more Graeme Souness – Phil Neal took over as skipper whilst John Wark from Ipswich tried to fill an impossible hole. Jim Beglin had to do the same for Alan Kennedy.
These were fine players, and all became famous servants of Liverpool Football Club, but to come in all at once in that louse of a season and pull together in time for a title was asking too much.
When Manchester United won their third title in 2001, I was passing through a service station in the Midlands. It was raining, it had been an uninspired season, and here on the television were Beckham and co. jumping up and down for all the world as if it mattered. It was still only April.
Arsenal had finished second, but ten points behind: all year, it had seemed as though the title had gone out of fashion with only United not noticing, and, how gauche of them, winning it and parading the winning.
Then the talk started. Ferguson was retiring at the end of the next season: Beckham suggested that it might be nice for the team to commemorate that, not with a carriage clock, but with going through the season unbeaten. And we’ll win him the Champions League in his home town of Glasgow.
Much of that was probably down to the press: Beckham is not prone to hyperbolic statement, and the papers would have joined those particular dots with no help from the players in any case. Furthermore, the acquisitions in the close season of Van Nistelrooy – seen as hideously risky – and Sebastian Veron – seen as cementing United’s midfield as the best in the world – outstripped anything Arsenal or Liverpool could assemble.
But the press weren’t behind the sale of Jaap Stam, nor his replacement with Laurent Blanc. Nor will anything of comparable stupidity take place this time.
What Will Stop United?
Injuries. Significant injuries have seen off Arsenal and Liverpool’s challenges, if not Chelsea’s, in the last two years. Neither Eduardo nor Torres played full seasons – and if Torres had, it’s likely that I wouldn’t be writing this now. United had to endure a torrid time in defence owing to injuries to – well, just about everyone – but the dead men were revived in time. Another two weeks of that would have lost them the title.
Distraction. History teaches two lessons here: don’t focus on one or two trophies at the expense of the others: you’ll win none of them. But don’t try to win all four/five. Contradictory, I know, but you can also feel the truth of it. The reality is that you won’t know you’ve been distracted until too late.
Scandal. In summer of 1977, Manchester United decided not to return, after all, to Busby-esque winning ways by sacking Tommy Docherty and dooming his marvellous young side to the tinkerings of lesser men. And all because the Doc fell in love… It would take more than that this time, but with the amount of money sloshing around inside Old Trafford, it would come as no surprise were some of it to find its way into trouble.
Other teams. Somehow, one feels, it won’t be Liverpool or Chelsea. Liverpool because, Gerrard aside, there may be a psychological penalty to pay for coming so close this time around. And they were never quite as good as they thought anyway. Chelsea are changing managers AGAIN – and not, to their cost, back to Mourinho, Ferguson’s only real rival.
Which leaves Arsenal. They’ve been my tip for the title in the last two seasons, which means that you’ve rather wasted your time in reading this, haven’t you? But Ashavin playing behind Eduardo excites me, and if Wenger is willing to reimpose himself on the club’s increasingly, foolishly eccentric board, then this team – Champions League semi-finalists, let’s not forget – may be due another day in the sun.