Manchester United finishes on top

PRAISE is exhausted and needs a day off. It has jumped up and down for Rudd van Nistelrooy and performed somersaults over Manchester United's late-season surge.


Manchester United's captain Roy Keane holds the English Premier League trophy, as he celebrates with teammates. — Pic. AP-

PRAISE is exhausted and needs a day off. It has jumped up and down for Rudd van Nistelrooy and performed somersaults over Manchester United's late-season surge. So let's park praise in a deckchair and consider 10 alternative perspectives on the expiring Premiership campaign.

This is devil's advocate stuff, mainly, but acclaim has worked its socks off and hyperbole is looking pretty ragged, too. The following observations are intended as provocations: fresh meat for the bear garden debates.

1. This will not go down as one of United's vintage seasons, despite Sir Alex Ferguson calling it the finest of his eight Premiership title-winning campaigns. The new champions lost the Worthington Cup final to Liverpool, were expelled from the FA Cup at home by Arsenal as early as the fifth round and were halted in the Champions League quarter-finals (admittedly by Real Madrid).

Last year there was nothing new for the Old Trafford trophy-polishers to buff. By Ferguson's exemplary standards, one prize in two seasons is a modest return on the club's huge investment in Van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron. That realisation is tucked away in Ferguson's head and there will be remedial work on the team this summer. United's thunderous run since Dec. 28 could be characterised, at a push, as a Great Escape.

2. Are we Scotland in disguise? Alan Curbishley, the Charlton Athletic manager, has an unfailing eye for the big picture. After United's 4-1 win over his south Londoners, Curbishley wondered whether the English game had developed Celtic-Rangers syndrome. In 11 Premiership seasons, only Blackburn Rovers have disturbed the Arsenal-United duopoly. Arsene Wenger's teams are capable of breaking United's hegemony only for a single season. Their 1998 and 2002 League and FA Cup doubles were temporary pendulum-lurches. After the good years, the Gunners fall back to reload.

3. Extending that line of argument, the Premiership has more in common with the SPL in Scotland or the Dutch first division than Serie A or Spain's Primera Liga. In Italy, which God designed in the shape of a foot kicking a ball (Sicily), it would be no surprise in an average year to see Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio or Roma seize the scudetto. In Spain, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia trade yearly blows and are regularly roughed up by the likes of Deportivo La Coruna.

Here, Liverpool and Chelsea have been stuck at the threshold and Leeds committed financial suicide trying to impersonate Man Utd. Newcastle, who buy for tomorrow and not just today, are English football's coming men. But it was 1927 when the crown was last placed on Geordie heads. They remain the game's most popular men. Despite all Sir Bobby Robson's brilliant team-building, Newcastle conceded 11 goals to United this season in two Premiership defeats.

Between 1970 and 1992, when the Premier League was invented, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Everton managed to inconvenience Liverpool and Arsenal — the only other two title winners. How far does the imagination have to stretch to see a club from the Premiership's middle-class usurp the aristocracy?

4. The imbalance can be solved, of course, by bundling Ferguson into a van and detaining him under house arrest in the Scottish Highlands. The other 19 clubs could save themselves a lot of anguish by having a whip-round and paying him to get out of the Premiership's one-horse town.

This week, Ferguson called Van Nistelrooy "the vital difference" between United and Arsenal. Yes, one man works the levers of power. But it's not United's lethal no. 10, even if he did strike 43 times in all competitions. It was Ferguson who built eight championship-winning sides and conceived the unique Champions League, Premiership and FA Cup treble four years ago. Constructing a winning team is one thing; to whip up a typhoon of encouragement and fear in the dressing room for more than a decade is quite another. The word is that Ferguson developed the theory that Arsenal would stop in front and made his players share that belief.

Devon Loch is an apt comparison, but an even better one is with the 1973 Red Rum-Crisp Grand National. There, the course specialist ground down the extravagant front-runner. Ferguson has the perfect template to justify staying until he's 70. Sir Alex can draw inspiration from Sir Bobby.

5. Brian Clough's old aphorism about needing a strong spine has been thrown into doubt. Clough thought a championship-winning side had to be infallible at numbers one, five and nine. Van Nistelrooy played his part in the centre-forward's position but further back there were serious problems with Fabien Barthez, Ferdinand and Roy Keane. Barthez is hiding behind his aerial acrobatics but has lost his authority. Ferdinand seems happiest playing alongside a conventional stopper who is willing to do the boring jobs (with England, Sol Campbell). There is no accomplice in the Campbell mould at Old Trafford. Keane's struggle is against diminished mobility. The point is that United still won the title with major components of the side malfunctioning.

6. A shaft of light for those who prefer democracy over dictatorship: money, despite the mythology, can't buy success all by itself (look at Leeds or Chelsea). As Gary Neville pointed out in his newspaper column, United spent pounds 50 million last season "and won nothing". But if you could buy the United mindset, the ethos, the intolerance of failure, Wenger would smash his wad down on the counter.

7. The distorting effect of the Champions League is now such that it's no longer possible to talk of the Premier League as a single organism. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea and Liverpool contested a pounds 20 million game. To finish fourth. The chasing pack could never admit this, but in the darker mental recesses they can afford to allow Arsenal and United to fight their private duel while they settle for third or fourth place and VIP entry to Europe.

The Premiership has become one great audition, with three strata: Champions League contenders, mid-table consolidators and clubs who fret about staying attached to the golden teat from the minute they escape Division One. Spurs are searching for the vandals who nailed them to a mid-table rung.

8. More nausea for Arsenal supporters. According to France Football magazine, United employ three of the top 10 earners in world football. David Beckham is top, Ferdinand fourth and Keane 10th. Though salaries have risen sharply at Old Trafford, they are still at a manageable level relative to turnover. If Beckham earns pounds 100,000 a week, how much longer can Wenger persuade Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira to go on making half that much in a team who have returned to being second best?

9. Ferguson is already Britain's greatest football manager. If in doubt, place his 15 major trophies in 13 seasons at United next to the three league titles, four Scottish Cups and European Cup-Winners' Cup he won at Aberdeen. A howl can be heard across Merseyside. At Liverpool, Bob Paisley won three European Cups. But it's my strong conviction that the Champions League is much, much harder to win. Among Liverpool's victims in finals of the old knockout competition were Borussia Monchengladback and FC Brugge (though they also saw off Real Madrid). Forest beat Malmo and Hamburg. Triumphs, all of them, but of a lower currency to today's 17-assignment Champions League marathon.

10. Try picking an all-star 11 from the two squads based on performances this season alone. Mine is: Seaman; Gary Neville, Campbell, Sylvester, O'Shea; Beckham, Vieira, Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy, Henry. United win by seven players to four (even without Keane, who loses out to Vieira).

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003