Ruud van Nistelrooy hits the heights

TRY to imagine the following scenario: Manchester United is relegated, Arsenal is 10th and Leeds has won the title.

COLIN MALAM

Ruud van Nistelrooy's ability to find the net in just about every conceivable way will be treasured for long. — Pic. ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES-

TRY to imagine the following scenario: Manchester United is relegated, Arsenal is 10th and Leeds has won the title. Not only that, but four of the top six teams in the table are Derby County, Ipswich, Stoke City and Burnley. Outlandish, is it not? Well, actually, no, it's not. That is exactly how the old First Division looked at the end of my first season as football correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph 29 years ago.

Times change, but you don't always appreciate quite how much. In fact, it wasn't until I consulted the relevant edition of the indispensable Rothmans Football Yearbook that I realised that the balance of power at club level has shifted almost completely during my tenure of office. Liverpool were runners-up to Leeds in 1973-74, but that was just about the only recognisable feature of the landscape.

The only other vague similarity to the season that has just ended was the way the two-horse race for the championship unfolded. Leeds went off like a rocket, were unbeaten after 20 games and established the best post-war start in Division One. So when they had forged nine points ahead of Liverpool after 29 games, it looked all over. But then Leeds started to get the yips and Liverpool steadily closed the gap. Sounds familiar?

The crucial difference between then and now was that Leeds managed to hang on to their lead and crossed the finishing line five points ahead of their dogged pursuers. How Arsenal must wish they had been able to do the same after going eight points clear of the pack mid-season this time. They did not because of their own failings and one of the finest, most relentless finishes by a team I can recall.

Manchester United were simply magnificent and fully deserved their eighth title in the 11 seasons the Premier League has been with us. It is an incredible record of consistent achievement, especially when you think they were either runners-up or third when they did not finish as champions. The only modern parallel is Liverpool's run of 10 First Division titles in the 15 seasons between 1972 and 1990.

It is also a record that reflects enormous credit on United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and on former chairman Martin Edwards for sticking by him when things were not going at all well during Fergie's first few years in the job. Sir Alex said "winning the latest championship was his greatest achievement", but I would disagree. His greatest achievement, to my mind, is having been able to coax, or terrify, a bunch of young millionaires into playing so well for so long.

It helps, I suppose, to have had so many of his players since they were kids. The likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers are suffused with the fierce determination and unflagging work ethic Ferguson brought into football from the Govan shipyards. Others, such as Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, absorbed such qualities with their mothers' milk.

Van Nistelrooy's ability to find the net thrillingly in just about every conceivable way will be the memory of the 2002-03 season I shall treasure most.

The angular, hard-working Dutchman may not look as elegant on the ball as Thierry Henry but, by God, he is more effective more often. If my life depended on one of those two wonderful strikers scoring a goal, I know which one I would choose, and it wouldn't be Henry.

In fairness to the Frenchman, he did well to get within one of Van Nistelrooy's 25 in the Premiership, considering the form of so many of his team-mates fell so far below the previous season's standards. The disintegration of Arsenal's once formidable defence is well documented, but equally debilitating for them was the failure of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg to be as imaginative and productive in midfield as we know they can.

Michael Owen, too, deserves a mention for finishing third highest goalscorer despite playing in a Liverpool team that looks to have stopped progressing; and that is putting it kindly. Newcastle, on the other hand, are going forward in youthful leaps and bounds, guided by that heroic old warhorse, Alan Shearer, and urged on by that unquenchably enthusiastic septuagenarian, Sir Bobby Robson.

I am old enough to remember Bobby getting the sack from his first managerial job in this country, at Fulham, then running into serious problems with recalcitrant players during the early days of the reign at Ipswich that made his name. He also had to endure dog's abuse as England manager before being cast aside unfairly and prematurely by the Football Association. So he deserves every minute of the qualified success he is enjoying presently.

Of course, Newcastle's third place in the Premiership, and astonishing feat of reaching the second group stage of the Champions League against the odds, served also to underline the complete collapse of Sunderland, relegated back to the First Division again after twice finishing seventh during their four most recent seasons in the Premiership. The appointment of Howard Wilkinson as Peter Reid's successor must rank as the season's biggest mistake.

Some might challenge that view and substitute the FA's decision to stage England's Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey at the Stadium of Light.

Certainly, the racist chanting and pitch invasions not only took the gloss off an important victory over the previous group leaders, but brought very much closer the day when UEFA will finally lose patience with English yobs and throw England out of a tournament.

Ironically, having been sacked by Sunderland, Peter Reid just managed to save Leeds from following his previous club into English football's nether regions. The dramatic nosedive by the Yorkshire club, a fixture in the Premiership's top five for five seasons and recent Champions League semi-finalists, was a graphic reminder of the dangers of overspending in pursuit of glory. It was also a symbol of the economic difficulties suddenly being experienced by so many of the elite division's so-called fat cats.

Sadly, West Ham and West Bromwich Albion, clubs I regard with particular affection for a number of reasons, went down with Sunderland. West Brom, with their tight fiscal policy, were never going to have enough talent in the team to stay up; but West Ham, with eight or nine international footballers to call on, were exactly the opposite. Even more sadly, the pressure of trying to get this bunch of under-achievers and prima donnas to perform seems to have cost manager Glenn Roeder his health.

In place of those three, we shall get Portsmouth, Leicester and Wolverhampton Wanderers or Sheffield United next season. United, under Neil Warnock's abrasive guidance, might just be bloody-minded enough to stay up as they are, but it looks as if most will have to spend heavily to remain in the league whose vast income has been largely responsible for the shift in the balance of power I referred to at the start of the piece.

One of the great ironies of the past decade has been the way the authority of the FA has been threatened increasingly by the Premier League, the monster they created greedily by giving the old First Division's secession from the Football League their seal of approval. Some of us warned at the time that it would all end in tears for the ruling body — now severely strapped for cash — but this is not the time for `I told you so'.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003