Too much football

We have yet to hear the last word over the chaotic ending to the Premiership, in which West Ham United who survived, having won 1-0 at Old Trafford against a half strength, not much more than half committed Manchester United, escaped relegation; only to find themselves pursued by the hounds of hell. More precisely, the likes of Sheffield United (relegated at the last gasp), Wigan and their incensed millionaire owner David Whelan, and the rest. Whelan, the man who broke a leg playing nearly half a century ago at full back for Blackburn Rovers in an FA Cup Final, now concedes that there can be no overturning the contentious decision of the 3-man Premiership tribunal, whereby Hammers were fined �5.5 million, a mere fraction of what they now stand to gain from the TV money paid to clubs in the Senior League, instead of being deducted points. But he insists that there is still a case against West Ham because despite their insistence that by the time they played United, Carlos Tevez, their star scorer, no longer belonged to a third party company, the facts show otherwise.

Kia Joorabchian, the front man for the mysterious owners, who may or may not be backed by Russian money, insists that his group still own the contract of Tevez, whose dazzling seven-goal burst saved Hammers from relegation, after Alan Curbishley was as reluctant as his managerial predecessor, Alan Pardew, to put him in the team. Indeed Alan is still wittering on about the fact that it took Tevez so long to start scoring. Don't take my word for it that this is an ineptly feeble excuse; the West Ham crowd were loudly chorusing their demand for Tevez to be brought on as a substitute months ago, and whenever he did appear, he galvanised a largely enfeebled team.

But let us take another angle towards the dogfight among the clubs seeking desperately to escape relegation. Let us turn a very beady eye on Fulham's last but one game in which, beating Liverpool — at Craven Cottage — they thus saved their place in the Premier League. I was there to see them, admittedly with a spectacular goal, defeat a Liverpool team with no fewer than nine changes from the one which days earlier had eliminated Chelsea at Anfield from the semifinal of the European Cup.

Overall, Liverpool were well on top, and only the fine goalkeeping of Finland's Antti Niemi and an awful miss by Robbie Fowler kept the Fulham goal intact. There is as there long has been in the old Football League and after, a plain rule that clubs must field their strongest team at all times. Liverpool emphatically didn't, so Fulham won and survived. The Premier League have done nothing about it.

Manchester United, facing West Ham, knew that the FA Cup Final against Chelsea was only six days away, so they left out their two centre backs, Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, kept three stars on the bench till half-time and largely looked as if avoiding injury was a primary concern. Perhaps you could hardly blame them. They had recently paid heavily for their efforts in beating Everton away 4-2, so that when they went to San Siro a few days later to play Milan, in the return leg of the European semi-final, they were clearly an exhausted team, and duly lost 3-0. Milan by contrast have been able to pace themselves comfortably, not only fielding skeleton teams at that stage of the season in the Italian Campionato, but being under no great pressure to excel. This, because they were fined numerous points for their involvement in the corruption scandal of last summer.

The truth is that there is far too much football, and quite what can be done about it, Heaven only knows. The top English League has been of course cut down from 22 to 20 clubs, but in so far as it is in essence now a four team League — Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United — that isn't much of a help; since these are the teams most likely not only to challenge for the Championship but also to make progress in the FA and European Cups. As indeed three of them have, this season. You can see that it is almost an advantage, to a team with European hopes such as Liverpool, if it can effectively fall out of the Premiership race, and concentrate on Europe; even to the deplorable extent of fielding dramatically weakened teams in matches which, by contrast, are a matter of life and death to the opposing side.

I wonder, in this context, whether Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's ever voluble and volatile manager, regrets having taken the Football League Cup, or whatever it is now called — is it Carling? — so seriously, while other clubs, even Arsenal, fielded their reserves. Which didn't as we know, stop Arsenal getting all the way to the Final in Cardiff and giving Chelsea a tremendous run for their money. As one who has deplored the very existence of this superfluous tournament ever since it was conceived in spite when the vindictive Alan Hardaker was Secretary of the Football League and wanted to challenge the FA Cup. I'm bewildered by its existence. Except, of course, a carrot dangles at the end of it — though hardly one to inspire a team like Chelsea — in the shape of automatic entry to the UEFA Cup. Itself a most doubtful phenomenon, which Hardaker somehow managed to squeeze through UEFA, thus excluding from a place, a club whose League position (the basic criterion for qualifying) would have allowed it to play in Europe.

Yet the UEFA Cup itself has been so diluted and sabotaged, first by the fact that far too many clubs from the bigger nations are allowed to play in the European Cup, secondly by allowing clubs knocked out early in the tournament to drop into the UEFA Cup itself, that I question, like the League Cup, its very existence. Yet now one hears that Blackburn Rovers are so keen to qualify for it that they are to put their players through the summer grind of the fatuous Inter Toto Cup, which began years ago, simply as an expedient to keep the Swiss football pools going!

Those whom the gods would destroy, said the Ancients, they first make mad. Sanity really does seem to be at a premium in the counsels of our current football. Not to mention the absurd proliferation of countries (San Marino, Andorra?) which ludicrously take part in international qualifiers.