More than likely they’ll be tenaciously cavorting away in dutiful triumph tonight at The Theatre of Hollow Myths, as Man United celebrate another processional title triumph, brushing aside what I expect to be feeble resistance from Aston Villa..
Since Murdoch bought the game, the Trafford-based club have been on easy street. Better-placed than the rest – given their global fan-base – to capitalise on a league based on glitz and merchandise, their fortunes have been linked inextricably with the fortunes of Murdoch’s Sky TV empire as it has tightened its grip on what used to be our national game.
In 1967, Manchester United won the Football League Championship. Brief flickering highlights were shown in grainy black and white as the champions paraded the famous old trophy. England were World Cup holders, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and a pint of bitter cost about 8p. It would be two years before Man set foot on the moon and Jimmy Greaves had hair. It was that long ago. Matt Busby and his team celebrated another trophy, but their era of success was coming to an end. Man U would never win the Football League Championship again.
Fast forward 25 years, and Man U came as close as they had ever come to regaining the Holy Grail, only to see it snatched from their sight forever as Leeds United took the prize in 1992 by four clear points, becoming the last ever proper League Champions. But things were about to change, and not before time. It had been a clear quarter of a century since the media’s favourite team had won the league; that most marketable of clubs had failed, utterly, to rise to the top of the game where their profit potential could best be realised. The money men in their grey suits were frustrated. This could not be allowed to go on.
And so the Premier League was born, in a blitz of fireworks, tickertape and dancing girls, complete with cheesy music, the hirsute Richard Keys, a league title trophy modelled on the lines of Thunderbird One and all the bells and whistles an Australian entrepreneur could dream of. Behind the window-dressing, bigger changes were afoot. The money would be channelled upwards, in defiance of gravity and the previous trickle-down economics of the game which had afforded some protection to the relative paupers. The big and the rich would get progressively bigger and richer; the days of the League Title being won mainly on merit were done.
From now on, the destiny of the title would be decided largely on the basis of pre-season balance sheets. From a situation where he who dared, won – we would now see an era where he who spends biggest stands the best chance. One club above all others stood to benefit from this Brave New World – Man U, heralded as the Biggest Club In The World (to a background of incredulous giggles in Milan, Barcelona and Madrid) had built up a worldwide following with their relentless harking-back to the legacy of the Busby Babes and the Munich disaster. Their history had made them everyone’s second-favourite club; now Murdoch’s revolution put them in pole position to capitalise on that, and reap a harvest of trophies from the seeds they’d sown in flogging Man U tat to a globe-full of eager and undiscriminating consumers.
Resistance became sporadic; almost futile (were Man U the sporting equivalent of Star Trek’s Borg?) Man U won the first two “Premiership” titles before a cash-rich Blackburn out-spent and out-fought them in 1995. After that the procession continued, the titles piled up at the Theatre of Myths, only Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City have interrupted the monotonous toll of the bell signalling more success for the most effective franchise in football.
Tonight will see the 20th “Title” for the club that used to be loved by many outside of their immediate support, but are now regarded with a dull hatred by proper football fans. This is put down to jealousy of course; but every fan has a choice, and jealousy is an unnecessary emotion. Tonight’s latest success will see the appearance of more Man U acolytes everywhere, as the need to be identified with size and success sucks in those of questionable character and inadequate self-esteem. More Man U shirts in Torquay and Milton Keynes, more tacky memorabilia sold in Stoke and Londonderry.
The 20th title then – but there remains a clear demarcation. 7 titles in their history up to 1967. 13 in the 20 years since 1993. Is this just a coincidence? Of course it’s not; if anything it’s an indictment of Man U’s failure. Somehow, in seven of those years, they’ve failed to win the league, despite the financial and psychological disadvantages of their rivals, they’ve let it slip away.
The fact is that the titles won since 1993 are devalued by the steep slope in Man U’s favour of the playing field on which all have to compete. Liverpool were dominant in an even competition for the best part of two decades up to the 90’s; it is now 23 years since they were Champions, but their overall record remains formidable. Whatever Man U might want to make of it as they crow about 20 titles to 18, they know in their heart of hearts that the baubles won in the Murdoch era are of a lesser water than the diamonds Liverpool gathered to them. The exchange rate is against them; their achievements are relatively less. If they maintained their current rate of success for another twenty years (and who knows, they might – but it would kill the game), then maybe they could be compared to Liverpool, the acknowledged masters at the time Murdoch’s coup took place.
But for the moment, I say – as a devoted fan of Leeds United – Liverpool are still The Greatest.