Stand Up, If You Hate Man United (And Think It Might Be TV’s Fault) – by Rob Atkinson


The Mighty Man U supporting experience

The Mighty Man U supporting experience

On Saturday 8th January 2005, Manchester United played Exeter City in the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup. It was something of a mismatch on paper, but surprisingly a plucky Exeter team held out for a 0-0 draw, and took the holders to a replay. A significant achievement for the minnows, but this game was noteworthy for another reason; to date it remains the last F.A. Cup tie involving Manchester United not to have been shown live on TV.

Even on the face of it, this is a remarkable statistic. Particularly in the earlier rounds, there are many matches from which TV companies can take their pick, and traditionally the perceived likelihood of an upset is a big draw. Given the perennial dominance of Manchester United until quite recently, it’s usually difficult to see much chance of a giant-killing, and the interest in games involving them, you might think, will be mainly for those occasions when they’re drawn against a Chelsea, or a Liverpool, or maybe even a Manchester City or an Arsenal.

Looking at the list of games included in this amazing run of uninterrupted TV spotlight, some of them really do make you wonder what the companies concerned hoped to achieve, with the chances of an embarrassingly one-sided contest surely outweighing by far any prospect of a surprise. It begs the question of whether broadcasters are putting too high a priority on audience over entertainment value. There may be a certain piquant charm in seeing the likes of Burton Albion gazing wide-eyed at the immensity of the Theatre of Hollow Myths, but some of the ties televised have lacked even this saving grace. Middlesbrough, Fulham or Reading at home? Hardly sets the pulse racing, does it?

Ten years on from that neglected Exeter tie, the unprecedented run of unbroken TV coverage shows no sign of ending. Despite a less than challenging tie away to either Accrington Stanley (who are dey??) or Yeovil to kick off their 2015 FA Cup campaign, the Pride of Devon have once again been selected for live coverage, much to the joy of their loyal fans from Milton Keynes to Singapore and back again.

Any hint of complaint about Manchester United will, naturally, bring anguished howls of protest from the direction of London and Devon, as hard-core Reds, some of whom may even have visited Old Trafford, loudly complain about this latest manifestation of “jealousy”. It’s become rather a knee-jerk reaction, but there’s really not a lot of foundation for it. Anyone truly motivated by envy (jealousy means something different, chaps, look it up) has a simple solution at hand – simply jump aboard the bandwagon. The prevalence of the Old Trafford club on our TV screens will certainly garner them increased “support” from those who just want to be identified with such a vulgar example of a club gorging (until lately) on success. It is the more negative effect of blanket coverage that should be worrying, not so much for Manchester United, but for the sport itself in a wider sense.

There is a danger here, after all, that the media have not only created a monster, but that they are actively encouraging that monster to eclipse all their rivals. The basis of any sport must be healthy competition, but there is disquieting evidence that the playing field has not been level for a long time now. It doesn’t take too much digging to unearth some unsettling trends. One study over a number of matches suggested that 88% of all marginal decisions went the way of Manchester United, and of course there was also a distinct lack of penalties awarded against them in league games at Old Trafford over a period of years.

There have also been instances of referees who had displeased former tyrant manager Alex Ferguson mysteriously disappearing for months from their fixtures. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at professional level, evidence that one club enjoys preferential treatment is a matter of concern. Such a trend, given the amount of money flowing into the game, could easily lead that one club into an unhealthy dominance, to the detriment, ultimately, of the spectacle as a whole. Fierce competition is so crucial to any healthy sport, that the importance of this principle is difficult to overstate.

Success, they say, is all about the steady accumulation of marginal gains. Manchester United as an institution appears fully to appreciate this, as any club should. But these days, the media are the game’s paymasters, particularly the TV companies – and when they start favouring one club above all others, then you have to fear for the ability of others to compete in the long term. It’s a matter of concern – and it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more coverage (of an almost exclusively favourable nature) promotes more support ever further afield for “United” as the media love to call them. And the more support they gain, the more of a market there is which will feed on their success, so the more commercially desirable their success will become – and commercial pressure speaks volumes when knife-edge decisions are to be made.

It would be difficult to imagine that any other club should have such a long, unbroken run of live TV coverage in their F.A. Cup ties. In the 3rd round of last year’s competition, they figured in their 42nd consecutive such event when Swansea knocked out the media favourites at the earliest stage possible amid national media mourning with black armbands de rigueur in press rooms everywhere.

As a Leeds United supporter, I’ve had cause to bless the tendency of TV companies to cover even the games where “United” seem certain to roll over the opposition. On January 3rd 2010, Leeds, then of the third tier, triumphed at Old Trafford before a live ITV audience, sending the Champions spinning out of the Cup at the first time of asking. But satisfactory as this was, it’s the exception, not the rule – normally the colossus will trample the underdogs, and their millions of fans worldwide will be happy. But what about the rest of us? Are we to continue paying our satellite subscriptions, and buying our match tickets, for the privilege of watching Man U clean up as the stakes become higher, and the odds become ever more skewed in their favour?

Nowadays, of course, there is hot competition between various companies for the right to show plum ties. Rightly or wrongly, the men in suits behind the scenes seem to regard any Man U tie as “plum” – whatever the opposition. They will wring their hands and argue (probably rightly) that if they don’t take the option of showing the next Pride of Devon cup event, then some other TV station will. For better or worse, there appears to be no prospect of any cup match featuring the media darlings being left off our screens – however boring, turgid or predictable such games might frequently be.

So the view seems to be that Man U are good for the TV companies, good for audiences, good for advertisers – and clearly the guaranteed coverage is good news for Nigel McWurzel and his plastic glory-hunting chums in their bedsits in Torquay. But it’s not good for the game, not good for fairness of competition, and decidedly not fair on other clubs. Will this situation be tolerated ad infinitum? probably not. At some point, worms will start turning and – at the risk of mixing metaphors – maybe the bubble will finally burst. Then, chill winds of reality will blast through the offices of the TV moguls. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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27 responses to “Stand Up, If You Hate Man United (And Think It Might Be TV’s Fault) – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Nice article, but are you forced to support your team. If you think Leeds is given you problem, find another team and stop looking for excuse.

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    • That’s the politics of despair. Support should be about being loyal to your own team and also being vocal where you see unfairness, either in the game itself or in the media who bankroll it these days. Preferential treatment for one team will ultimately damage the whole sport.

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      • sniffers shorts

        Agreed always wear your colours through thick and thin , funny little story for you I got a man united supporters secret Santa this year …. Nothing wrong with banter and poking fun I get shit all the time from this guy …. Revenge is sweet managed to find a big pair of nylon pants insignia and everything have written a small note with them suggesting he wears them inside out and back to front best place for that badge ha he says the are the biggest supported club in the world yea with big pants … Silly I know but school boy pranks are such fun happy Xmas Greg ha

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  2. Therein lies your fundamental problem Rob. Loyalty to your team which happens to be it’s most despised rival has muddied your argument. The fact of the matter is the FA makes vast amounts of money exporting live coverage of it’s ties overseas. The overwhelming majority of locals in Thailand or Belize have never heard of Brighton so there is no willingness to watch them do battle with Arsenal. Unfortunately for you and many bigoted like-minded fellows, the proper “United” have become chastised for their success. The very same success all supporters desire for their own team. I’ve followed “United” since the mid seventies. They were a pretty ordinary team, had a cup run every couple of years but still I loved them. I’m your typical home counties fan who would travel all over the country about 20 times a year to see them through the 80’s. They were still the biggest supported team in attendances despite their lack of silverware. The world wants to see English football and it just so happens the world identifies with United as its currently the most successful team. If your rabble can concentrate on winning the second tier and maybe attract a decent crowd it could well be your turn next. Massive exposure like Man Utd’s is earnt through its incredible history. Despite the last 20 years providing trophy after trophy, there was over a hundred years of torment and excitement prior to it. They’re the biggest team in England by a considerable margin so they will continue to be shown live on tv. You could always do the dent thing and get your daughter to support the red devils, at least the bitterness will end with you!

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    • My daughter calls them “the scum”.

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      • Ahh Ben, there is your problem in a nut shell, your own arrogance, that you are the global darlings bothers me not one jot, your success over the last 20 odd years has been based purely on your financial power, other than 92 when old whisky nose got into his keeganeque strop over Wilkinson outsmarting him. After that you always had the ability to pay way over the odds for players, Blackburn outdid you for a season with a bigger cheque book but that was about it in money terms, Wenger regularly beat Ferguson on a much smaller budget, that’s because he’s a better manager. After that Chelsea and City have outspent you and the results are quite telling. Of course you won it a couple of years ago with the remnants of your expensive team but that was widely acknowledged as an abhoration due to lack of competition, and on to today. You are no longer the club with the biggest bank balance, so you will have to get used to playing second fiddle again, it could well be another 26 years before you win it again, by which time you will have heamoraged the legions to Chelsea and City. You may well find your gates are down to the 25k mark…

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    • With respect Ben because you have absolutely nothing to do with Manchester United no one will ever take your comments seriously. I stopped reading after that im afraid. Each to their own and whatever floats your boat I suppose. It’s far too easy ‘choosing’ a team to support though. Like the author (I assume) our ‘choices’ were already made and have absolutely no concept of ‘choice’.

      You can’t beat healthy rivalries in football and the one between us and them is up there with the best. Sadly this is something you will never ever truly understand.

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  3. Obviously Rob never had a penchant for global economics..It’s (Man Utd) the most popular team in the world and generates millions of advertising dollars worldwide. Even I can see that as a Beeston boy who has actually played on the hallowed turf of Elland Road!

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    • although a few German clubs get bigger crowds.

      Must be something to do with their football not being ruined by Rupert Murdoch (yet)

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  4. Mark benson

    to be fair though rob itv and sky seem to have stopped showing scums European games this season

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    • Do you know – you’re right! That simply never occurred to me. Apologies to any hurt scummers out there 🙂

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    • Haha good one.

      Suprised you haven’t also talked about the England team rob. Seems to me playing for Salford United means players of average ability get classed as footballing demi-gods when it comes to getting in the England squad. Obviously got nothing to do with marketing England merchandise to a bunch of “loyal reds” in Thailand, China, usa etc..

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  5. Iv been banging on about this for years its like playing cards with a stacked deck and still losing which makes the scums down fall even sweeter would love to know how much extra money there years of tv coverage would total good job rob keep up the good work

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  6. Ropey Wyla

    I would still hate Man U if they won nothing (hence the fact I still hate them), it’s nothing to do with success, it’s the same as hating the tories, the daily fail, traffic wardens, stepping in dog sh*t, pollution, poverty etc. you just have to do it in order to be a human being.

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    • Hear, hear. I’m always saying this. I feel hating a team due to geographic proximity is a waste of time and effort. Leave that to the Bratfuds of this world, and the dismal selection of also-rans in S Yorks. Hatred should be reserved for the intrinsically detestable and man u are an obvious example.

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  7. Rob, Global economics was never my strong point, I thought economies of scale was all about Koi Carp, and the Nikkei was a cheap watch, What I do know is there will be a good old fashioned Western on T`other side to actually give us proper entertainment.

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  8. sniffers shorts

    I read another blog today suggesting we fight better when backs against the wall in many ways I feel the same never say die keep on fighting WE ALL LOVE LEEDS

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  9. Manchester United were a name in Europe in the mid-Sixties but no more than many other clubs really, including our good selves. The over-hyped, media-driven madness is almost wholly a Sky creation. Thanks Rupert.
    But I would argue that the whole “biggest club in the world” thing is false anyway, since Real Madrid and Barcelona are WAY ahead of the Scum in that department.
    But you are right Rob, Sky and its affiliates around the globe have created this ridiculous “tradition” which is actually only a few years old, but their relentless coverage of Manure created a very uneven playing field.
    I am baffled that the other 19 Premier League clubs still go along with it, and that the much larger Football League members put up with it too. Surely not EVERY other Club is happy with the scraps falling from the table? Or perhaps they don’t mind drifting along in the endless doldrums of Villa – like nothingness, destined never to even look like winning anything at all, happy to collect the annual Sky paycheque and face their prayer mat towards Manchester. It’s not a healthy situation, and putting the rivalry aside, it wouldn’t matter which club was involved it would still be wrong. It’s even more wrong when it’s THEM…!

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  10. 20,001 make that- and not all from Leeds fans, lol!! NUFC

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  11. BTW Rob you got the Newcastle- Chelsea result right the other week!! Now I have to reluctantly accept that the odd person south of the Tyne knows something about football can you tell me is it worthwhile sticking twenty on us to annihilate the Makems this week end? Ha ha
    p.s Please say yes!!

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    • Pundit eh? Right, let’s see…. Yes, you’re certs to beat the Mackems – they’ll be taking it easy ahead of their massive task in the Cup against Super Leeds!

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  12. Ha ha ha- I’ll hold you too it mind Rob!!

    Like

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