25 July ~ In a conversation with the press this week, Sir Alex Ferguson talked about who he thought would be Manchester United's main challengers for the title this coming season. The candidates most of us would expect were duly mentioned, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Ferguson also commented that: "One of those four will always be a thorn in our flesh... History doesn't change. No matter where it comes from, somewhere along the line we are going to be faced with a big challenge from one of those four great clubs."
They are all big clubs, historically successful, and he's correct in what he said, that generally at least two of these five clubs will be in contention for the title. But there's a broader assumption increasingly commonly made now, that the Big Four are an unchanging group, a closed shop of success that it would be pointless to even attempt to break into. The financial muscle wielded by them prevents any hope of a serious challenge by an outsider.
However, it is ridiculous to believe that nothing can change and that nothing can ever have changed. There is no guarantee that what is true today will also be true tomorrow, nor either that it was so yesterday. Let's look at history, say the 1920s. Ask a Huddersfield Town supporter, whose club won three consecutive titles between 1924 and 1926 then finished second for the next two seasons, whether their dominance changed in the following years. How about Bury, who finished in the top six three times in the latter part of that decade, or Portsmouth, who won consecutive titles in 1949-51?
All a long time ago, you might say. Money's changed the game, it couldn't happen now. The thing is, money always determined who was successful, it just found its way to players in different ways then, in paper bags or in the form of a well-paid summer job. What we see now with the huge sums sloshing around the game isn't a new application of economics to football, just inflation.
There's actually a case to be made that the opposite is true. TV and prize money offers a historically unparalleled opportunity to over-achieve, compared to what clubs might have expected in the past using mainly their attendances as a source of income. Financial Fair Play will prevent oligarch owners blowing everyone else out of the water in terms of their budget, but it'll also prevent those others overspending to achieve the level of success where it becomes self-perpetuating.
That means gradual improvement will now offer the way to break into the gilded elite rather than by finding a sugar daddy as new entrants have managed it recently. The increased availability of money to all won't reduce its impact as a way differentiating between clubs, but it will mean different clubs can gain success. Whether anyone will permanently become a genuine power in the immediate future is anyone's guess. Looking back from the future, perhaps our grandchildren will find it strange that our current elite ever dominated as they do. Mark Brophy