Against all the odds, the Premiership looks as though it may turn out to be interesting, enjoyable even, this season. Not the title “race”, of course, unless Sir Alex’s gambolling hares stop for an uncharacteristic snooze by the river in the middle. But the advent of the Champions League, paradoxically, has made the lure of a place in Europe so enticing that it threatens the well-being of some of the clubs fluttering around its flame.
This is how the story goes. Take an ambitious club based in, say, west London. They qualify for the Champions League, do quite well and make a packet, but their league form suffers and they fail to repeat the trick the following season. They make some hasty personnel judgments which prove to be a mistake. Mortgaged up to the hilt, their quixotic chairman is desperate to be back on the Champions League gravy train, but the more desperate he is, the more the team’s form and confidence suffer and they wind up crashing into the First Division in a financial meltdown the like of which has not been seen since they stopped Nick Leeson’s credit card.
OK, so the last bit hasn’t happened yet, but it can’t be denied that even the theoretical possibility that it might do so is a more titillating prospect to contemplate through the long winter nights than Arsenal’s “crucial” date with Olympique Lyonnais or Man Utd’s latest points-gathering exercise in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Stadion, Graz.
Or what about Scenario B: a seriously cashed-up outfit with a glorious past based in, for the sake of argument, west Yorkshire, blows vast sums of money on players of sometimes doubtful quality in an attempt to bridge the gap with their cross-Pennine rivals. Then the bottom drops out of the transfer market thanks to European Union intervention, flagged up only a matter of years in advance, and they are left floundering in mid-table with a job lot of suddenly worthless Cockney cast-offs.
The almost beautiful thing about the Champions League is that it has raised the stakes. The clubs that can all but guarantee qualifying for it do not have to worry, but there are only two of them in England, at most. Those that are on the fringes have plenty of cause for re-assessing their chosen course. Do they throw the kitchen sink at it and risk a spectacular crash (as in the two entirely fictional examples above) or do they stick with a steady-as-she-goes approach (Spurs, Villa) that risks alienating the fans who fear their expensive season tickets are going towards funding at best an assault on the Intertoto Cup?
Happily for the watching cynics, finishing fourth in the league has now become a failure for some of these clubs, and no matter how much UEFA bend the rules there is still only room for three of them above that line.
Adding to the fun this season of course (and we haven’t even got to Liverpool’s away record yet) have been the performances of Ipswich, Leicester and Charlton. Enjoy it while it lasts, for the table at the end of the season will no doubt tell a somewhat different story. But their notable successes – and more importantly the way they have achieved them – have already been enough to give some encouragement to the great swath of clubs in the top two divisions whose realistic ambitions barely stretch beyond the Worthington Cup.
The interesting thing about all those clubs is that, in general, they all try to play football. The days are gone when a side like Wimbledon or early Eighties-style Watford could ambush more skilful teams with a simple, but highly effective, formula. This, more than the progress of the three English teams to the second round of the Champions League, is surely a measure that we may be getting somewhere.
What’s more, it’s even possible that the two are linked. The country with by far the best record in Europe this season (eight clubs still in at the time of writing) also happens to be the one with the most interesting and competitive domestic league: Spain. There are at least four clubs with realistic hopes of winning their league and another three or four on the fringe – and that’s without the effective involvement of two of the traditional powerhouses, Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid, struggling near the bottom and in the second division respectively.
Perhaps instead of urging on your Spartak Moscows and your Dynamo Kievs against English clubs, jaundiced fans of other clubs should do the opposite. For Spain has also provided two of the past three Champions League winners and one runner-up. If success in that bloated monstrosity is the price to pay for variety and quality at home, then so be it.
From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month