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Brian Viner: Yawning gap between expectation and excitement in and outside Premiership

Blackburn v Watford at the new Wembley is precisely what football needs

Published: 17 March 2007

 

The presence of three English clubs in the last eight of the Champions League, as many as supplied by La Liga and Serie A together, has fuelled the hubris of those who believe with increasing certainty that the Premiership is the best league in the world. They are deluded. It's not even the best league in England.

 

I'm not talking about the quality of play, I'm talking about competition, which is the essence of league football, and has to a dispiritingly large extent drained from the top tier of the English game into its second tier, the Championship. Meanwhile, fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona, still mulling glumly over European defeats, can take some consolation in a genuinely thrilling race for Spain's domestic title. The last time I looked, 10 points separated the top six teams. In England, a whopping 29 points separate Manchester United in first place from Everton in sixth. The same number of points in La Liga embraces almost the entire division, from top-placed Seville to Athletic Bilbao third from bottom.

 

For English football fans reluctant to look to Iberia for thrills, they are at least to be found in the Championship where, since the beginning of the season, top place has changed hands no fewer than 14 times. Any team in the top half of the table could still make the play-offs; any team in the top eight could still win the title. Sunderland's inexorable rise up the table has been a genuinely exciting spectacle, like watching a horse tear through the field at Cheltenham, except with Roy Keane the wild-eyed Irishman high in the saddle wielding the whip, rather than Ruby Walsh. The contrast with the Premiership, where United might yet yield their rule of the roost to Chelsea, but there are no other imponderables at the top, could hardly be more striking. The chasm between United and Arsenal, who lie third, is 17 points. Yesterday morning in the Championship, 17 points divided Birmingham City at the top from 11th-placed Colchester. I don't want to blind you with numbers, but then football is all about numbers, and they make depressing analysis.

 

Of course, there is nothing new about all this. The Premiership has for years been reduced to a game of Buggins's turn, first between Manchester United and Arsenal, and now between United and Chelsea. Those of us with no great interest in who gets the golden crown, the moneybags of Old Trafford or the rich kids at Stamford Bridge, have had to look elsewhere in the division for excitement. You didn't have to be an Evertonian, although it was nice to be one, to applaud a bit of rare unpredictability when the Toffees clung on to fourth place a couple of seasons back, to qualify for the Champions League. This year, however, the usual quartet of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have the top four places pretty much in the bag already.

 

It's more or less done and dusted at the bottom, too, which is a shame for neutrals who have learnt to get their kicks by looking at the Premiership table from the bottom up rather than the top down. It is an indictment of the torpor that has enveloped the title race that there has been no more exciting day in the Premiership in recent years than "Survival Sunday".

 

It was the last day of the 2004-2005 season and there were four clubs separated by two points, all with their heads in the noose, yet all with a possibility of a last-minute reprieve. Again, you didn't have to be a Baggy to rejoice for West Bromwich Albion when they pulled off what will forever be known at The Hawthorns as "the Great Escape". This year, however, West Ham, Watford and Charlton already look like certainties for the drop.

 

So just where do we find the unpredictability that is surely the lifeblood of football? From the nip-and-tuck race for a Uefa Cup place? Certainly not from the cup competitions, which have become as drearily predictable as the Premiership.

 

I was listening to a radio programme the other day on which the hosts asserted that a Blackburn Rovers v Watford FA Cup final would be a dreadful turn-off. They were grievously, myopically wrong. Chelsea v Man United would be the turn-off; Blackburn v Watford as the glittering new Wembley's inaugural showpiece is precisely what football needs.

 

What football also needs is some firm decision-making, and here's a suggestion: the four clubs that qualify for the Champions League should be excluded from the following season's League Cup. That way, clubs outside the so-called and self-perpetuating big four would have a vastly enhanced chance of winning a trophy, and spoilt United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool fans would be limited to a maximum of one day out per season at Wembley.

 

Moreover, it would have positive repercussions all round, easing the big four's fixture congestion, and in turn reducing their injury worries. It's what I believe is known as a no-brainer, and therefore an entirely suitable project for a sport that sometimes appears to have lost its brain.

 

Who I Like This Week...

 

The Everton manager David Moyes passed the fifth anniversary of his appointment with the club lying sixth and two managers of the year awards on his mantelpiece. Astoundingly, there are some Evertonians who are disillusioned with Moyes, and one can only feel sorry for them. Yes, he has made some poor transfer decisions. Yes, James Beattie couldn't score in a brothel (except maybe from the penalty spot, if brothels have penalty spots). But he has also bought Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Tim Howard, Phil Neville, Joleon Lescott and Andy Johnson, the nucleus of a team that, if he hangs on to them all this summer, can surely make Europe the realistic target at the start of each season, rather than safety from relegation.

 

And Who I Don't

 

It is deeply depressing that Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, is reported as being in favour of the preposterous idea of shoot-outs to decide drawn matches. I don't understand why a draw is seen as a negative. Some of English football's most memorable matches have ended 2-2 or 3-3, and one team seeing a draw as a point gained while the other sees it as two points dropped is one of the more interesting nuances of the game. We have quite enough Americans buying our football clubs without importing daft American ideas. Blatter should be force-fed Big Macs and root beer for a week as punishment.

 

b.viner@ independent.co.uk

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