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April 2013

Week 37 – Disciplined (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

28 Apr 2013(Sun)


For 90 minutes, Liverpool were able to forget about the latest trials and tribulations of the Anfield soap opera with a 6-0 demolition of relegation-haunted Newcastle United away at St. James’ Park. But despite such a devastating yet wonderfully carefree performance, the narrative continues to surround one man banished from playing a part in this, or any Liverpool match until about October. Luis Suárez, the pantomime villain of the Premier League, was serving the first of a ten-game suspension for biting Branislav Ivanović of Chelsea six days earlier. The Uruguayan’s actions, plus the severity of his punishment, continue to spur debate both in England and around the world.

Before I add my twopenn’orth, let us just get a few things clear:
- The FA Regulatory Commission was perfectly justified in banning Suárez for ten matches.
- Suárez was not in any way discriminated against due to his nationality.
- Nor was he discriminated against, per se, because he plays for Liverpool.
- The FA Regulatory Commission did not take Suárez’s previous misdemeanours into account when determining his sentence, but they would have been within their rights to do so.

Summarising their findings in a 21-page document (which is publicly available here), the FA Regulatory Commission deliberated the incident on its own individual merits, based upon the report of referee Kevin Friend (who confirmed that he had not seen the bite live but did so on DVD later and requested the FA to take action), the evidence from television, and the submissions from Suárez himself via his lawyer.

The crux of the commission’s conclusion was that biting an opponent was such a shocking and exceptional incident that, in contrast to heavy challenges or perhaps even conventional cases of violent conduct, Ivanović could not have anticipated being victim to such an attack upon entering the Anfield pitch. Though similar incidents in football are extremely rare – ‘alien’, in the commission’s words – this is reason in itself to ensure they remain so, and in part given the high profile and worldwide audience of Liverpool versus Chelsea, it was the duty of the commission to discourage any other players, adults or children, from mimicking the disgraceful actions that they had seen on television.

Taking into account all sides of this individual case and judging them on their merits, the findings of the commission and the severity of Suárez’s suspension were both unquestionably correct. In contrast to the unpleasant saga that unfolded with the prickly, victimised attitude of club, player, and then-manager Kenny Dalglish in the wake of last season’s racism scandal with Patrice Evra of Manchester United, both Suárez and Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre acted laudably in respectively issuing a public apology and condemnation within hours of the bite. However, the Reds’ number seven subsequently weakened his own defence by claiming that a standard three-match ban should be sufficient punishment. His contrition thus diluted, the commission reported that “Mr Suarez has not fully appreciated the gravity and seriousness of this truly exceptional incident”.

But what about Ben Thatcher, who was only banned for eight matches following his horrific elbow on Pedro Mendes that left the Portsmouth man unconscious and requiring hospital treatment? Or John Terry, who served a four-game ban earlier this season for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand? Or even Suárez himself, whose words in the direction of Evra saw him sidelined for eight?

The dissenting camp in the wake of the commission’s decision have focused almost wholly on comparative evidence with past issues and sentences. At face value, their argument is fatally flawed by the principle of ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ – it was entirely proper that the commission should judge this case independently and issue severe punishment based upon its own, exceptional circumstances. However, the counterargument does at least highlight one valid and urgent issue: the Football Association is severely lacking a clearly-defined disciplinary policy, which has often caused previous punishments to appear arbitrary and even overly lenient. If the Regulatory Commission decides the lengths of its suspensions with the same bag of balls used to draw the FA Cup, then it was bound to pull out the right number once.

In its report, the commission highlighted that “the Rules, Regulations and practices have evolved and any temptations to refer to historical cases and sanctions would be wrong”. The case of serious foul play with Thatcher, put forward as part of Suárez’s defence, was dismissed as evidence partly in light of this but also because it was “dissimilar to the violent conduct offence we were dealing with for Mr Suarez”. In similar spirit – and to the Uruguayan’s favour – the commission “did not take into consideration any previous Disciplinary Records of Mr Suarez and considered the offence in isolation”.

However, this in itself throws up all manner of limitations and contradictions. All the commission could refer to in terms of precedent was two referrals for non-standard punishment from this season – Eden Hazard of Chelsea kicking the ball boy at Swansea City, and Ashley Barnes of Brighton and Hove Albion tripping the referee against Bolton Wanderers last month. As well as being an incredibly small sample with which to compare, neither incident is significantly more similar to biting an opponent than Thatcher elbowing Mendes in the face. Additionally, one of the seven matches for which Barnes is banned was applied automatically due to it being his second dismissal of the season; a punishment thus clearly designed to reflect a player’s past disciplinary record and condemn the repetition of offence.

It is therefore hardly surprising that confusion should reign over the relative merits of this and past cases when, for all the clarity of the commission’s own report, the FA policy upon which their deliberations are made appears, at best, so incomprehensive and, at worst, absent. For the sake of transparency and public satisfaction, the FA must draw up clear guidelines – to be evolved as necessary – as to scales of punishments to be applied according to the conceivable severity and wider implications of future incidents. Whatever FIFA may say, it must also reserve and more rigorously exercise the right to reconsider incidents that have been witnessed by the match officials, such as the alleged bite by Jermain Defoe on Javier Mascherano in 2006.

As for Suárez, Liverpool are right to stand by their player, but this must be his final chance. One hopes that his remorse – reiterated following the announcement of the ban – is sincere, and that he will remain in the Premier League to thrill audiences as he has for the majority of this season.

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Week 36 – Business before pleasure (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

24 Apr 2013(Wed)


As a football lover from traditional old England, I would like to take advantage of Goal.com’s privileged global outreach to ask the good people of Asia a question:

Will Cardiff City Football Club playing in red shirts rather than blue have even the slightest impact on the extent to which you will follow and/or wish them well in their debut Premier League season?

On the pitch, the ‘Bluebirds’ (more on that later) story is sufficiently romantic and worthy of celebration. The club that produced players like Aaron Ramsey and James Collins has spent the past decade climbing closer to success only to suffer heartbreak at the final turn. They have reached Wembley three times, losing in the FA Cup final of 2008, the Championship playoff final of 2010, and the League Cup final of 2012. In 2008/09, they looked set for automatic promotion only to lose 6-0 at Preston North End on 18 April, pick up just one point from the three games that remained thereafter, and miss out not only on the top two but on the playoffs altogether… on goals scored, to Preston. The last two seasons before this have ended with heavy defeats in the playoff semi-finals.

Now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of former Newcastle United and Manchester City star Craig Bellamy, who rejected a new contract at Liverpool to drop down a division and help out his hometown club, Cardiff have secured a return to the top flight of English football for the first time in 51 years. Having guaranteed promotion with a scoreless draw against Charlton Athletic last Tuesday, the Championship title was sealed on Saturday with a point at Burnley. Following the laudable successes of Swansea City, next season will see two Welsh clubs and the first ever South Wales derby to grace the Premier League.

However, most of the coverage surrounding Cardiff’s success has been overshadowed by the controversial ownership of Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan, who forcibly parted with 104 years of tradition by insisting that the blue shirts that the then aptly-nicknamed Bluebirds had worn since 1908 be replaced with an altogether more Asian-friendly red. Speaking to BBC Wales in February, the billionaire openly admitted that the change had not been considered with local fans in mind:

“You look at Man United and Liverpool and they are red – they are much more successful and have a bigger fan base than Chelsea or Manchester City. In Asia, red is the colour of joy; red is the colour of festivities and of celebration. In Chinese culture, blue is the colour of mourning… I would like to tell the fans we are doing a good job, so give us all the support and have faith that we will do the right thing.

“A few were upset, but like in any business if we get 80% or 75% of the customers happy, with 20-25% not happy, that’s fine. If they don’t want to come to support our business, that’s fine. We need the majority. I believe the change is for the better. And if you put in a lot of money, surely you have the right to make a call on some things you believe will make it better. If you don’t have a say, why the hell do you want to put in so much money?

“Why would I want to put in, maybe by the end of the season, £70m in loans and investments into Cardiff and do stupid things? Do I look stupid? No.”

It was perhaps sensible of Tan to answer his question before anyone in Wales offered to do so for him, but even where there has been acceptance, it has been overwhelmingly reluctant. A recent increase in red ‘Cardiff’ scarves displayed at the still-blue Cardiff City Stadium is largely due to the club handing them out for free to every spectator at the home game with Brighton and Hove Albion. More match-going supporters than not prefer to sport the blue shirt which has been maintained as an away strip. A significant minority, meanwhile, have stopped attending altogether. Scott Thomas, a Bluebirds fan since 1975-76, explained the reasons for his disenfranchisement to The Guardian:

“Cardiff City didn’t go up last night; Cardiff City died last summer. Seeing fans celebrate on the pitch during a news bulletin felt like watching the plug being pulled from a life-support machine that has been keeping an old relative alive. It was just another day at the office for a club I no longer recognise. They are just another team now, not the one I supported for decades.”

The moral outrage has not been restricted to Glamorgan, but extends nationwide. Club colours are seen not as a fashion statement, but as a historical symbol of identity. In Asian football, Japanese side Vissel Kobe infamously switched from black-and-white stripes to crimson at the whim of Rakuten chairman Hiroshi Mikitani in 2005, but even this was just eight years after their entry to the J. League and thus very early in the process of establishing social roots – akin to Manchester United abandoning 19th century gold-and-green for red in 1902, or Juventus swapping pink for Notts County stripes a year later. In more modern times, the only outstanding exceptions to kit tradition in England are Leeds United, who dropped blue-and-yellow for white in homage to Real Madrid in 1961, and Crystal Palace, who wore claret-and-blue until 1973.

Yet a shift from blue to red somehow feels all the more seismic. The four Welsh teams to have played in England’s top four divisions in the past 25 years have each been associated with a bold single colour – Cardiff blue, Wrexham red, Swansea white, and Newport County yellow. While Wrexham are currently languishing in the Conference, red versus blue remains a quintessential divide not easily bridged.

It symbolises those most classic of rivalries, from United v. City to Liverpool v. Everton, Milan v. Inter, Boca v. River, Korea v. Japan. It transcends sports to pit red Ferraris against blue Williamses then Red Bulls in Formula One, or against those blue Gulf Porsches at Le Mans with Steve McQueen in the 1970s. Olympic wrestling, taekwondo, and boxing contests dictate that red corner shall face blue. Even during my childhood, when two American gas-guzzlers were pitted together in an animated television commercial to prove that snacking on a Milky Way was healthier than devouring everything in sight, the tagline was simple: “The red car and the blue car had a race.”

Perhaps worst of all, the colour change is the most visibly prominent manifestation imaginable of how football is selling out. For fans of most English clubs, once we have absorbed the financial hit of the match tickets, we can at least spend 90 blissful minutes like whores on heroin pretending that everything is fine and right with the world. At Cardiff, the reality is right there in front of them and even around their necks.

But I can only offer the cultural argument, so it is time for me to step aside. Tan’s vision is one of business and customers – and he believes in the premise that if Cardiff City play in red, then more of you, the football lovers of Asia, will invest in their product. Is he right?

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Week 35 – No-one likes us (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

17 Apr 2013(Wed)


It was sadly ironic that in the same week that the United Kingdom marked the passing of its most divisive former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, we should witness the worst instance of violence inside a football stadium – certainly for such a high-profile fixture – since her premiership.

The occasional photo opportunity with the England national team notwithstanding, Thatcher famously had little time for the national game nor the fans she saw fit to tarnish universally with the same ‘working-class thug’ brush. As hooliganism shamed both sport and country throughout the 1980s, she failed to recognise or accept responsibility for the correlation between fighting on the terraces and the social fractions her Conservative government had promoted by widening the gap between rich and poor. While stadiums were left to rot with incomplete safety certificates overlooked by her complacent yet well-rewarded police force, Thatcher’s idea of improvement – albeit thankfully unimplemented – was to keep tabs on all football-goers with mandatory ID cards and even electrify the already-deadly perimeter fences.

Quite how history will view the current government’s attempts to steer the UK out of economic misery is another matter, but against the altogether smarter backdrop of the new Wembley Stadium and its plush executive facilities, the scenes that unfolded in the Millwall end during their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Wigan Athletic on Saturday were a thoroughly unpleasant and almost anachronistic throwback.

Despite the fantastic efforts made by the club to develop pioneering community programmes and rid themselves of the “no-one likes us, we don’t care” dogma associated with the hooligan element of their fanbase, Millwall’s image is unfortunately back to square one. Even since football’s middle-class shift with Italia ’90, Premier League money, and post-Taylor Report stadia, Lions supporters have continued to earn their notoriety through various incidents of street violence – notably surrounding a playoff fixture with Birmingham City in 2002, a European tie away to Hungarian side Ferencváros in 2004, and a League Cup match against local rivals West Ham United in 2009.

Now, in front of a global audience of millions, innocent children were left in tears as sections of the Millwall end they shared pushed past them to fight with one another, with stewards, and with the Metropolitan Police. In a further twist of irony, police officers in Trafalgar Square were moved to encircle a party of revellers celebrating the death of Thatcher; lest they be accosted by Millwall fans with far-right, English Defence League allegiances. All in all, it was not a good advert for anyone wishing to defend the reputation of England or its football.

There are two things which must be emphasised – firstly, that the violence was carried out by a small minority with whom the genuine, well-behaved supporters should not be bracketed in; and secondly, that those involved were entirely responsible for their own actions. It was suggested at the time by some that the stewards had not acted decisively to quell the fighting, but they were really quasi-volunteers earning just £7 an hour rather than security professionals trained to deal with such situations. However, there are lessons that the Football Association should learn from this incident – not least a further symptom of its own complicity in the decline of its flagship competition.

It has been well documented, including on these pages, how the FA Cup has lost some of its old glamour and been usurped by the financial incentives of the Premier and Champions Leagues. Where 20 or 25 years ago it enjoyed greater prominence in television schedules than the still relatively scarce league programming, and stood virtually unique in world club football for the global broadcasting reach of its showpiece final, the Cup has since dropped down the list of priorities for fans and teams at all levels. But the FA has both exacerbated the situation and increased the possibility of crowd trouble by insisting that Wigan versus Millwall be hosted at Wembley with a 5.15pm kickoff time for domestic broadcast on ESPN.

Such matches were once the domain of the free-to-air, terrestrial broadcasters, and for all the European Union’s dislike of a Sky Sports monopoly, many English fans are understandably reluctant to fork out for an additional pay channel. But even leaving that aside, the contractual obligation to hold semi-finals at the national stadium as part of multi-year membership packages sold to help pay off the inflated costs of its construction is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, a recipe for disaster. Save for a brief experiment under the old Twin Towers in 1993 and 1994, last-four matches have traditionally been held at other neutral venues as equidistant as possible from the homes of the teams competing, with the prestige of playing at Wembley left undiluted for the two finalists. Millwall were effectively granted a home tie on Saturday, however, while the late kickoff meant there were no trains for Wigan fans to get back north afterwards.

Even then, there was never any chance that these two clubs could fill 90,000 seats, meaning that tickets were placed on general sale to ensure maximum revenue. This allowed troublemakers banished from The Den to circumvent Millwall’s membership policy and obtain easy access to that end of Wembley. It has been suggested – albeit unconfirmed by police at the time of writing – that some of the perpetrators were not fans of Millwall at all, but of West Ham, having spotted the opportunity for a rumble with the old foes. The FA is now set to review its policing policy, but it was short-sighted not to foresee the potential for danger and at least bring kickoff back to lunchtime to limit alcohol consumption beforehand.

It is a great shame that Wigan’s fine achievement in reaching their first FA Cup final has been overshadowed by all of this, but they will deservedly enjoy their day in the sun on 11 May.

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Week 34 – Politically incorrect (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

10 Apr 2013(Wed)


When the ex-Foreign Secretary David Miliband resigned as non-executive vice-chairman of Sunderland last week in protest at the political leanings of their newly-recruited manager, Paolo di Canio, the immediate public reaction was unanimous. Nope, I had no idea that the right honourable gentleman had anything to do with football, either.

Formerly assumed as the natural, evolutionary New Labour successor to Tony Blair until suffering bitter defeat in the 2010 party leadership election to his more union-friendly younger brother, Ed, the elder Miliband’s stance was ostensibly principled but soon triggered a snowball effect. Last Monday, anti-racism campaigners spoke out against the appointment of football’s most famous fascist, while the Durham Miners’ Association requested that their banner be removed from the Stadium of Light. On Wednesday, the Sunderland-supporting Dean of Durham – whose father was a Jewish war refugee – wrote an open letter to Di Canio about his struggle to remain faithful to the club should it be associated with “toxic far-right tendencies”.

Having refused to talk politics during his inaugural press conference, the Italian then issued a brief statement on the Sunderland website in which he contradicted past statements attributed to him – “I am a fascist” being one – by claiming, “I am not a racist and do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone.” This failed to diffuse the situation, and by the end of the week, the former Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United forward was being critiqued by front-page commentators, denounced as an unlikeable authoritarian by one-time Hammers teammate David James, and earning a glowing character reference from John Terry.

In the British press, the escalating furore has overshadowed all other football stories over the past seven days – let’s face it, we didn’t exactly have any Champions League quarter-finalists to get excited about – but generated little more than hot air and multi-faceted confusion. So, are you a fascist then, or what? What do you mean fascism isn’t the same as racism? Why did none of this matter a jot to anyone during the year and a half he was in charge at Swindon Town?

Well, that last one isn’t entirely true – the GMB general trade union did withdraw its sponsorship from Swindon – but the fact is that Premier League football (for the time being, anyway) and the involvement of a real-life famous politician have elevated Di Canio’s beliefs from curious footnote to the realms of national debate. In the United Kingdom and across much of Europe, the word ‘fascism’ is associated with unequivocally evil connotations – a straight line from far-right to Mussolini, from Mussolini to Hitler, from Hitler to Nazism, and from Nazism to the Holocaust. This ideology set is therefore viewed, quite reasonably, as utterly unwelcome in any post-war society; let alone in football.

Such unambiguity catalyses the chain of reaction ever further; not least when set against the tired and frustrated backdrop of contemporary British politics. The widespread public apathy that characterised the years following my generation’s maturation into voters (or not, as the case may be) has been buried now that the economy is screwed and nobody has any money, but we lack a proper channel through which we can vent our dissatisfactions as none of the three major parties stands apart from the rest. The budget cuts have been implemented by a coalition government consisting of Conservatives who couldn’t win a majority and Liberal Democrats whose identity was diluted by joining them, while the Labour opposition benefits from disassociation but fails to offer a convincing alternative. At least with fascism, we can all quickly agree it’s a downright bad thing.

However, the confusion arises because Di Canio’s words are ambiguous – something that is almost certainly rooted in the rather different political landscape in which he grew up. Whether revisionist or realist, the popular perception of extremism in Italy appears to permit the selective view that denounces certain historical ‘mistakes’ while insisting that other elements – Mussolini getting the trains to run on time, for example – were actually rather good.

As Simon Martin explains in The Guardian
, this stems from an ideological conflict in Italian society that the 1945 liberation failed to cease. As polarised identities found their natural outlet for expression – and perpetuation – on the football terraces, Di Canio spent his formative years going with the fascist-leaning flow as part of the Irriducibili ultras at Lazio; bound together through loyalty, community, and a romanticised veneration of the Roman past. (Incidentally, some of the problems that have arisen in J. League supporter culture result from idealised imitation of Italian fans without an equivalent political context.)

In any case, Sunderland’s new manager is being asked to justify his worldview in great detail at every turn. Go on then – marry your supposed abhorrence for racism and violence with that Roman salute you claim is so different from the Nazis’! However, an altogether simpler answer may inadvertently have been suggested by the Italian’s old boss at West Ham, Harry Redknapp. “It would be a lie if I was to sit here and tell you I knew, really, what a 'fascist’ was,” said the QPR coach. “Sorry, I’m not educated enough. I don’t know what Paolo’s beliefs are, really.” Di Canio is an intelligent man, but it could well be that he doesn’t, really, either. Perhaps – like most of us – he doesn’t actually have a clear and definitive political philosophy to cover all bases.

Still, at the very least some learned pundits have wisely remarked that since the 44-year-old is managing a football club and is not a teacher, mayor, or Member of Parliament, to deny him employment purely on the basis of his political views would be pretty damn fascist itself.

It took the interim Chelsea manager, Rafael Benítez, to point out amid all the questioning that his side would in fact be playing Sunderland, and not their manager, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Di Canio’s personality has clearly made an impression on his embattled players already but, after a narrow defeat, the real question now is whether he has enough time to save the Black Cats from relegation and prove it was all worth it.

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Week 33 – Double trouble (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

3 Apr 2013(Wed)


I write this as I watch the FA Cup quarter-final replay between Chelsea and Manchester United – a fixture which, if the rather forced hype surrounding its coverage both domestically and internationally is to be taken literally, decides whether or not the Red Devils’ season is to have a chance of being judged a success. Harping back to the conclusion of last week’s column, their 15-point lead apparently means that the title has been handed to them on a plate and, in order for last season’s Premier League runners-up to be taken seriously, they must complement the reclaiming of ‘their’ trophy with a further piece of silverware.

How attitudes have changed. The collection of both league and FA Cup in the same season was known for a century or so as the ‘elusive’ Double – such was the acknowledgement of its unlikelihood given the number of variables that all needed aligning and succession of fine teams that came close but never achieved it.

The original Invincibles, Preston North End, actually won the Double the first time it was ever possible when they went unbeaten throughout both competitions in 1888/89 – the inaugural season of the Football League. Queen Victoria was still on the throne when Aston Villa came next in 1896/97, but even her record-breaking monarchical reign was marginally surpassed in longevity by the 64-year wait before Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham Hotspur finally became the first Double winners of the 20th century in 1960/61.

There were plenty of near-misses along the way. Manchester City won their first ever trophy with the 1904 FA Cup but they only missed out on the league that year by three points to a club from Sheffield then known simply as The Wednesday. The great Arsenal side built by Herbert Chapman won four out of five league titles in the early 1930s but their one narrow failure, in 1931/32, was complicated by a Cup run that ended in final defeat. Manchester United’s Busby Babes won the championship in 1957 but were bullied out of the Cup final by Villa when goalkeeper Ray Wood was knocked unconscious after only six minutes – at the time, there was no such thing as substitutes.

Arsenal eventually matched their North London rivals’ achievement with the Frank McLintock and Charlie George team of 1970/71, but while Liverpool became – to that point – the most dominant side in English football history throughout the late 1970s and 80s, their solitary Double in 1986 is accompanied by a host of agonising misses. Bob Paisley’s Reds were domestic and European champions in 1976/77 but lost the FA Cup final to fierce rivals United. Player-manager Kenny Dalglish starred in 1986 but watched aghast as his league champions lost at Wembley to unfancied Wimbledon in 1988, then surrendered the title to Arsenal in the final minute of the following season with the Cup already safely in the cabinet.

Manchester United then did what nobody else ever had by winning the Double twice, in 1994 and 1996, but as the Premier League era has progressed, the hoarding of trophies has quickly become more common. Alex Ferguson collected his ‘Sir’ for a unique Treble – the Double plus European Cup – in 1999. The first two of Arsene Wenger’s three league titles with Arsenal, in 1998 and 2002, were both complemented by the FA Cup as well. A year before his sacking, Carlo Ancelotti delivered the first Double in 105 years of Chelsea Football Club in 2009/10.

With the rapid influx of finances from television broadcasting and the resultant polarisation of talent into the bloated squads of the few, this trend is perhaps an inevitable consequence. United fans will still remember the first-choice XI that felt virtually ever-present in 1993/94, but Ferguson tonight had the luxury of naming a near-wholly different side at Stamford Bridge to that which won at Sunderland less than 48 hours previously.

But far more dramatic has been the transition in expectations. Everybody who saw that all-conquering Liverpool side concede shock winners to Lawrie Sanchez and Michael Thomas knew never to anticipate anything as granted until all the one-off matches were accounted for. The word ‘Treble’ was surely never even uttered until 1977, and even in 1999, it was only really whispered even when United sat atop the table and had negotiated their way to both semi-finals.

Now, however, there has been a subtle but significant change in nuance. ‘Doubles’ almost seem unremarkable as ‘Trebles’ are bandied about in headlines and targets from the very start of the season. Newspapers, websites, and beery conversations down the pub are suddenly worded differently. When one of the Champions League quartet happens to prolong their stay in the League Cup until New Year, they are no longer said to be ‘still in four competitions’ but rather ‘going for the Quadruple’. When United won the Club World Cup in 2008/09, we had to get our dictionaries out and declare it Quintuple or bust.

But while they may have been the bookmakers’ favourites for each trophy individually, there is a reason that combinations of titles carry much longer odds: it’s still bloody difficult. Spring 2009 saw a tiring United run out of luck with Everton’s penalties in the Cup semi-final and Messi’s brilliance in Rome. No other English club before or since has ever come genuinely close to that Treble with a capital ‘T’. Even the Double, talked about today as if it were an obvious demand of any self-respecting league champion, has been ‘missed’ in 14 of the 20 Premier League seasons and nine of the last ten.

Perhaps this is the ‘all-or-nothing culture’ my Dad likes to moan about when he’s on one of his ‘things weren’t like that in my day’ rants. Maybe, now I’ve hit 30, I’m starting to turn into him. Still, there’s nothing like a bit of hype to help us sell our ’papers.

Postscript: Ah, I see United have blown the Double, then. There’s your headline.

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