Tuesday 16 January 2018

Dion Fanning: From coconut milk to the redemption of Van Gaal, in football anything is possible

That was the week

‘Last weekend, it was widely agreed that Van Gaal had undone all his bad work as manager of Manchester United by falling at the feet of Mike Dean’ Photo: Reuters
‘Last weekend, it was widely agreed that Van Gaal had undone all his bad work as manager of Manchester United by falling at the feet of Mike Dean’ Photo: Reuters

Dion Fanning

The danger of a European Super League diminished last week when it was revealed that Ed Woodward and Ian Ayre were among those involved in discussions about the concept. Those who feared 'a breakaway' might have been less anxious if they thought Woodward and Ayre were leading negotiations.

Executives from Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City also attended the meeting at the Dorchester Hotel with representatives of the owner of the Miami Dolphins, Stephen Ross, who runs the pre-season competition the International Champions Cup.

Arsenal denied discussions had taken place about a super league, but, if indeed it was on the agenda, the presence of Ayre and Woodward might lead some who favour things remaining as they are to become complacent.

In a week when Liverpool announced that they now have an official coconut water partner (beware of sharks pretending to be the club's official coconut water partner) and United unveiled their first ever agricultural vehicle sponsorship, it may seem harsh to question either man's ability in the marketplace.

Certainly, they are capable of heading organisations which can get a certain kind of deal done, but they are equally capable of the horrendous misstep.

The European super league may be both of these things which would be entirely characteristic too. On one hand, its supporters preach the virtues of the marketplace, but on the other they are appalled if their dominant position is threatened by any random factor.

"What's happening with Leicester is a wonderful, wonderful story. Maybe that's absolutely spectacular - unless you're a Manchester United fan, Liverpool fan or Chelsea fan," said Charlie Stillitano, the chairman of Relevant Sports, which runs the ICC and who has met with the big clubs.

By summoning the feelings of the fans of other teams, he was appealing again to the marketing man's dream: the unwavering loyalty of the supporter.

There are Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea fans who will find many of the things that have happened at their clubs this season unpalatable, but only the most entrenched and embittered would, I imagine, see the Leicester story as a key part of their dissatisfaction.

The neutral fan, or the fan who appreciates the glory in a story like Leicester, has become a more silent presence in the online world where support equates to one-eyed devotion to a squad.

But it would be wrong to think the neutral or less committed fan has gone away, and the rise of Leicester and the sense that the football world is willing them to succeed has demonstrated that.

This is a threat to the old world order too. It is not as much a threat as Leicester taking up one of the Champions League places, but the marketing of clubs like United and Liverpool is predicated on this slavish loyalty. The idea that supporters would want a club other than the one they follow to triumph runs contrary to all that.

Stillitano went on to talk about the "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful' concept of relegation, using the word with the same relish a dowager might when she discovers that her first-born son has married a three-times divorced reiki teacher he met while on a gap year in Machu Picchu.

This is wonderful as a synonym for chaos, an expression of joy at what can happen when the market turns against you coupled with a desire at that time to regulate things in favour of how things should be.

Football, of course, is not a free market. If it was, a tycoon with all the money in the world could start a club one day and hope to compete with Manchester United the following week.

Instead he must begin at the bottom or buy out an existing business, but there are plenty of restrictions preventing him from competing.

When it comes to ticket prices and other revenue streams, football likes to hail the market, but any time the position of the clubs which are too big to fail is under threat, they somehow find themselves in a room with a man who may or may not be talking about a super league.

Again we find ourselves fighting off those who believe in the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of loss, hailing the market until that time as it, or any other disruptive force, threatens their revenue streams.

"What would Manchester United argue: did we create soccer or did Leicester?" Stillitano asked while at no time rushing to invite founder members of the Football League like Burnley, Preston or Blackburn Rovers to come closer to the honeypot or 'money pot' as he called it.

Leicester have threatened the workings as they understood it, even if the ongoing threat comes from England's poor performances in Europe which could lead to fewer Champions League spots.

Perhaps United and Liverpool's anxieties have eased after midweek results which saw them move in to more promising positions, even if they could all be undone today.

How fitting would it be in the year of the underdog if Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United emerged as the winners of the Premier League?

Those of us who feel that not all of Manchester United's problems can be blamed on Van Gaal would welcome a charge to the title at this point, as surely would the long-suffering supporters of the club.

It would be a victory for patience and prudence. Having won the title, Manchester United would, once again, be able assert that they "are not a sacking club", unless they decided to sack him anyway.

Last weekend, it was widely agreed that Van Gaal had undone all his bad work as manager of Manchester United by falling at the feet of fourth official Mike Dean. "That was magnificent," one commentator confirmed, adding that it would be "talked about for ages" which may indeed be true.

Van Gaal, the great tactician and educator, might have salvaged his career by providing materials for vines and GIFs, while demonstrating passion, which is all anybody really wanted.

This was the perfect antidote to the LVG of popular perception, the cerebral and methodical genius who, in Danny Murphy's damning words "can write things down too much". Here he wasn't writing, but falling and you can never do too much falling down at the feet of a fourth official to make a point. We're in the entertainment business, after all.

Van Gaal was embarrassed by his actions, which would suggest he still has something to learn about the modern football culture. But if this plucky underdog can claim the title in May, he will have demonstrated that, even in a world dominated by the overdog, in sport anything is still possible.

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