By three o’clock this afternoon, it is likely that Manchester United will be the Premier League champions again. A point from their lunchtime kick-off against Arsenal today will be enough to ensure that the title returns to Old Trafford and, while there will be a small amount of amusement to be taken from studying whether Arsene Wenger will be able to witness of all of this with any grace (conventional wisdom says no, but the smart money is on a lot of smiling through gritted teeth), for those of us of a certain age, it will be the end of an era because if or when Manchester United win this year’s Premier League, they will tie Liverpool’s record of eighteen championship wins.
That Liverpool were the most successful club side in the history of English football has been A Truth Universally Acknowledged for most of my lifetime. Supporters can argue for hours and hours over who is “better”, but you can’t really argue with statistics, and statistics are all that Liverpool supporters have had to fall back on over the last sixteen years or so. When the Premier League started in 1992, Liverpool’s record seemed unassailable. True enough, they had stumbled over the previous couple of seasons, but they had eighteen title wins to Manchester United’s seven, but few people would have anticipated the utter domination that United would go on to achieve at the time.
During this period, the one thing that Liverpool supporters had to fall back upon was their record. Those eighteen wins, they supposed, would never be beaten. In the constant droning arguments in pubs, on internet forums and at matches, it was the only counter-argument that they had to the bare fact that Manchester United have had the best team for much of the last decade and a half. With today’s matches, half of that record is likely to fall. The other half – Liverpool’s five European Cup wins – is also in considerably more danger than it was a couple of years ago. United are now up to three European Cup wins and will start the match against Barcelona in Rome later this month as the favourites to win that, too. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this time next year Manchester United could stand at the cusp of breaking Liverpool’s record in England and equalling it in Europe.
The old argument that most rivals have more in common than they do apart has, ironically, become more and more true as Manchester United have continued to grind out title win after title win. Most outsiders, though, merely see two colossal clubs in red shirts, both of which have had their brushes with tragedy. When they look at each, they only see the differences between them, when they have far more in common with each other than they do with supporters of the overwhelming majority of other clubs. What must it be like to expect championships and major trophies as a birthright, or to be able to disregard the FA Cup or League Cup as inconveniences blocking the way to greater glory? It’s an experience that is completely alien to the supporters of most clubs. None of this, however, will be taken into account at three o’clock this afternoon, presuming that Arsenal don’t spring a surprise and drag it out to the last day of the season.
What, though, can Liverpool do to stop them? In the short term, it’s difficult say that anything that they can do. They’ve only lost two league matches this season, after all. Liverpool’s best hope is that Manchester United falter. There are two reasons to suspect that they might. The first is financial – the debt from the leveraged buyout of the club remains an albatross around its neck and they could run into difficulties if they stumble in any way. Long term supremacy is far from assured.
In the shorter term, the sole crumb of comfort for Liverpool supporters is that Alex Ferguson will have to retire at some point, and Manchester United’s next managerial appointment will probably be the most important in their history. Should they get it wrong, they might find themselves slipping back towards the world that most of the rest of the game inhabits. The higher the stakes and the bigger the egos, the easier it is for discord to fester in the dressing room and on the training ground. Part of the key to Ferguson’s success has been iron discipline and knowing the right time to offload players that might disrupt the harmony of the dressing room.
Manchester United could, of course, yet blow it. Should they lose to Arsenal today and Liverpool – as expected – beat West Bromwich Albion, they will have to go the The KC Stadium next week to play a Hull City side likely to be fighting for its Premier League life. Stranger things have happened. This, however, remains an unlikely scenario, especially to anyone that saw Arsenal’s capitulation to Chelsea last weekend. It seems likely that Liverpool supporters will have to get used to the understanding that their days of statistical superiority are coming to end. If they can manage to maintain parity from here on, they will have achieved something quite extraordinary in itself.