Does Wills cheer for Villa because his nanny came from Brum?

There are two questions to be answered before we progress any further with the season, three if you count Nobby Stiles's height loss. Did you see him before the England v Sweden game last Saturday, where he was guest of honour? I could have sworn he was normal size back in 1966. Now he's so titchy and weedy he makes Michael Owen look like a giant. Was he wearing high heels when he played? Or platform shoes?

It's the same with film stars. Their performance makes them bigger than they are. Watching little old Nobby, into my head came a forward flash of Roy Keane in 30 years time, once a colossus, turned into a midget man.

Now for the big questions. While visiting Latvia two weeks ago, Prince Charles was asked which teams his sons follow. He said that William supports Aston Villa, while Harry supports Arsenal. When asked why, he said: "I really don't know."

Not much of a dad. OK, he gets a point for getting his sons' teams right, well done, but ruins everything by not knowing the reasons. I don't know either, but here are a few educated guesses, from my educated left foot. First, William had a nanny who came from Birmingham, loved Villa and taught him to do the same. (That guess is based on how one of Tony Blair's sons came to follow Man Utd purely because his nanny did.) Second, William's mother, a well-known follower of fashion, decided that Villa's strip was the prettiest in England. She loved it, and so did William. (This is based on the huge sales of Villa shirts among well-bred Italians.) Third, perhaps William is in love with David Ginola, who is not fat, certainly not, and thinks it totally disgusting that John Gregory doesn't play him more often.

As for Harry, well, he couldn't follow the same team as his big brother. So he picked Arsenal. First, because someone gave him a free ticket. Second, he thinks it's a posh team, because the Hill-Woods (who have been directors for years) went to Eton. And third, it's got marble halls and reminds him of home. (If you know the real answers for William and Harry's loyalties, do share.)

But the big big question, being asked on back pages everywhere, concerns Manchester United - what's happened to them? Since March, they have been rubbish, by their standards, taking just 20 points from a possible 39, currently lying sixth in the league. It could be a mere blip, as their supporters maintain, or hope, the sort of marking-time period they have each season, from which they go on to win everything.

It looks more serious than that, judging by their recent ineffectual performances. Could it be caused by all the changes Fergie has made - upsetting the defence by getting shot of Jaap Stam, upsetting the midfield by buying Juan Veron, upsetting his attack by buying Ruud van Nistelrooy? Nothing wrong with those two new players. It's the effects they've had by having to be fitted in. It smacks of the conspicuous consumption syndrome. I can buy, therefore I will buy. A new player each season would have been better, not three in one go.

I think the most unsettling purchase has been the best one - Veron. He is much more valuable, desirable, would fetch more money than either Laurent Blanc or Nistelrooy, but Man Utd didn't need him, not as long as they had Keane. The fallout from having two such dominant players, playing almost the same role, in the same area, is that the roles of Paul Scholes and David Beckham have been diminished. When playing for Man Utd, they now often look peripheral, confused, disheartened. We know from watching Beckham with England that he hasn't lost form, or his hunger. It's only when playing for Man Utd that he no longer knocks himself out.

Which is what Fergie has said, though without naming him. He clearly thinks several of his stars are not trying hard enough, have lost the will to win. Interestingly enough, few people have blamed all the money they now earn.

Could it be because Fergie has been there too long? That's another explanation being offered by everyone with a couch and a remote control. His players have heard all his pep talks before, know his tricks, his invective, his homespun philosophies.

They are probably doubting for the first time some of his decisions, such as letting Stam go, some of his formations, such as messing about with Scholes, and some of his pronouncements, such as saying earlier this season that Wes Brown was the best centre-back in the country. I thought that was a wind-up, to annoy Arsenal for buying Sol Campbell, but I think he meant it at the time, and probably now regrets it.

I don't actually believe he's been in the job too long. That's not the main problem. He is clearly as motivated, as determined and as mad and nasty as all successful managers have to be. His one big serious mistake was to let it be known, far too far ahead, that this is his last season. He should have reached agreement with the board, secretly, then lied to the players and the world, saying he hadn't made up his mind. It has done such psychological damage. When he starts ranting on, the players are not bothered much, saving themselves to impress the next gaffer.

Now back to William and Harry. Note their ages: 19 and 17. During the past ten years, Man U have been numero uno, followed by every middle-class kid in search of an acceptable team. You'd have expected them to do the same, especially with a non- footballing dad. Instead, they chose Arsenal and Aston Villa - each of which is currently higher in the league than Man Utd. They could both be ahead of the game, smarter than we all thought . . .

By Hunter Davies

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in And now the trouble really begins

2001-11-19