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9 October 2019

When the rich clubs like Manchester United play badly, we say they are in a “transition stage”

With lesser clubs, we just say they are playing rubbish.

By Hunter Davies

I went to an elite university. I didn’t realise it at the time. I have no memory of applying, or filling in forms, or trying anywhere else. A master in the sixth form suddenly said to me, we have a coach going to Durham soon for interviews. I think you should apply.

My Scottish mother and father, who had left school at 13, and still didn’t understand how England worked, had no idea what I was on about and had never heard of Durham. But in 1954, off I went.

It is was only years later, when they started doing all these university ratings, that I realised that Durham has almost always been in the top six or so universities. I also did not know that in 1954 only 4 per cent of the population went to university. Now it’s 50 per cent. So you could say I had an elite education. Bit of respect.

For a while I was an elite journalist. In the Sixties, I was on the staff of the Sunday Times, writing a column at a time when it was considered by most hacks to be the best paper. Later, I edited its colour magazine at the height of its powers and wealth. I was aware of this at the time, unlike when I was at Durham.

Today I live in an elite house in an elite area. I know this by the endless unsolicited offers I get through the letter box, and the famous folks who are now neighbours. Yet in 1963, we thought we were slumming.

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What is an elite? Can money buy a place in it? Do you always know you are part of an elite? And can an elite last forever? Which brings us to football – sorry about the delay – where the notion of which are the elite teams may be about to change.

The accepted elite in our football today is the TOP SIX – Man City, Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs. These are the clubs that appear to us unmoveable, there forever, with the best players, managers and household brands; the most money; and a world following.

Yet I can remember in the Seventies thinking Leeds United were totally brilliant, a joy to watch, such stars, so well organised. Surely they would be at or around the top forever? Everton for a time were also considered a top team. And Aston Villa, with their history and tradition. But when Leicester City won the Prem three years ago, I don’t think there was a general feeling they had joined the elite. It seemed a one-off, a pleasant surprise.

This season, the Top Six has rarely been our sacred Top Six. In among them have been Leicester, Palace, Bournemouth, Wolves, West Ham, Burnley. Just passing through, the wise heads will say – you’ll see, they will be gone by May.

Yet I now think that two of our Top Six will not remain in the elite and will be lucky to end in the Top Four this season, which today is vital – to get into the Champions League.

Man Utd, now in the lower half, are clearly in a transition stage, which is always said when a rich club is having a bad time. With lesser clubs, we just say they are playing rubbish. Are they too big, too famous, too much part of the elite to fail? Can it possibly happen to a Prem club that has just become the first ever to break the £600m income barrier? Can they buy their way out of trouble? (If, of course, players and managers still want to join if they leave the elite.)

Spurs, fallen down the league to ninth, is a bigger surprise, to most people who are not Spurs supporters. We have seen it coming for a year. Harry took so long to recover. Players who supposedly wanted away, with their contracts nearly up, didn’t go anywhere. Suspicious, huh? It shows that the elite European clubs had double-checked them and found them wanting. As most fans did. I bet Pochettino is kicking himself he never left in the summer. Instead, he will now get the main kicking.

Could Spurs and Man Utd, with their amazing stadiums, go down? Both did in the Seventies, for a season each, which was dramatic – what a comedown for clubs who’d won so much in the Sixties.

There’s no chance that will happen today. What the elite in English football has now is the money, thanks to global TV. There is a weakness at the top, this season. But money will insulate the Top Six. 

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This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain