How the era of wealthy English superclubs has devalued the Double
Antonio Conte is on the verge of winning the Double in his first season in England. That sounds a remarkable feat, and actually it will be as Chelsea will have disposed of Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal in the FA Cup should they be found running round Wembley with the trophy on Saturday evening, though there can be little doubt that the Double is a somewhat devalued currency these days.
With the decline of the FA Cup – weakened teams, empty seats, 5.30pm kick-offs at Wembley, you know the sort of thing – what used to be a rare and almost impossibly exalted honour has suffered a parallel status slip to become more commonplace. Manchester United managed it three times in the 90s. Arsenal have done it twice under Arsène Wenger. Even Chelsea have managed it before, and when Carlo Ancelotti won Cup and league in 2010 he lasted only one more season before getting the sack.
The Champions League is everything for leading clubs now, hence Roman Abramovich’s tepid interest in what a decade or two before would have been considered a historic club achievement. There were gasps when Kenny Dalglish won the Double as Liverpool player-manager in 1986, first by scoring the only goal on the final day of the league season at Chelsea and then by beating Everton 3-1 in the FA Cup final a week later. Everyone thought it was a landmark moment, and indeed it was, because at that point the Double had been achieved only twice before in the whole of the 20th century.
Preston North End and Aston Villa had recorded Doubles towards the end of the 19th century, then there was a long wait until Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham achieved what was beginning to be regarded as impossible in 1961. Those were the glory days at Spurs, and though supporters back then would have been alarmed to know they would still be waiting for their next league title more than half a century later, it is probably true to say that all their dreams coming true at once made the next few years a little easier to bear.
Arsenal were the next Double winners in 1971, when one commentator was so underwhelmed by what he considered an unremarkable team he likened their achievement to “climbing Everest in brogues”. In other words, he thought an unworthy team had somehow diminished the feat. Never mind now whether Bertie Mee’s side were really that ordinary – most people thought Charlie George’s goal celebration in extra time at Wembley was fairly memorable, even if other members of the team were getting a little long in the tooth – just concentrate on the Everest connection. That was how the Double was perceived 50 years ago. A distant and daunting peak, a place few could aspire to visit.
No wonder it seemed remarkable when Dalglish, a 34-year-old in his first season in management, conquered it afresh 15 years later. No one knew then that in the space of a single decade, either side of the turn of the century, Manchester United and Arsenal would manage it five times between them.
There were two things happening by that point: the Premier League was up and running and the Champions League had been rejigged into a format whereby two or three of the best teams in the country could enter each year. Both developments had the effect of making the top teams stronger and richer. Where once it had been a source of pride in this country to go six or seven years with different champions each season – as happened twice in the 60s and 70s – gradually the number of possible champions declined as smaller clubs were squeezed out of the picture.
In the first 12 years of the Premier League only three different teams won the title, and one of those was the singular Blackburn success that prevented Manchester United from recording five in a row. Even now, only six teams have been champions in 25 years of the Premier League, and that statistic would look much worse but for Blackburn’s intervention and Leicester’s heroics last year.
Chelsea won the league and Cup double in 2009-10 under Carlo Ancelotti, and are one win from repeating the feat under Antonio Conte. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
With the stratification of the league came the notion of a semi-permanent top four, and before long the FA Cup rarely left the possession of those teams. Apart from Everton in 1995, Portsmouth in 2008 and Wigan in 2013, the past 25 years have seen no unlikely victors, nor even that much drama, just a steady succession of winners from what began to be termed the Champions League elite.
The FA Cup became monopolised by the biggest, wealthiest clubs in the same way that the Premier League did, with the obvious result that a single club winning both the main domestic honours in the same season was no longer such a stretch.
Liverpool might have been on borrowed time in 1986. Another couple of titles would come Dalglish’s way before the run of success stopped, but English clubs were not competing in Europe at the time, so it was natural to see the Double as the height of what could be achieved. By the time the Heysel ban was lifted the European Cup had become all too obviously the major prize, and although it took Manchester United a while to adapt, their 1999 Treble earned them so much kudos they felt they had the right to give the FA Cup the swerve the following season, shamefully persuaded by the FA to support a doomed World Cup bid instead.
Was that the moment when the Double finally lost what remained of its lustre? It might have been, though the process was probably inevitable anyway. What is certain is that if Chelsea win the Cup this weekend it will be the 12th English Double. The first five were spread thinly over more than 100 years; the last seven will have been compressed into the 25 years of the Premier League era.
This seems to be the way of modern football, with the vast amount of wealth in the game creating a superclub effect rather than being shared around evenly. Should Juventus prevail in next Saturday’s Champions League final they will complete an Italian treble, only the second in that country’s history – but a mere seven years after Internazionale won the first. Whereas once trebles were almost unheard of in Europe, until Celtic set the ball rolling 50 years ago, four of the eight recorded have been accomplished in the last 10 years, with the possibility of another one coming along in Cardiff.
Supermoney breeds superclubs and supercoaches – Manchester City might not have won anything this season but they do have a manager who has won a treble – and there is every possibility that the concentration of the game’s major prizes among a narrowing band of rich and powerful clubs will continue. It is not glory as we used to know it, but by now the bulldozers will have got to Danny Blanchflower’s famous old quote, about what the game is supposed to be about, that used to run around the White Hart Lane stands. Spurs are perfectly entitled to put another one up at their new ground if they wish but, like bragging about being the first modern team to win the Double, it would simply be an exercise in nostalgia.