On Saturday 8 January 2005, Manchester United played Exeter City in the third round of the FA Cup. It was something of a mismatch on paper, but surprisingly a plucky Exeter team held out for a 0-0 draw, and took the holders to a replay. A notable achievement for the minnows, but this game was remarkable for another reason; to date it remains the last FA Cup tie involving Manchester United not to have been shown live on TV.
Even on the face of it, this is a remarkable statistic. Particularly in the earlier rounds, there are many matches from which TV companies can take their pick, and traditionally the perceived likelihood of an upset is a big draw. Given the perennial dominance of Manchester United, it's usually difficult to see much chance of a giant-killing, and the interest in games involving them, you might think, will be mainly for those occasions when they're drawn against a Chelsea, or a Liverpool, or maybe even a Manchester City or an Arsenal.
Looking at the list of games included in this amazing run of uninterrupted TV spotlight, some of them really do make you wonder what the companies concerned hoped to achieve, with the chances of an embarrassingly one-sided contest surely outweighing by far any prospect of a surprise. It begs the question of whether broadcasters are putting too high a priority on audience over entertainment value. There may be a certain piquant charm in seeing the likes of Burton Albion gazing wide-eyed at the immensity of Old Trafford, but some of the ties televised have lacked even this saving grace. Middlesbrough or Reading at home? Hardly sets the pulse racing, does it?
Any hint of complaint about Manchester United will, naturally, bring anguished howls of protest from the direction of London and Devon, as hardcore Reds, some of whom may even have visited Old Trafford, loudly protest about this latest manifestation of 'jealousy.' It's become rather a knee-jerk reaction, but there's really not a lot of foundation for it. Anyone truly motivated by envy (jealousy means something different, chaps, look it up) has a simple solution at hand - simply jump aboard the bandwagon. The prevalence of the Old Trafford club on our TV screens will certainly garner them increased 'support' from those who just want to be identified with such a vulgar example of a club gorging on success. It is the more negative effect of blanket coverage that should be worrying, not so much for Manchester United, but for the sport itself.
For there is a danger here that the media have not only created a monster, but that they are actively encouraging that monster to eclipse all their rivals. The basis of any sport must be healthy competition, but there is disquieting evidence that the playing field has not been level for a long time now. It doesn't take too much digging to unearth some unsettling trends. One study over a number of matches suggested that 88% of all marginal decisions went the way of Manchester United, and there was also a distinct lack of penalties awarded against them in league games at Old Trafford over a period of years. There have also been instances of referees who have displeased Alex Ferguson mysteriously disappearing for months from their fixtures. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at professional level, evidence that one club enjoys preferential treatment is a matter of concern. Such a trend, given the amount of money flowing into the game, could easily lead that one club into an unhealthy dominance, to the detriment, ultimately, of the spectacle as a whole. Fierce competition is so crucial to any healthy sport, that the importance of this principle is difficult to overstate.
Success, they say, is all about the steady accumulation of marginal gains. Manchester United as an institution appears fully to appreciate this, as any club should. But these days, the media are the game's paymasters, particularly the TV companies - and when they start favouring one club above all others, then you have to fear for the ability of others to compete in the long term. It's a matter of concern - and it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more coverage (of an almost exclusively favourable nature) promotes more support ever further afield for 'United' as the media love to call them. And the more support they gain, the more of a market there is which will feed on their success, so the more commercially desirable their success will become - and commercial pressure speaks volumes when knife-edge decisions are to be made.
It would be difficult to imagine that any other club should have such a long, unbroken run of live TV coverage in their FA Cup ties. On Saturday, they will figure in their 38th consecutive such event. This will be a home tie against Fulham - hardly a game bursting with giant-killing potential. Meanwhile, Brighton will face Arsenal, in what many would feel is a potentially much more exciting contest, two sides that play good football, and the prospect of maybe seeing a shock. But this tie will not be seen live.
As a Leeds United supporter, I've had cause to bless the tendency of TV companies to cover even the games where 'United' seem certain to roll over the opposition. On January 3 2010, Leeds, then of the third tier, triumphed at Old Trafford before a live ITV audience, sending the Champions spinning out of the cup at the earliest possible stage. But satisfactory as this was, it's the exception, not the rule - normally the colossus will trample the underdogs, and their millions of fans worldwide will be happy. But what about the rest of us? Are we to continue paying our satellite subscriptions, and buying our match tickets, for the privilege of watching Man U clean up as the stakes become higher, and the odds become ever more skewed in their favour?
At some point, worms will start turning and - at the risk of mixing metaphors - maybe the bubble will finally burst. Then, chill winds of reality will blast through the offices of the TV moguls. Don't say you weren't warned.
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