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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
For the first time since 1968, the destination of the title will be decided on the last day between two teams on level points. One slip-up, one mistake, and an entire season's hard work will come crashing down around the ears of one unfortunate manager. Hundreds of millions of people will crowd around their TV sets on Sunday night and tune in for 90 minutes of what Sir Alex Ferguson so charmingly calls, "squeaky-bottom time." But according to Kevin Keegan, this could be the most boring league in the world.

Keegan's remarkable comments came at the post-match press conference following his side's 2-0 defeat to Chelsea. I've made no secret of my admiration for Keegan in the past. His enthusiasm and love for the game shines through in everything he does and you can see from the improved performances of the players, and the jubilant reaction of the long-suffering Newcastle fans, just how good a manager he actually is. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, this is no tactical simpleton. Keegan knows football and that's why his comments are so concerning.

"We're a million miles away. This league is in danger of becoming the most boring, but great, in the world. The top four this season will be the top four next season. Maybe the owner thinks we can bridge that gap, but we can't."

Keegan was frustrated that, after a half in which Newcastle matched their opponents and should have opened the scoring, Chelsea were able to look to their substitutes bench and bring on players of the quality of Frank Lampard and Andreiy Shevchenko. He was upset to find that as soon as Chelsea stepped up and played to their best, Newcastle were left choking in their wake.

"It's no longer a division where a team can come up and say what I said last time. 'Watch out Fergie, we're coming for your title," he claimed afterwards. "If West Bromwich Albion's manager said that now you'd wonder what they'd been drinking."

He's got a point. The gap between the divisions has grown wider in recent years, but the biggest problem is not the Premier League, it's the Champions League. You can see the trend across the continent. If the same teams qualify for the money trough that is Europe's premier competition more than three seasons in a row, they find themselves so rich that they can pick and choose from the best of their rivals' players.

But the gap is not as insurmountable as Keegan believes. Everton were sitting pretty in fourth until they lost their two most creative players, Mikel Arteta and more dramatically, Tim Cahill to injury. If you took Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres out of Liverpool's side, they would have struggled to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Tottenham Hotspur were just one bout of food poisoning away from the big time in 2006 and Arsenal's new stadium has meant that they've had to close the chequebook for the foreseeable future. Most damaging of all to Keegan's claim is the fact that Newcastle were themselves one of the elite until 2003 when they lost a penalty shoot-out to Partizan Belgrade in the preliminary round. They know better than anyone that success and status can be all too transient.

Keegan was right on one point. There is a huge gap in the Premier League and despite the excitement at the top, it doesn't make it very interesting for fans of anyone outside the private party. But that gap is not so wide that it can't be bridged. Aston Villa are building slowly, but surely for the future and Newcastle should look to them as the model. Chaos reigns behind the scenes at Anfield and the incoming credit crunch threatens the stability of the heavily indebted, like Manchester United and Arsenal. Football might be frustrating and depressing sometimes, but it never stays the same.