Published: 22 April 2000
The recent staging of the London Marathon started me thinking about the parallel between the 26 miles 385 yards and the race for the Premiership title.
The marathon is always the final track and field event of any meeting and for the Olympic Games it has inevitably been a special race, as it requires supreme technique and endurance, two traits fundamental to the long-term success of any athlete. Similarly, attaining the title of League Champions will have meant that the team who sits at the pinnacle at the end of any season will have demonstrated the same characteristics in abundance. However, in football there is an obvious difference - it is a team game.
Marathon running is a solitary sport where it is imperative to reach a peak of fitness in mind and body at the time of the event to enable the athlete to last the distance. Not that much different from football then? Except that football's 'event' lasts the whole season! One runner who encapsulated the spirit of marathon running, and who epitomised technique, staying power and courage was Abebe Bikila. Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikila was the first of the great East African runners. He accomplished something no runner ever had - he won the gold medal in two successive Olympic marathons. The 1960 marathon in Rome was the first to be won by a Black African. Bikila, ran the 26 miles 385 yards barefoot, took eight minutes off Zatopek's Olympic record and at the finish line, was still strong enough to go through a roadside exercise routine. At the 1964 Tokyo Games, while still recovering from an appendix operation, Bikila beat his own 1960 record by more than four minutes, thus completing a fantastic double.
The comparisons with Manchester United are obvious. United are a team, without question, on top of their form at the end of the Premiership marathon. Getting stronger by the game and peaking at the right time, they will finish the 'race' with a great deal left in the tanks, unlike the majority of their rivals. Leeds have dropped away, Arsenal dropped back at the 15 mile marker, Chelsea long before that - only Liverpool are anywhere near, and only because they have not been involved in Europe and have consequently played considerably fewer games. But, they are still a couple of thousand yards behind United. It would take a disaster of monumental proportions for United not to retain their title, and nobody could deny that they would deserve to. But it should be remembered that fate sometimes takes a hand. At Manchester United we should know that. We should be mindful of the future and make sure that plans are put in place in order to safeguard that future. The frailty of human nature and the tendency for some to become complacent in the face of such dominance is symptomatic of human nature.
In the case of Abebe Bikila there was a nasty twist in the Ethiopian fantasy story.
Bikila was a hero in his native country and revered throughout the sporting world. He was also an Olympic traditionalist who believed in the purity of sport, but who suffered a tragic end. He became paralysed in a car crash only a year after his 1964 Tokyo success, and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair before dying of a brain haemorrhage in 1973 at the age of 41. From such monumental, history-making highs to the deepest of lows in such a short time. A cautionary reminder about the possibility that a simple twist of fate can sometimes determine our success and failure and ultimately cause our demise. But, it is also a reminder that we should never take anything for granted. That success is not our divine right and that others will be desperate to wrest it from us.
So what has this actually got to do with United? Manchester United are successful on the field of play for many reasons, but the main reason is because of one man and his ability to mould and motivate the team. Alex Ferguson has set his retirement date for the Summer of 2002, and let's face it, it's not far off. If the powers that be at United fail to find an adequate replacement, then we may suffer a similar, if metaphorical, fate, to the unfortunate Abebe Bikila.
But, how will we replace the Wizard? The answer is simple - we won't. It will be impossible to replace the man who has been dubbed the best manager of all time, but the club will have to do something. Cloning has been suggested, but we've left it a bit late! So an apprentice to the Sorcerer will have to be found instead. And better to promote from within than bringing in someone new. Or at least bring back a man who is already steeped in the traditions of the club. The man may already be with us, but if he isn't, then he should be found as quickly as possible so that he can start his apprenticeship learning the ways of the Wizard who learned the ways of Manchester United. Only then will we have a chance of counteracting the Bikila effect.
There's always an outside chance that the man himself may change his mind of course - and I'm sure if he does, every United fan will heave a huge sigh of relief. Whatever happens I hope he has a chance to first, aid the incumbent and second, move upstairs and take his rightful place on the Board where his knowledge and influence would be imperative. After all, where would we be without him?
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