Tag Archives: Manchester United

What is behind the great Premier League switch-off?

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Last Sunday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t watch any football.

I wasn’t busy, it wasn’t an international break, and there wasn’t another major sporting event that I wanted to watch between 2pm and 6pm. Instead, I looked at the two Premier League games that were being shown by Sky Sports — Middlesbrough vs Watford, followed by Southampton vs Burnley — and thought: “Nah, I’ll pass.”

The uninspiring choice of Sunday games came at an awkward moment for Sky, following a report by the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale that viewing figures were down 19 percent year-on-year. The broadcaster will have pinned hopes on Monday’s game between Liverpool and Manchester United, the clubs with the two biggest fanbases, to quell talk that the Premier League bubble is starting to burst.

So, how real is the dip in Premier League audiences? And what are the factors that could be behind Sky’s audience dropping so dramatically?

First, it should be noted that the season is still young, and normally viewing figures increase as the evenings draw in, particularly in the Sunday 4pm and Saturday 5.30pm slots. But, as someone who tracks audience figures for Spurs matches out of personal interest, there are signs that the numbers tuning in are indeed low.

The most-watched Premier League game so far this season (excluding Liverpool v Man Utd, which isn’t publicly available yet), by BARB’s “average audience” measurement, was the Manchester derby on September 10. This drew 1.18 million in the lunchtime Saturday kick off. The equivalent game last season, a Sunday 2pm kick-off, drew 1.98 million. The reverse fixture in March, in the Sunday 4pm slot, drew 1.82 million.

After the Manchester derby, by my count, the second most-watched match was Spurs vs Manchester City on October 2, which averaged 1.06 million viewers in the Sunday 2pm slot. This just pipped Chelsea vs Liverpool, a Friday night offering that averaged 1.04m.

While 1.06m is more than respectable for Spurs v Man City, it is below the average for televised Spurs matches last season, which was 1.13 million. When Spurs travelled to Manchester City in February last season, that drew 1.78m in the prime Sunday 4pm slot.

One area in particular where Sky is apparently hurting is the Sunday 4pm slot, normally the prime selection of the week. The last four matches — Swansea v Chelsea, Spurs v Sunderland, West Ham v Bournemouth and Burnley v Arsenal — all failed to crack the 1 million mark. In the equivalent fixture block last season, these matches averaged over 1 million.

(BARB’s average audience measure isn’t perfect, and the broadcasters prefer to refer to the “peak” audience figure. However, the average audience is the only one that is made public, and it serves a purpose of enabling comparisons. More explanation in my previous piece on the subject.)

So, what could be behind it?

There have been some interesting explanations raised, from the tedious football being played by some of the Premier League’s lesser lights, to piracy, cost of subscriptions and crap coverage.

These explanations are all, no doubt, true to an extent.

I watched Burnley v Watford a few weeks ago, or rather started watching it and switched off and watched a couple of old episodes of Elementary for the third time instead. The standard was abysmal, but not entertainingly so, and anything was better than watching that.

Piracy continues to advance in terms of quality and accessibility, through streaming services like Kodi and other new technology. I subscribe to both Sky Sports and BT Sport, but last Saturday at 3pm I was forced to find a stream to watch Spurs. I have zero sympathy with the Premier League (and yes, there are a number of parties that would need to agree to a change) on this score. In 2016, there is simply no justification for viewers in the UK not getting the same choice as fans everywhere else in the world. It borders on cruelty and has created a market for piracy.

When the pirated offering is better — or at least, more comprehensive — than the paid offering, it’s going to mean less people pay. How you measure this, however, I don’t know — Sky’s revenues continue to climb, but subscriber growth is growing, per the last quarterly report.

Cost is undoubtedly a factor too, especially given broader economic trends that have seen a divergence in incomes both geographically and generationally. Football on TV is incredibly expensive now. A full subscription to BT and Sky will cost over £1,000 for a household, and this doesn’t even get you 2/3 of the matches. It doesn’t feel like great value now.

I’d add here, an argument gets made that we are experiencing “overkill” due to too much football on UK TV — personally I think it is the opposite, with too many fan bases getting too small a selection of games, meaning limited incentive to subscribe. Leicester, for example, were only shown eight times in total in the season before their miraculous title-winning campaign — hardly a huge incentive to subscribe to both Sky and BT. This season, with many more Premier League games and Champions League football, it is much better value for a Leicester City fan, and you can be sure that Leicester’s audiences have crept up somewhat as a result.

Rising prices, and advances in illegal streaming, may have led to a reduction among rated audiences. But it’s impossible to know how many, and it’s not like streaming sites have only sprung up this season. Also, while it seems like many, many people must be doing this if you judge by Twitter, it’s useful to remember that Twitter is a small sample and generally a terrible reflection of reality.

As for punditry, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. While Jamie Redknapp and Thierry Henry are dreadful, Sky still boast three of the best of the business in Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness. Sky’s coverage certainly hasn’t gotten worse compared to last year. But either way, it is fairly inconsequential — most fans tune in for the game, not the talking.

However, there are also some other explanations for Sky’s poor ratings that are worth a mention.

First, swapping their Saturday slot with BT was always going to be bad for Sky’s audience figures.

The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off routinely draws a low audience, as people have, well, life to be getting on with at that time of a weekend, whereas by 5.30pm you are far more likely to be ready to put your feet up and watch a game. The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off, however, is excellent for fans in Asia, so the Premier League will still want its big guns in that slot even if it doesn’t suit Sky.

Second, the Premier League is missing some “big” clubs this season, and this is harming ratings.

When Aston Villa played Newcastle last month, an average of more than 500,000 tuned in — that is the first time that I’ve seen a Championship match on BARB’s Top 30 weekly ranking.

The 2016/17 Premier League must feature the smallest number of “big” clubs of any edition to date.

That’s not to say the likes of Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford don’t deserve to be there, while Leeds, Villa and Newcastle should automatically be in the top flight in some Charlie Stillitano-inspired ratings stitch-up. But when you have big fanbases out of the top flight and not engaged with the Premier League, this may have an impact on TV ratings.

There are a couple of ways to quantify this idea.

Of the Top 30 club stadiums in England, just 13 are hosting Premier League football this season. Huge stadiums like Villa Park, St James’ Park, Elland Road and Hillsborough host Championship football. Stadium size is a historic measure of how big clubs once were, rather than still are, but it’s still a decent gauge. I watched Sheffield Wednesday’s Championship playoff semi-final last May at sold-out, 39,000-capacity Hillsborough. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and it sure as hell felt “big” as a TV viewer.

Further to this, there are demographic factors that may be having an impact on Sky’s ratings. While Greater London (9.8m) and Manchester (2.5m) are well represented, the West Midlands (2.4m) has only one club — and arguably its smallest in West Brom — in the top flight, while West Yorkshire (1.8 million) has none. Tyneside (774,000/7th largest in England, and that it excludes Sunderland), Nottingham (730,000/8th), Sheffield (685,000/9th) and Bristol (617,000/10th) are all major urban areas without a Premier League club.

To make a comparison, this would be like a US major league such as the NFL not having teams in Miami, Houston, Washington, Atlanta and Boston. Ratings would surely suffer.

It doesn’t mean no-one is watching Premier League football in these urban areas, but given the local nature of the majority of football support in England, this may have an impact on how many are tuning in. With all due respect to Burnley (149,000/54th) and Swansea (300,000/27th), they can’t drive the audience numbers in the same way.

(Obviously, football in Yorkshire has been struggling for a long while with Leeds and the Sheffield clubs a long way from the Premier League, but the loss of Newcastle and Aston Villa is sure to have an impact this season.)

More subjectively, how we view teams changes very slowly. I still see Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday as “big” clubs in a way that Swansea or Watford will never be, or at least not be for a long time.

To me, Newcastle, Villa, Leeds, Wednesday, Forest and Wolves still rank ahead of Watford, Burnley, Stoke, Swansea, Hull, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. There are too many games that just lack that “big match” aura — and when an early-season encounter between lower-ranked teams like Burnley vs Watford is so abysmal, it hardly encourages you to watch them again.

The final theory, that I’m still collating data for but want to throw out there, is that Manchester United’s audiences aren’t quite what they have been in previous years. Doing my weekly checks last season, the United average audience outside the derbies against City and Liverpool was often somewhat on the low side. Understandable, really, given the dross that was played by Louis van Gaal’s team.

Liverpool still carry massive audiences as a legacy of their two decades of success, and United will continue to be a draw even as a similar dynastic decline sets in. I’m sure, in 20 years, articles will be written about whether Tottenham’s dominance is starting to wain and if broadcasters should start diversifying away to other rising teams.

But seriously, with all six of United’s opening slate of games selected for coverage (by Sky and BT), there is an argument to be made that broadcasters need to be a little more imaginative. Quite how Spurs v Leicester, the two title challengers last season, has escaped live broadcast on October 29 is truly baffling.

The Premier League’s decline comes at the same time as a sharp drop in NFL viewership, bringing the issue to greater relevance. However, trying to connect the two would be yet more conjecture, although US audiences for the Premier League are also down. Here’s a good read on the NFL issue. It should also be noted that this is only Sky’s ratings, we don’t know what is going on at BT Sport. BT Sport’s ratings for live football are routinely so low they fail to crack BARB’s weekly top 30 of non-terrestrial channels, so even though Sky’s ratings are down, at least they aren’t so low they can’t be tracked in this way.

In conclusion, in all likelihood a combination of factors are in play here. More commonly discussed factors such as cost and piracy, combined with poorly chosen matches, the absence of a number of big teams and the loss of the Saturday evening timeslot have combined to harm Sky’s ratings.

Has the bubble burst? It’s way too early to say, but I’ll be keeping an eye out, for sure.

It’s also been a very dry, warm September and October, so you never know, it may just be down to that, no matter how silly it sounds.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat about Spurs and other things.

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The stars align for Pochettino and his swaggering Spurs

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Those six minutes on Sunday when Spurs brought Manchester United’s house of cards crashing down were pure footballing joy — relief, jubilation, and finally delirium as Erik Lamela stroked home the third.

Cancel the demolition crew at the end of next season — another moment like that and the old roof of White Hart Lane will be lifted clear off.

In many ways though, with the match won and Spurs toying with a beaten United like a cat with a freshly caught mouse, I enjoyed the final 15 minutes more. It had the air of a changing of the guard — a young, ambitious pretender, snatching the crown from an old-timer who has grown tired and complacent after years on the throne. There was a swagger to Spurs in those closing moments, the like of which I can’t ever recall.

In previous years a tight game, such as it was for the first 60 minutes, would have only broken one way. United would have worn Spurs down, the mere presence of Sir Alex Ferguson enough to convince United players that they were going to win, and Spurs players that they were going to lose. The truth about the “Lads, it’s Tottenham” story is that, back then, Ferguson didn’t need to say anything at all — United would have beaten Spurs if he’d danced the Macarena.

Not any more. It was Spurs who found the resolve to win. It was Manchester United who shrunk.

Barring some surprising results, Manchester United are set to miss out on Champions League football, and the millions that come with it, for the second time in three seasons. It appears likely they will start the fourth year of the post-Ferguson era with a third manager, although Louis van Gaal does have a way of clinging on.

All about the club, there are signs of dynastic decline. The owners are pure carpet-baggers, shamelessly milking money without even the pretence of putting something back in. The directors failed miserably to recognise that no one man could replace a force like Ferguson, leaving a vacuum of football knowledge and placing far too much pressure on first David Moyes then Van Gaal. Transfer business has been all-but outsourced by arch noodle-sponsorship negotiator Ed Woodward to Jorge Mendes. Even the youth development, a sole bright spot, has had an air of randomness about it, a series of battlefield promotions rather than carefully planned pathways.

United still have an incredible advantage in their commercial reach, but this will shrink like territory on a map as the results deteriorate. They may be able to turn it around, but at this point, it seems far from certain. The stench of institutional drift, the same footballing virus that has laid low Aston Villa and Newcastle, is wafting out of Old Trafford with every week that goes by. “Doing a Liverpool” now seems a distinct possibility — a slow and painful fall from grace, and a fanbase that struggles to accept that the future may not offer the same guaranteed glory as the past.

There exists, right now, an extraordinary opportunity for someone to seize the mantle as English football’s next ruler.

The spike in TV money, coinciding with United’s decline, has created an illusion of a new equality, but all that is really happening now is flux. Leicester aren’t a new dawn, they are a glorious fluke. In the past 40 seasons, Liverpool and then United have won 23 of the titles — this is how modern English football works. One powerhouse, and an ever-changing cast of challengers.

The scary part: Is there a team that is better equipped, across the board, to be the next dynasty than Spurs?

I’ll let that sink it for a moment.

Of course I am biased, but I don’t think this is merely bravado. There’s a chance here, an aligning of the stars, that every Spurs fan has been sensing for the past 18 months. Increasingly it is being felt by those outside the fanbase.

In every facet, right now, Spurs are moving in the right direction.

In Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier, we have the strongest young core of players in the league. In Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, we have found our defensive rocks for the next five years. Hugo Lloris is a world-class keeper in his prime, and the strong leader every great team needs. The academy is producing elite-level talent, with a route to the first-team squad. We have one of the finest training facilities in Europe. There is a footballing identity that will guide recruitment and reduce the buy-low, sell-high crapshoot that has been the transfer policy of the past. The new stadium, once built, will be state-of-the-art.

And then there is the manager. Mauricio Pochettino, in less than two years, has fundamentally altered the future of our club.

In his first year, he won the “Game of Thrones” contest with the likes of Franco Baldini, Emmanuel Adebayor and the Kaboul cabal. This year, he has laid the foundations of his vision for how the team should go about its business on the field. Spurs may not win the league this time — the squad is still missing one or two crucial pieces of a title-winning jigsaw — but we are going to take some stopping next season.

Based on everything we know about Pochettino at this point, do you think, for one second, he is the type of man who is going to settle for one good season, and then take the foot off the gas? Not a chance.

All this — the young team, the stadium, the manager, the training centre — have been built on sustainable foundations. Spurs have never been reliant on a sugar daddy or speculation: Daniel Levy has never had a problem making Spurs profitable. Levy’s issue throughout his chairmanship has been recruiting the right people to execute his vision. He got lucky with Pochettino, having instead wanted to appoint Van Gaal, but you watch him sit back now and ride this stroke of good fortune for all its worth.

At no other club is there such an alignment, across so many aspects.

At Manchester City and Chelsea, their success was bought, not earned. There is no sustainability in that, just the need to keep on pumping in millions after millions, until eventually the owners decide to stop. Chelsea, in particular, are anarchic with Roman Abramovich still treating the club as a plaything.

A Manchester City fan recently described the emptiness at the Etihad (and how he too thought Spurs could be the next big thing). It was in full view on Tuesday night in a limp contest against PSG when the only time the crowd was remotely roused was in the booing of the UEFA anthem. How big a step down are European nights at the Etihad going to feel for Pep Guardiola after Barca and Bayern? This lack of passion and identity inevitably drifts down to the players.

Furthermore, both clubs also face similar issues with their squads in years to come — ageing cores, too many mercenaries, and no clear route for the imported kids lured to the lavish academies.

At Liverpool, the dreams of a second dynasty, and a sense that they are entitled to it, will never dim. In Jurgen Klopp, they may have recruited a future-altering figure of their own, and the owners, despite the flak, put their money where their mouth is. Funds are always available for players, and when it came to expanding Anfield, they just wrote a cheque. But Liverpool rival Spurs in the “false dawn” stakes. There is no consistent proof, yet, that Klopp is able to shape a disparate team to his liking. And where are the young Liverpool kids? Liverpool haven’t produced a Scouse hero since Steven Gerrard.

At Arsenal, the mood is bleak. In the early 2000s, it looked like Arsene Wenger would be the man to break Ferguson’s stranglehold. He built one great team, the Invincibles, but never managed to build another. The 2006/07 squad, the first in the Emirates, is a who’s who of disappointments: Abou Diaby, Denilson, Alex Song, Johan Djourou, Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini, Philippe Senderos, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy. This was meant to be the next super team, Wenger’s vision of a homegrown crop hand-reared in his philosophy, but few made the grade and those that did were sold. The next generation, built around the likes of Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, has also never hit the heights and looks set to be dismantled in turn. Wenger has been forced to go against every instinct and buy stars, rather than create them.

The fan base now is mutinous, losing faith in the manager and unable to process the sight of Leicester (and Tottenham) above them. Nothing stings as much in football as the feeling that you have wasted an opportunity. Arsenal will eventually have to replace Wenger, one way or another, and can only look at the succession-planning debacle at Old Trafford with apprehension.

Can you see what I’m getting at? Spurs may not win the league this season, but for the next five years at least, with modest improvements in the transfer market and a bit of luck, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be challenging. That’s a dynasty in the making, all right.

What could go wrong?

Well, a bunch of things. Real Madrid or Barcelona could come calling, and they are very hard to turn down. Players could get injured, new buys could flop, the team could become complacent. The stadium may be delayed, or over budget, or fail to replicate the feeling of home. The club ownership could change, the youngsters may stop coming through, and worse of all, Pochettino may be tempted away.

There’s also the chance that another of the teams gets it together like Spurs. I fear Man City the most, with Guardiola and an unlimited budget. Liverpool seem like that finally have a perfect match of manager and club.

What comes next will be formidably difficult. Nothing is guaranteed. But you can sense a togetherness and hunger at Spurs the like of which I can’t recall.

Us Spurs fans have been remarkably measured about this season: there is little frustration that Leicester appear to be heading for the title instead of us. That is because we know that this is just the start. But we are Spurs fans, scarred by years of false dawns, and there is a fear of tempting fate by articulating what we feel inside.

To hell with that. Spurs are on the march, and the rest of the league had better watch out.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for the latest articles and more Spurs chat.

Man Utd may want Pochettino, but he wouldn’t want them

Earlier this week, BBC sports presenter Dan Walker stirred the pot with a claim that Manchester United were eyeing up Mauricio Pochettino for the Old Trafford manager’s job.

It was vague phrasing — “three knowledgeable people have suggested” — but nonetheless plenty of people in the Spurs Twittersphere took the bait.

Personally, I don’t think Spurs fans should be at all perturbed. Even if United offered Pochettino the job, I’m pretty certain he would turn it down.

Manchester United fans may argue, “money always talks” and “you can’t turn down United because they are the biggest club in England”, but I don’t think that will be enough. Not this time.

Here’s why:

If Pochettino is seeking a pay increase, Spurs are still a wealthy club and can pay Pochettino what he wants. At this point, he has the whip hand in any financial negotiations. Yes, money matters to everyone, but it matters to varying degrees to different individuals — Pochettino, for example, doesn’t even have an agent.

United are a bigger club in terms of revenues, brand and stadium size. But Spurs are building what will be the most spectacular and revenue-tastic stadium in the league. A top four finish, if we stay the course, should give the commercial revenue and global fan base a healthy boost. As it stands, United will not qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Pochettino had to spend an extremely difficult and risky 12 months “flushing the toilet”, in Gary Neville’s phrase, at Spurs. But now, he has the team just as he wants it — young, hungry, together. This Spurs team has just as good a chance of winning titles in the next five years as United.

Meanwhile, Pochettino is involved at all levels — watching the youth teams (his son is in one of them), and working closely with academy guru John McDermott (who has just rejected United). The likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier are seeing their careers taking off at Spurs — they don’t need to move to United to become stars, they already are. Same with Pochettino.

Meanwhile, United have carpetbagging owners, a decaying youth structure, a CEO with no football background, and a global fan base with no patience for the poor results and performances that a thorough rebuilding job would entail.

Pochettino isn’t stupid. He won’t stay out of loyalty, he’ll stay out of ambition.

The argument gets made that Pochettino walked out on Southampton for Spurs, and will do the same again. But that ignores key differences: the man who appointed him at Southampton, Nicola Cortese, had already left the club, while the team was about to be stripped of its best talent. Because he was ambitious, staying at Southampton in all probability meant, at best, staying the same. That’s not the situation at Spurs.

Spurs will only shake the impression of being a selling club when we stop selling our best players. There is no shortcut to this, just years and years of saying “no” to the likes of United until we are in a position to turn the tables and make bids for their stars.

We are going to get offers for the likes of Kane and Alli — big offers — but right now, Spurs have never had less incentive to sell. We don’t need income from player sales to make the stadium project work. What we need is a good team that is going to mean sold-out crowds and packed corporate boxes once it is complete.

If I was a United fan, I’d be thanking my lucky stars that Jose Mourinho is available. He will, through fair means or foul, ensure the United team is motivated and competitive for the next 2.5 seasons, buying time for the behind the scenes rebuilding that is so evidently needed at Old Trafford in the wake of the Fergie era.

Man Utd would be crazy not to appoint Mourinho, but one can only wonder at the thought process going on at senior levels of that club. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they tried to hire Pochettino, but right now, I’d be shocked if he said “yes”.

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Lurking in the deep: Spurs and the threat posed by Man Utd

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Louis van Gaal realises his Rooney replacement dossier is a touch on the thin side. Via Google Images

Goldman Sachs was infamously described by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi as a “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Manchester United, appropriately enough run by a former investment banker, are the vampire squid of the Premier League, attempting to suck the life out of the competition through the force of its myriad commercial deals with global mega brands like Zong, Wahaha and Mister Potato.

The legacy of decades of Sir Alex Ferguson-inspired domination has been the belief that Manchester United have the duty to fillet the Premier League of its best players, and the financial muscle to do exactly this.

Since Wayne Rooney arrived in 2004/05, United have spent £296.5 million on British or British-based players. according to a rough and dirty calculation using Soccerbase values. The list combines young talents summoned to a bigger stage, such as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Wilfried Zaha, and established Premier League performers such as Robin van Persie and Juan Mata, whose moves had the double advantage of strengthening Man Utd while theoretically weakening a rival.

(Spurs, hardly shrinking violets when it comes to the transfer market, have spent £200 million domestically in that period, although that figure is inflated by a few, shall we say, “circular” deals that have seen the likes of Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and Younes Kaboul go, and then come back soon after, for a handsome profit.)

Spurs have been on the receiving end of Manchester United’s preying instincts in the past, with Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov heading north in search of glory and fortune. If reports are to be believed, Tottenham lured United into a bidding war with Real Madrid over Gareth Bale, but the player had his heart set on Spain.

Along with Everton, Manchester United see Spurs as a prime feeder club — an also-ran with a track record of identifying and developing talent in preparation for starring roles at the Theatre of Dreams. Lads, it’s Tottenham, and so forth. Before we get too high and mighty, this is just a basic fact of life in the Premier League food chain. Spurs snapping their fingers at West Brom over Saido Berahino and expecting them to fold on deadline day was no more edifying.

“Arr Squidy, it was nothing personal, I just heard there was gold in your belly”

So why do I bring this up now, when it is going so goddam well for Spurs?

The problem is, with every goal Harry Kane bangs in, and every rival midfielder Dele Alli forces off at half-time through dizziness, the merciless red cephalopod will be more tempted to insert its funnel into Hotspur Way and suck out our lifeblood. We saw it in the summer with Kane, and we will see it again now he’s shaken the “one-season wonder” tag. This isn’t some doomsday scenario, desperately searching for a cloud in a clear blue sky. This is just the reality of being Spurs.

In Kane and Alli, Spurs have a couple of very shiny young things that fit what Manchester United need on and off the pitch. With Spurs unexpectedly feisty and having the temerity to challenge United for a Top Four position, possibly for years to come, United need to do something about it.

The cozy Top Four arrangement, whereby only chronic incompetence by one of United, Manchester City, Chelsea (tee-hee) and Arsenal sees them miss out on the Champions League, is wonderfully lucrative, even as poor English TV viewers pay out ever more for the privilege of occasionally watching their team’s Premier League matches. The Big Four can’t be letting a suddenly competent Spurs, or a Jurgen Klopp-inspired Liverpool, crash their party. The best way to do this? Strip them for parts.

From the Spurs perspective, Manchester United are the ones to fear. Mercifully, the whole Tottenham-Woolwich thing and the dreadful relationships between the boardrooms at Spurs and Chelsea remove much of the intra-city threat. Manchester CIty’s whole project remains a weirdly empty and pointless one, and while they managed to tempt Raheem Sterling, they’ve not yet seriously tried to recruit any good young’uns from Spurs. I hope it stays that way. But Manchester United — they’ve done it before, and they will try to do it again. For Liverpool, as Chelsea proved with Fernando Torres, Arsenal tried to prove with Luis Suarez and Manchester City proved with Raheem Sterling, the danger is from everywhere but Old Trafford.

Oddly, under Fergie, I always had a “lesser of four evils” feeling towards Manchester United. Yes, they won an awful lot, but they did so at the expense of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. Furthermore, they always used to win stylishly — I don’t think there has been a better Premier League team to watch than the one with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez up top — and normally with a healthy sprinkling of English players.

Now, they are just a monstrosity. They are the most boring team in the league, they no longer produce good young English players, and they fling money around in an embarrassing fashion, driving up the prices for everyone else and making English football a laughing stock in Europe. Their accumulation of corporate sponsors is shameless, and their ownership structure would be reprehensible if it wasn’t so hilariously ironic — the vampire squid of the Premier League is in turn owned by blood-sucking parasites in the Glazers who contribute nothing, and extract as much as they can fill their boots with. Worst of all though, you used to be able to rely on Man United to beat the Arsenal, and now they can’t even do that.

So aside from the strategic benefit of cutting off Spurs’ balls, why am I so worried that Kane and Alli, among all young global footballing superstars, seem so potentially appealing to Manchester United?

First, with Rooney seemingly in decline, United need a replacement attacking figurehead. Nevermind that United dropped £36 million and rising on Anthony Martial, who looks pretty handy. With his slicked back hair, pleasing media presence and deadly finishing — possibly in that order of importance for Brand United — Kane is an obvious contender as the next “iconic striker” at Old Trafford. (There really aren’t that many other choices, though Romelu Lukaku at Everton may just save our bacon.)

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Long live Photoshop. Via Google.

In midfield, United have a lot of pleasing passers who are capable of playing 90 minutes of keep-ball, which unfortunately for paying fans at Old Trafford they’ve taken to doing. At some stage, the Red Devils are going to need to start doing radical things like “creating chances” and “scoring goals” or Louis van Gaal is going to experience the wrong end of a pitchfork. It is admittedly early days, but Alli has already shown himself to be a dynamic two-way midfield player willing and able to break forward and score goals.

If Spurs are looking for favours from even favoured media outlets in playing down any rumours, they’ve got another thing coming. Take this week’s missive from Jason Burt of the Daily Telegraph:

He [Kane] was linked to Manchester United over the summer and, although no bid was made, Spurs again declared that he would not be sold. “He’s one of our own,” the Spurs supporters gleefully sing about Kane in a chant that both the player and the club embrace. Yet it is a strategy that might be tested to the full should the right level of club come calling with an offer that proves very difficult to turn down. Spurs still need to prove they are not a selling club.

It’s classic #journalese — artfully combining a strong official denial with some vague statements of the obvious to ensure the contentious issue in question remains very much alive and available for extensive future coverage.

Kane himself couldn’t have been any clearer that he sees his long-term future at Spurs, but that isn’t going to stop him being linked with a move away. The problem isn’t just the clickbait incentive of the media — it’s the track record of almost every other top footballer in recent decades.

How many have been able to resist the lure of big clubs and big wages? Steven Gerrard maybe, but he handed in a transfer request to seek a move to Chelsea six weeks AFTER Liverpool won the bloomin’ Champions League, and with a huge contract on the table. Before that, I’m really racking my brains and going back a long way. Matt Le Tissier? All due respect to Ledley King, Jamie Carragher and, erm, Tony Hibbert — Real Madrid or Man Utd weren’t exactly knocking the door down for them, for differing reasons.

Kane may be as dreamily perfect and loyal to the end as us fans want to believe. Maybe he watched the sight of Wayne Rooney driving sadly around Goodison Park, a king without a kingdom, and will seek to avoid the loss of being a legend and being loved, no matter the cost in trophies and money. But more likely, when push comes to shove, he can’t resist. He wouldn’t have survived the ruthless culls on his way up the Spurs ranks if it wasn’t for a single-minded determination and fierce ambition.

I’d add, I don’t really buy the “just say no, he has years left on his contract” argument of player retention. It ignores basic principles such as squad cohesion, player incentives and club stability. You play Football Manager and assume that once you click through half a season the player will just back down like the walking spreadsheet that he is. Humans are complicated, and humans together are complex. Are West Brom better for having kept an unhappy Saido Berahino? I’ve had the misfortune of watching them a couple of times this season, and I’m not sure. At best, it’s a delaying tactic.

Spurs have no interest in selling Kane, or any other of the young jewels. No bid is worth it from Spurs point of view, not with the future so bright and the new stadium coming. No bid is worth it from Daniel Levy’s perspective — his reputation in the eyes of the fans would never recover.

But United’s appetite for talent is voracious. They are lurking in the deep, tentacles at the ready, poised to strike. They are going to undermine Spurs, unsettle our players, and offer such huge amounts of money that a logical argument for agreeing to a sale may seep in and cloud the decision-making process like blood in clear water.

So Spurs better get ready. Phase one: How about finishing above United again? No ambitious player wants to take a step down.

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