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Red devils
By Ian Grant
You have to admire the cheek, if nothing else.

Having successfully lobbied for their FA Cup campaign to commence a month earlier - the Third Round is now in early December, something that only serves the interests of Champions League participants - those lovely people at Old Trafford have taken another glance at their Official Manchester United Personal Organisers and discovered that they're busy in January too. One quiet word in the FA's shell-like, and they've been given permission to pull out of the competition altogether.

Spitting fury watching the news this morning, and feeling powerless. Powerless - that is what Manchester United have done to English football. Sir Alex Ferguson, services to the game? Don't make me retch.

The arguments are quite simple. When Ferguson whines about fixture congestion, he has no-one to blame but his directors. After all, United have to play no more domestic games than before - indeed, the reduction in size of the top division and gradual decline in importance of the League Cup mean that the situation is actually much better for the top teams than it was ten or fifteen years ago.

The fixture congestion is the result of only one thing - the butchery of the European Cup, the most prestigious club competition in the world reduced to a feeding frenzy. With UEFA in shivering fear of a breakaway, the Champions League has become the Super League in all but name and governing body. Places guaranteed for future years by an obscene ranking system, television deals all sewn up, unattractive Eastern European teams shoved to one side, more games meaning greater revenue. As one of the prime movers in the threatened breakaways, United are directly responsible for the changes in recent years and, therefore, are also directly responsible for increasing their own fixture burden.

No-one's suggesting that the number of Champions League fixtures should be reduced. Well, why not? And if not the Champions League, then how about the money-spinning pre-season tours and the "hang-on-what-the-hell-is-this?!" World Club Championship? Nothing's changed in domestic football, it is simply that Manchester United have found more lucrative and glamourous ways to occupy their time.

But if they wish to continue to claim to represent English football, then it is time for them to participate in it. Either the sulky child act goes, or they go.

"Jealousy" has very little to do with the hatred of Manchester United that's driving me write this article. "Jealousy" implies some similarity between what I'd love Watford to be and what Manchester United are, and there is no similarity whatsoever. I have said time and again that this is an argument between enemies who could've been friends, that the people in control of the biggest clubs have an implicit and devilish hatred for everyone else. Hey, that's business.

But the fact that Manchester United will play no further part in the English football season than thirty-eight Premiership games and fielding a reserve team in the Worthington Cup (and will presumably complain about the intolerable strain of even that light fixture schedule) rather proves the point. They don't want to have anything to do with us - Watford visiting Old Trafford is simply a lost revenue opportunity, they could've been hosting Barcelona (again).

Simple solution. It's time that the FA drew a line in the sand. Long overdue, in fact. If Manchester United do not want to participate in the domestic game and if they are not willing to accept its demands, then they know what they can do. They can go it alone. No expulsion necessary, merely a firm standing of ground and resistance to a club that has grown used to getting its own way. Pretty routine stuff for a governing body, you'd have thought.

Because, if they continue to concede ground, this is an impossible situation for the FA. How can you let a club, no matter how big, cherry-pick fixtures? What is to stop, say, Blackburn or Forest from also demanding a bye, so that they can "concentrate on the league"?

The FA's answer to that is simple. Manchester United are representing England in global competitions, and are therefore promoting England's bid to host the World Cup in 2006.

Now we get to it. How far are the FA prepared to go to win the World Cup in 2006? It's a cause that has no groundswell of support among the nation's football fans and that generates little but cynicism from the media, yet the governing body appears willing to sacrifice anything and everything in its pursuit. Personal glory, self-interest, nothing sacred, nothing safe.

That is disgraceful. The English game not only needs protecting from its biggest club, it needs protecting from its own governing body.

Hang 'em high.