The baseball executive Gabe Paul knew a thing or two about winning.
Paul, the man responsible for reversing the New York Yankees’ 15-year barren run with World Series glory in 1978 and won four National League pennants during his long and distinguished career, did not believe in being runner-up.
‘There is no such thing as finishing second,’ he said. ‘You’re either first or you’re nothing’.
Paul, of course, lived in a different sporting world. Heck, a different sporting universe.
His was an era where club and franchise owners across the planet were only just starting to wake up to the smell of corporate wealth in their respective games.
Back then, the suggestion that ending a season in second would be worth celebrating was fanciful, perhaps even farcical.
I wonder what Mr Paul would have thought about the Premier League’s now-infamous ‘race for fourth’.
It’s happening again this season, as so often in does – a peloton of also-rans pedalling frantically to squeeze themselves into the Champions League while one side romps away at the front. Sometimes it’s two. This season, it’s most definitely only one.
Someone did the maths this week to figure out that Chelsea could end up finishing as low as seventh place, should they lose every game left on their fixture card and every singly other result went against them.
Antonio Conte’s men have only dropped seven points since October, though, and the mere suggestion that the Blues will not have secured top spot before the cut-priced Easter eggs have been swept from supermarket shelves is daft to the point of committable.
And so we’re left with the second-rate alternative, the sequel that no one really wants to watch but finds themselves with little better to do on a rainy April afternoon.
The race for fourth. Even the name is flimsy and uninspiring and desperately in need of a marketing whizzkid’s attention. For heaven’s sake, a restaurant wouldn’t bill its steak as the ‘fourth best in London’. Boxing promoters whose headliners pull out would cancel their shows rather than risking their reputations on Sid from Sidmouth’s 154th consecutive light-welterweight defeat on points.
Still, in England we have an unhealthy obsession with fourth. Trying to create narrative where really there isn’t one has become something of a niche skill for those who take great pride in the Premier League.
And so we have manufactured in our minds a secondary competition, that kicks in around February and lasts three months. Polyfilla for the gaping holes where real excitement should really be.
We focus on Tottenham’s two-horse sprint with Arsenal and on Manchester United’s still dwindling, post-Fergie powers. We speculate about the impact on revenues of teams failing to reach the Champions League and ponder just how important a last-16 exit in that competition is for Stan Kroenke’s business model.
And then we hide our yawns and muffle our sighs and pretend not to care that one team has been so spectacularly better than the rest this season as to make arguments the Premier League is the most exciting in the world totally and utterly absurd.
And even as we try to convince ourselves that tuning into a meaningless Thursday night Manchester derby is essential because, you know, there’ll be montages and dramatic music and Jose Mourinho might give a snarky 10-second interview, there is still the possibility that the ‘race for fourth’ might not even be a thing
If Leicester pull off the impossible and win the Champions League and United lift the Europa League, and neither side finishing fourth in the Premier League, only the top three will gain access to the continent’s elite competition next season.
And Gabe Paul would have been right all along.
Photo: Sky sports