Cup final weekend saw high emotion both sides of the border: Arsenal were breathing a sigh of relief that they had ended nine years without a bauble; St.Johnstone were joyously celebrating the end of a silverware-less 130 years.
Arsenal’s much-publicised wait for affirmation of their [relatively] prudent approach to modern-day football, one that should be applauded in many ways, became tedious for the neutral onlooker. Firstly, no club has the divine right to win trophies year-in, year-out, and secondly, the club has a rich history that has often proved to be cyclical – in other words, it was bound to happen sooner or later!
The way that some sectors of the media reported it – and I pass the Emirates twice a day and I’ve never seen a church preservation fund-style barometer outside saying, “Eight years and counting” – suggested that Arsenal had slipped into a sea of stagnation. But the club’s consistency has been outstanding during that time. If emerging market money hadn’t boosted the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and other European rivals, Arsenal would have won a few prizes in the 2004-2014 period.
It’s not even the worst drought Arsenal have suffered, either. When they won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1970, the Gunners ended 17 years of frustration. And in reality, that was even more painful, because from 1930 to 1953, Arsenal were…well, The Arsenal. The ghosts (metaphorically speaking) of Ted Drake, Herbert Chapman, Alex James and Joe Mercer must have haunted Bertie Mee and co. in the 1960s.
If nine years felt like a long time, imagine how Liverpool are currently feeling. It’s now 24 years since they won the league title, which after their total dominance of the period 1976-1990 is almost inconceivable. In the midst of that incredible period, we never thought it would end, and I bet The Kop didn’t either. Since 1990, Liverpool have won trophies – the FA Cup, Football League Cup, Champions League and UEFA Cup – so it’s not exactly been beer and sandwiches in Liverpool 4. Those that know their history, and “history” is something Liverpool fans claim some clubs just don’t have, will be aware that Liverpool had some pretty grim times before Bill Shankly took over. The 1930s, for example, were unremarkable for Liverpool and from 1947, when they surprisingly won the first proper post-war championship, it look 17 years to break out the silver polish at Anfield.
Liverpool’s “years without title” may soon exceed Manchester United’s 26 between 1967 and 1993. This period of hand-wringing among United fans was tiresome and highlighted the arrogance and expectation that comes with being a behemoth of a club. In contrast to Arsenal, you had visions of United sticking some sort of indicator up outside Old Trafford reminding people that it had been, “20 years since we regained OUR league title”, or words to that effect. United’s anxiety was such that you wouldn’t have been too surprised if they asked Morrissey to write a Smiths’ song about the angst of waiting for Salford’s favourite club to become champions again. Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I think they may have.
United’s presumption that they could be top of the pile for eternity was in evidence in 2013-14 as they watched David Moyes flounder and eventually fall to the executioner’s axe. United’s slip from grace, for the prolonged period of one season, was merely the reminder that nothing lasts forever, and although they will undoubtedly climb back at some point, the golden period, comparable to Liverpool’s in the 1980s and Arsenal’s in the 1930s, has possibly come to an end. The advantages that they enjoyed for so long- huge crowds way in excess of every other club and a productive youth system, were no longer as relevant as other clubs started to enjoy inflated investment from afar, instead of the concrete overcoat of a leveraged buyout.
United’s successors are Manchester City, whose trophy cabinet was something of a desert before they found the oasis that was middle eastern money. Just consider, in the words of a Koppite, City’s “lack of history”. City have been one of the great under performers over the course of their existence. Prior to the second world war, they had won two FA Cups and a League title. They went from Champs to Chumps in the 1930s, winning the title one year and going down the next. It took them 34 years to win the title in 1968 and another 44 to do it again.
City may now be entering the most successful period in their history, although between 1968 and 1970, they won four trophies. But the FA Cup in 2011, the Premier in 2012 and 2014 and the Football League Cup in 2014 all suggest City are the “new United”.
Clubs like Everton and Tottenham, while still sizeable institutions, are both going through leaner times. Everton’s past is drifting away from the club, although under current manager Roberto Martinez, there are signs of a revival. It has been 19 years since Everton last won anything, although they’ve been here before, waiting 24 years between 1939 and 1963 and 14 between 1970 and 1984. Apart from a brief spell in the mid-1980s when they were neck-and-neck with Liverpool, Everton have delivered little in 40-odd years.
The same could be said of Tottenham, who have now gone 53 years without a title and have won three trophies in 30 years. Spurs’ success has always been in bursts, hence the old adage, “Spurs win things when the year ends in a 1”. That was true in 1901, 1921, 1951, 1961, 1981 and 1991. Bizarre, but that theory was blown away in 2001 and 2011.
Whereas 30 years ago, Arsenal and Tottenham were London’s top clubs, Chelsea have replaced Spurs as Arsenal’s rivals for honours. Chelsea are the “Manchester City of the South” [or is it the other way round?] and the dynamic between them and Arsenal is similar to the tension that prevails in Manchester. Chelsea had to wait 26 years for a trophy when they won the FA Cup in 1997 but since then, they have accumulated three league titles (2005, 2006 and 2010), five more FA Cups (2000, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012), three Football League Cups (1998, 2005 and 2007), one Champions League (2012) and the Europa League (2013). Chelsea had to wait 50 years for their first trophy in 1955 and it took another half century for their second title.
If it is true to say that they’ve never had it so good at Chelsea and City, that clubs like Arsenal and United are only temporarily in a back seat, and that Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham are desperately trying to get back to where they once belonged, then the giants of Victorian and Edwardian football are still nowhere to be seen.
Hot beds, cold beds
Newcastle is supposedly a hotbed of football. It’s true they like the old pig’s bladder on Tyneside, but that doesn’t equate to success. Their last league title was in 1927, 87 years ago. Their last FA Cup was 1955, the 60th anniversary of which will surely be celebrated in 2015 with memories of “Wor Jackie” and his team-mates. Their last silverware was 1969. Now that is what I call barren.
Likewise, Sunderland. They’re right to celebrate staying up under Gus Poyet, but they haven’t won any significant silver since 1973. They’ve been dining out on Jim Montgomery and Ian Porterfield for 44 years! And Villa, the champions of the industrial revolution, have never been the same since the sun set on the British Empire. Look at Villa’s honours list and you’ll see they struck gold in 94, 95, 96, 97 and 99 – the trouble is these years are prefixed with an “18”. They won the title in 1981 and then, amazingly, the European Cup a year later. The cupboard has been bare since 96 – 19, that is.
There are others who have never won a thing and live on the hope of a surprise cup run, promotion from the lower reaches and maybe a foray into Europe. Inevitably, it’s all about money. There’s no level playing field, but even though clubs look at City and Chelsea and bemoan their advantages and their own disadvantages, it has always been like that. The rich will always rise to the top, as they did in the 19th century, the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1970s. But the difference now is that it is unlikely that there will ever be another Derby under Clough, Ipswich with Ramsey and Burnley under Potts. Unless, of course, all clubs get the sort of extravagant backing that has fallen on the Chelseas and Citys of this world.
Nobody, however, is born to win prizes, despite what pleading X-Factor contestants claim, “I was born for this moment…I deserve this…because I want it so much”. Constant success breeds complacency and for most clubs, occasional success tastes all the more sweeter. I bet Arsenal’s FA Cup is being slurped like the finest nectar right now. But spare a thought for the clubs who would die for a nine-year wait. “Let’s see…1969 to 2015, that’s 46 years, isn’t it?”