Manchester City’s defence of their second Premier title in three years is probably not going according to plan. Chelsea’s form, plus some slip-ups on the part of Manuel Pellegrini’s men are making it increasingly difficult for City to regain their crown. But if they do relinquish their title, City will have the consolation of a UEFA Champions League place next season.
City have never been particularly good at defending the top prize, but then repeat wins are not easy to achieve. Notwithstanding that in 2012-13 they finished a tepid runners-up to neighbours United, their other title wins (1936-37 and 1967-68) have both been surrendered meekly.
City are the only club to be relegated the year after topping the pile. In 1936-37, City won the title by three points, with Charlton Athletic runners-up. City’s swift included the great Frank Swift in goal and fellow England internationals Sam Barkas, Eric Brook and Fred Tilson. It also included the legendary Irish international Peter Doherty. City ended the season with an impressive 22-game unbeaten run and lost just once at their Maine Road home. In other words, they were worthy champions. Bizarrely, City were relegated in 1937-38, with their 36 points just 16 fewer than champions Arsenal. As war intervened, City had to wait until 1947-48 before they played First Division football again.
Thirty years later, the City of Lee, Bell and Summerbee won the title in stylish fashion. Their coach, Malcolm Allison, predicted that City would “terrify Europe” in the 1968 European Cup, but they went out at the first hurdle and struggled in the league, finishing 13th. As in 1937, it was City’s away form that was their undoing – they lost 15 of their 21 games. At least they won the FA Cup in 1968-69 and the double of European Cup Winners-Cup and Football League Cup in 1969-70. In those days, a manager would get a bonus if he achieved that level of success. Today, the Premier and the Champions League are the benchmarks.
City are not alone in surrendering tamely. Everton in 1927-28, including the legendary Dixie Dean, who netted 60 league goals in the title-winning season, flopped miserably a year later, finishing 18th and a year later, were relegated. After netting 60, Dean’s season was hampered by injury and this impacted upon his team. When Everton won the title in 1969-70, they also failed to live up to their billing in the following season. It has always been something of a mystery why a team that included Alan Ball, Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey, Brian Labone, Joe Royle and Tommy Wright could not build on success. In 1970-71, Everton finished 14th and it wasn’t until 1984-85 that the club won the league again.
Sometimes a team puts so much effort into winning a league championship that it effectively burns itself out and is incapable of repeating success. Chelsea in 1954-55 is a classic case. Ted Drake’s men were largely unfancied, but they had one golden campaign that saw them win the championship by the narrowest of margins – and, with an all-time low 52 points. Some people claimed that Chelsea’s side was too old to do it again, and it was true that the key men in the team: Ken Armstrong (30), Eric Parsons (21) and Roy Bentley (30), were approaching the veteran stage of their career. But others, like Peter Sillett, Frank Blunstone and Seamus O’Connell, were much younger. Chelsea finished 16th in 1955-56 and went into a decline that ended with relegation in 1961-62.
That was the season in which Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town shocked everyone by winning the title straight after winning promotion from the second division. If Chelsea were unfashionable, Ipswich positively broke the mould with their workaday outfit. They took everyone by surprise in 1961-62, but a year later, finished 17th and just four points above relegation. The secret to Ipswich’s success was the way withdrawn wingers, Jimmy Leadbetter – one of the most unlikely looking footballers – and Roy Stephenson, linked up with the lethal front two of Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips. It worked a treat for a while, but Ipswich got found out. In truth, Ipswich have had better teams that failed to win the championship!
The same can be said of Leeds United, who won the last pre-Premier title in 1991-92. Don Revie’s Leeds spent the late 1960s and early 1970s just missing out on titles, although they did pick up two in 1969 and 1974. Howard Wilkinson’s side, running neck-and-neck with Manchester United all season – and losing in both domestic cups to Alex Ferguson’s team – won the title by four points, losing just four games. They were boosted by the late introduction of Eric Cantona and the enigmatic Frenchmen added vital goals in the run-in. A year on, with Cantona decamping to Manchester United where he had a similar, more longer-term effect, Leeds slumped to 17th in the table. Despite attempts at trying to bring back the good times, notably when the club abandoned financial prudence and lived beyond its means, Leeds are a pale shadow of their glory days of the 1970s and that 1991-92 season.
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Generally, champions hang around the upper echelons for a while – since 1970, 28 of the 44 champions have either finished first or second in the following season. In fact, only seven have finished outside the top five, the most recent being Manchester United in 2013-14, who ended up in seventh place. Eleven champions have regained their titles in this period: Liverpool 1975-76 to 1976-77; Liverpool 1978-79 to 1979-80; Liverpool 1981-82 to 1982-83 and then 1983-84; Manchester United 1992-93 to 1993-94; Manchester United 1995-96 to 1996-97; Manchester United 1998-99 to 1999-00 and then 2000-01; Chelsea 2004-05 to 2005-06; Manchester United 2006-07 to 2007-08 and then 2008-09.
But in today’s football industry, a one-off title win isn’t enough to guarantee tenancy in the management chair. For the silverware-hungry oilmen and oligarchs, success has to be sustainable, witness Carlo Ancelotti’s shabby departure at Chelsea in 2011, just one year after winning the double. Doubtless, Pellegrini will be assessed in much the same way.
One things fairly certain, however. There’s little chance that a Premier champion today will follow their triumph with relegation or a fight to avoid the drop…