English Football

Title winners – passing the baton on

Soccer - League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur Training - White Hart Lane

HOW OFTEN have you heard someone explain away a poor title defence with a comment like, “They needed to turn things over….they needed to rebuild”? It is true that nothing lasts forever in football and sometimes, a title winning team burns itself out in lifting the big prize. A manager gets the best out of a group of players and then they’re done.

The fact is, a title winning team does not last forever, but the core of a talented young team can extend its influence for a considerable period.

It may be getting harder to do that, largely because managers come and go so quickly that no longevity is built into the system. Teams are rarely nurtured but generally purchased, and in an age of inflated investment, TV money and impatient boards, nobody can wait for that youngster to develop into a rare gem. Two of the players on many clubs’ shopping list this summer are a prime example – Kevin De Bruyne and Paul Pogba. Usually, it’s a team for a job and when that job is done, or the manager goes, whichever is the sooner, the team changes.

Champions Year of defence Final placing
Manchester City 1937-38 21st – relegated
Leeds United 1992-93 17th
Everton 1928-29 18th
Ipswich Town 1962-63 17th
Chelsea 1955-56 16th
Sheffield United 1898-99 16th
Aston Villa 1900-01 15th
Liverpool 1906-07 15th
Everton 1970-71 14th
West Bromwich Alb. 1920-21 14th
Manchester City 1968-69 13th
Manchester United 1908-09 13th
Arsenal 1953-54 12th

 

Some teams buck the trend and go on for years. Manchester United were fortunate to have a generation of players that did just that – the Class of ’92 and all that. In fact, United’s 1998-99 treble winners managed to squeeze some 66 years out of the title winners beyond 1999. In that team there were three lads that went on for 39 of those 66 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.

United’s neighbours, City, accrued 70 years out of the regular line-up that won the Football League championship in 1968. The last man to leave the party was Colin Bell, who retired in 1979. Long-running sagas are fine if the team is young, which City’s was – with the exception of Tony Book, who was 33 when the title was won. But there wasn’t the quality to maintain the league success of 1968, although City did have a golden period between 68 and 70 where they lifted four trophies. But they were rarely title contenders, with the exception of 1971-72.

Nobody expected the Clough inquisition

Conversely, some teams break up quickly. Blackburn Rovers’ hired guns of 1995 lasted just 29 years after their title win, while Arsenal’s “Invincibles” went on for 30. Nottingham Forest’s 1978 champions lasted 32 years between them, with their front line of Woodcock and Withe disappearing within a season. Forest’s line-up was certainly a team with a purpose and despite adding bigger names than those that shocked the system, they could never recapture the magic of 1977-78. To quote Monty Python’s Spanish inquisitors, Brian Clough had “surprise” as a weapon.

The break-up of a title team, though, is invariably a slow process and it takes skill to do it gradually while maintaining momentum. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the few managers to turn change to an advantage, and in Liverpool’s glory years, transition became an art form. Some managers struggle to replace much beloved players who have brought major success to a club. Sir Matt Busby and his successors found it hard to rebuild his last great United team in the late 1960s.

Player Debut Last “regular” season Departure and age
Bobby Noble 1962 1966-67 1967 (23)
Bill Foulkes 1952 1967-68 1968 (35)
Nobby Stiles 1961 1968-69 1970 (27)
Paddy Crerand 1963 1970-71 1971 (32)
John Aston 1965 1969-70 1972 (25)
Tony Dunne 1960 1972-73 1973 (32)
George Best 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Bobby Charlton 1956 1972-73 1973 (35)
David Sadler 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Denis Law 1962 1971-72 1973 (33)
Alex Stepney 1966 1977-78 1978 (35)

Replacing Law and Charlton was a problem for United

Alan Gowling and Carlo Sartori, were never going to match up to the likes of Denis Law. From Busby to the early stages of Tommy Docherty, United relied on old-stagers like Stepney, Dunne, Crerand, Charlton and Law, some popularist purchases like Ted MacDougall and Ian Storey-Moore, and a succession of defenders and half-backs that failed to live up to past occupants of the shirt. Put bluntly, United’s decline in the 1970s was largely due to poor succession planning, hampered by a period on instability following the exit of an iconic manager. Seven years after winning the title (and six after being crowned European champions) United were – to the horror of the football establishment – relegated.

Boom to bust – the post-war Champions and their relegations

Years after title Team Year of relegation
2 Ipswich Town (1961-62) 1962-64
4 Blackburn Rovers (1994-95) 1998-99
5 Derby County (1974-75) 1979-80
6 Wolves (1958-59) 1964-65
6 Aston Villa (1980-81) 1986-87
7 Chelsea (1954-55) 1961-62
7 Liverpool (1946-47) 1953-54
7 Manchester United (1966-67) 1973-74
8 Leeds United (1981-82) 1981-82
9 Portsmouth (1949-50) 1958-59
11 Burnley (1959-60) 1970-71
12 Leeds United (1991-92) 2003-04
15 Nottingham Forest (1977-78) 1992-93
15 Manchester City (1967-68) 1982-83
16 Tottenham (1960-61) 1976-77

Take Tottenham Hotspur’s 1960-61 double winners as an example of the replacement process in action, and in some cases, how succession becomes a problem. In the case of Bill Nicholson and Tottenham, rebuilding was very difficult, which underlined the exceptional nature of the team he was trying to rebuild. Nicholson never achieved his holy grail, although he enjoyed an “Indian Summer” in the early 1970s before leaving the dugout. His constant search for a team to pass the baton onto never really succeeded.

How the 1960-61 double team was replaced:

1960-61: Tottenham win the League and Cup double
1961-62: Jimmy Greaves is signed mid-season
1962-63: Les Allen
1963-64: Bobby Smith, Danny Blanchflower, John White*, Peter Baker
1964-65: Terry Dyson, Ron Henry (Joe Kinnear)
1965-66: Bill Brown, Maurice Norman
1966-67 –
1967-68: Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones

*Died after being struck by lightning

Stepping into the boots of Mackay and Blanchflower was tough

Nicholson made a number of signings to replenish his triumphant squad. Some were seen as direct replacements for the key members of the double team, Blanchflower and Mackay. Both Alan Mullery and Terry Venables, costing £72,500 and £80,000 respectively, were considered ideal successors, the latter failing to win over the Spurs crowd, the former eventually forging his own reputation. For the rest of the 1960s, Nicholson tried to rekindle the spirit of 1961, but players like Frank Saul, Jimmy Robertson (admittedly both Wembley winners in 1967), could never replace the men who had worn the white shirt before them. By 1963-64, Spurs were in relative decline from the 1960-63 period when they won four trophies.

The five-year records of selected champions (two years either side of their title)

    -2 -1 0 +1 +2 Av.
1896-97 Aston Villa 3 1 1 6 1 2.4
1925-26 Huddersfield 1 1 1 2 2 1.4
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1948-49 Portsmouth 12 8 1 1 7 5.8
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1951-52 Man.Utd 4 2 1 9 4 4
1955-56 Man.Utd 4 5 1 1 9 4
1958-59 Wolves 6 1 1 2 3 2.6
1960-61 Tottenham 18 3 1 3 2 5.4
1965-66 Liverpool 1 7 1 5 3 3.4
1966-67 Man.Utd 1 4 1 2 11 3.8
1968-69 Leeds United 4 4 1 2 2 2.8
1969-70 Everton 5 3 1 14 15 7.7
1970-71 Arsenal 4 12 1 5 2 4.8
1973-74 Leeds United 2 3 1 9 5 4
1974-75 Derby Co. 7 3 1 4 15 6
1978-79 Liverpool 1 2 1 1 5 2
1983-84 Liverpool 1 1 1 2 1 1.2
1984-85 Everton 7 7 1 2 1 3.6
1990-91 Arsenal 1 4 1 4 10 4
1993-94 Man.Utd 2 1 1 2 1 1.4
1998-99 Man.Utd 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
2003-04 Arsenal 1 2 1 2 4 2
2004-05 Chelsea 4 2 1 1 2 2
2011-12 Man.City 5 3 1 2 1 2.4

The above table shows the records of selected championship teams down the years. Going on the assumption that it takes two years to build a credible challenge (in old money, that time span would not be afforded to today’s managers!), and that a team stays together for two years after, we’ve given each champion a five-year period to prove its worth. There’s little doubt that the three highlighted teams represent the most successful (there may another Liverpool side in there somewhere), given no team has won the title for four consecutive years, so the most any team can have in any five year period is four championships. Arsenal in the 1930s, Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester United in the 1990s – their record is unmatched.

This is all food for thought for those enjoying Chelsea’s discomfort at present. We live in an era where failure is not tolerated. No manager is immune from the sack if his team does not perform. City are in the same bracket, although they have started 2015-16 much better than Chelsea. Success has a time limit, the trouble is, those throwing enormous sums of money into football might not agree with you.

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