The latest Football League club has its admirers…and inevitable critics  Photo: PA

FOREST GREEN ROVERS created a stir when they secured promotion to the Football League for the first time. This curious club has embraced ecology and styled itself as a vegan club will certainly raise some eyebrows in the League next season, not least because of its “no red meat” policy. Already, though, people are sniping at the club from the Cotswolds, claiming they have “bought” success.

Within days of winning the play-off, stories circulated that Forest Green paid out more to agents and intermediaries than teams in the Championship. Critics say they have “no history” and they are merely bolstered by the cash of a millionaire hippy who made his fortune through selling renewable energy.

The “no history” thing is ridiculous, because FGR are doing just that, making history. And “buying it”? – name a club that hasn’t bought success. In fact, the economy of the game is based upon the richer clubs finishing at the top and the poor at the bottom. Football is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy – that’s why we have league tables. In the rich tapestry of the game, most league titles and cups have been won by teams with more money than those that finish with the wooden spoon. There are shocks, but certainly in a league format, the cream will, almost always, rise to the top.

History is something that gets made by the year and nobody starts with a pile of it in the bank. For example, Liverpool’s fans are always goading Chelsea for having “no history”. Chelsea are 112 years old, so they certainly have history, but it just so happens that the most successful period in the club’s lifetime has been the period between 2004 and 2017. Liverpool’s own history was patchy until Bill Shankly took over. Ironically, as Chelsea compile their history, Liverpool keep looking back more and more. To quote Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement’s comedy, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, “the only thing to look forward to is the past”.

At least Liverpool could point to a series of peaks and troughs while a club like Chelsea had won only a handful of trophies before 1997 – four to be precise. Until 1963-64, when Shankly won the first of his three titles, Liverpool had been champions five times. Manchester United had a lengthy barren period between their Edwardian-era success and Matt Busby’s first championship in 1952. Liverpool’s most successful period was between 1975 and 1990, while United’s was between 1992 and 2013. These are both extraordinarily long eras but they are also hardly ancient “history”. You could argue that Liverpool’s golden age ended as United’s began and that Chelsea – to some extent – have taken over since. Nothing lasts forever, although both Liverpool and United’s fans probably thought their pre-eminence would just go on. While you can see United regaining their position at some point, the surprise is that Liverpool have become one of the also-rans over the past decade.

Some clubs can only fall back on their history to gain some sort of solace for long-term underachievement. If you look at the story of the Football League it is interesting to note that of the 24 league champions (including the PL era), there have been only four new recipients in 50 years – Leeds United, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Leicester City. Clubs who certainly have a track record but have failed to replicate success beyond world war two include Preston North End, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town. League champions in the pre-first world war era were drawn from the north and midlands, a reflection of the industrial pastime that football became and the money being poured into the professional game. There was not a London champion until 1931 when Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal came out on top and began a period of dominance that lasted until the next war. It is no coincidence that a team from the capital should rise to the surface at a time of the great depression and economic slump, which undoubtedly hit the north of England harder than London. This trend continued after the war, the new champions included London sides Tottenham and Chelsea, southern clubs Portsmouth and Ipswich and midlands teams Derby and Nottingham Forest, the latter two owing more to the talent and acumen of Brian Clough than any social trend.

The decline of industrial era clubs like Newcastle, Sunderland, Villa and the Sheffield clubs has never really let-up. There have been periods when they have enjoyed success, but their place at the forefront of English football was lost, in truth, before WW2. They have history – 22 championships between them – but they have long been usurped by the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

League title winners 1888-2017

  No. Titles First title Last title
Preston North End 2 1888-89 1989-90
Everton 9 1890-91 1986-87
Sunderland 6 1891-92 1935-36
Aston Villa 7 1893-94 1980-81
Sheffield United 1 1897-98 1897-98
Liverpool 18 1900-01 1989-90
Wednesday/Sheff.Weds 4 1902-03 1929-30
Newcastle United 4 1904-05 1926-27
Manchester United 20 1907-08 2012-13
Blackburn Rovers 3 1911-12 1994-95
West Bromwich Albion 1 1919-20 1919-20
Burnley 2 1920-21 1959-60
Huddersfield Town 3 1923-24 1925-26
Arsenal 13 1930-31 2003-04
Manchester City 4 1936-37 2013-14
Portsmouth 2 1948-49 1949-50
Tottenham Hotspur 2 1950-51 1960-61
Wolverhampton W 3 1953-54 1958-59
Chelsea 6 1954-55 2016-17
Ipswich Town 1 1961-62 1961-62
Leeds United 3 1968-69 1991-92
Derby County 2 1971-72 1974-75
Nottingham Forest 1 1977-78 1977-78
Leicester City 1 2015-16 2015-16

Success breeds success as they say and roughly translated that means that pre-eminence provides the money to facilitate further triumphs. While the north had a financial advantage over the rest of the country in football’s infancy – rich mill and factory owners were only too willing to pour money into a recreational activity that pleased the workers – the changing economy and social habits meant that clubs like Preston could never sustain their position at the top. Clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United have kept their place, largely because they represent cities of significant size and regional prominence. But it would be naïve to suggest that this has not been achieved without financial advantages. Manchester United’s post-war boom, however, was something of an exception, with many of Matt Busby’s side nurtured from youth – the so-called “Busby babes”. Other clubs gained a reputation for high levels of expenditure – both Sunderland and Everton were both nicknamed “the bank of England club” because of their spending power. Tottenham Hotspur also seemed to possess the wallet to make regular big money signings, and Arsenal’s 1930s empire was not built on youth talent. Money has always talked. In Liverpool’s case, Shankly was generally smart in the transfer market, although his big-name signings invariably disappointed, such as Tony Hateley and Alun Evans. Liverpool abandoned the Shankly and Paisley approach when, in the late 1980s, they spent big and built an exciting team via the cheque book, the team that included John Barnes, John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley. Interestingly, over the decades, both Liverpool and Everton benefitted from the patronage of the Moores family, the football pools magnates, so all the money that fans poured into their weekly treble chance was, in effect, helping to make the Merseyside clubs strong.

You could say that Manchester United struck lucky with their fabled “Class of 92” which provided the backbone of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team that dominated the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since the team of home-grown players has passed, though, United’s success looks to be dependent on their transfer policy although the financial advantages they once enjoyed are no longer exclusive.

United, Arsenal and Liverpool all protested that clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea were changing the face of English football with their inflated investment regimes. While this is true, their biggest complaint was that the exclusivity they enjoyed as huge clubs with financial clout and the silverware to match, was being eroded. The traditional heavyweights were unhappy that their place at the pinnacle of the game was being threatened by audacious newcomers. Strangely, this sentiment was reflected right across English football, suggesting it was acceptable for two clubs – United and Liverpool – to have monotonously dominated the game from the 1970s through to the start of the 21st century, but any new challenger buoyed by investor cash was unwelcome.

Football has always been plagued by the green-eyed monster. Non-league clubs seem to hate it when a neighbouring club gets a new ground or when that team up the road starts to splash the cash. The game is awash with the politics of envy and Forest Green Rovers, a club that certainly has “history” given its formation date of 1889, will find that out soon enough. Veggie burger anyone?

Clubs that have “bought it”

  History Recent post investment success
Chelsea Football League 1954-55

Football League Cup 1964-65, 1997-98 FA Cup 1969-70, 1996-97, 1999-00 European Cup-Winners’ Cup 1970-71, 1997-98

Premier League 2004-5, 2005-06, 2009-10, 2014-15, 2016-17 FA Cup 2006-07, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2011-12 Football League Cup 2004-05, 2006-07, 2014-15 UEFA Champions League 2011-12 UEFA Europa League 2012-13
Manchester City Football League 1936-37, 1967-68 FA Cup 1903-04, 1933-34, 1955-56, 1968-69 Football League Cup 1969-70, 1975-76 European Cup-Winners’ Cup 1969-70 Premier League 2011-12, 2013-14 FA Cup 2010-11 Football League Cup 2013-14, 2015-16
Paris St. Germain Ligue 1 1985-86, 1993-94 Coupe de France x 8 Coupe de la Ligue x 3 European Cup-Winners’ Cup 1995-96 Ligue 1 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16 Coupe de France 2014-15, 2015-16 Coupe de la Ligue 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17