League title winners – passing the baton on
Posted on August 21, 2019
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. 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|
|West Bromwich Alb.||1920-21||14th|
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.
Conversely, some teams break up quickly. Blackburn Rovers’ hired guns of 1995 lasted a combined 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)|
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||Aston Villa (1980-81)||1986-87|
|7||Manchester United (1966-67)||1973-74|
|8||Leeds United (1981-82)||1981-82|
|12||Leeds United (1991-92)||2003-04|
|15||Nottingham Forest (1977-78)||1992-93|
|15||Manchester City (1967-68)||1982-83|
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.
Case Study: How Spurs’ 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
1965-66: Bill Brown, Maurice Norman
1967-68: Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones
*Died after being struck by lightning
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)
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), and given no team has won the title for four consecutive years, 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 records are unmatched. Manchester City, with two successive titles, may yet create an unprecedented five-year period!