LIVERPOOL have been waiting 30 years for a league title but their fans have finally started to sing, “we’re gonna win the league”. They might even revive Ee Aye Addio and finally remove the psychological “years since…” day counter that’s hung above Anfield since 1990.
Manchester United went through the same process between 1967 and 1993, constantly reminding people that it had been an unacceptable amount of time since “we” won the league. In both cases, there’s a slightly arrogant air of entitlement which is, frankly, mildly disrespectful to the rest of English football. No club has the divine right to expect success.
Nobody expected Liverpool to slip from their pedestal in 1990, indeed few ever anticipate that a club’s fortunes can dramatically change. But regimes come to an end – Shankly passed the baton to Paisley, handed it on to Fagan who then allowed Dalglish to take Liverpool into a different world in which they spent a lot of money on an all-star team. It was a wonderful side, but it effectively ended an era, one in which Liverpool’s skill of finding hidden talent – a la Clemence, Keegan et al – was replaced by transfer market prowess and short-termism. Manchester United took over, using their wealth, business acumen and the expertise of Alex Ferguson to dominate English football and end that 26-year stretch without the Holy Grail.
Again, nobody thought the star would fade but since 2013, United have been shambolic, staggering in the dark and lacking direction. Their neighbours, Manchester City, are more focused, know where they want to go and of course, they have vast sums to money.
It’s hard to be sympathetic to clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United when they bleat on about lengthy periods without the top prize. They both have glorious histories and they are both affluent clubs. It is hardly a case of beer and sandwiches on sawdust covered floors. They happen to be two of the most privileged clubs among the 92 (91 at the moment).
Did the fans of both clubs ever get success fatigue in their respective golden ages? In periods of mass achievement, one piece of silverware runs into another and supporters become mildly complacent that another glittering bauble will be along soon. Clubs that have rare glimpses of greatness remember each and every red letter day. Chelsea fans will always go misty-eyed about the 1970 FA Cup triumph and the one that followed it in 1997, the latter ending a barren period of 26 years. Supporters of a certain age will probably recall these events much more readily than the trophy-laden Abramovich era.
For Liverpool, the bar has always been high, so a League Cup or even a FA Cup is never going to satisfy their yearning. For Liverpool, it’s the Champions League and Premier League. Hence, the fervour is building and the noise at Anfield is getting louder. It will, for clubs that consider Liverpool as fierce rivals and for fans who recall the tiresome period between 1976 and 1990, unbearable.
Twenty-four clubs have been league champions in England and for some, it has been over a century since they last won the title – Preston North End have waited 130 years, Sheffield United 122 and West Bromwich precisely 100. Newcastle United were last champions in 1927 and their last major trophy of any sort was the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup in 1969. Sunderland, their north-east enemies, were champions in 1936 but they won the FA Cup in 1973. Between them, these two clubs have won 10 league titles, but eight of them were secured before the first world war, along with six of Aston Villa’s seven victories. This reflected where the power sat in English football in its early, industrial days, in the north and midlands. This moment in time defined the clubs but it has been like a millstone around their necks at times.
The inter-war years were dominated by two clubs, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. The Yorkshire club won three consecutive titles, two under the tutelage of Herbert Chapman, who went on to completely change Arsenal. Chapman was as transformational as Brian Clough and as inventive as Pep Guardiola. Until he arrived in north London, Arsenal had never won a single trophy, but in 1930, they won the FA Cup and this acted as the prelude to a glorious period. The Gunners went into the second world war with five league titles under their belt and although they still had enough money to win trophies immediately after the war, they went from 1953 to 1969 without a major prize, eventually winning the league and FA Cup double in 1971. After that success, they had to wait another 18 years to secure another championship, snatching it in dramatic style at Anfield, an evening that has never been forgotten. If this season ends as we all know it will, Arsenal will have gone 16 years since their last title, just two seasons off their worst run off the top since they started winning tin pots in 1930.
Arsenal’s London rivals have had purple patches, but they have lacked consistency. Chelsea were the great under-achievers until they found Abramovich, but now Tottenham, despite the plaudits, are the under-achievers. Chelsea have won six league titles, five of which came since 2005, while Tottenham have just two to their name, the most recent being almost 60 years ago. Tottenham have won fewer league titles than Huddersfield, Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United – clubs that are way behind them in today’s pecking order.
Such is the nature of contemporary football that it does seem as though the status of the top half dozen should remain a constant. However, even in 2020, we have seen clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal struggle to live up to their reputations. Four of the “big six” have changed their managers in little over a year and it is no coincidence the clubs that have not, Liverpool and Manchester City, seem to be head and shoulders above the pack.
So it is no great surprise that Liverpool are set to win their first championship since 1990. While the Koppites will go crazy and fill the skies around Anfield with acrid red smoke, the long wait they have endured should tell them that nothing – most of all football success – can be taken for granted. In 1990, Liverpool didn’t envisage scrambling around looking for their next title for 30 years and going further back, Manchester United, in 1967, may have been quite optimistic that Best, Law and Charlton would celebrate another triumph before their careers came to an end. Just remember that up on Tyneside, they have haven’t had much to cheer for 51 years and there’s nobody around who recalls their last league championship in 1927.
Photos: PA (Main photo, Newcastle United’s Hughie Gallacher)