Aston Villa, Leeds United, Liverpool, QPR, Wolves and five other would-be champions
Posted on March 27, 2020
THE STATISTICS suggest that Liverpool 2018-19 are the best-ever nearly men in English football history. Certainly, 97 points is a phenomenal record, but the figures only tell part of the story. Liverpool’s performances, the charisma of Jürgen Klopp and the attacking power of the team will forever be remembered, and not just by Reds’ fans. Putting rivalries aside and taking an objective look at the Liverpool team that marginally fell short, you have to tip your hat in the direction of Anfield and commiserate. It was their misfortune they came up against arguably the best team we have ever seen in the rich heritage of the game in England. There have been some truly outstanding runners-up in the long-running saga that is the title race.
1912-13: Aston Villa
In 1913, Villa and Sunderland were the Manchester City and Liverpool of their day. Both teams were chasing the “double” and were pushed by teams like The Wednesday, who were not far behind. Sunderland edged the title by four points – they won three out of four points off of Villa – but Villa won the FA Cup final against Sunderland at the Crystal Palace in front of a record crowd of 121,000. Villa’s team was packed with big names of the era. They had legendary goalkeeper Sam Hardy who joined the club in the summer of 1912 from Liverpool. Harry Hampton was the star turn, however, netting 31 goals in 1912-13. He was nicknamed “the Wellington whirlwind” after the town of his birth. Hampton, like Clem Stephenson, was an England player and one of the leading forwards in the years before WW1. Stephenson would go on to play for Huddersfield, where he had a key role in the Yorkshire club’s hat-trick of league titles in the 1920s.
1923-24: Cardiff City
The title was decided by goal average for the first time, and Cardiff were denied championship success. They went into the final game on top and needing a win to make sure of the top prize. Huddersfield were in second place but needed to win by three clear goals to have a chance of being champions. Cardiff were awarded a penalty in the 70thminute of their final game at Birmingham City. Top scorer Len Davies, who was not the team’s regular penalty-taker, but his effort was easily saved. Huddersfield were winning 1-0 against Nottingham Forest, so the title, at that point, was still bound for Ninian Park. But two more goals from Herbert Chapman’s side gave the Terriers a 3-0 win and with Cardiff drawing 0-0, Huddersfield won the title by 0.024 of a goal! Cardiff City’s team was captained by Fred Keenor, an uncompromising, hard-tackling player who won more than 40 caps for Wales. Keenor’s statue stands outside Cardiff City’s stadium, holding the FA Cup the Bluebirds won in 1927, the only time the cup has been lifted by a non-English club.
1959-60: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves were denied a hat-trick of league titles by Burnley, but the race was edge-of-the-seat stuff. With two games to go, Burnley were level on points with Wolves, who had just one fixture left. Wolves had hammered the young Burnley team 6-1 at Molineux at the end of March. On the final day of the campaign, Wolves won 5-1 at Chelsea, while Burnley drew with Fulham at home. That pushed Burnley down to third place, one point behind Wolves and level on points with Spurs, but they still had to visit Manchester City on May 2. A win would give them their first League Championship since 1921. Burnley won 2-1 to claim the title, leaving Wolves to console themselves with their FA Cup final triumph. The 1959-60 season was the club’s first without legendary skipper Billy Wright, who retired in 1959, but the team was still largely the one that had won the title in 1958 and 1959, though, with players like Eddie Clamp, Ron Flowers, Jimmy Murray and Peter Broadbent lining-up in the old gold shirts.
1967-68: Manchester United
Manchester United could well have won the title on the final day of the season, but their local rivals, Manchester City, won 4-3 at Newcastle United and the reigning champions slipped-up at home to Sunderland. They had been locked in combat with City all season, who had a vibrant young team managed by Joe Mercer. United were distracted by their pursuit of the European Cup, which included difficult ties against Gornik and Real Madrid. They eventually won the Cup at Wembley by beating Benfica 4-1. The result that really cost United the championship was on April 29 when they were beaten 6-3 at West Bromwich Albion, but they had shown signs of vulnerability, losing at home to Chelsea and Liverpool and away at Coventry in the run-in. Despite having George Best in his prime and the experience of Bobby Charlton and injury-prone Denis Law, United would have to wait until 1993 for their next title.
1970-71: Leeds United
The battle between Arsenal and Leeds United was attritional, a clash of the ultra-professionals that defined the early 1970s. Leeds, widely considered to be the better team, were eventually beaten-off by an Arsenal side that won the double. Leeds had suffered a heart-breaking season in 1969-70, but once more, they were fighting on all fronts: the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, the league and the FA Cup. Into 1971, they suffered some setbacks. First of all, they were beaten at home by Liverpool in the league and then a week later, they lost 3-2 at Colchester in the FA Cup. There was worse to come, although at the beginning of April, Leeds were six points ahead of Arsenal who had three games in hand. While the Gunners kept chipping away, Leeds drew at Newcastle and then on April 17 came the killer blow. West Bromwich Albion won 2-1 at Elland Road thanks to an “offside” goal from Jeff Astle that sparked a pitch invasion. Leeds’ defeat and an Arsenal win meant the two teams were level on 58 points, but the Londoners had a better goal average. Leeds regained some ground when they beat Arsenal at Elland Road on April 26, thanks to a disputed goal from Jack Charlton. Leeds were tiring and they played four games in eight days to end their domestic campaign. They had 64 points and Arsenal were one point behind on 63 with a game to go – the North London derby with Tottenham, which they won 1-0. Leeds were bridesmaids once more.
1975-76: Queens Park Rangers
QPR manager Sexton was one of the few English coaches who made the effort to attend the World Cup in Germany in 1974 and when he saw the the Dutch and German teams, he was keen to bring the concept of “total football” to England. In 1975-76, QPR were unbeaten until October 4 and from the end of January, QPR went on a superb run that included 11 wins and a draw in 12 games. On March 6, Rangers went top after beating Coventry 4-1 and after overcoming Manchester City 1-0, they were one point ahead of Manchester United and Derby and two in front of Liverpool. They barely put a foot wrong, but when they went to Norwich, they were beaten 3-2, despite outplaying their hosts. It was a costly defeat that sent a signal of hope to the other clear challenger for the title – Liverpool. Rangers ended the campaign with a 2-0 win against Leeds United at Loftus Road. It put them top of the table with 59 points, but Liverpool – one point behind – had one game to play, against struggling Wolves. It ended 3-1 to Liverpool and Rangers finished runners-up. This was a wonderful team to watch, with a solid keeper in Phil Parkes, experience in the form of John Hollins, Frank McClintock and David Webb, a cultured midfield that included Don Masson and Gerry Francis, and the sublime skill of Stan Bowles. But it was, essentially, a one-season side that was so unlucky not to be crowned champions.
1980-81: Ipswich Town
Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town never won a title, despite being contenders on a few occasions, almost always being denied by the size of their squad. In 1980-81, Ipswich were the best team around, but their playing resources were stretched by seeking success on three fronts: the league, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. Ipswich had a marvellous, continental-style team, inspired by two Dutchmen in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijjsen and including England internationals Mick Mills, Terry Butcher, Eric Gates, Paul Mariner and Russell Osman. Added to that were Scots George Burley, Alan Brazil and John Wark. Ipswich had to battle it out with Aston Villa, whom they beat twice in the league and once in the FA Cup. After beating Villa for the third time on April 14, their title bid collapsed as they lost four of their last five games. In the FA Cup, they were beaten at the semi-final stage, going out to Manchester City by 1-0, ironically at Villa Park. But they did win the UEFA Cup, beating AZ Alkmaar 5-4 on aggregate over two games. Villa may have finished champions, but Ipswich won many friends for their commitment to flowing football. How their followers, who have seen the club slump to the third tier of English football, must hanker for the days when an unfashionable club from East Anglia delighted the football world.
Everton and Liverpool were neck-and-neck all season but it was the red half of the city that came out on top in both the league and FA Cup. Everton, defending champions in the first division, were arguably a stronger side than their title winning combination of 1985, thanks to the addition of England striker Gary Lineker, who scored 38 goals in 1985-86, his only season with the club. It was a close-run title race that also included West Ham United, Manchester United and Chelsea and on the final day, the championship could have gone to three clubs. While West Ham won at West Bromwich and Everton trounced Southampton 6-1, with Lineker scoring a hat-trick, Liverpool won the day with a 1-0 victory at Chelsea. Everton and West Ham still had one game to play, against each other, but Kenny Dalglish’s team could not be caught. A few days later, Everton’s agony was complete as they lost an all-Merseyside FA Cup final to Liverpool, despite going ahead through Lineker. The Everton side was largely the one that won the title in 1985, with Neville Southall in goal, a defence that included Gary Stevens, Kevin Ratcliffe, Derek Mountfield and Pat Van Den Hauwe, a midfield of Peter Reid, Kevin Sheedy, Paul Bracewell and Trevor Steven, and a front two of Lineker and Graeme Sharp.
1995-96: Newcastle United
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle were the neutrals’ favourites, a team committed to attack and entertainment. But this flamboyant edge made them vulnerable, particularly to teams that would exploit their somewhat cavalier approach to defending or closing down a game. Keegan’s Newcastle led the Premier League at Christmas 1995 and had a 10-point lead at the top, which extended to 12 points into the new year. However, a run of five defeats in eight games enabled a determined Manchester United, who were rejuvenated by the turn of Eric Cantona from suspension, to overtake them and win the title by four points.The Newcastle approach was encapsulated in a game at Liverpool when the home side beat the Geordies 4-3 after they had led three times. Newcastle’s team included flair players like David Ginola, Peter Beardsley and, latterly, Faustino Asprilla. Les Ferdinand, a big-money signing from QPR, scored 25 goals in his first season with the club. Other big signings included midfielder David Batty from Leeds and full-back Warren Barton. Newcastle are still waiting for thatfirst title win since 1927.
With 97 points, one defeat, 30 victories and a lethal forward line that netted 56 goals, Liverpool represent the most prolific of all runners-up. Their only league defeat came at champions Manchester City in their 21stPremier League game. Jürgen Klopp’s team went top on January 8 (they had led the table early in the season, too) and stayed their until the end of January. Around this time, the Reds drew six times in eight games and this effectively cost them their first title since pre-Premier days. Despite winning their last nine, Liverpool were unable to prevent Manchester City from regaining their crown. Nevertheless, the general consensus was that this had been the most exciting Liverpool team since the club’s glory days. This was underlined by their goalscoring prowess, with Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah both netting 22 goals and being joint winners of the Golden Boot (along with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang). Roberto Firmino also grabbed 12 league goals. Liverpool’s team also included the outstanding central defender Virgil van Dijk.
Other teams worthy of honourable mention:
Sheffield United (1899-00), Aston Villa (1902-03), Manchester United (1946-47), Wolves (1949-50), Preston North End (1952-53), Leeds United (1964-65), Manchester City (1976-77), Liverpool (1988-89), Manchester United (1991-92) and Chelsea (2007-08). On 16 occasions, the title has been won by a one point margin, while goal difference has decided two seasons, 1988-89 and 2011-12. In the days of goal average, the slide rule came into play in 1923-24, 1959-40, 1952-53 and 1964-65. People rarely remember the teams that didn’t win the title, rather like they don’t recall the FA Cup semi-finalists. You get the feeling, however, that the Liverpool team of 2018-19 will stick in the memory longer than most. At least until the Reds win the Premier League for the first time since 1990.