Smaller squad syndrome – why some teams became The Great Uncrowned

THROUGHOUT football history, some of the most admired teams have been those that didn’t win the ultimate prizes: Hungary 1954, the Netherlands in 1974 and 1978, Queens Park Rangers in 1976, Ipswich Town in 1981 and Newcastle United in 1996. These are just some of the sides that enthralled so many people but were often denied by ruthless, focused opponents who knew precisely how to win. The world still loves the memory of the Dutch team of Johan Cruyff and co., but although we respect the West Germans of 1974 that beat them, the same level of affection just isn’t there. We feel for the underdog, but it is because they failed that we love them all the more – an element of romance creeps into heroic failure that is often lacking in the hard-nosed pursuit of success and silverware.

We also applaud any tale of the unexpected, such as Leicester City’s Premier League title win of 2016. Over the decades, the football world has willed small clubs on to win trophies – such as in FA Cup finals when the unfancied have triumphed over the favourites. Unfortunately, football has become too predictable in many quarters as financial clout has become the 12th man, not the fans as everyone likes to think. The thought of the 12th man being in the stands and on the terraces is another romantic ideal that has long gone and has been replaced by money.

In the past, teams like QPR, Ipswich and even the mighty Leeds United have fallen at the final hurdle for a variety of reasons, but strength in depth is something that many nearly men have in common. Today, most of the squads of the big clubs are not just sizeable, but they are also packed with talent – there are very few examples of “making up the numbers”, because these clubs have the wealth and the capability to assemble a multi-faceted squad that adheres to a system.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, clubs couldn’t afford to have vast squads, they generally had 14 or so very decent players and the rest were reserves, youngsters or veterans who filled in when needed. Some clubs barely had 11, so when a key man was missing, they struggled. Injuries and suspensions were more influential on the outcome of a season, but loss of form also meant that a manager could not “tinker” as much as they do today. This was a time of one, two or at best, three substitutes, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was 12 men at best. It was difficult to keep a squad happy, although there was reserve team football, which had more credibility than it does today. It was a smaller market and players didn’t have the contractual freedom they have in the 21st century.

Leeds United were one such team, a mythical starting eleven of internationals – Sprake (Wales), Reaney (England), Cooper (England), Charlton (England), Hunter (England), Lorimer (Scotland),Clarke (England), Jones (England), Giles (Ireland) and Gray (Scotland) – plus the versatile Madeley (England). Outside of that revered combination, Leeds were relatively weak and given they fought on all fronts, injuries would instantly derail their system. Leeds lost more than they should have won, but a bigger squad would surely have given them the honours they deserved. The same could be applied to Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town in 1981, a wonderful team that didn’t have the depth they needed. At the same time, Ipswich’s big rivals in 1981, Aston Villa, used only 14 players, proving that if they stay fit and on form, a small group can win through.

It’s hard to imagine current champions Manchester City lacking alternatives, although their squad is smaller than most, but is packed with talent at all levels. In 2021-22, City used 33 players in all competitions, just 18 of which played more than a third of their Premier League games. Over the past decade, Premier champions have used, across all fronts, an average of 32 players, but when it comes to the league itself, 17 have been involved over 33% of the time.

The problem of smaller squads has undoubtedly contributed to some excellent teams failing fulfil their destiny, a subject that crops up time and again in The Great Uncrowned, which includes teams from the early 20th century right up to the current era. The role these played in the history of the game should not be overlooked, because without unpredictability and that element of “what might have been”, the sport we are all attracted to loses a big slice of its appeal. Fans of Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch and Brazilian football are still talking about their greats of the past and QPR, Ipswich, Burnley and Leeds fans will forever warm to memories of players who gave them such joy. But even the neutrals and the onlookers gained so much pleasure from the skill, talent and endeavour of teams that really were The Great Uncrowned.

The Great Uncrowned by Neil Jensen is published by Pitch Publishing ISBN 1801501777

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