The best bridesmaids: 10 teams that should have been champions

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

The victorious Aston Villa team: (back row, l-r) Tommy Lyons, Tommy Weston, Sam Hardy (middle row, l-r) George Ramsay, Aston Villa Secretary/Manager, Joe Bache, Harold Halse, Harry Hampton, Clem Stephenson (front row, l-r) Charlie Wallace, Tommy Barber, Jimmy Harrop, Jimmy Leach

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.

Villa’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Sunderland 38 25 4 9 86 43 54
2 Aston Villa 38 19 12 7 86 52 50
3 The Wednesday 38 21 7 10 75 55 49

1923-24: Cardiff City

For the first time in the game’s history, the title was decided by goal average, and Cardiff were denied their first 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.

Cardiff’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Huddersfield T 42 23 11 8 60 33 57
2 Cardiff City 42 22 13 7 61 34 57
3 Sunderland 42 22 9 11 71 54 53

1959-60: Wolverhampton Wanderers

1960: Malcolm Finlayson saves from Aston Villa’s centre-forward Gerry Hitchens (centre) during the FA Cup semi-final held at The Hawthorns. On the right is Wolves left-half Ron Flowers.

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.

Wolves’ league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Burnley 42 24 7 11 85 61 55
2 Wolves 42 24 6 12 106 67 54
3 Tottenham H 42 21 11 10 86 50 53

1967-68: Manchester United

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.

United’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Manchester City 42 26 6 10 86 43 58
2 Manchester Utd 42 24 8 10 89 55 56
3 Liverpool 42 22 11 9 71 40 55

1970-71: Leeds United

1971: Leeds Utd’s Jack Charlton goes through before scoring past Arsenal’s Bob Wilson at Elland Road.

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.

Leeds’ league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Arsenal 42 29 7 6 71 29 65
2 Leeds United 42 27 10 5 72 30 64
3 Tottenham H 42 19 14 9 54 33 52

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.

QPR’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Liverpool 42 23 14 5 66 31 60
2 QPR 42 24 11 7 67 33 59
3 Manchester United 42 23 10 9 68 42 56

1980-81: Ipswich Town

1981: Ipswich Town’s Alan Brazil and Arnold Muhren celebrate  as teammates Mick Mills and Paul Mariner hug jubilantly

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.

Ipswich’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Aston Villa 42 26 8 8 72 40 60
2 Ipswich Town 42 23 10 9 77 43 56
3 Arsenal 42 19 15 8 61 45 53

1985-86: Everton

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, Liverpool won the day with a 1-0 victory at Chelsea, with Lineker scoring a hat-trick. 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.

Everton’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Liverpool 42 26 10 6 89 37 88
2 Everton 42 26 8 8 87 41 86
3 West Ham Utd 42 26 6 10 74 40 84

1995-96: Newcastle United

1996: Newcastle United’s Faustino Asprilla (left) gets some close attention from Liverpool’s Mark Wright during thier FA Carling Premiership match at Anfield.

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.

Newcastle’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Manchester Utd 38 25 7 6 73 35 82
2 Newcastle Utd 38 24 6 8 66 37 78
3 Liverpool 38 20 11 7 70 34 71

2018-19: Liverpool

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, unsurprisingly, came at champions Manchester City in Liverpool’s 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.

Liverpool’s league record:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Manchester City 38 32 2 4 95 23 98
2 Liverpool 38 30 7 1 89 22 97
3 Chelsea 38 21 9 8 63 39 72

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.

Photos: PA

England’s league champions – passing the baton

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. That’s unlikely to happen to Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, especially in the age of massive imbalance within leagues.

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 Defence Finished
Manchester City 1937-38 21st – R
Leeds United 1992-93 17th
Everton 1928-29 18th
Ipswich Town 1962-63 17th
Chelsea 1955-56 16th
Sheffield United 1898-99 16th
Aston Villa 1900-01 15th
Liverpool 1906-07 15th
Everton 1970-71 14th
West Bromwich 1920-21 14th
Manchester City 1968-69 13th
Manchester Utd 1908-09 13th
Arsenal
Leicester C
1953-54
2016-17
12th

 

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.

Coventry City goalkeeper Bill Glazier misses the ball under pressure from Manchester City’s Tommy Booth – 1968-69.

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 Deb. Last
season
Departure
and age
Noble 1962 1966-67 1967 (23)
Foulkes 1952 1967-68 1968 (35)
Stiles 1961 1968-69 1970 (27)
Crerand 1963 1970-71 1971 (32)
Aston 1965 1969-70 1972 (25)
Dunne 1960 1972-73 1973 (32)
Best 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Charlton 1956 1972-73 1973 (35)
Sadler 1963 1971-72 1973 (27)
Law 1962 1971-72 1973 (33)
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 the years from title to relegation

Yrs Team & title year Down
2 Ipswich Town (61-62) 1962-64
4 Blackburn Rovers (94-95) 1998-99
5 Derby County (74-75) 1979-80
6 Wolves (58-59) 1964-65
6 Aston Villa (80-81) 1986-87
7 Chelsea (54-55) 1961-62
7 Liverpool (46-47) 1953-54
7 Manchester United (66-67) 1973-74
8 Leeds United (81-82) 1981-82
9 Portsmouth (49-50) 1958-59
11 Burnley (59-60) 1970-71
12 Leeds United (91-92) 2003-04
15 Nottingham Forest (77-78) 1992-93
15 Manchester City (67-68) 1982-83
16 Tottenham (60-61) 1976-77

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.

Example 1: 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
1966-67
1967-68: Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones

*Died after being struck by lightning

The Spurs team that won the double in 1961

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.

Example 2: Chelsea’s 2004-05 title winners and the years they were replaced/departed

2005-06: Mateja Kežman, Thiago
2006-07: Glen Johnson, Damien Duff, William Gallas, Eidur Gudjohnsen
2007-08: Arjen Robben
2008-09: Claude Makalele
2009-10: Wayne Bridge
2010-11: Joe Cole, Ricardo Carvalho
2011-12:
2012-13: Didier Drogba*
2013-14: Paulo Ferreira
2014-15: Frank Lampard
2014-15:
2015-16: Petr Cech
2016-17:
2017-18: John Terry

*Returned

Despite Chelsea’s reputation for being a revolving door in terms of players and management, the team that won the title in 2005 and 2006 relied on a core of stalwarts: Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba. Others came and went, but between these four players, Chelsea benefitted from a further 31 seasons of service after the first Premier victory.

The five-year records of selected champions (two years either side of their title)

  -2 -1 0 +1 +2 Av.
1896-97 Aston Villa 3 1 1 6 1 2.4
1925-26 Huddersfield 1 1 1 2 2 1.4
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1948-49 Portsmouth 12 8 1 1 7 5.8
1932-33 Arsenal 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
1951-52 Man.Utd 4 2 1 9 4 4
1955-56 Man.Utd 4 5 1 1 9 4
1958-59 Wolves 6 1 1 2 3 2.6
1960-61 Tottenham 18 3 1 3 2 5.4
1965-66 Liverpool 1 7 1 5 3 3.4
1966-67 Man.Utd 1 4 1 2 11 3.8
1968-69 Leeds United 4 4 1 2 2 2.8
1969-70 Everton 5 3 1 14 15 7.7
1970-71 Arsenal 4 12 1 5 2 4.8
1973-74 Leeds United 2 3 1 9 5 4
1974-75 Derby Co. 7 3 1 4 15 6
1978-79 Liverpool 1 2 1 1 5 2
1983-84 Liverpool 1 1 1 2 1 1.2
1984-85 Everton 7 7 1 2 1 3.6
1990-91 Arsenal 1 4 1 4 10 4
1993-94 Man.Utd 2 1 1 2 1 1.4
1998-99 Man.Utd 1 2 1 1 1 1.2
2003-04 Arsenal 1 2 1 2 4 2
2016-17 Chelsea 1 10 1 5 3 4
2017-18 Man.City 5 3 1 1 2 2.4
Arsenal’s Tony Adams (r) shoots for goal as Everton’s Craig Short (l) looks on – 1997-98

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.

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Aston Villa, Leeds United, Liverpool, QPR, Wolves and five other would-be champions

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.

1985-86: Everton
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.


2018-19: Liverpool
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.

Photos: PA