City and Liverpool: Football’s duopoly

IT is clear that English football has become a duopoly comprising Manchester City and Liverpool. It’s not necessarily a good thing for the game, but these two teams are arguably the best in Europe at this precise moment.

Many years ago, football folk in England laughed at the duopolies that existed in Scotland, Portugal, the Netherlands and other continental European countries. English football, they believed, was more open, more democratic and anyone could win the top trophies. In those days, the Football League Cup had been won by a couple of third division clubs (QPR and Swindon) and FA Cup lifted by no less than three second division clubs (Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham). Giant-killing was a peculiarly English thing, the classic David versus Goliath story. Perhaps this was why it took some time before English clubs could challenge for the European Cup, their opponents from Italy, Spain and Portugal just didn’t know how to lose the big games.

Most two-team rivalries have been short-lived

Twenty-four clubs have been English champions, 10 of whom were crowned for the first time before the first world war. The leading clubs of that era had emerged from the industrial regions of the country, places like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and the north-east. Although there were fierce rivalries in the pre-WW1 footballing universe, such as Villa and midland neighbours who loved to beat them, and Newcastle and Sunderland, there was a broad range of contenders. In the Football League’s first 12 years, 10 clubs achieved top three placings and in the period 1900 to 1915, there were 14 top three teams. During this time, one of the most exciting seasons was 1912-13, when Aston Villa and Sunderland were the dominant forces. Sunderland won the league and Villa beat them in the FA Cup final. Both teams could have won the double that year.

Most two-team rivalries have been relatively short-lived. For example, in the 1930s, when Arsenal won five league titles, there were four different runners-up. Quite simply, most of their opponents didn’t have the consistency or financial resources to challenge them every year. At the same time, it should be noted Arsenal were never runaway winners, they won four of their five championships in the 1930s by four points or less.

The Manchester United team that came to an end in the tragedy of the Munich air crash may have gone on to win many more prizes and given Wolverhampton Wanderers took over as the leading side of the day, winning the league in 1958 and 1959, there might have been a two-way struggle for supremacy in the late 1950s. Furthermore, the Tottenham double winners of 1961 may have added to that equation, although would Spurs have been so successful had United’s young team not perished in the snow. We shall never know, of course.

The Liverpool age of 1975 to 1990 was an incredible chapter of success and came after teams such as Leeds United and Arsenal had developed a brief and abrasive spirit of competitiveness. Leeds were consistent and too manic for their own good, yet they were the best team in England between 1968 and 1972. Arsenal won the double in 1971, overtaking Leeds right at the death, but didn’t have the players to go beyond that memorable year. Leeds United’s real rivals were themselves, although Liverpool were waiting to become the new alpha club.

The big problem for English football was the lack of long-term competition for Liverpool. While the transition from Bill Shankly to Bob Paisley was seamless, they didn’t have a consistent challenger. Between 1975-76 and 1982-83, QPR, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Ipswich Town and Watford all finished second to the Reds. Although fans from Forest talk about the time Brian Clough’s team went head-to-head with Liverpool, it was only really a two season confrontation. It was not until 1984-85 that Liverpool had a week-by-week rivals to push them all the way, and ironically, it came from their own city and just across Stanley Park.

For three seasons, Everton and Liverpool could barely be separated, with Everton winning two of three league titles in that period. The two Merseyside clubs were two points apart in the league, the title being won by a Kenny Dalglish goal at Chelsea in his first season as player-manager. Then they met in the FA Cup final, with Liverpool winning 3-1 and completing the double with arguably their least effective side in a few years. But in truth, the Liverpool golden era was drawing to a close and in 1990, they won their last league title for 30 years.

Manchester United took over as the top side in the country, partly due to their sheer size and financial power, but also because they had the game’s top manager in Alex Ferguson. United had also tapped into youth development, bringing on group of highly talented players that would form the core of their team for the next decade, the so-called “Class of ’92”.

This is where the Premier League, which was formed in 1992, experienced its first two-team battle for power in the often fractious relationship between Arsenal and Manchester United. The dynamic between these two clubs saw some titanic struggles for the league title. Between 1998 and 2001, the two teams filled the first two places in the Premier every season. In a seven-year period ending in 2004, Arsenal won three titles to United’s four. The two teams were superior to the rest of the Premier because of their management and methods, Arsenal benefitting from the progressive approach of Arséne Wenger, which not only brought foreign talent to the club, but also a more scientific regime for players that included diet, training and mentality. In 2004, Arsenal under Wenger reached their zenith with the Premier title and an unbeaten league programme. But this duopoly was coming to an end as Chelsea became the richest club in the country thanks to their new owner Roman Abramovich.

Arsenal drifted away from the forefront gradually and Chelsea took up an arms race with Manchester United. For a while, the league’s chief rivalry was between these two clubs, but it was never as hectic as the Arsenal-United bout. Wenger was never happy about Chelsea and their sudden wealth and to some extent, this became something of a psychological hurdle for both club and coach.

The Chelsea-United period of dominance began in 2004 and really ended in 2011. Chelsea’s second season under Abramovich – and first with José Mourinho – saw them win the Premier League with 95 points,12 ahead of Arsenal, they retained the title a year later with 91. From 2004-05 to 2010-11, United still managed to win more Premier Leagues than Chelsea, four to three, and although they were both champions afterwards, their position was now under threat from Manchester City.

If Chelsea’s success was considered “bought” by the club’s critics, the same could be applied to City’s elevation. Both clubs, along with France’s Paris Saint-Germain were examples of a new breed, clubs who climbed the ladder thanks to huge investments of cash. In the case of Chelsea and City, they were both relative underachievers before being taken over. They were now looking the traditional giants of the English game, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool in the eye, much to the irritation of the establishment.

City and Liverpool simply have the best squads, the smartest management

But City’s wealth was enormous compared to Abramovich’s money and so the advantages Chelsea had between 2003 and 2010 were no longer quite as significant. Similarly, Manchester United and Arsenal’s US ownership, were now running their clubs far differently, no longer able to compete with the model adopted by City or Chelsea. The financial position of both United and Arsenal eroded over a period of time and they were no longer certainties for Champions League football.

Although Liverpool were also owned by Americans, the club started to break free of the malaise that descended upon Anfield after a prolonged period without the league trophy. They pulled off a major coup in hiring former Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp and although the trophies didn’t flow at first, a new, vibrant team was moulded at the club. City, who by 2016 had secured Pep Guardiola, were also building something more substantial than their rivals off the pitch. The City project was not just about playing success, it was also about creating something with much more depth and longevity. By 2021, the club had overtaken United in terms of revenue generation, which underlined the stagnation at Old Trafford after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as much as it emphasised the smart thinking of City’s owners and management.

Between them, City and Liverpool now had the best coaches, the most intelligent approach to transfer market activity and the most fluid teams. In 2018, there were signs Klopp was creating something special at Liverpool when they reached the UEFA Champions League final, trouncing City on the way. A year later, Liverpool finished just one point behind City in the league and returned to the Champions League final, beating Tottenham in Madrid. Liverpool lost just one game in the Premier and notched up 97 points, but City were still ahead of them as they won the domestic treble. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, City won five of the six domestic prizes on offer.The power and consistency of the front two was also evidenced by the 15-point gap between Liverpool and Chelsea in third.

The Premier League was arguably the most coveted prize for Liverpool after a 30-year gap since their last triumph. Liverpool topped the table from the start and lost only three games, winning 18 of their 19 home games. City were 18 points behind in second place, but scored 102 goals to Liverpool’s 85. The two teams were still way ahead of the competition, Manchester United, in third, were 15 points worse off than City.

Winning the title may have taken more out of Liverpool than they expected, for they seemed to run out of steam in 2020-21, but in 2021-22, with some squad additions, they have chased City all the way. The two teams are finely matched and there’s very little between them, as evidenced in the recent league and cup games. Once more, there’s a considerable gap between City and Liverpool and the team just behind them.

City topped the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time in 2022, their revenues rising 7% to £ 571.1 million. This is an impressive statistic given the pandemic and impact it had on club income. Manchester United, traditionally the highest-placed English club, generated £ 494 million, while Liverpool were not far behind with income of £ 487 million.

The simple fact is, City and Liverpool are now standing astride the Premier League because they have the best squads. A remarkable 20% of the Guardian top 100 for 2021 comprised players from these two clubs, while 13 of the top 40 most highly valued players are from Liverpool and Manchester City (Football Benchmark).

But is this really good for English football? Will we look back in five years and see the continuation of a two-horse race? It is unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a certainty that neither Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp will still be in charge at their respective clubs. In fact, their reign may end sooner rather than later. This is important because they are arguably the two most influential managers of their generation, and there are not many coaches to compare. Secondly, the two teams will need to rebuild at some point, they have players who are past or approaching the end of peak marketability. Thirdly, other rivals will come to the fore – Newcastle United will be a rising force in the next year or two as their new ownership starts to really shape their playing resources. Other clubs will also be beneficiaries of investor money and become challengers. Finally, nothing lasts forever in football, just recall the fall of Liverpool after 1990 and the current mess that is Manchester United. And who would have predicted Abramovich leaving Chelsea? The current duopoly, by historic standards, is approaching maturity and may have already peaked. For the game’s sake, it needs to change, even if we do enjoy the high quality of two excellent teams.

The men who made Mansfield Town’s big night

WEDNESDAY February 26, 1969 remains one of the greatest dates in Mansfield Town’s history, the night three World Cup winners were beaten at Field Mill, the Stags’ unpretentious home.

West Ham’s Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, not to mention Bobby Ferguson, Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking and Harry Redknapp, lined up for the Londoners, but the Hammers’ lost 3-0, a scoreline that was arguably the biggest shock in the FA Cup that season. As one newspaper said: “West Ham walked into a disaster seven miles off the M1…in a Notts mining town of narrow, snow-covered streets.”

West Ham were seventh in the first division when they arrived at Field Mill and had just drawn 1-1 with Liverpool at the Boleyn Ground. They had beaten Bristol City and Huddersfield Town in the previous rounds and nobody expected them to lose the fifth round tie at Mansfield.

The Stags had disposed of Tow Law Town, Rotherham United, Sheffield United and Southend United on route to round five. Their team had been virtually unchanged all the way through. Dave Hollins, brother of Chelsea’s John, was in goal, a Welsh international (as opposed to his sibling, who had won an England cap) who had played for Brighton and Newcastle United. 

Stuart Boam, a 20 year-old defender, started his career with Mansfield, but was bound for greater things. He was eventually sold to Middlesbrough for £ 50,000 and was renowned as a strong, determined and reliable performer. Scotsman Johnny Quigley arrived at Mansfield from Bristol City, costing the club £ 3,000. He had won the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1959 and was 33 when he joined the Stags.

Dudley Roberts and Nick Sharkey both caught the eye during the FA Cup run. Roberts, who was 23, joined from Coventry City and played 200 league games for Mansfield, scoring 66 goals. He had been the hero in the third and fourth rounds of the competition against Sheffield United and Southend United. Sharkey, a Scot, came from Leicester City and represented his country at under-23 level.

Mansfield were struggling in the third division and relegation was a distinct possibility. They were one of four teams – Orient, Crewe, Hartlepool were the others – on 24 points. They went into their clash with West Ham after one win in eight games. But West Ham were a team that had earned a reputation of being a purist footballing side under Ron Greenwood, which occasionally made them vulnerable to opponents who adopted a blood and thunder approach. They had been beaten by teams from a lower division before, notably Swindon Town in 1966-67 and Huddersfield in 1967-68.

The pitch was very heavy, recent weather had caused the game to be postponed twice and there had been snowfalls. In the circumstances, Mansfield had a good chance to pull off a shock result as West Ham would be unable to play their short-passing game. The crowd at Mill Field was over 21,000 but very few West Ham fans had made the trip to Nottinghamshire.

The pitch closed the gap between the first division and the third. For example, England’s World Cup winning skipper, Bobby Moore, struggled at the start of the game and was also jeered every time he touched the ball as he had brought down Roberts early on. Later, Geoff Hurst missed an easy chance as he shot the ball across goal from six yards.  Mansfield, by contrast, made some early mistakes, but then accepted the challenge with gusto and took the tie to their illustrious visitors. 

Initially, they packed their defence to thwart Hurst and his forward-line team-mates, but once they grew in confidence, their long-ball game started to trouble West Ham. In the 22nd minute, Roberts, who constantly troubled West Ham, gave Mansfield the lead, receiving a pass from former Leicester man Jimmy Goodfellow through a packed area – “opening West Ham’s defence like a tin of sardines”-  and side-footing past Bobby Ferguson in the Hammers’ goal.

Mansfield strengthened their hold on the game in the 37th minute after Ferguson punched the ball clear from a Goodfellow cross, but Ray Keeley volleyed it straight back into the net from the edge of the area. Keely described it as a “dream goal which you never think will really happen until it does”. 

The game was settled five minutes into the second half with a third goal that owed much to a clumsy mistake by Ferguson. He ran out of his area to meet a long pass from Boam, dropped the ball and allowed it to fall to Sharkey who gratefully finished in front of goal. It was an uncharacteristic error by Ferguson, but summed up a miserable night for the Hammers.

The town of Mansfield celebrated their 3-0 victory, singing and dancing in the streets. Manager Tommy Egglestone was, understandably, proud of his team: “They ran and fought to the last ounce. They have done Mansfield proud but realised we were going to win the moment our second goal went in.”

Ron Greenwood was sporting in defeat: “If you miss your chances, you can’t grumble about losing. I wouldn’t say we played too badly so there must be plenty of credit for them for playing so well.”

Mansfield didn’t know who they would be facing in the quarter-final as Leicester and Liverpool had still to decide their tie, but Bill Shankly was watching at Field Mill and expected West Ham to win, even when they were 2-0 down. It turned out to be Leicester City but they proved to be too good for the Stags. In front of another big crowd, Rodney Fern scored the only goal to send Leicester through to meet West Bromwich Albion.

Mansfield still had to secure their place in the third division for 1969-70 and they managed to do just that, finishing in 15th place after winning seven of their last 12 fixtures. A year later, they enjoyed another good FA Cup run, reaching the last 16 before going out to Leeds United. They’ve had good and bad days since that time, but has there been a greater 90 minutes in the club’s history?