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

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

 

Saunders’ champions – Aston Villa 1981

SEVENTY-PLUS years had passed since Aston Villa had last won the Football League Championship, their six title triumphs ended in 1910. In the intervening decades, Villa had known despair at times, spending  two years in Division Three at the start of the 1970s. In 1975, under the ultra-disciplinarian, Ron Saunders, Villa returned to the top flight, also winning the Football League Cup in 1974-75.

Villa made good progress in Division One and in 1976-77 finished fourth and won the League Cup again. Much of their success was dependent on two talented forwards,  Andy Gray and Brian Little. By 1980, neither player featured in the Villa line-up – Gray had been sold for a huge fee and Little was a victim of injury.

But Saunders built a strong team that had the solid foundations that he always demanded of his sides but also benefitted from considerable flair. Villa, after finishing seventh in 1979-80, became title contenders in 1980-81. Saunders had added Peter Withe to his squad, a journeyman striker who had won the League with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1978. He paired this tall target man with a promising and spritely youngster, Gary Shaw, to form a partnership that immediately paid dividends.

Consistency was the key for Villa – they used just 14 players all season with seven of their squad playing all 42 league games. This continuity was vital as Saunders’ team went head-to-head with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town for the title.

Villa started the season well but lost their first game at Ipswich at the start of September. After a second defeat a few days later at Everton, they went on a 12 game unbeaten run that ended at Liverpool on November 22. By this time, Villa were top of the table, two points ahead of Ipswich who had two games in hand. Most of the pundits expected Ipswich to be champions in 1980-81, but the Suffolk side suffered from fixture congestion and a lack of strength in depth in their squad.

As 1980 ended, Liverpool were also in contention but like Villa they had played more games than Ipswich. Villa came out of an indifferent period and in January hit form again, but the title had started to evolve into a two-horse race. Ipswich were top at the end of January, but they had distractions in both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup. They had knocked Villa out of the FA Cup at the third round stage.

While Ipswich struggled to fight on three fronts, Villa only had the Football League title to focus on. But as February ended, Ipswich were two points ahead at the top and both teams had played 31 games. The smart money was still on Ipswich.

Villa went on another long unbeaten run that took them to mid-March. It ended on March 21 at Tottenham, but Ipswich spurned the chance to take advantage of their rivals’ slip-up and were beaten at Manchester United. They stayed one point ahead of Villa and were now a game behind.

At the end of March, Ipswich appeared to implode and lost two key games, at Leeds and West Bromwich. At the start of April, Villa were top with 53 points from 36 games, Ipswich second with 52 from 36.

When the two sides met at Villa Park on April 14, Villa had a three point advantage but Ipswich had six games still to play to Villa’s five. Ipswich won the big clash in front of more than 47,000 people by 2-1, Shaw scoring very late on for the home side. It looked as though Ipswich now had the initiative.

But four days later, Villa beat Nottingham Forest while Ipswich slipped again, this time at home to Arsenal. Villa had gone three points clear and Ipswich were running out of games. On April 20, both contenders seemed to be getting tired – Villa drew 1-1 at Stoke and Ipswich were beaten in the East Anglian derby with Norwich. Saunders’ men now had a four-point margin. Five days later, the title looked to be secure as both sides won. Ipswich had to win both of their remaining games to be champions and hope for Villa to falter. On May 2 at half-time, the issue was still open as Villa were losing at Arsenal and Ipswich were winning at Middlesbrough. By full-time, both challengers had lost, so the trophy went to the Midlands.

There was widespread sympathy for Ipswich, who for a long time had promised to win the title, but few people denied Villa their first championship in several generations. Their usual team was: Rimmer; Swain, Gibson, Williams, Evans, McNaught; Cowans, Mortimer, Bremner, Morley; Withe, Shaw.

Aston Villa’s captain Dennis Mortimer shows the trophy to a crowd of thousands outside the Birmingham Town Hall. Aston Villa won the league championship for the first time since 1910.

Jimmy Rimmer (33): Experienced goalkeeper who joined Villa in 1977 from Arsenal, but also spent some time with Manchester United earlier in his career. Won one England cap when he was with Arsenal.

Kenny Swain (29): A versatile player who started out as a forward at Chelsea, his first professional club. Swain was converted to full back by Ron Saunders and was an immediate success. He had cost Villa £ 100,000 when he joined them halfway through the 1978-79 season. Went on to have a notable coaching career.

Colin Gibson (21): Left-back or midfielder who was an England under-21 international. Played for Villa until 1985 when he joined Manchester United.

Gary Williams (20): Full back who played for Villa between 1978 and 1987 before moving to Leeds United.

Ken McNaught (26): Scottish central defender who joined Villa from Everton in 1977. A rugged centre back who later played for West Bromwich Albion.

Allan Evans (24): Scottish international (4 caps) who was signed from Dunfermline Athletic in 1977. A marvellously consistent central defender who formed a dependable partnership with McNaught at the heart of the Villa back-line.

Gordon Cowans (22): County Durham-born midfielder who won plaudits for his exciting performances. Became an England international, winning 10 caps before leaving Villa in 1985 to join Bari in Italy. His career was blighted by injury and he rarely scaled the heights of his early years.

Dennis Mortimer (29): Liverpool-born midfielder and captain who was considered to be one of the best players never to be capped by England. Signed by Villa in 1975 from Coventry City and stayed with the club for a decade before signing for Brighton.

Des Bremner (28): Villa paid Hibernian £ 275,000 to sign Bremner in 1979. Capped once by Scotland, he spent more than five years with the club before joining Birmingham City.

Peter Withe (29): A much travelled and frequently under-rated centre forward who had already won the title with Nottingham Forest in 1978. His aerial power complemented Gary Shaw’s style and the duo netted 38 league goals between them. Was also the match-winner in the 1981-82 European Cup final.

Gary Shaw (20): A richly-talented forward whose career was stymied by crippling injuries. A local lad, he won England Under-21 caps and was tipped to add full caps to that haul. He was named PFA Player of the Year in 1980-81.

Tony Morley (26): A fast and tricky winger who also knew how to score spectacular goals. Morley joined the club from Burnley in 1979, costing Villa £ 200,000. He was capped six times by England. Moved to West Bromwich in 1983.

Football League Appearances

Bremner, D 42 Gibson, C 19+2   Shaw, G 40
Cowans, G 42 McNaught, K 42   Swain, K     42
Deacy, E 5+4 Morley, T 42   Williams, G 21+1
Evans, A 39 Mortimer, D 42   Withe, P 36
Geddis, D 8+1 Rimmer, J 42

Goalscorers:  Withe 20, Shaw 18, Morley 10, Evans 7, Cowans 5, Geddis 4, Mortimer 4, Bremner 2, Own Goals 2 Total: 72

Football League Results

Aug 16 Leeds United Away W 2-1 Morley, Shaw 23,401
Aug 20 Norwich City Home W 1-0 Shaw 25,970
Aug 23 Manchester City Away D 2-2 Withe 2 30,017
Aug 30 Coventry City Home W 1-0 Shaw 26,050
Sept 6 Ipswich Town Away L 0-1 23,192
Sept 13 Everton Home L 0-2 25,673
Sept 20 Wolverhampton W Home W 2-1 Own Goal, Geddis 26,181
Sept 27 Crystal Palace Away W 1-0 Shaw 18,398
Oct 4 Sunderland Home W 4-0 Evans 2, Morley, Shaw 26,914
Oct 8 Manchester United Away D 3-3 Withe, Cowans (pen), Shaw 38,831
Oct 11 Birmingham City Away W 2-1 Cowans (pen), Evans 33,879
Oct 18 Tottenham Hotspur Home W 2-0 Morley 2, Withe 30,940
Oct 22 Brighton & Hove A Home W 4-1 Mortimer, Withe, Bremner, Shaw 27,367
Oct 25 Southampton Away W 2-1 Morley, Withe 21,249
Nov 1 Leicester City Home W 2-0 Shaw, Cowans 29,953
Nov 8 West Bromwich A Away D 0-0 34,195
Nov 12 Norwich City Away W 3-1 Shaw 2, Evans 17,050
Nov 15 Leeds United Home D 1-1 Shaw 29,106
Nov 22 Liverpool Away L 1-2 Evans 48,114
Nov 29 Arsenal Home D 1-1 Morley 30,140
Dec 6 Middlesbrough Away L 1-2 Shaw 15,597
Dec 13 Birmingham City Home W 3-0 Geddis 2, Shaw 41,101
Dec 20 Brighton & Hove A Away L 0-1 16,425
Dec 26 Stoke City Home W 1-0 Withe 34,658
Dec 27 Nottingham Forest Away D 2-2 Own Goal, Shaw 33,930
Jan 10 Liverpool Home W 2-0 Withe, Mortimer 47,960
Jan 17 Coventry City Away W 2-1 Morley, Withe 27,020
Jan 31 Manchester City Home W 1-0 Shaw 33,682
Feb 7 Everton Away W 3-1 Morley, Mortimer, Cowans (pen) 31,434
Feb 21 Crystal Palace Home W 2-1 Withe 2 27,203
Feb 28 Wolverhampton W Away W 1-0 Withe 34,693
Mar 7 Sunderland Away W 2-1 Evans, Mortimer 27,278
Mar 14 Manchester United Home D 3-3 Withe 2, Shaw 42,182
Mar 21 Tottenham Hotspur Away L 0-2 35,091
Mar 23 Southamptom Home W 2-1 Morley, Geddis 32.467
Apr 4 Leicester City Away W 4-2 Withe 2, Bremner, Morley 26,032
Apr 8 West Bromwich A Home W 1-0 Withe 47,998
Apr 14 Ipswich Town Home L 1-2 Shaw 47,495
Apr 18 Nottingham Forest Home W 2-0 Cowans (pen), Withe 34,707
Apr 20 Stoke City Away D 1-1 Withe 23,511
Apr 25 Middlesbrough Home W 3-0 Shaw, Withe, Evans 38,018
May 2 Arsenal Away L 0-2 57,472

FA Cup: Round Three
Football League Cup: Round Two
Average home attendance: 34,117

Pos   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

 

 Photos: PA