Napoli are champions after 33 years, but for some the wait goes on and on

FOR such a big and important club, Napoli’s list of major honours is very modest; their latest Serie A title was only their third and their first since 1990 and the days of Diego Maradona. But they are not the only sizeable football entity that has had a modest roll call of achievement over the years. Manchester City and Chelsea’s trophy cabinet was quite underwhelming until they came into money and those clubs that dominated pre-WW2 football, such as Sunderland and Newcastle United, have not brought out the silver polish in decades. In the age of industry, English football had its heartland, and it was in the north and the midlands. In the modern age, those that win have extraordinary financial resources, giving them a competitive edge that dwarfs the advantages of the so-called rich clubs of the past.

It is likely that many of the English football champions of ancient sporting history will never be the top dogs again. There’s only been 24 different champions and some, like Preston North End (1890), Portsmouth (1950), Ipswich Town (1962), Burnley (1960), Sunderland (1936) and Derby County (1975), may forever be in the shadows. It would take a miracle for them to become contenders once more. But miracles do happen, even if they happen be wrapped up in a substantial ownership package. Nobody would have predicted that Leicester City would be Premier League champions, but they did it, and then won the FA Cup five years later.

Newcastle United are the latest club to take the money of the Middle East and this, effectively, elevates them to “big six” status. In fact, they could even displace one of the existing half dozen that have conveniently been bracketed as the crème de la crème of English football. Newcastle United’s glory days were long ago and the club is approaching the centenary of their last league title victory, in 1926-27. They are edging closer to becoming a trophy-hunting team and if anyone other than Manchester City and co. is going to surprise us, then Newcastle will probably be that club. There is arguably not a person alive who remembers 1927’s success and there cannot be too many who even recall their last trophy, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup in 1969. 

Some clubs have been waiting for another title for well over 100 years: Preston North End last won the big prize in 1890 (133 years ago), while Sheffield United have been waiting 125 years. West Bromwich Albion were last champions in 1920. 

The longest wait between actual championships won is 81 years, the period between Blackburn Rovers 194 triumph and the Jack Walker-inspired victory in 1995. Aston Villa, the team of the late Victorian and Edwardian years, had a 71-year gap filled when they won the title in 1981. And Chelsea, for all their Abramovich-era success, ended 50 years of frustration when they won their second championship in 2005. Manchester City, in 2012, closed a 44-year chasm. 

Of the 2022-23 Premier League, 13 clubs have been English champions. The seven of the other 11 can be found in the Championship and four in League One. A total of 68 clubs have never won the title. It may seem a small number of clubs in the Premier but compared to many European countries, it almost smacks of democracy. 

In Spain, there have only been nine champions in 91 seasons, but 61 of those have been won by Real Madrid (35) and Barcelona (26). Some clubs have punched below their weight, such as Sevilla, who have a solitary La Liga victory to their name, in 1946, so they have been waiting almost 80 years for their second championship. Real Betis, their neighbours, have been waiting almost 90 years, while Athletic Bilbao will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their last title in 2023-24. Only seven clubs in the current La Liga line-up have been champions.

In Germany, seven of the current 18 top flight teams have won the Bundesliga. Bayern Munich have secured 32 of the 59 championships. Schalke 04 are the most notable team not to have won the Bundesliga, but they did lift the old championship in 1958, some 65 years ago.

Similar to Bayern in Germany and Spain’s Real-Barca duopoly, Italian football has been bossed by a small group, namely the northern sides of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter. This trio has won 74 of 129 titles, with Juve leading the way with 36. Genoa, widely acknowledged as the first club in Italy, were last champions 99 years ago, while Torino have not been at the summit since 1976. Roma and Lazio, the capital city clubs, have won just five scudettos between them.

France has arguably been the most open of league championships over the years, but Paris Saint-Germain are currently standing astride Ligue 1. PSG and Saint-Étienne have won 10 titles in the professional era, but the latter has not hit the top since 1981. Clubs like Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon have all had their moments of superiority, but since PSG became the property of Qatar Sports Investments, it has been difficult for any club to consistently keep pace with the Parisians.

By the end of 2022-23, the Premier League will have been won by either Arsenal or Manchester City. For Arsenal, if they emerge triumphant, it will end a 19-year barren spell in the league, the longest period without the holy grail since they started winning leagues in 1931. For City, it will complete a hat-trick of league successes, something Arsenal achieved in the 1930s.

When did you last see a title?

  First titleLast titleYears since last title (to 2023)
1Preston North End18891890133
4Aston Villa1894198142
5Sheffield United18981898125
7Sheffield Wednesday1904193093
8Newcastle United1905192796
9Manchester United1908201310
10Blackburn Rovers1914199581
11West Bromwich Albion19201920103
13Huddersfield Town1924192697
15Manchester City193720221+
17Tottenham Hotspur1951196162
18Wolverhampton Wanderers1954195964
20Ipswich Town1962196261
21Leeds United1969199231
22Derby County1972197548
23Nottingham Forest1978197845
24Leicester City201620167

+ Possible champions 2022-23

Football clubs need a voice

THE FRAGMENTATION of top-level football has been challenged by the creation of the Union of European Clubs (UEC), an organisation that doesn’t yet have any official members but is gamely attempting to create a forum for the clubs outside of the elite band that are dominating and over-influencing the game in Europe. In theory, UEFA should be filling this role, but there is general disenchantment with football’s governing bodies and it is easy to see why. 

There is a conflict of interest in any body that has individuals who have their fingers in many pies. Take the head of Paris Saint-Germain, who is not only on the board of UEFA, but is also deeply involved with Qatar Sports Investments and Bein Sports – both parties that operate and compete for attention in the football industry. Given Qatar’s controversial World Cup and the continued endorsement of the state, an unhealthy situation is already at play. It is inconceivable that UEFA should have a board member with such connections, if only for the sake of fair play.

Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has spoken out about the lack of support offered by the European Club Association (ECA), which appears to have become the tool of the rich and famous, for the vast majority of clubs. Never afraid to voice his opinion, Tebas believes the small and medium-sized clubs across Europe need proper representation. This has been endorsed by club officials such as Crystal Palace’s Steve Parish, who considers his club have no true voice on a European level. 

The UK government, in its Tracey Crouch-led initiative, concluded that an independent governance model for football was needed in England, but while most fans, tired of the increasing imbalances and ownership issues, were in agreement, some clubs were less enthusiastic, seeing restrictions that could be a threat to future profitability and expansion. 

Football is clearly not a democracy, the market leaders are mostly free market advocates with little concern for the little man or indeed their immediate rivals. Survival of the fittest – or richest – is the name of the game, even though football’s breadth and depth, the combination of the big and small, the rich and the poor, is what makes it such a commercial and social attraction. As Crouch said: “The introduction of a new independent regulator of football will strengthen our incredible pyramid, giving investors, fans and communities confidence in the governance of our clubs, enabling them to thrive.”

UEFA and FIFA don’t really help or drive any attempt to “level up” the landscape. UEFA, for example, in paying out € 22 billion in recent years, gave 34% of the money to 12 clubs and a total of € 11 billion was awarded to just 24. Just to be clear, there are around 1,500 clubs that do not qualify for European competition. Little wonder that the underlying feeling among football people is that little clubs are getting smaller and the big entities are just growing more powerful by the year. There is a huge swathe of clubs, more than 90% of Europe, that are not enjoying the full benefits of inclusion. 

The founder of the UEC, Dennis Gudasic, the executive director of Lokomotiva Zagreb, commented at the launch: “It is crucial that small and medium-sized clubs gain a voice. Over the past decades football has become increasingly a game of the elite, this trend needs to be reversed or the beautiful game will suffer irreparable harm.”

Unsurprisingly, there are fears that if the current trend continues, football may face existential threats. The smaller clubs have long been the lifeblood of the game, often providing the raw talent that later becomes expensive human assets for the crème de la crème. But we have seen in recent years how the top leagues have become so polarised. 

Using the just published Sportico list of the world’s most valuable clubs, the top 10 have won 35 of 50 “big five” leagues (70%) in the past 10 years, with Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Barcelona leading the way. Juventus, who are just outside the 10, have won seven of the last 10 Serie A titles. This top 10 have also won the last 10 Champions League competitions.

Look at the composition of the 2022 World Cup squads and the picture is slightly different. These top 10 clubs provided 14% of the players for the competition, which demonstrated how multi-national squads have become in domestic football, but also the value of players from smaller clubs. The top 10 also have the most highly valued players in global football; according to Football Benchmark, 31 of the top 40 players by valuation are playing for these clubs, with Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool all employing five apiece. The domination continues into the transfer market; since 2018-19, Sportico’s top 10 have spent (gross) almost € 7 billion. Chelsea, at € 1.23 billion, have the highest gross outlay in the period.

Around 40 clubs have expressed an interest in the creation of the UEC, including Aston Villa, Brighton, Brentford, Crystal Palace, Watford, Valencia, Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach. The next stage will be actually joining this fledgling association but presumably, everyone is waiting to see who moves first. 

How will it impact the ECA and could it reignite the concept of a European Super League? The idea of the UEC is a worthy one, because all clubs should be appropriately represented, but could it also be interpreted as a sign of submission, that reforming the ECA to be more inclusive should have been the optimal direction? Will it merely push the elite further away from the rest of the football community? 

Having various governing bodies points to further fragmentation and could possibly act as a ring-fence for the elite. The UEC has said that it wants to fill the governance gap in Europe, surely it would be right and proper to fill the gaps with reorganisation of existing structures to ensure the game thrives on transparency, meritocracy and unity?