Losers can be heroes, too

HOW often do you hear today, that somebody declares they deserve success because they want it so badly? Wanting something doesn’t mean you deserve to be rewarded, “want” is often a symptom of greed, of entitlement and more than a touch of arrogance. Success has to be earned and the problem for the aggressively-driven folk in society, they are up against similarly-minded people that also feel they “deserve” accolades because they crave the recognition. In a world where instant gratification, impatience and the need to win attention seems to dominate so many people’s lives, life has become a competition. It may have always been like that, but now we have the means to command and control that attention.

The Great Uncrowned can be bought here

Football is such a game of narrow margins that success balances on a tightrope. I always recall somebody, when referring to a club stalwart of an under-achieving club as a “born winner”. My response was, “how can he be, he’s played for this single club all his career and won nothing of significance. Don’t you mean, he wants to be a winner?”. Everyone in football wants to be a winner, from the humblest club to the behemoth that needs to win something every single season. It cannot be done, because one goal can change a match, a final, a season, a career. Simple fact: not everyone can be a winner, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

In recent times, we have seen two incredibly talented teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, slug it out at the top of the Premier League, thrashing minnows, winning game after game. It is Liverpool’s misfortune that City are that little bit better, hence denying them what would normally be a period of dominance. Although Liverpool haven’t won the Premier League more than once, their current team will be remembered forever as Champions League winners, but also as the team that ran City close.

It is getting harder and harder for “nearly men” to get the plaudits they deserve because the focus is on winning those prizes we deserve because we want them so much. This intense belief that only the word “success” will do extends beyond sport, where ludicrous expressions like “deferred success” are used to pacify and appease those that cannot reach the level they need. In corporate life, so often the real issues are kicked down the road because people just don’t want to tell someone they are not up to the task, they are underperforming or simply the wrong person for the job.

Somewhere we have lost the ability to see near-success as anything other than failure, the team that reached the final but ran out of steam or the over-performing side that just wasn’t good enough. Does losing the league title by one point or goal difference make the team that came top so much better? It’s true that league tables rarely lie, but they can also illustrate there is more than one very decent team.

Knockout competitions and World Cups are different, even if by making cup competitions more and more like leagues (a la Champions League) removes some of the uncertainty.

While leagues invariably deliver silverware to the best teams, cup competitions are exposed to the luck of the draw, the misfortune of the goalkeeper with oily gloves or the defender who slips up at a vital moment. A game of 90 minutes can change history – how would football have developed, for example, if teams like Austria 1934, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974 and 1978 and Brazil 1982 had triumphed instead of losing in heartbreaking fashion? The world wept with these losing sides, for they epitomised the beautiful game.

At Queens Park Rangers and Ipswich Town, clubs that have never had bulging trophy cabinets, their most revered teams are those that didn’t win the prize they coveted. Rightly so, for these teams played wonderful football that excited neutrals up and down the country.

Do we focus too much on winning and allow just a tiny fraction of teams onto the podium? Consider that there are 92 Premier/Football League clubs, a huge number. How many of these can be successful in any given season, and by that we mean, trophies and promotion?

If you count qualifying for Europe as a prize, and it should be, then 18 clubs of the 92 (20%) can look upon the 2021-22 season as a year of success. Others will consider staying in a division due to their circumstances as an achievement. Do we need more “winners” or does creating a community where, to quote the 1970s band Hot Chocolate, “everyone’s a winner, baby”, merely dilutes the essence of success?

The Great Uncrowned (ISBN: 9781801501774), published by Pitch Publishing, is the story of some of these footballing bridesmaids. It’s not meant to be definitive, although readers will recognise some of the very fine sides featured, but it is most definitely meant to be a tribute to the players and teams that should have been more decorated. To buy the book, click here

Smaller squad syndrome – why some teams became The Great Uncrowned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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