It’s Manchester City’s time, but eras of dominance have always existed

MANCHESTER CITY are now red hot favourites for the Premier League title and if the forecasts are accurate, it will be their fifth in 10 years and third in four campaigns. It is beginning to look like one-team dominance. But we have been there before, several times in fact since the Football League was inaugurated in 1888.

The big fear is, to quote the Carpenters’ wedding favourite, “we’ve only just begun”, and the era of City is now moving  in full stride after a decade of warm-up. In the 11 seasons since 2010-11 when City won the FA Cup, they have won 13 trophies, an impressive haul, but compare that to an 11-year stretch for Liverpool between 1975-76 and 1985-86. Their trophy collection was 18 (eight leagues titles, one FA Cup, four League Cups and five European prizes). Manchester United, between 1992-93 and 2002-03, won 11 trophies, including eight championships, and the first flourish at Chelsea under Abramovich, yielded 13 pieces of silverware between 2004-05 and 2014-15. 

Since Preston North End won the double in 1888-89, English football has been dominated, at various times, by Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City. Others such as Sheffield Wednesday, Everton, Leeds United, Wolves and Tottenham have also shone brightly at times.

If the popular view is that City are now so far ahead of the competition that they will sweep-up in the years ahead, it is worth noting when assessing the relative strength of a team, there’s always an assumption the current situation will go on for ever. How often have teams been labelled “best ever” only to find they are human after all and they do eventually decline? Admittedly the situation City are in is somewhat unique, but not unique enough that others with lots of money cannot come along a build teams to challenge them.

Of the current 92 Premier/EFL teams, 43 have won major silverware, while every other team has won promotion at some point. There is not a single team that hasn’t experienced the joy of some form of success. Some have had to wait for it longer than others, some clubs have to go back over a century for their last big success. What is very clear is there is a greater level of concentration than in the past, with 73 of 87 domestic honours in the Premier League era going to the so-called big six, which represents an astonishing 84%.

Of the 2021-22 Premier League, Everton have not won a trophy or experienced promotion since 1994-95 when they lifted the FA Cup. No other club right across the 92 has had such a run, not even lower league clubs whose most notable achievement has been climbing out of the bottom tier. Only four clubs in the Premier have never won a pot, but three of those four – Watford, Crystal Palace and Brighton – have at least reached the FA Cup final and lost and all have won promotion in recent times.

Empires do not go on forever, they either run out money, lose their impetus or they get challenged by new kids on the block. Can anyone unseat Manchester City? Although they do look formidable and their financial advantages suggest a long period on the podium, there is no eternity in football. Who would have envisaged Liverpool going so long without a league title, or that Manchester United would fall from grace after Sir Alex Ferguson’s time? When Tottenham won the double in 1961, did anyone in that part of north London believe they would still be waiting for another league title in 2021? And what of Arsenal, so impressive in the early Wenger years, yet their position was gradually eroded over a decade or so. Furthermore, you look at clubs like West Ham (41 years without a cup), Wolves (ditto) and Newcastle (almost a century without a league title, 52 without any sort of silverware) and you realise these clubs have been pushed down the pecking order. There was a time when clubs like these could win things.

Manchester City will surely lead the way for a few years, but they will be challenged at some point, but let’s be clear, it will only be those with comparable resources, those they count as their peers. That’s a small band, but football being the industry it is, there is likely to be more rather than less clubs trying to join the elite, which won’t necessarily be a good thing for the game as a whole, but will further confirm the game has moved way beyond its relatively uncomplicated past.

Please, let’s have some old fashioned romance in the FA Cup this year

THE THIRD Round of the FA Cup gets underway this weekend, arguably one of the most interesting stages of the competition. It is 150 years since the world’s oldest knockout cup was inaugurated, so the 2022 final is sure to be a special occasion.

The cup was renowned for its romantic tales of bravery, heroic performances and the spirit of the unexpected. That aspect of the competition seems to have been forgotten, giant-killings are hard to come by these days, and it is 42 years since West Ham United became the seventh and most recent second division (now Championship) team to lift the old trophy. The nearest we have got to a cup final upset in recent years must be 2013’s victory by Wigan against Manchester City.

It’s hard enough for teams outside the Premier to get as far as the last eight – in the past five years only three Championship sides (Bournemouth 2021, Swansea and Millwall in 2019), two League One and a non-leaguer (Lincoln) have managed to reach the quarter-finals. 

In the past 10 years, 63 of the 80 quarter-finalists have come from the Premier, 12 from the Championship, four from League One and there’s been a solitary non-league club. If you consider that the 1970s provided more surprises – three second division FA Cup winners – then a comparison with that decade may illustrate how the game has changed. The second tier has certainly provided fewer quarter-finalists, 12 versus the 16 between 1970-71 and 1979-80.

Some critics say the Premier clubs are not terribly interested in the FA Cup, but aside from fielding weakened sides – which are still too strong for most opponents – the facts don’t lie. In the past 10 years, the so-called “big six” clubs have filled 14 of 20 cup final places and since West Ham’s 1980 success, those half dozen clubs have won 83% of finals.

The first second division club to win the FA Cup was Notts County in 1894, who had been relegated from the first division in 1893. They beat Bolton Wanderers 4-1 at Goodison Park and Scottish striker Jimmy Logan netted a hat-trick. The media reported that Notts County had deserved their win as they had played “a better class of game throughout”. Logan was something of a journeyman and in his career played for Sunderland, Ayr, Aston Villa, Dundee, Newcastle and Loughborough as well as Notts County. He was also a tragic figure because two years on from his historic treble, he died of pneumonia after the Loughborough team had to travel home from an away game in soaking wet clothing.

Fourteen years later, Wolverhampton Wanderers beat an all-star Newcastle team 3-1 to win the cup. The Geordies were red hot favourites as they had finished fourth in the league, while Wolves were no more than a mid-table team in division two. But they put on a sparkling display at the Crystal Palace in front of 75,000 people which observers of the game described as “strong, relentless and cool”. Wolves has some good players, notably the Olympian and England amateur Kenneth Hunt, who never drew a salary while playing for the club. Newcastle’s team included Bill McCracken, Colin Veitch and Jock Rutherford, all big names in their day. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Bell, at the presentation ceremony, was full of praise for the two teams and declared that “so healthy a game as football must benefit the body and also the mind, and so must help to give the country men fitted to represent the nation in any sphere of life.”

In 1912, little Barnsley pulled off a major shock when they beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 in the final replay at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. The two teams had previously drawn 0-0 at the Crystal Palace. The Barnsley team contained some lovely old period names, such as Wilf Bartop, who was tragically killed in action four days before the end of World War One, George Lillycrop, Harry Tufnell and George Utley. Tufnell, who started his working life as a greengrocer’s assistant, scored the winning goal in the replay with time running out, going on a solo run from the halfway line. Barnsley’s team also had one Robert Glendenning, who went on to manage the Netherlands national team.

West Bromwich Albion became surprise winners in 1931 with arguably one of the best second division teams of all time. Albion won promotion with a team that was an exciting blend of experience and youth. Their run to the final included ties with all their main promotion rivals, Tottenham, Portsmouth and Everton, and in the final they met local rivals Birmingham, who were in the first division. The Blues had legendary goalkeeper Harry Hibbs and prolific scorer Joe Bradford in their line-up. Albion included popular figures like Tommy Magee (“Wee Tommy” to his friends) and striker W.G. Richardson. Albion won 2-1, with Richardson netting both of his side’s goals. “The victory of West Bromwich Albion was the victory of youthful enthusiasm and confidence,” said The Times after the game, which was played in torrential rain. Once in the first division, Albion’s team acclimatised well and finished high in the table for a few seasons.

It wasn’t until 1973 that another second tier side won the FA Cup, Sunderland beating the great Leeds United side of the period 1-0, managed by Don Revie. Bizarrely, although this proved to be one of the great Wembley shocks, many pundits predicted a Sunderland win, based on their run to the final in which they beat Manchester City and Arsenal. Leeds were a tired side and had been chasing the league title and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. The game has so many moments that have stood the test of time: Jim Montgomery’s double save, Ian Porterfield’s winning goal and Sunderland manager Bob Stokoe running across the lush Wembley turf, an image that has been immortalised outside Sunderland’s stadium in the form of an eye-catching statue. Sunderland were no slouches, though, and as well as Montgomery, an outstanding keeper who was unlucky not to be capped by England, they also had Dave Watson in defence and the richly-talented Dennis Tueart up front. Leeds finished third in the league and were also beaten in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final, losing to AC Milan.

Three years on, Southampton upset the form book by beating an exciting Manchester United team 1-0. The teams could not have been more contrasting; Southampton had experienced players who had found a home on the South Coast in Peter Rodrigues, Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog alongside home-grown favourites like Mick Channon in their team. United, on the other hand, were in their first season back from a one-year exile in the second division and had captivated audiences everywhere. Southampton, supposedly, were there to make up the numbers. However, Bobby Stokes scored seven minutes from the end and that was enough to win the cup. Stokes was barely seen again and sadly, died at the age of 44. Southampton were one of the favourites to go up in 1976-77, but they had to wait another year before gaining promotion.

West Ham, in 1980, won the FA Cup with a very decent team. Having been relegated in 1978, manager John Lyall had rebuilt his side and in 1979, added Queens Park Rangers’ Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart from Dundee United and Manchester United’s Stuart Pearson to his squad. West Ham’s cup run included some memorable victories against first division teams West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Everton. They went on to beat cup holders Arsenal who were contesting their third consecutive FA Cup final. Trevor Brooking, described as “a man of dignified composure”, scored the only goal of the game with an untypical crouching header. The most controversial moment of a tame final was when West Ham’s teenage midfielder, Paul Allen broke clear on goal but was callously tripped by Arsenal’s Willie Young. Allen, at 17 and 256 days was making history as the youngest player to appear in the Wembley FA Cup final. A year later, the Hammers won the second division and reclaimed their place in the top flight.

Can a Championship team win the FA Cup in the modern game? On average over the past five years, half of the division’s 24 teams fall at the third round and by the sixth round, there’s scarely a team left. As the statistics confirm, the competition is being dominated by the elite clubs, so it really is time for one of those stories that created the magic of the FA Cup. Bring it on.