16 football clubs sitting outside the elite

SHOULD EUROPEAN football ever morph into a super league structure, the landscape will be substantially changed, no matter how any new league might manifest itself. For the past decade, a set of global, elite players have evolved, but beneath the top layer, there are a number of clubs who have scale and presence, some with back stories that belong to a more democratic age.

Some of these glorious names may be dominant forces in their own backyard but do not have the financial clout to compete with Europe’s gargantuan institutions. Others were once feared names across the continent, metropolitan clubs from major cities such as Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome, Rotterdam and Glasgow.

There will come a time when the football-watching public becomes tired of a system where the same teams win year-after-year. Nobody really enjoys monopolies or duopolies and when a club that has a rich European heritage suddenly finds itself “smaller” than a provincial outfit with very little historical success that has been elevated by geography and commerce, the very definition of “success” has to be questioned.

The cult of celebrity and aspiration, often via the double-edged sword of social media, has created a world where the shiny, noisy and glamorous rise to the surface. In football, it’s no different. And yet, away from the screaming headlines, the incessant well-scripted public relations and media hunger, there are dozens of clubs who remain the most important thing in the daily lives of so many.

Alongside the profile of the elite clubs, their performance underscores their status in the new world order of football. The 2003-04 season can be counted as “year zero” given it represents the beginning of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, a moment in time as important as the inauguration of the Premier League, for it effectively provided the blueprint for modern club ownership. Since then, 13 of the 18 UEFA Champions League finals have been played between two clubs from the Super League 12. To add further fuel to the fire of debate,  41 European Cup/Champions Leagues have been won by these 12 clubs and a further six by Bayern Munich. That’s 47 of the 66 finals.

There have been just 22 winners since the competition began in 1955-56, and of these, half a dozen would be on many lists of clubs who have power and influence, not to mention resources. Let’s not forget that financial strength can be a fleeting benefit and the current problems of Barcelona remind everyone not to take anything for granted. 

So, let’s take a look at the clubs that could fill a second division of a Super League.

Ajax 
Although the Netherlands is a small market compared to the “big five” leagues and does not benefit to the same extent as its peers as commanding a huge TV deal, Ajax is a club with cachet, influence and heritage. Their business model demands that they produce players that can be sold in the market, even though they can call on an average crowd of well over 50,000 at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Periodically, they produce outstanding teams, but sustainability is a problem. Nevertheless, the time lag between golden generations seems to be getting shorter for the ultimate “stepping stone” club.

Atalanta
One of the surprises of Italian football, finishing in the top four in four of the last five seasons in Serie A. Atalanta, from Bergamo, have not won many major honours, but they are not far away from becoming one of Italy’s most progressive clubs. Their biggest problem may be of attaining sufficient scale to become more competitive.

Benfica
Like Ajax, Benfica are at the forefront of their domestic scene and also have a reputation for player development and trading. They also have strong links with South America and relationships with intermediaries. They attract huge crowds at their Estádio da Luz and the club is one of most widely supported around the world. Twice winners of the European Cup, Benfica have not competed at the highest level for some time, but they still qualify for the group stage of the Champions League on a regular basis.

Celtic
European Cup winners in 1967, Celtic are a huge club with massive support and an intsense rivalry with their Glasgow neighbours, Rangers. Although the days when Europe feared the green and white hooped shirts may be long gone, Celtic have enjoyed protracted success over the past decade. Their presence should be greater, but the relative lack of strength in the Scottish game does not help their cause.

Everton
A lack of a trophy for a quarter of a century does not help Everton, whose position in the English game has declined substantially since the 1980s. The future, however, could be much brighter when the club moves to a new stadium that could transform Everton and make them contenders for major honours.

Leicester City
Leicester’s time may have arrived as a pretender for the “big six” in England. They won the FA Cup in 2021 and the Premier League in 2016 and have a reputation for being well-run. They also have owners who have endeared themselves to the local community, as evidenced when their chairman was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the King Power stadium. Leicester have certainly moved up a level and are no longer small in any way.

Napoli
One of Italy’s most intense football cities, Naples has only celebrated two Serie A title wins (1987 and 1990, in the Maradona era), but they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past decade. They have been runners-up four times in 10 years, each time losing out to Juventus.

Olympique Lyonnais
A club that has had its problems, but enjoying big crowds of 48,000-plus and a position of some influence. Founder members of the European Club Association and the so-called G-14.
Although they have been cast into the shadows by the rise of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon have the potential to be far more successful. Their last league title was won in 2008.

Olympique Marseille
The only French club to lift the Champions League, OM last won the Ligue 1 in 2010. Owned by American businessman Frank McCourt, they enjoy 50,000-plus crowds at the Stade Vélodrome but have been in the shadow of PSG for the past decade. In the right circumstances, they could be a huge club once more.

Porto
Porto have also won the Champions League twice and although like Benfica, they are experts at player trading and nurturing talent, this aspect of their business model enables them to rub shoulders with the elite. They are well supported at their Estádio do Dragão, drawing 35,000 to most home games in normal circumstances. Porto, like their home city, is a vibrant club that has produced a number of top players in recent years.

RB Leipzig
The controversial club from the old East German territory, RB Leipzig are a well-run organisation that attempts to nurture young players. Despite this, they continue to attract criticism for their ownership model, which is misaligned to the German 50+1 structure. They have yet to win a major trophy, but their league record is very consistent, four top three finishes in five Bundesliga seasons.

Roma
Another underachieving club, Roma now have José Mourinho as their coach with the aim of competing for the Italian title. Owned by the US Friedkin Group, Roma had hoped to launch a new stadium project but at the start of 2021, it was shelved. The club’s last major success was their Coppa Italia victory in 2008, their last Scudetto in 2001.

Sevilla
Despite only one La Liga title to their name (1945-46), Sevilla have an outstanding record in European football in the 21st century, winning no less than six Europa Leagues, the most recent being secured in 2020. Well supported in a passionate football city, Sevilla have been remarkably consistent, finishing no lower than seventh and in fourth place on three occasions in five years.

Valencia
For a long time, a club that was ranked number four in Spain, Valencia have worked with their financial problems and have strong, devoted support. Their iconic Mestalla stadium may have a limited lifespan, but they regularly draw 40,000. Their last league title was in 2004 and they won the Copa del Rey in 2019. The club also has a rich European history.

West Ham United
One of English football’s most loved clubs is also one of their biggest under-achievers. They have won three FA Cups and one European prize in their long history and rarely challenge at the top end of the league. However, now they are drawing 60,000 to the London Stadium, West Ham could be on the brink of a breakthrough. The current owners are not especially popular, but the arrival of Daniel Kretinsky, who recent bought a 27% stake in the club, could be significant.

Zenit St. Petersburg
Backed by Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, Zenit should be more competitive on the European stage. They have huge support, averaging 48,000 at the Krestovsky Stadium and have dominated Russian football in recent years, winning the league for the past three years.

Honourable mentions: Shakhtar Donetsk, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, Red Bull Salzburg, Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Nice.

This list is by no means prescriptive and there are many ways to slice and dice the second tier of elite European football. You may have your own list.

Speaking to the Gatling Gun: An “interview” with George Hilsdon

1907-08

GAME OF THE PEOPLE has been able to access some archive material from a lesser-known newspaper from the early 20th century. From a series of spotlight articles, we have been able to produce an interview with Chelsea and England centre forward George Hilsdon. It has been written in the modern style as if GOTP had an exclusive interview with the player known as “Gatling-Gun”. The words of Hilsdon are actually taken from these archive articles. This brief interview takes place in the Chelsea dressing room on the eve of the 1907-08 season.

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George Hilsdon was enjoying a glass of cloudy lemonade as he sat sweating following an intense training session at Stamford Bridge. There was an air of expectation about the ground as the club prepared for its debut first division campaign. The beads of perspiration were rolling off his head and his hair, to quote the Chelsea centre forward, was “as dank as seaweed”. His team-mates were dotted around the dressing room, either sitting on the wooden forms or were walking around in various stages of nudity, enjoying a rub-down from the trainer. There was plenty of good-natured banter going on as Hilsdon talked of the summer training sessions. Jimmy Windridge, another of Chelsea’s talented forwards, was singing “Excelsior” but was stopped in his tracks by the flick of a damp towel. “That was the vilest bray I have heard outside the throat of a donkey,” joked Hilsdon.

He had come a long way from his humble beginnings in Bromley-by-Bow, where he was born in 1885. He was spotted playing at Marner Street School and then Plashet Lane. After his schooldays, Hilsdon played for Boleyn Castle FC and later South West Ham FC. On Sundays, he turned out for the British Empire FC. Before too long West Ham had signed him  as an amateur. “I scored nine goals against Barking National and that was enough for West Ham to invite me along,” he recalled.

Scoring goals has always come naturally to Hilsdon and there have been several occasions where he has netted in multiples in a single game. “I remember with some satisfaction the four goals I put in against Bristol Rovers for West Ham in a Western League match,” he said.

Hilsdon was injured in 1904-05 season and was still suffering from the after-effect in 1905-06, but Chelsea’s manager, John Tait Robertson saw something special in the young forward and took him to South West London.

HilsdonAt Chelsea, he made a big impact in his first game, scoring five against Glossop on his debut. The Fulham Chronicle reported: “Hilsdon’s form was quite phenomenal – he justified the high opinions which had already been formed of him, and his “bar” of five goals stamps him as a first-rate marksman.”

He scored 10 goals in the first eight games of the 1906-07 season and was soon attracting the attention of the international selectors.

In fact, he was picked to play for the Football League against the Irish League in 1906-07, scoring three of the League’s six goals. In February 1907, he lined-up for England in the British Championship game against Ireland at Goodison Park. Hilsdon was not too pleased with the way his England debut went: “I was injured while shooting for goal. Nobody was to blame, I jarred the muscles in my foot myself.” A lot of people felt that the Irish had set out to injure Hilsdon after his performance against the league side.

He ended 1906-07 with 28 goals, all scored in the league, and promotion from the second division. How important he will be to Chelsea’s season among the big names of the English game.

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A special thanks to Mr Hilsdon for his words of wisdom!

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Footie with Foggy and Sealey

SealeyCoaching courses with professional or former professional footballers are commonplace these days, but in the late 1960s, the boys from Benyon County Primary School in South Ockendon had the unique opportunity to benefit from the experience of a couple of hardened pros. At the time, we didn’t realize that both of these players had a bit of history, but leafing through Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly or the Daily Mail Football Annual soon revealed we were in exalted company.

Ronnie Fogg turned up for our Friday afternoon games lessons. He donned the typical track suit of the time, the sort that Sir Alf’s England side wore, and I recall he wore Puma boots. He was a big chap, undoubtedly tough to play against. At the time – this was 1968-69 – he was 30 years old and had just finished playing for Bedford Town in the Southern League.  In fact, “Foggy”, as he was inevitably known by a gang of pre-pubescent lads, was on his way to Chelmsford City.

Foggy had a wicked sense of humour. No, actually we thought he was just a miserable bloke. I was the brunt of one or two of his practical jokes. Christmas 1968. I wanted a football kit. I wanted a Chelsea strip. So what did I get? An all-white kit, the sort that used to stare at you out of a Littlewoods or Freemans catalogue. Litesome. Why white? I guess it was cheaper than blue. And as any self-respecting Chelsea fan will tell you, Leeds were crap (in truth, Leeds were on their way to the Football League title).

Nevertheless, I made out that the all-white kit was a tribute to Real Madrid. Again, I have to thank Mr Buchan and the International Football Book No.5 for making me aware of the playing strip of the Spanish giants.

Foggy made the most of it. “Here comes Di Stefano,” he joked when he saw me tip-toeing onto the muddy pitch just after Christmas. “He’s afraid he might get his kit dirty.”

As we lined up for some dribbling practice, Foggy asked me to step forward. “He’s got a new kit and it’s lovely and white. I’m not going to be popular with his Mum, but sit down.”  I sat down on the muddy grass. “Now grind your bottom into the grass…that’s it, nice and muddy.”

“How do you expect to be a footballer if you’re frightened of the mud?”. I was not happy, in fact, I was downright annoyed, but I have never forgotten that incident.

Foggy held Aldershot’s goalscoring record for a single season for some years. The Tilbury-born centre forward scored something like 23 league goals in 1963-64. The record was there for all to see in Rothman’s Football Year Book. But he never, ever told us about that achievement in the two years he helped us to develop our “skills” (I use that term loosely).

About the same time, a summer coaching course was taken by one Alan Sealey, late of West Ham United. Now he did tell us, in no uncertain terms, that he had scored two goals in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final of 1965. And he did – against TSV Munich 1860. Sealey made sure we knew all about him, because on a rainy day, he made us watch the game on a cine film. We also watched the 1966 World Cup final, which featured his mates Mooro, Hursty and “The Ghost”, Martin Peters, the first time-travelling footballer who was 10 years’ ahead of his time.

Sealey took part in the games with us, visibly enjoying himself when he scored a goal or two. It was all reminiscent of Brian Glover in “Kes”, except the former West Ham forward was “Sealey…it’s a goal” (he actually used to commentate as he was coaching us) and not Bobby Charlton. He undoubtedly played with Foggy at Bedford Town at some stage of his career. Sadly, Sealey died when he was just 53, of a heart attack, as did his nephew Les of goalkeeping fame.

These characters were jobbing footballers. They were not stars or millionaires, but they loved the game. And this Real Madrid, Chelsea and England player has never forgotten them! The mud stain never came out of those white shorts.