Billionaire or bust: The death of the small-town club
Derby won the Division One title twice in the 1970s, first under Brian Clough and then Dave Mackay, who had been one of Clough’s most astute signings. They also reached a European Cup semifinal. Forest, where Clough replicated his Derby success, prevented a hat-trick of Liverpool titles in 1977-78, and won the European Cup in the next two seasons. Ipswich finished third in 1979-80, and second in the following two seasons. The disappointment of missing out to Aston Villa in 1980-81 was partly assuaged by UEFA Cup success, as Sir Bobby Robson masterminded a 5-4 aggregate win against AZ Alkmaar.
These Cinderella stories were not so rare back then. With Elton John as chairman, Watford went from the fourth division in 1977 to the first five years later. They started their top-flight campaign with four wins in their first five games. With a team that could call on the talents of Luther Blissett and John Barnes, they ended the season second to Liverpool. Despite Blissett leaving for AC Milan that summer, they reached the FA Cup final in 1983-84.
That season, Liverpool completed a hat-trick of league triumphs. The team that finished second? Southampton. In fifth place, just four points further back, were Queens Park Rangers, denied the title [the first for Bob Paisley at Liverpool] by just a point eight years earlier.
That was then. In the 21 seasons since the Premier League was launched, only five teams have been champions. Of those, Arsenal (ten titles) and Manchester United (seven) were behind only Liverpool when it came to the accumulation of domestic silverware. The other three – Chelsea, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers – had five championships between them, the last of them in 1967-68.
The millions that Jack Walker spent to win the Premier League in 1994-95 were the precursor to Roman Abramovich and the Abu Dhabi United Group. The vast fortunes pumped into those clubs have altered the English football ecosystem to such an extent that even a club like Everton – with nine titles, and second only to Liverpool in terms of success in the 1980s – have qualified for the Champions League just once. You have to go all the way back to 2002-03 and Newcastle United finishing third to find the last instance of an ‘outsider’ breaking into the charmed circle.
The consequences of not qualifying for the Champions League can be catastrophic. Clubs that staked everything on it happening, like Leeds United early in the millennium, have paid an awful price. Liverpool, absent from Europe’s premier tournament since bowing out early in 2009-10, will struggle to get back, given the financial gulf that separates them from those above them.
For clubs like Derby and Forest, on opposite ends of Brian Clough Way, glory is a word that belongs firmly in the past. As for Wolverhampton Wanderers, thrice champions and the dominant team in England in the 1950s before being surpassed by the Busby Babes, promotion back to The Championship from League One is the priority.