Following on from last week’s article surmising a particularly close race for the title, I got to thinking about the fact that everyone likes a good blow-up. This is when a team is streaking along miles clear at the top and looking nailed-on certs to be crowned champions before it all goes spectacularly pear-shaped.
Points are dropped, games are lost, and what looked to be a foregone conclusion turns out to be anything but.
Miles Ahead and Yet….
Some well-known relatively recent examples of this occurrence include Newcastle United’s 1995-96 collapse and Manchester United’s similar capitulation to Arsenal two years later.
For me, however, the most spectacular title blow-up has to be the 2011-12 Aguero season when Manchester United somehow contrived to blow an eight-point lead with six games to go.
Each time the respective United in the examples given were metaphorically being crowned champions at least as early as the March. Each time they sat anywhere up to double-digits ahead of their nearest rivals in points, and each time they were unceremoniously tugged back and eventually overhauled.
Although these large-scale blow-ups are usually highly entertaining for the neutral, they are, no doubt, somewhat harrowing for those connected with the teams concerned.
Holding Our Nerve? – Big Mal
Such dramatic happenings are not that common to tell the truth, but what does happen with more regularity is that a side has a golden chance to take the title and then is unable to hold their collective nerve for whatever reason.
Often the side involved may come good again the next or in subsequent seasons, but sometimes it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance that is being squandered.
Let’s have a look at some examples.
Last week we looked very briefly at the 1971-72 season when four sides – Derby, Leeds, Manchester City, and Liverpool – were all in there at the death of the season, but in actual fact the season should have been done and dusted weeks before.
After Manchester City First Team Coach, the indomitable Malcolm Allison, took over as Team Manager from Joe Mercer in October of 1971, City raced to the top of the table playing an exciting brand of football that seemed certain to see them crowned champions for the second time in five seasons.
Figuring the club needed a little extra something, Allison took the somewhat controversial decision to sign Rodney Marsh from Queens Park Rangers in March 1972, with City sitting four points clear at the top.
The gamble failed and at a stroke the balance of the side was lost. Three defeats and two draws in their last eight games saw City slip out of contention, and Allison himself was never to come close to scaling such heights ever again.
More than two decades later and Kevin Keegan as manager of Newcastle was hit with the same charge of unnecessarily changing the balance of his team with a superfluous signing. In Keegan’s case it was the signing of Faustino Asprilla that is said to have cost Newcastle dear by unsettling the team and allowing them to be caught by Fergie and his boys.
Big Ron (1)
Anyway, fast forward a few years from City’s collapse to the 1978-79 season and West Bromwich Albion under their equally enigmatic manager, Big Ron Atkinson, were challenging Liverpool for the title.
Now, it should be stated that opinion is divided as to whether the ‘best team failed to win the title’ this season. Atkinson himself is in no doubt that Albion could and should have been champions, and that it was only injuries, bad weather and bad luck that prevented this from happening.
The facts seem to suggest otherwise, though. That season Liverpool were in imperious form, only conceding sixteen goals all season and winning thirty of the forty-two league-game programme, with eight draws and only four defeats as they finished eight points clear at the top.
It is true that bad weather played havoc with the fixtures that season and at one stage Albion fell a long away behind Liverpool having played several games less. Had the season been played out normally, perhaps Albion would have been able to keep pace with the Anfield men and pip them for the title, but to be quite honest, it seems unlikely.
The Ipswich team of 1980-82 was a different matter and should certainly have won at least one title, though.
Under Bobby Robson the East Anglian team had seriously challenged for the title in both 1975 and 1977 before finishing third each time, but in the 1980-81 season it seemed their time had finally come. Locked in a two-way battle with Aston Villa, a victory over their rivals at Villa Park in April 1981 put them to within a point of the top with a game in hand and only five matches to play.
That the (not-yet-so-monickered) Tractor Boys imploded and lost four of those remaining games and thus the title by four points is well-documented.
The following season saw Ipswich arguably blow an even better chance of taking the title. At the midway point in the calendar, Ipswich were in a strong position, sitting as they were a point ahead of the pack and with up to three games in hand on those chasing them. Liverpool, the eventual champions, at this stage were eight points behind having played a game more.
However, and this was to cost Ipswich dear in the end, this year was also a severe winter and only seventeen games of a forty-two game season had been played by the turn of the year.
This meant that Ipswich were often sidelined due to postponements when they were playing at their peak, while Liverpool probably benefitted from not playing, seeing that they were struggling for form.
Had, say, roughly half the league fixtures been completed by this stage, it is entirely conceivable that Ipswich would have been over the horizon and totally uncatchable by the time they hit a trough and Liverpool finally found their form.
These seasons were very much the last hurrah for the Portman Road side, as Bobby Robson left to take up the England job at the end of the season and Ipswich never challenged again.
Big Ron (2)
Two years later and once again it was ‘Big Ron’ who was left to lament a lost title opportunity. A look at the record books sees Liverpool seemingly dominant in 1983-84 as they secured the first ever treble of major trophies won by a club in a single-season.
In a sixty-five game campaign, the League title, European Cup and League Cup all found their way to the Anfield trophy room, and yet it was United who really should have taken the title that season.
The two teams were very much locked in a two-horse race for practically the whole season and were well clear of West Ham, Forest, Southampton and QPR who were busy battling it out for UEFA Cup spots as the last ten games of the season honed into view.
For once Liverpool’s traditional strong end to the season failed them and they stumbled badly, taking a miserly seventeen points from the remaining ten games. This surely opened up the door for United to sweep in and finally win their first title since the days of Busby.
Not so: If Liverpool’s seventeen points from ten games was hardly title-winning form, it was infinitely better than United’s ten points from the same number of matches.
The next side to be unable to take advantage of an uncharacteristic Liverpool wobble was Aston Villa in 1990.
Graham Taylor was rightly applauded for his career, and taking Aston Villa from the old Second Division to the brink of the league title in three full seasons was indeed a marvelous achievement.
However, it could have been even better.
For a large swathe of the 1989-90 season there had been three teams in the hunt for the title: Liverpool, Villa, and reigning champions Arsenal. After the Gunners slipped out of contention in the spring it became a straight shootout between Taylor and Dalglish.
On 21 March 1990, Liverpool lost by the only goal of the game to a Paul Gascoigne-inspired Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and so missed the chance to go back to the top of the table.
At this point, having played a game more, they lay a point behind Villa who only had eight matches left.
Villa were now favourites to take the title, but an ‘Atkinsonesque’ run of form then saw a paltry eleven points taken from the remaining eight games, while Liverpool hit their straps with seven wins and two draws to take the title by a somewhat flattering nine points.
Just as with Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Ipswich before them, this was to prove the best one-off shot at the title this particular Aston Villa side would enjoy.
Big Ron (3)
However, the arrival of Big Ron (inevitably) saw another title crack, and another spurned opportunity, three years later when Manchester United pipped Villa to the first ever Premiership crown.
Since the seasons outlined here, there have been a number of tense races for the title involving head-to-head campaigns that have gone right to the wire. There have been others detailing classic losses of huge leads, and yet others where one side has simply been too good for the field and has streaked away.
What there hasn’t been many of though, is seasons when ‘the best team didn’t win the title’.
Of course, there is a legitimate school of thought that argues the best team always wins the title.
Perhaps, though, the reality is that just occasionally other factors come into play too.