When we used to speak of ‘The Big Five’ in English football, these were the teams we meant :
They were the big five, not only because of their mass silverware but because they had the biggest crowds too. More spectators equals more revenue equals better players equals silverware, a simple and obvious formula for success. It’s not a guarantee by any means, but by and large this has been the way not only in English but global football.
The current orthodoxy is that modern English football, especially since the beginning of the Premiership, has reduced the capacity for smaller, less financially equipped clubs to win the top prizes. The biggest prize of all being the league title, up until the beginning of the European Champions League that is, when all that really matters is that you’re in the top four.
Yet, if you look at the statistics (bore alert!) showing all the old 1st division and Premiership title winners and runners up since 1960, then it becomes apparent that there has never been a period in modern British (and this will apply to other leagues, whether Serie A or La Liga) where the biggest clubs haven’t dominated the top honour.
The composition of the Big Five, Big Three or Big Two will of course change over time. If we use the aforementioned usage of the Big Five of English teams then the only exceptions from 1960 were;
1st Division Winners
Ipswich Town 61/62
Man City 67/68
Leeds United 68/69
Derby County 71/72
Leeds United 73/74
Derby County 74/75
Nottingham Forest 1977/78
Aston Villa 1980/81
Leeds United 1991/92
Blackburn Rovers 1994/95
Man City 2011/2012
Our understanding of the Big Five was forged in the 70s and 80s so there are a few caveats to the thrust of this. However, there were only 14 seasons that an ‘old’ non-Top Five team won the title, and not even 14 teams, only 9 teams who weren’t Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal or Spurs in 53 seasons.
Of these 9 teams, only Ipswich, Derby and Forest were true ‘small’ clubs. Leeds, Villa and City were all big city clubs with long histories in the upper echelons.
The Leeds team under Don Revie were runners up 5 times between 64 and 72. They were THE team, one of the big TWO of the era and only became a non-big five team in the latter 70s and 80s. Ipswich were runners up twice under Bobby Robson’s stewardship and both Derby and Forest succeeded largely due to Brian Clough’s managerial talents.
Forest were also runners up in 78/79 the season after winning the title but they also won back to back European Cups in 78/79 and 79/80 with Villa also winning it in 81/82. Villa were maybe the odd one out, as their success wasn’t really due to either money or gifted management. Ron Saunders was a good manager but no Bob Paisley or Brian Clough.
The obvious counter argument to the ‘money = success’ formula is Manchester United, who were always classed as a Big Five team, even though they were never contenders for the title in the twenty years between winning it in 66/67 and coming runners up to Liverpool in 87/88. The Fergie era was about to begin but even though they’d been relegated in 74/75, United still had the financial clout and the crowds to book a seat at the top table.
This is where truly great management and a fair dose of luck comes into play. Alex Ferguson was on the point of being sacked when he finally put some silverware on the table with the FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace in 1990. The 90s belonged to United, winning the European Cup Winners Cup in the following season and then finally winning their first league title and the first Premiership title in 25 years in 92/93.
The birth of the Premiership was designed with television rights in mind. as the biggest clubs demanded a larger share of the broadcasting revenue. Yet, the main challengers to United in the early days of this ‘super league’ were Aston Villa, Newcastle United and humble Blackburn Rovers.
Or maybe not so humble, as Rovers chairman Jack Walker had injected millions of his personal fortune into the club. Kenny Dalglish came out of his post-Hillsborough retirement to manage the team and top signing, Alan Shearer lead the line with Rovers coming runners up to United in 93/94 and then reversing those positions the following season. It was a short lived moment in the sun, as it is for all smaller clubs. The beneficiary’s money is finite and decent managers and players eventually move on to bigger clubs who either pay better wages or win more trophies.
The Premiership Big Five was no longer the old 1st Division Big Five of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Only Man United and Arsenal could really class themselves in this arbitrary league within a league and both Merseyside clubs faded away in the 90s, although their crowd revenues and past glory still counted for something.
In the decade between 1992 and 2002, Man United and Arsenal won the title in every season, United eight times and Arsenal twice, although the North London club were runners up on four occasions. United were runners to Arsenal in 97/98 and Liverpool came back from the dead to launch a serious challenge in 2001/2002.
Arsene Wenger’s scholarly approach and the revenue generated by Sky’s huge financial injection resulted in the world’s best players coming to the English league rather than the old greats playing out their final seasons for whopping pay packages. The unbeaten Arsenal team of 2003/04 boasted Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, all players operating at the very peak of their powers.
The Premiership was now THE league to earn big bucks and fancy new stadiums were constructed for the new breed of football ‘consumer.’ Those who failed to adapt like Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Man City were left behind as super stadiums catered for 60, 70,000 plus supporters.
Then along came Chelsea, who were similar to Leeds, one of the sleeping giants of the old 60s and 70s big clubs. Whereas Leeds United’s foray into the big time in the early 90s, when they won the league in 91/92 and embarked on a European crusade ended in tragedy, Chelsea played it different. Leeds’ model was based on the mistaken belief that paying massive wages is a guarantee for success but it isn’t and it never has been. Especially when the club’s finances couldn’t support such largesse. Yes, the chances are that the better players you have, the more trophies you’ll win but there has to be something more than that too. Solid management, professional board structures, monetary self-discipline and a balance of players in temperament and ability.
The Man United team of the 90s and 00s had a core of local lads raised in the youth team who complimented the Cantonas and the Ronaldos. Gary Neville and Nicky Butt were never the gifted players that David Beckham,Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs were but they played their part, they got stuck in. That invincible Arsenal team may have had a smattering of truly great French and Dutchmen but it also had Martin Keown, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and er, Ray Parlour.
It wasn’t until Roman Abramovich appeared on the scene that Chelsea began their onslaught. The Russian oligarch’s frenzied spending then opened the doors for other global high rollers who banked on easy success and franchise models imported from other sports in other countries. It doesn’t work like that, it never has and it never will. Money alone is never enough and Chelsea’s league titles were built on Cockneys like John Terry, Fank Lampard and Ashley Cole more than Mourinho or the countless super stars who’ve worn the royal blue jersey since the Russian came to West London.
Despite all his millions, Chelsea’s desperate attempt to win the Champions League only succeeded after nine long years. Losing to Man United in the 2008 final, they eventually beat Bayern Munich in last year’s final and their owner could finally smile before sacking the manager. Chelsea are now arguably on the slide as their core English players come to the end of their careers.
The obvious successors to the Chelsea model are Man City, who have their own oil rich despot to pump millions into buying great players in a stadium that they got on the cheap from the council. Yet, for all their millions City were humiliated in European football, a squad that in terms of talent should be up there with Barcelona, Real Madrid or AC Milan simply weren’t good enough to compete at the top level and neither for that matter were the team they’d usurped, city rivals, United.
Since 97/98 up until City’s triumph last season, either United, Arsenal or Chelsea either won the title or were runners up. That telling statistic only underlines how a combination of solid management and financial clout counter balance each other. With United and Arsenal, it’s no coincidence that both teams have managers who have been allowed to build and rebuild teams, even in Arsenal’s case when a lack of silverware over many seasons would have done for most gaffers.
Chelsea’s millions have managed to paper over the obvious shortcomings of their owner’s egomaniac demands. It’s too early to write Chelsea off yet but when Terry, Lampard and Cole retire and Roman finally loses interest, where then for the Blues? In United’s case, the Glazer family have taken a back seat while they rape the most profitable club in the world.
Unlike Hicks and Gilette at Liverpool, these canny Yanks have had on-field success to deflect the green and gold campaigners. They haven’t tampered with a winning formula and in Ferguson, have a manager with enough personal clout and power to keep things ticking over while they count their millions in Florida.
As City’s waning title challenge and European humiliation proves, simply throwing money at a club and hoping some of it sticks, is never a good idea. Perhaps the Sheikhs, the Oligarchs, the Franchise Fuhrers, the Chicken Emperors and all the other spivs, gangsters and demi-Gods of the game will soon take stock as Uefa tries to ‘level the playing field’ as the old cliche goes.
Spending caps may well curb some the worst excesses of the biggest clubs but as Europe suffers from a seemingly unending recession, there may yet be a resurgence in South American and East European club football or new superleagues further east, in China perhaps. The best players and managers go where the money is and if the money’s no longer in England, Spain or Italy, then they’ll go wherever it is.
But let’s not pretend that it’s been any other way. When Liverpool were at their 70s peak they broke the British transfer record bringing Kenny Dalglish from Celtic as did Forest with the signing of Trevor Francis at the height of their success under Clough.
Yes, the gap between the £440,000 paid to Celtic by Liverpool in 1977 for King Kenny’s signature and the 80 million Man United received from Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo 32 years late,r may appear to be world’s apart but the essential logic is the same. The top teams pay top dollar.
So, let’s not hear any more about the big clubs squeezing out the smaller clubs because they always have done. Yes, I can still remember the names of those Leeds and Chelsea, Derby and Forest, QPR and Ipswich players from the 70s. They were exotic because of not despite their origins and their club badges and most of them went on to sign for bigger clubs eventually. They always do.