English football has become predictable to a certain extent.
Yes, the term ‘upset’ has never gone away from common usage, and the continued profitability of bookies worldwide shows that there is always a degree of uncertainty in the game.
But there are precious few massive records which are beaten in the modern day. While this list is nowhere near a complete list, it looks at five of the more important events in English football in recent times, and perhaps a way of looking at the modern game which doesn’t focus on the negatives, but instead the fact that it is always evolving as a sport…
Let’s start with the most recent. Few football fans in England were predicting anything good for Leicester City at the start of the 2015/2016 season (those who did made a small fortune).
Having just survived relegation from the top tier by the skin of their teeth the previous season, Nigel Pearson was sacked in the summer and replaced by former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, who had a point to prove after cruelly being let go by The Blues following their millionaire club status.
With players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez already at the club, Ranieri added the finishing touches before embarking on an unlikely season of giant killings and repeated success, which resulted in, just weeks from the end of the season, them being awarded the title despite starting the campaign with a 5000-1 chance of such an outcome.
— Stadion Bola (@stadionbola) August 13, 2016
The result of such an unlikely win can be summarised in it’s far-fetchedness. In essence, one of the many reasons they were able to record win after win was that they were each considered a blip, and everyone expected the ‘luck’ to run out sooner or later.
Even Match of the Day and Leicester fan Gary Lineker shed doubt initially on the side mounting a serious title challenge, but even he was proven wrong, and forced to concede to an ill-advised vow he had previously made on Twitter.
But it wasn’t just short-sighted opposition. Both Vardy and Mahrez proved vital to the title run, as well as midfielder N’Golo Kante, a relative unknown from the French leagues who helped them form the spine of the team.
But, more than just picking out individual players, it was the performance of a team (something that clubs which include Eden Hazard and Sergio Aguero may not value as much) which provided Leicester with their secret weapon, and led them to a run which would ensure a fairytale victory.
It almost certainly won’t be held by Leicester again in the near future, but the win in itself will never be forgotten.
When clubs achieve six promotions in twelve seasons, the words Football Manager comes to mind.
Formed by a hardy group of supporters in protest of the decision to relocate Wimbledon’s league place 56 miles northward in Milton Keynes, there was probably little hope that they would achieve such success in so few years.
Another club formed around the same time, FC United of Manchester, was also the product of a protest (Manchester United fans opposed to Malcolm Glazer’s ownership of The Red Devils) have only managed to ascend to the Vanarama North division (two levels below the Football League).
But AFC Wimbledon have broken the mould. They have mainly been helped by retaining a loyal fan base after the split in fans following Wimbledon FC’s demise. Their inaugural season in the Combined Counties League featured attendances of over 3,000, well over the average expected in that division. Despite continued attempts at trying to secure the use of Plough Lane, the former home of Wimbledon, they instead have made themselves at home at Kingsmeadow, ground-sharing with non-league London side Kingstonian.
And their success since arriving in south-west London has led them to be able to secure the financial stability of the ground for both clubs and even expand it upon their entrance into the Football League.
Their initial recruitment drive was held on Wimbledon Common and attended by 230 hopefuls, from which their first squad was chosen. They have played attractive football as they moved up the footballing pyramid, recently acquiring Bayo ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa as they asserted dominance in the lower leagues of the Football League.
Yet what drives this club is surely pride. When the Football Association made a decision on awarding MK Dons Wimbledon’s place in the footballing pyramid, they deemed that a club like AFC Wimbledon was “not in the wider interests of football”. With every promotion, the phoenix from the flames have enjoyed proving them wrong.
As with the previous example, football fans could be confused by viewing the Gareth Bale transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid as straight out of the Football Manager series.
Rising transfer fees are not uncommon in the modern game, however, with Alan Shearer’s £15m move from Blackburn Rovers to Newcastle United in 1996 starting an upward trend. This was followed by the slightly ridiculous £35m deadline-day deal which saw Andy Carroll move from Newcastle to Liverpool to replace Fernando Torres.
Cristiano Ronaldo famously moved to Real Madrid four years before Gareth Bale for £80m, but it would be surpassed by the Welshman’s move as the most expensive transfer seen in English football. Despite Paul Pogba coming to Manchester United for a reported £89m in the summer of 2016, the impact of Bale’s transfer was huge, especially for Tottenham Hotspur.
The north London side had surely succumbed to the fact that they were losing him (particularly with the loss of Luca Modric to the same Spanish side just years before) as they were not able to offer regular Champions League football, a must for a world class player. Added to this was his displays during the 2010/2011 Champions League, where a hat-trick against Inter Milan would have shown his talents off to his closest admirers.
The Ronaldo money at Manchester may have slowly disappeared without a trace (there was no large spending spree straight after the sale, with free-transfer, veteran striker Michael Owen replacing Ronaldo) but Spurs acted altogether differently.
They bought no less than seven high-profile signings into the squad, for amounts ranging between £7m and £26m. While some of these transfers (most notably Roberto Soldado for the higher amount) wouldn’t work out in north London, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen both came in during this raid and have since become integral players for the side.
This transfer isn’t an anomaly; as Pogba has proven, it will be followed by more and more money spent on single players, particularly with the increase of television money now swirling around the English game. But this was the first time spending got out of control.
Ronaldo was, and still is, a world class player, undoubtedly in the top two players in the world. While Bale doesn’t sit too much further back from them, the price paid suggests that Tottenham received the best transfer deal in the history of the game.
When Alex Ferguson arrived in Manchester in 1986, he would never have guessed that he was about to embark on the most successful career of any club manager in the game.
Inheriting a worn-out squad from Ron Atkinson, ‘Fergie’ would make several changes as the team moved into the 1990s, winning the first league title for the club since Matt Busby in 1967.
He would oversee the emergence of the Class of 92′ in Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, as well as having the opportunity to manage a side with players such as Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona.
He was manager of the Red Devils for twenty six years in total. While this figure may not be so impressive compared to managers further back in history, considering the average managerial reign in the game over the past couple of seasons has dipped to around eleven months (anomalies like Arsene Wenger and Paul Tisdale of Exeter prop this stat up at the other end) it should be considered impressive that he was able to hold onto one of the top jobs in English football for so long.
One of the many reasons Ferguson found success was his ability to adapt and change his tactics. Most managers won’t have to experience a change in direction during their management of a single side (usually because they won’t be there long enough) but Ferguson was tasked with seeing players leave, having to replace them and having to adapt and tweak his system to accommodate new talent, to great acclaim.
He also brought great success to the Manchester side, with the famous ‘Treble’ win in 1999 beginning a run of three consecutive league titles for the club.
All in all, he won thirteen Premier League trophies, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues during his tenure at Old Trafford. While it might be an understatement to say that the club have failed to match this expectation since his departure, it perhaps isn’t fair to judge many managers against someone of Ferguson’s stature in the game. He was simply the best.
This isn’t a ‘first’ in the traditional sense of the world, as Preston North End famously won the 1888/1889 Division One (the first ever organised league in English football) title without losing a game, coining the nickname ‘The Invincibles’ for their exploits.
The fact that this phenomenon had only occurred once in 106 years of the game suggests the rarity of the achievement. But Arsenal’s repeat of this feat in the 2003/2004 Premier League season under Arsene Wenger was a first in the modern game, where the occasional upset to underdog teams (as well as the standard luck and misfortune which peppers every league campaign) means that it is almost impossible in today’s world to achieve an unbeaten season.
There are reasons how Arsenal managed this, and also why they have not come anywhere close to matching it since. First off, Wenger was approaching his tenth year in charge of the London side, and had surely had enough time at Highbury to cement his own approach to succeeding with The Gunners.
The back five which George Graham had assembled at the club before the Frenchman’s arrival in the early 1990s had since been broken up, but Wenger had made the right replacements, bringing in Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Lauren to keep up a tight defence in the side.
Another reason behind their remarkable season is Wenger’s ability to adapt players. It had worked with Emmanuel Pettit before, and it worked for players like Lauren, who were convinced to play in a different position. He was also blessed with large personalities, in Campbell, Theirry Henry and Patrick Vieira to name but three players who would see the job through to the bitter end.
The closest they came to defeat was an early season encounter against Manchester United, a 0-0 draw. But getting past that gave them the strength to carry on for the rest of the campaign.
There’s little chance of something like this ever happening again, and while Arsenal remain a formidable force in the Premier League, they are far from achieving this such fame (just earning another title is their current aim). But, like Leicester City’s title win, this season for Arsenal will remain in the history books as the closest any team will get to a ‘perfect season’.