Tag Archives: Brian Clough

Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands miracle

The Leicester City bandwagon shows no sign of crashing. Quite the opposite in fact. The surprise Premier League leaders looked seriously impressive in beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday to go five (repeat five) points clear at the top of the Premier League table. For the first time the bookmakers have Claudio Ranieri’s team as title favourites (at odds of 7-4). If results go their way on Sunday when the top four play each other Leicester could go seven points clear (if they win at Arsenal and the Manchester City v Tottenham game is a draw). We would really have to take them seriously as title contenders.

If Leicester do go on to win the title it would be the biggest shock in English football since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won Division One (what the top division was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992) in 1977-78. It is fascinating to compare the two as there are similarities between the two teams – and differences.

The key similarity between Leicester and Forest is that both teams were lucky to be in the top division at all. First Leicester. On March 21st 2015 they lost 4-3 at Tottenham. It left Leicester bottom of the table after 29 games with just 19 points and four wins all season. They were seven points short of safety and were doomed to relegation unless something remarkable happened. Which it did. Leicester won seven out of their last nine games and drew another. Only champions Chelsea beat them. They finished on 41 points six points clear of the bottom three. They won more points (22) in their last nine games than they did in the first twenty nine (19).

If that was remarkable Forest’s story was even more astonishing. On May 7th 1977 they played their last Division Two game of the season, beating Millwall 1-0 – the goal was an own goal another piece of luck. They were in third place in the table (the top three went up without play offs in those days). But Forest were not promoted yet. Nearest rivals Bolton were two points behind with two games to play (it was two points for a win at the time). Three points from those two games and Bolton would go up instead of Forest. But on May 14th 1977 Bolton lost 0-1 at home to Wolves and Forest were promoted while they were in Spain (not the first time this happened to Clough. In 1972 his Derby team needed Arsenal and Leeds not to win in order to win the Division One title. Incredibly neither did and Derby were champions. They clinched the title when they were in Spain just as Forest were in Spain when they clinched promotion. Clough was indisputably a great manager. But he was also lucky).

Understandably neither Leicester or Forest were given much of a chance of doing much. Especially as in the case of Leicester they changed their manager in the summer of 2015 when after a racism scandal in Thailand which saw his son sacked manager Nigel Pearson was also sacked. He was replaced by Ranieri best known for being the first Chelsea manager of the Roman Abramovich era.

But Leicester and Forest both got off to fliers. And here again two similarities. Both Forest and Leicester got off to fliers but were written off. A joke about Leicester were they were like the elephant at the top of a tree. No one knew how they got there but we know they’ll fall down eventually.  Both Forest and Leicester’s first defeats were against Arsenal and heavy (0-3 for Forest and 2-5 for Leicester) and when those defeats happened it was thought Forest and Leicester would collapse. Neither did. On October 4th 1977 Forest went to the top of the table and were never headed again. But it was not until they beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford on December 17th that they became title favourites. Leicester first hit the top of the table on November 21st 2015. Since then they have been never lower than second or more than two points behind the leaders. And (as I mentioned earlier) they became title favourites with a win in Manchester just like Forest.

Whether Leicester emulate Forest remains to be seen. But there are similarities between the two teams namely the managerial skills of Ranieri and Clough and unknown players rising to unexpected heights. For Leicester the attacking success of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy plus the less heralded contributions of Danny Drinkwater, Robert Huth and Kasper Schmeichel. For Forest the emergence of players like Tony Woodcock and John Robertson as First Division quality players.

Also both were shrewd in the transfer market. Mahrez and Vardy were bought for cheap fees. Forest signed Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd for cheap fees because they were considered to be a trouble maker and past his best respectively. Only Clough thought differently and was rewarded.

But if Leicester win the League it will be a far better achievement. First apart from Liverpool the big clubs were not as good as they are now. Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs weren’t as highly placed and Tottenham were in Division Two. Secondly Forest were not a poor club. For all Clough’s managerial skills would they have won the League had they not signed Peter Shilton the best keeper in England and a player arguably worth ten points a season for £250000? That was a big fee at the time – the UK transfer record was then £440,000 which Liverpool paid Celtic for Kenny Dalglish. And less than a year after winning the title in February 1979 they became the first British club to pay a million pounds for a player when they signed Trevor Francis. Leicester will not be breaking the British transfer record anytime soon. While Forest’s success was remarkable it was due to a great manager in Clough. Most teams that win the title for the first time in ages or ever win because of a great manager (Clough at Derby and Forest, Alf Ramsey at Ipswich  and Don Revie at Leeds to name but three) or a rich benefactor (Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City). Leicester have neither. Ranieri has never won a League title in a long career. Leicester’s Thai owners have not thrown money around. The team that beat City cost £22 million which by current standards is peanuts. Liverpool flop Christian Benteke cost £32 million on his own. If Leicester win the title there is a case for saying it would be the best achievement in UK football history.

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Recalling another silly season

To say the 2015-16 Premier League season has been weird is an understatement. Leicester City are top, defending champions Chelsea – who today sacked Jose Mouriniho – are 16th out of 20. It is as if the table has been turned upside down. Manchester United are only consistent in playing out 0-0 draws, Liverpool are thoroughly unpredictable, Tottenham are hard to beat but draw too many games and even Arsenal and Manchester City – the best of the big teams – have had their bad results. While as well as Leicester the likes of Watford, West Ham, Stoke, Crystal Palace and even Premier League first timers Bournemouth have been wrecking havoc. It is all exciting and totally unpredictable and no one knows how it will end. Critics have complained about the lack of quality – using the Premier League’s poor European performances as an argument – but no one can deny the excitement. You could call 2015-16 the “silly season”.

The English football season that most resembles 2015-16 is 1974-75 – another silly season which was totally unpredictable. I just thought I would compare that season with this to see both the similarities and explain how despite the silliness 1974-75 ended predictably – as this season could well do.

One statistic will show how crazy the 1974-75 season was. By the second Saturday of December 1974 six different teams had topped the Division One* table – Carlisle**, Ipswich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Everton. Quite remarkably none of those six teams would go on and win the title. Big clubs were struggling. On the 10th of October 1974 – the day of the October 1974 UK General Election – Arsenal were bottom of Division One, Tottenham were second bottom and Chelsea were third bottom*** (Manchester United were not even in Division One having been relegated to Division Two**** the previous April). Small teams were doing well – not just Stoke but Burnley and promoted Middlesbrough challenged for the title for a large part of the season. At the end of 1974 only five points separated the top thirteen teams. Another similarly was that English clubs did badly in Europe (only one – Leeds United – got to the last eight in Europe).

And yet another similarly between 1974-75 and the current season was the implosion of the defending champions. In 1973-74 Leeds United had easily won the League title but in the summer of 1974 manager Don Revie had left to become the England manager. Inexplicably Leeds replaced him with Brian Clough. Inexplicably because in the summer of 1973 Clough had criticised Leeds poor disciplinary record saying that the club should have been relegated as a punishment. So no wonder he was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Leeds players. The only difference between Clough in 1974 and Mouriniho today was the implosion came quicker. A lot quicker. After 44 days in charge with one League win and the reigning champions 19th out of 22 Clough was sacked. The affair caused a sensation then and still does. A book was written about Clough’s 44 day reign – called the “Dammed United” – which was turned into a film with the same title. It might interest Chelsea fans that Leeds stabilised under new manager Jimmy Armfield but could only finish ninth. They did get to the Final of the European Cup (now the Champions League) but lost it 2-0 to Bayern Munich. An omen for today’s Chelsea?

So how did the 1974-75 season end? Predictably. After all the mayhem the title was won by Derby County one of the best sides of the time (they were third the previous season and had won the title in 1972). Runners up were Liverpool – as they had been in 1974 – who had won the League in 1973.  Two of the three previous title winners in the top two. Hardly a surprise. Everton should have won the title – by March 22 1975 they were three points clear with seven games left. But they won only two of them to blow it. Stoke, Burnley and Middlesbrough – the three small clubs involved in the race – finished fifth, tenth and seventh respectively – a warning for the likes of Leicester, Palace and West Ham today.

So does what happened in 1974-75 give us a clue about the rest of this season? I’d say yes. Based on that season I’d say Chelsea’s new manager will stabilise them but they will rise only to mid table (though they might do well in the Champions League). Leicester won’t win the League but should be top six while Palace Watford and West Ham could be top ten.

And remember I said that the top two of 1974-75 were the two teams that finished immediately below the Champions the previous season. Applied to this season and that means the top two will be Arsenal and Manchester City. Would that really surprise anyone? I suspect after all the mayhem the season will end with either City’s third title in five years or Arsene Wenger’s first title in 12 years. And let’s face it apart from Chelsea those two were the pre season favourites.

I suspect after all the hype, the twists and turns and the shock results the silly season of 2015-16 will come up with a sensible ending. Just like its counterpart in 1974-75 in fact…

*Division One was what the top tier of English football was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

**I mentioned Carlisle’s 1974-75 team – and cricket playing Chris Balderstone – in previous post “A feat you will never see again”.

***Only Chelsea were relegated at the end of the season. Arsenal and especially Tottenham struggled throughout finishing 16th and 19th respectively. In fact if Tottenham had lost their last game of the season they would have been relegated.

****Division Two is the pre 1992 name for what is now the Championship. For the record United easily won Division Two in 1974-75 returning to the top division remaining there ever since.