Sunday, 11 September 2022

A Very Brief History of German Domestic Football Before The Bundesliga

When 1. FC Köln clinched the league title in April 1964 they held the distinction of being the first ever Bundesliga champions. Being the inaugural winners of Germany’s first-ever national division, as German football finally entered the modern world Köln became its first victor ludorum of this new era.

Of course, football in Germany existed before the formation of the Bundesliga, much like fans in England will tell you that football did not just begin in 1992 with the formation of the Premier League. But whereas, at least in terms of format and structure, not much really changed when the English top flight reformed under a different guise, in Germany it was a very different story. The Bundesliga brought a proper national division to the country for the first time in its footballing history - completely changing forever the way German domestic football would be structured.

Before the Bundesliga came along, German football consisted of various regional league systems with an end-of-season knock-out tournament involving each regional top flight (Oberliga) winner to determine the country’s national champion. Until after the war when professionalism began to creep in, these regional leagues were generally amateur. There had been talk of creating a professional national division for some years prior to the Bundesliga’s formation but bickering amongst clubs and regional associations had stopped such a competition from being introduced sooner.

Okay, when Germany split in two after the Second World War, the DDR (East Germany) were able to introduce a fully nationwide division as early as 1949. However, in the BRD (West Germany), at least, they would continue under the old system of regional divisions for a further 14 years. This was 61 years after Germany crowned its first ever football champion and some 76 years after the Football League was introduced in England, for example.

Founded in 1874 by a group of Englishmen living in the city, the Dresden English Football Club was the first such club to be founded in Germany and quite possibly the first outside Great Britain. Sixteen years later after the sport had spread across the country, representatives from 86 clubs formed the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB) which became the nation's official football association. The first German Football Championship took place three years later in 1903 with six teams eventually participating. 

For that first edition of the new national championship, ethnic German clubs from outside the country were eligible to take part and one such side Prague-based DFC Prag entered and reached the final. Once the DFB joined FIFA the following year, however, foreign clubs were no longer permitted so Prag would never get the chance of revenge for their 7-2 loss to VfB Leipzig in Altona. VfB were predecessors of the modern-day fourth tier Regionalliga Nordost side 1. FC Lokomotive Leipzig, once a big name in the DDR. Having existed under various different guises before and since, Lokomotive were losing UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup finalists in 1987. 

Leipzig would win two more championships over the next ten years and twice more finished runners-up. Over that same period BFC Viktoria, predecessors to the current Viktoria Berlin side relegated from last season’s 3. Liga, reached four finals and won two of them also. There was also success for the city of Karlsruhe too, with Karlsruher FV’s 1910 triumph coming a year after near neighbours Phönix Karlsruhe were crowned champions. Karlsruher FV currently play tenth-tier football whilst Phönix Karlsruhe later became Karlsruher SC who currently play in the 2, Bundesliga.

It was  1. FC Nürnberg, however, who became the first club to really dominate German football. This came through winning five titles during the 1920s and led to the nickname Der Club (the club) in recognition of their success. It is a nickname they still use today despite not having won a league title since 1968 and currently residing in the second tier.

By the 1920s various regional leagues and tournaments had been formed from which, of course, the winners would take part in that end-of-season national championship. Numbers and formats would vary over the years before becoming more settled after the war.  The end-of-season championship also used various formats itself ranging from a complete knock-out tournament to using a short group stage format for the first round of the competition.

At one point during World War II, there were as many as 31 regional league structures. This was when German territory was at its largest in part due to Nazi invasion and occupation. Under the Nazi regime that came into power in 1933, the different regional top flight leagues were known as Gauligas. This period was noticeable for the fact that three teams from Vienna in Austria, then under Nazi control, reached the final of the end-of-season championship. Of Admira Wien, First Vienna, and Rapid Wien, however, only the latter of the three managed to become champions. Rapid came from 3-0 down to win 4-3 over favourites Schalke 04 in the final. In more Austrian success, Rapid Wien and First Vienna both became German Cup winners during this time by winning the Tschammer-Pokal which, formed in 1935, would later become known as the DFB-Pokal. Despite losing the 1941 championship final to Rapid and also a further two finals during the Nazi regime, Schalke were definitely the most successful side during this era, however, winning six championships over a 12-year period.

Whilst Nürnberg and later Schalke had seen periods of dominance, no one would team dominate the post-war pre-Bundesliga era in the same way. Although, Borussia Dortmund did win the first three of their to date 8 titles during this 16-year period, including the last ever final in 1963. Of course, one team noticeably absent during this time and as yet not once mentioned are FC Bayern München. Indeed Bayern, currently by far the most successful German club of all-time, clinched only one of their record 32 titles during the pre-Bundesliga era defeating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 in 1932 just before the Nazis came to power. Later, Bayern did not reach the Bundesliga until 1965 two seasons after its beginning. Their first Bundesliga campaign saw city rivals 1860 München win what is still their only national title to date. Bayern themselves secured their first Bundesliga crown three years later.

As stated it was Borussia Dortmund who were the final side to win the old German championship. 1. FC Köln were defeated 3-1 in the final played in Stuttgart but, as we know, they made up for that defeat the following season by becoming inaugural Bundesliga winners. The country’s 16 best sides had been selected to join the brand new national professional league whilst the highest level regional Oberliga divisions were to continue on as part of a new second tier. Those Oberliga divisions would remain at that level until the 2. Bundesliga was created 11 years later, initially split into North and South sections.

Sunday, 4 September 2022

Jackie Milburn: When The Geordie Hero Became a Superstar Across the Irish Sea In Belfast

It was arguably Tommy Hammill who was the hero of the match but it was in many ways player-manager Jackie Milburn’s night. After all, Milburn’s Linfield side had not only managed an impressive 3-3 draw against top quality English opposition. But not only that, the visitors to Belfast’s Windsor Park that evening, for what was an exhibition match, were Newcastle United the side where ‘wor Jackie’ (our Jackie), as he was affectionately known to the Geordies, had previously become a living legend. Now he was a Linfield idol, however, and as the Belfast Telegraph would exclaim the following morning: “Few other players, if any, have won the hearts of Northern Ireland's soccer public as has Milburn.”

Jackie Milburn is a name synonymous with Newcastle United and his 200 goals in all competitions for the Magpies was a club record that stood for almost 50 years until a more recent star by the name of Alan Shearer, once the world’s most expensive footballer, broke it. But, of course, it is not just at Newcastle United, where he won the FA Cup three times, that Milburn holds legendary status.

In June 1957, after 14 years of playing football for the club based just 17 miles from his hometown of Ashington in Northumberland, 33-year-old wor Jackie moved across the Irish Sea to increase his earnings as player-manager at Belfast side Linfield. Three years later he would leave having won both an Irish League title and an Irish Cup, whilst also having helped Linfield become the first ever Northern Irish side to win a European Cup match when he scored both goals as they defeated IFK Göteborg 2-1 at home

Such was his popularity that the Linfield faithful who clearly idolised Milburn, in his name coined a terrace chant to the tune of Geordie anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’.

Before he joined, Milburn had impressed those at Linfield whilst partaking in a couple of exhibition games at their Windsor Park home, including one match played in front of 35,000 spectators for the opening of the stadium’s new floodlight system. After witnessing those performances the powers that be soon enquired about his availability to move across the Irish Sea on a permanent basis. By offering an increase in wages from £17 per week to £25 alongside a £1,000 signing-on fee and a four bedroom house, they were eventually able to get their man and the rest was, as they say, history.

The Irish League had seen big name stars before, usually players past their best and winding down their careers whilst earning a few extra pounds before retirement. Jackie Milburn, however, was definitely the exception to the rule on that front - wor Jackie was certainly no has been when he arrived at Linfield. His performances on the field in the previous season showed he very much still had lots to offer Linfield and Northern Irish football, whilst United’s shock £10,000 asking price, which nearly scuppered the deal, showed they weren’t prepared to part with him that easily. The dismay amongst United fans at his departure also showed that they felt he could still have been a major asset to their beloved black and whites.

Milburn became not just the most commanding player in the Linfield side but by far and large the most dominant in the whole Irish League. Such was his dominance that after that aforementioned European Cup win against the Swedes the Belfast Telegraph argued that “If any of his fellow forwards had possessed the same ability the opposition would have been hit for six”

When wor Jackie found the net from the penalty spot in the game against Newcastle, the following morning the Belfast Telegraph reported that it was his 100th goal for Linfield. Nowadays, however, the records only show that he scored 68 goals in 64 league games. But, of course, he would have no doubt scored many more outside those league matches. 

That match against the Tynesiders came in February 1959 in what was Milburn’s second season in Irish football with Linfield riding high and heading for the title. Milburn was in sublime scoring form and would end the campaign as the league’s top goalscorer just as he had done the previous season of 1957-58 despite having missed numerous games through injury towards the end of the campaign.

Despite a fifth placed league finish and a defeat in the cup final, Milburn had been voted Ulster Footballer of the Year and was seemingly the league's best performer in his first season at the club. When one match report in the Belfast Telegraph during that campaign opened with “MAGNIFICENT... THAT IS THE ONLY WAY I can describe Jackie Milburn's display last night” it was hardly anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, in another game, a 6-2 away win at Portadown, Milburn found the net four times and away at Cliftonville he scored another three as the visitors won 7-1.

Prior to the start of the 1958/59 season, there was talk of new training methods at Linfield and an increased emphasis on ball control. This was inspired by what Milburn had seen at that summer's World Cup in Sweden where he was scouting for the Northern Ireland national side. Despite these fresh ideas, however, it was actually classic Milburn goalscoring that was the key to the Blues’ success that season.

A crowd of 15,000 were in attendance for the opening game of the season at Windsor Park in mid-August to see a 4-1 win for the hosts. Milburn was on the scoresheet with a typical Milburn drive.

Milburn scored a hat-trick against Ards at the end of the month with the Saturday evening sports paper Ireland's Saturday Night describing his performance as “magic”. That was nothing, however, compared to the six goals he scored in a 9-1 victory over Crusaders less than a month later. This was not just magic this was “Milburn’s finest individual performance since he came to Windsor Park from Newcastle United.” 

Linfield truly were a free scoring side and although Milburn may have been the star player many others were able to find the net too and like Milburn sometimes several times in the same match. An October 8-3 win at home to Cliftonville saw Milburn only manage to find the net once with Tommy Dickson scoring five times whilst in a November affair described as “farcically one-sided”, Milburn scored twice but Jim Gibson four times as Linfield won 8-1 away at Distillery. Milburn had his side playing dominant attacking football and that season it really paid off.


However, Linfield were not the only team in fine form and they were three points off top at Christmas. There had been a couple of defeats on the road and the first home defeat would come at the end of January whilst a defeat at arch rivals Glentoran would follow later in the campaign. But those few difficult moments aside there was no stopping the Blues and Milburn as the season wore on and every match seemed to deliver Milburn’s best performance yet.

“MILBURN has never done a better afternoon's work for Linfield than he did today” were high words of praise given to Milburn in those Saturday night sports pages after a February hat-trick that helped Linfield see off Portadown just days before that visit of Milburn’s old pals from Newcastle. 

“Linfield’s performance was of which all in the Irish League can feel proud,” was what the Belfast Telegraph had to say about that meeting with the Geordies as their excellent league form also shone through against far more illustrious opposition than they were used to facing. That sublime form continued a few days later when they were once again back in League action.

Shortly after facing the Magpies, a 4-2 win over Ards saw Milburn score two well taken goals. Linfield followed that up with a 6-2 win at Glenavon but it was Tommy Dickson who was the star of the show, scoring five as Milburn failed to find the net in what was a rare quiet afternoon for him. 

As you can obviously see, yes when he wasn’t scoring, Milburn still had a side who were usually rampant in front of goal but he was never off the scoresheet for long. In another brilliant performance in front of goal, Milburn again scored twice against Bangor in late March as the season drew to a close.

With the championship seemingly never in doubt, an early April 4-0 victory at Cliftonville secured the league title as Milburn scored a lone goal from the penalty spot. Milburn and his Linfield side had been in outstanding form for virtually the whole season and impressed crowds up and down the country - it was a very much well deserved league triumph. 

Sadly, Linfield would not repeat the feat the following season though Milburn missing much of it through injury did not help. However, he would return later in the campaign to help his side to Irish Cup glory. But there was no such luck in the European Cup sadly when, before his injury, that home victory against IFK Göteborg was followed by defeat in the second leg that saw them bow out 7-3 on aggregate.

But up against a side that amongst their ranks had two players, Bengt Berndtasson and Sven Owe Ohlsson, who had been part of the Sweden squad that reached the World Cup final a year earlier it was always going to be a tough ask.

After his return, Distillery were defeated 5-3 in the semi-finals of the Irish Cup and although Milburn failed to find the net he would score two goals in the final as Ards were destroyed 5-1.

Milburn left Linfield after that cup final triumph bringing an end to a successful three seasons at the club. He would go on to briefly play non-league football back in England before retiring as a player and having a short spell as manager of Ipswich Town. 

The rumours at the time were that Milburn left Belfast due to his wife's ill health which is ironic as she would go on to far outlive him. Whilst Jackie died of lung cancer in 1988, Laura passed away barely more than a month ago aged 94. Neither will be forgotten.

These days Geordies rarely see the likes of Milburn adorn their famous black and white jersey whilst in Belfast, I’m not sure they’ve ever actually seen the likes of him since! 

Some of the information in and researched for this article came from the British Newspaper Archive (

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Five Once Famous Clubs Now Largely Forgotten

Third Lanark

For many years Third Lanark were arguably Glasgow’s third Club behind the two Old Firm giants of Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers (although Partick Thistle and Queen’s Park may disagree). In fact, after the 1903-04 season they could claim to be the best side in the whole of the country having won the Scottish First Division title. In 1888-89 and again in 1904-05 they won the Scottish Cup and were runners up a further four times the last of those coming in 1935-36. They were also Scottish League Cup runners-up in 1959-60.

By the 1960s, however, Thirds were a struggling Second Division side and their demise was complete in 1967 when the club folded in mountains of debt never to return.

FC Anzhi Makhachkala

In early 2011, Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala were purchased by local billionaire Suleyman Kerimov and the rest of European football soon took note as big money signings quickly followed. These included Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o signed from Inter Milan for approximately €21 million with a then a world-record €20.5 million annual salary.

With all their money and some big name star signings, huge things were expected from the club but they couldn’t quite deliver with a third placed finish under Dutch manager Gus Hiddink in 2012-13 the best they could muster before Kerimov decided to cut back his investment by two thirds before selling the club in 2016 two years after they had been relegated.

Under new ownership, the club were already back in the top flight but were struggling financially and by now largely forgotten outside their homeland were languishing at the wrong end of the table with their superstar names of just a few years previous all long gone. Finally, after failing to meet the minimum requirement for a licence to play in the country’s top two divisions the club folded with barely a whimper just a few weeks ago playing their final match just a couple of days after another local side FC Dynamo Makhachkala secured promotion to the second tier.

Skonto Riga

Club football in Latvia is largely ignored in its own country never mind outside of it, and having seen a league game in Riga myself I can certainly vouch for this. But Skonto Riga were once famous throughout Europe as the side that won a record 13 top flight league titles in a row. After the Soviet Union fell and Latvia regained independence Skonto dominated Latvia’s top table right from the off winning the country’s new Virslīga every single season from its very first in 1992 right up until 2004. 

13 is considered an unlucky number for some and this was the case for Skonto who only managed a second placed finish in 2005. One more title would follow in 2010 but by the end of 2016, the team were dead. Financial difficulties saw the club fail to be granted a top flight licence for the 2016 season and so were forced to play second tier football. The club’s financial issues only worsened, however, and at the end of that season, they went bankrupt and out of existence. 

Belfast Celtic

Formed in 1891, Belfast Celtic were one of the most successful clubs in the Irish Football League winning 14 championships before they withdrew from the league in 1949 making them some 70 years later still Northern Ireland’s third most successful club of all-time. 

As a Catholic side playing in the then largely protestant controlled Northern Ireland the club felt at times that they and their fans were persecuted and things came to a head during their traditional Boxing Day clash with protestant rivals Linfield in 1948 when a late equaliser for home side Linfield saw visiting players and supporters attacked with little protection from the police. In the aftermath, the response from the league was also inadequate or so Celtic would claim. 

The events of that Boxing Day match were seemingly the final straw for the club who had suffered much in the past and it was a catalyst that saw the club withdraw from the league at the end of the season. 

Aside from a few friendlies and tours in the short term the club never played again although in recent times an unrelated amateur club has played under the Belfast Celtic name.

New York Cosmos

When soccer took off in 1970s North America, the New York Cosmos and the Brazillian superstar Pelé who had been enticed to the club were the hottest ticket in town whilst quickly becoming famous in not just the Big Apple but seemingly across all of America and far beyond. Surprisingly despite all the fanfare and the star studded line ups, after their first title in 1972 the Cosmos would win just four more titles before the league folded after the 1984 season.

America’s new obsession with soccer was seemingly short lived and after the league folded in ‘84 there was little in the way of professional soccer in North America until Major League Soccer came about in 1996. The founding of MLS saw professional soccer return to New York and the league now hosts two sides from the city. However, it was not until 2010 that the Cosmos name was revived and the current New York Cosmos are not one of the city’s MLS franchises with the team currently playing in the third tier of American soccer.  

Saturday, 14 May 2022

The City of Riga, Football and So Much More!

On the face of it, Riga may not seem much of a footballing destination. But whilst in the capital of Latvia, I met many football fans whether it be Champions League followers in the bars of the Old Town or the international assortment of groundhoppers found amongst the small but loyal local fanbases of Latvia’s top-flight Virslīga. Of course, Riga has more to offer than just football, however, and the largest city in the Baltics is a fascinating haven of the historic and the modern with plenty of Soviet-era kitsch bridging the two.
Cheap Ryanair flights have brought people from all over Europe to this thriving metropolis and you can see why. Firstly, there’s the Old Town with its trendy restaurants, lively bars and upmarket retail shopping set amongst its historic architecture, informative museums, and free tours. Contrast that with the Mežaparks district and its captivating Soviet-era amphitheatre cum bandstand sat in the middle of a large forest which itself is situated next to the calming Ķīšezers lake. But don’t forget the eclectic mix of modern design and Soviet-era construction in between either. From the fashionable building of the Latvian National Library built just within the last decade to the hundreds of Soviet-era apartment blocks, this city definitely boasts an interesting mix of 21st-century innovation and communist block antiquity to go alongside that obvious historic charm also present.

For Soviet era, also see the old skool Shopping Centre “MInska” complete with indoor market stalls where your archetypal babushka will be found happily pottering about amongst the varying wares on offer. (in some sort of reciprocal arrangement there is apparently a Riga shopping centre in the Belorussian capital of Minsk) 

Amongst all that I don’t think I’ve mentioned the huge Riga Central Market either. Sat next to the Old Town, the market and bazaar is Europe’s largest and consists of five sizeable pavilions constructed between 1924 and 1930 by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars. Marinated herring from Silkites un Dillites fish bar which sits inside one of the market halls was a definite highlight of my visit. The mouth of the Daugava River that flows through the city meets the Gulf of Riga before it all ends up in the Baltic Sea so, unsurprisingly, seafood is popular amongst the locals.

I can honestly say that after three days in this city, where both Latvian and Russian are spoken in equal measure, I had become very fond of it. But as my time drew to a close there was one thing missing, I had not as yet seen any live football. Eventually, my inner groundhopper will always break loose and I’ll want a local footy adventure. On my final night, it was now time to take in a game having already gotten in the mood by visiting the city’s two main stadiums.

Skonto Satdions and the ever so slightly larger Daugava Stadions (capacity 10,461) are the city’s, and indeed the country’s, two largest stadiums with the former recently hosting national team matches whilst the latter was being renovated. Neither were massively far from the city centre with my apartment, which sat about a 45 minute walk from the Old Town, barely a five-minute stroll from Daugava Stadions. Both venues were open enough for a few photo opportunities and the Daugava I found complete with some mouthwatering x rated floodlight porn.

As for finding that live game, Latvia hosted quite a few top flight midweek matchups during my Monday to Friday visit but only one of which took place in Riga itself. A Thursday early evening affair that would nicely round off my trip. (I was told there would also be a couple of u18 league contests taking place in the city during my stay but declined on that front)

There are currently three permanently Riga based clubs in the Latvian top-flight, FK Metta, FK Rīgas Futbola Skola (RFS), and Riga FC, whilst Spartaks Jūrmala usually based in Jūrmala along the coast are temporarily playing their home games at RFS’ LNK Sporta Parks home whilst their own venue is being renovated. Also nearby are FK Auda who are based in Ķekava a short distance south of the city. Crowds are usually in the low to mid hundreds, however, with basketball and ice hockey seemingly far more popular than the local football although the English Premier League does have a significant TV following within the country. 

The lack of interest in football, and in particular the country’s own leagues, perhaps stems from the fact that during the Soviet era Latvia rarely featured in the top division of the Soviet Union. FC Daugava Riga were the country’s most successful side but only managed seven seasons in the top flight and the last of those came as far back as 1962 albeit with a few near misses on the promotion front in the 1980s. No other side from the country came close to making the top table. Unfortunately, Daugava Riga were dissolved in 1991. Also, the national side's remarkable qualification for Euro 2004 is the only time they’ve featured at a major tournament since their 1991 independence which doesn’t help.

The most famous Latvian club, at least in recent times, however, are Skonto Riga who between 1991 and 2004 incredibly won a world record 14 consecutive league titles in a row. One final title would follow in 2010 before the club went bankrupt and out of existence six years later. A similar fate was suffered by FK Ventspils who withdrew from the league last year due to a lack of funding. This came after UEFA banned the club from European competition for the next seven years for violating UEFA regulations related to "fraud, bribery and/or corruption," I mention Ventspils as in 2006 they played my club Newcastle United in a UEFA Cup qualifying round tie. I remember the home leg most for the fact that Ventspils had only one supporter in attendance in the away end. This was true for the first half at least though a couple more fans seemed to appear from inside the concourse for the second period. But as far as I am concerned they will always be remembered as the away side who brought only one fan.

Ventspils were not based in Riga, however, and neither will FK Spartaks Jūrmala be for much longer. The two times Latvian champions who were formed as recently as 2007 and, as mentioned, are only using Riga as a temporary base hope to move back into their usual Slokas Stadions home before the end of the season with ongoing refurbishment soon to be completed. It was a Spartaks ‘home’ game with Valmiera FC, based just over 100km north east of Riga, that actually ended up being my aforementioned lone opportunity for live football when I visited the city, Only 100 supporters were present to watch a team that, so I am told, usually see between 300-400 fans turn up at their normal ground. However, sitting bottom of the league and playing over 30km from said home can perhaps explain this lower turnout.

LNK Sporta Parks where the game took place is a little way from the centre but accessible via public transport if you don’t fancy an extra long walk. The venue has two main pitches one of which has artificial turf where the game I witnessed took place. The pitch had uncovered seating along one side but facilities were sparse with a small coffee van and two portable toilets about all that was on offer for spectators.

Amongst the 100 in attendance were several foreign visitors and the first voice I heard upon arrival was that of a Welshman named Andy who like me also writes for Football Weekends magazine. Unbelievably a third Football Weekends contributor named Howard was also present with the three of us having arrived separately and with no prior notice. You couldn't make it up. The three of us got chatting to some German groundhoppers during the second half and I have now had an invite to Germany to come and watch their side Alemannia Aachen in action. Another groundhopper, this time of the Italian variety, also joined us and declared that there were too many groundhoppers per square metre. Towards the end of the game, there was one more lad we got chatting to and he was, I kid you not, a former Swedish international. Hans Eskilsson made 8 appearances for the Swedish national side and briefly played for SC Braga, Sporting Clube de Portugal, and Heart of Midlothian amongst other clubs. It was pointed out to him that out of all of us stood there chatting he was only to have his own Wikipedia page.

The match was an uneventful affair which ended in a 2-0 victory for the visitors who had a small contingent of away fans present. Those visiting supporters briefly came to life a couple of times with a few chants whilst there was one very vociferous home fan who rarely stopped shouting, but overall the crowd was not particularly lively. It was definitely a noisier affair in the Old Town’s Kiwi Bar for the Champions League offering on TV the previous night. Nonetheless, my Latvian football experience was still a very much enjoyable one and I met some cracking people, albeit none of them locals. It was one of the many highlights of my trip and certainly a match that I will always remember if only for the people I met.

Riga overall was an amazing experience and one I will never forget. For all the reasons already mentioned in this article and many more, I could not speak more highly of the city and I would recommend this fine Baltic capital to absolutely everyone.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Five Massive Clubs Who Were Not Too Big To Go Down

With the possibility of Everton getting relegated from the Premier League this season a real threat despite 67 consecutive seasons of top flight football, it shows that no club is too big to go down. (personally, I think they'll stay up)

Of course, every football fan knows this as we've seen it before - so here are five famous clubs that were not too big to go down.

Manchester United 1973-74

In 1968 Manchester United won the European Cup, six years later they were relegated. 

A year after winning European football’s biggest prize, the late great Sir Matt Busby stood down as manager of Manchester United and retired from the game. In circumstances similar to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson over 40 years later, a guy called Wilf McGuinness was given the unenviable task of taking over from the big man. As with David Moyes who replaced Sir Alex, things did not end well and McGuinness was out the door after a year and a half. Busby came back to steady the ship until the end of the season before Frank O’Farrell took the reigns. O’Farrell lasted 28 months before departing with the club third bottom of the First Division. Although his replacement Tommy Docherty managed to avoid the drop come the end of the season, next time out he would not be so lucky.

A season of mostly losses and draws saw United all but down until a late revival gave them hope. But an unbeaten run of four wins and two draws was in the end not enough to save their skin. Two games later a second defeat in a row saw them officially relegated with just one game remaining. The match in question was a home game against cross town rivals Manchester City in which ex United legend Dennis Law grabbed the winning goal with a stupendous backheel in a 1-0 win for the visitors - a goal which was followed by a pitch invasion that saw the game delayed. A 36 year unbroken run in the top flight had finally come to an end.

Docherty remained in charge for another three years and oversaw an immediate return to First Division football as Division Two champions the following season. United have yet to be relegated since and although a mixed 15+ years or so followed they were eventually back on top to dominate English football throughout much of the 90s and 00s. This saw United become the most successful side in the whole history of English football with a record 20 top flight league titles thanks to adding another 13 in the Premier League era.

Hamburger SV 2017-18

Prior to 2017-18, Hamburg had never been relegated from the Bundesliga. Considering they were the only club to have played in every single one of the league's 54 seasons of existence (Bayern did not join the party until it was a few years old) this was no mean feat. 2017-18 would obviously make it to 55 but unexpectedly they would not reach 56.

In 2001, to celebrate having never missed a Bundesliga season since its 1963 introduction, Hamburg installed at their Volksparkstadion home a digital clock showing the years, weeks, days, and hours they had spent in the division but eventually, the clock would stop. To be fair they did get a good 17 years out of it but I think they had been hoping for an awful lot more.

Hamburg won four and lost two of their last six games in 2017-18 and were only one extra win away from finishing one place higher in the relegation play-off spot but a long way from complete safety. Despite having started the season with two straight wins they won only twice more before those final six matches and at one point went 15 matches without a victory. Because of this, their late flourish was not enough, the damage was already done.

Hamburg, who won the European Cup in 1983, have failed to make it back to the Bundesliga despite a few near misses and, as things stand, this season look set to again miss out on a much coveted return to top flight football. They do still have an outside chance of going up so you never know, but although it’s a case of not quite yet impossible it is looking increasingly unlikely as the season draws to a close.

Club Atlético de Madrid 1999-00

In 1995-96 Atlético Madrid were crowned Spanish La Liga champions for the first time in 19 years, four years later they were relegated. 

Three times league champions in the 1970s and European Cup runners up for good measure, Atleti also had five earlier league triumphs to their name. Basically, despite not having quite had the successes of the country's big two FC Barcelona and Real Madrid they had nonetheless still been more successful than most. They had also been ever present in the top flight for longer than most cared to remember - 66 straight seasons to be precise. Relegation was not something you expected of the capital’s second club.

Atleti won their final game of the 1999-00 season but had been winless in their previous 15 league matches and because of this were already down. The club were relegated to the Segunda División in second from last position having finished thirteenth only a year earlier.

Despite an abysmal league campaign, however, Atleti still managed to reach the Copa del Rey final, where they lost to RCD Espanyol, and the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

A rejuvenated Atlético Madrid side that included a young Fernando Torres just missed out on promotion the following season with a fourth placed finish but went up as league champions at the second attempt and have remained in the top flight ever since. Over this period they have twice won La Liga, won one Cop del Rey, managed three Europa League triumphs and twice finished beaten finalists in the Champions League. All of those successes, bar one Europa League accomplishment, have occurred within the last ten years.

Grasshopper Club Zürich 2018-19

Perhaps the 2018-19 relegation of Grasshoppers from the Swiss Super League (which I wrote about here) was to be expected. After all, having failed to win another league title since their last triumph in 2003 they had seemingly been on a downward spiral for a long while since. This had culminated in dismal finishes of third, then second bottom in the two seasons prior to that fateful campaign. (If the 2018-19 introduction of a relegation play-off for the second bottom club in the ten-team top-flight had have come in a year earlier then their demise potentially might have come sooner)

Nonetheless, come the end of the season when their relegation was finally confirmed it still sent shockwaves around the country. After all, with 27 league titles to their name Grasshoppers were the most successful side in Swiss football history and at 69 years straight they had featured continuously in the top division for just 14 years shy of the nation's average life expectancy and that according to the World Health Organisation was the second highest in the world.

Grasshoppers ended their 2018-19 campaign rock bottom of the table with just four wins to their name and the last of those had come at the end of November with some 21 games still to play! The eight draws that followed across the remainder of the season were not anywhere near enough to keep them up as they finished 12 points behind Neuchâtel Xamax in the play-off spot and some 18 behind FC Sion and complete safety. All those years of top-flight football had come to end with barely a whimper! 

A third placed finish in 2019-20 saw Grasshoppers miss out on an immediate return to the top flight but 2020-21 saw them promoted as champions.

Club Atlético River Plate 2010-11

River Plate are the most successful club in Argentinian football history, just eclipsing arch rivals Boca Juniors, and prior to the 2010-11 season, they had never before been relegated. 

For River, the 2010-11 season was a fairly average one but it was far from terrible and you would certainly have thought they had amassed enough points to avoid relegation. Argentina has a unique relegation system, however, which is based on an average number of points earned over the last three seasons including the one just played (or the number of seasons played since promotion if less than three) and this helped send River down. 

For River, finishing bottom of the Torneo Apertura in the 2008-09 Primera División was partly their undoing. The Torneo Apertura is the opening championship which is followed by the closing championship known as the Torneo Clausura. This means that one champion is crowned midway through the season and potentially a different second champion crowned at the end of the season. 

Regardless of how they crown their champions and how they deal with relegation, however, River Plate came nowhere near winning a title over those three years and come the end of them were in a relegation play-off spot in that averages table.

To save themselves from relegation River would have to beat second tier side Club Atlético Belgrano in a two legged play-off match. This proved beyond RIver Plate, however, when after a 2-0 first leg loss away from home they could only manage a 1-1 draw on their own patch bringing angry scenes both in and outside the stadium.

Still to this day arch rivals Boca Juniors sing about the shame of River getting relegated, something they have never experienced themselves. But River arguably had the last laugh as promoted at the first attempt they later went on to beat their rivals in the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2018. The Libertadores is the South American continent's premier club competition and the story of River’s 2018 triumph over Boca could fill a whole book on its own and that’s just the events off the pitch! We’ll leave that for another day, however.