As Tottenham Hotspur players lost their heads and a 2-0 lead at Chelsea on Monday, Leicester City’s title was confirmed with two games to go. It’s a story that has captured the imagination of the world to the point that in the last week, its barely been possible to buy a pint in Leicester without a journalist asking your opinion on Claudio Ranieri and his remarkable side.
As Leicester celebrates a championship so improbable you suspect many of its fans still can’t believe it’s happened, we look at the historical context and rank it among the most unlikely successes in the history of English football:
The ridiculousness of what Leicester City has achieved has become familiar. It was bottom of the table 13 months ago. At the beginning of the season it was 5,000-to-1 to win the title–or as improbable as Elvis being discovered alive. There was all that weirdness with the ostrich, the body of Richard III, then the Thai prostitutes and racially abusive orgy. There was the 64-year-old manager who had never won a league title and had left his last job after a defeat to the Faroe Islands. There was the center forward who was playing non-league football four years ago. None of this should have happened.
Leicester has had some good fortune, as even Claudio Ranieri acknowledges. There won’t be many seasons in which Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United all under-perform so badly. It’s rare, extremely rare, for half a dozen players all to hit peak form at the same time as Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater and Robert Huth have done.
But from the sparks of the autumn, Ranieri has kindled a great fire, showing that it is possible for a smaller club, with organization, determination and belief, to pick off more vaunted opponents. Toward the end of the season, as rivals faltered, Leicester became remorseless. Salvaging a draw against West Ham spoke volumes for Leicester’s character.
But none of that explains why this is the most improbable triumph in English football history. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town have their claims, as perhaps do Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn, Ron Saunders’ Aston Villa or Clough’s Derby. But Blackburn had spent huge sums of money and, like Villa and Derby, had been near the top of the table for a couple of seasons before their success.
Forest and Ipswich won the season after promotion, remarkable achievements. But what sets Leicester apart is context. Football has become a world without shocks. The big teams win, the distribution of money and their huge financial advantages have seen to that. Forest’s title came six years after Derby’s and 16 years after Ipswich’s. In the five years before its title, two Second Division teams won the FA Cup. Football was less predictable then; there was no rigid financial stratification. Shocks happened; everybody thought they’d stopped. Had Tottenham won the league this season, it would have been a surprise; for Leicester to win it should have been impossible.
2. Sunderland wins the 1972-73 FA Cup
The reputation of the FA Cup was built on shocks and romance, on the fact that any club can enter and that any club can win. Since World War II, there have been three winners from the Second Division, as well as surprise victors such as Wigan beating Manchester City in the final in 2013, Wimbledon beating Liverpool in 1988 (although it finished seventh in the league that season) and Coventry beating Tottenham in 1987. But the greatest upset of all, paving the way for Southampton and West Ham to win from outside the top flight in 1976 and 1980, was Sunderland.
They’d been in sixth-to-last in the Second Division when Bob Stokoe arrived in December 1972, fearing a first-ever relegation to the third flight. But under him Sunderland rose, beating high-flying Manchester City 3-1 in the fifth round in an epic replay at Roker Park.
They then beat Arsenal 2-1 in the semifinal:
But that just set up an even harder task in the final, against the mighty Leeds of Don Revie.
Sunderland, unthinkably, took the lead after 31 minutes, a Billy Hughes corner falling in the box for Ian Porterfield to slam in with his weaker right foot. Leeds rallied. It attacked in great waves, but Mick Horswill was tireless at the back of midfield, Dave Watson and Ritchie Pitt titanic in central defense. And when Leeds did get a shot on goal, it encountered an inspired Jim Montgomery.
Early in the second half, Paul Reaney sent in a deep cross to the back post. Trevor Cherry, advancing from left back, got to it with a diving header, but Montgomery, plunging to his left, made an excellent save. The ball, though, fell to Peter Lorimer, six yards out with the goal at his mercy. Montgomery, incredibly, pushed himself up and stretching backwards, horizontal, three feet from the ground, turned his shot up and onto the bar from where it bounced to safety.
So implausible was it that on television it took until the third replay before the co-commentator realized he’d saved it.
Leeds deflated at that, and Sunderland, anxiously and heroically, hung on. At the final whistle, Stokoe, idiosyncratically dressed in tight red tracksuit bottoms, a raincoat and trilby, skipped onto the pitch, ignoring everyone until he had Montgomery in his arms, perhaps the most iconic image there is of an FA Cup final.
3. Nottingham Forest wins back-to-back European Cups (1979, 1980)
One of the greatest myths in English football is that Brian Clough should have been named England manager when Ron Greenwood got the job in 1977. Clough then had pulled off one remarkable achievement, leading Derby County to promotion and, in its third season back in the top flight, to the league title. But he had fallen out with the club chairman, Sam Longson, and a subsequent spell at Leeds United had ended in acrimony after 44 days. It’s true that he’d just led Nottingham Forest to promotion to the top flight, but nobody expected what came next.
Clough was cocky, quotable and abrasive, a man who provoked love and irritation in equal measure. He was also a brilliant football manager, adept at getting the absolute utmost from his players and, with his assistant Peter Taylor, masterful at putting together sides with natural balance.
He made John Robertson, who had previously been dismissed as scruffy and overweight despite his talent, into one of the greatest playmakers in Europe, operating from the left, with a defensive left back, usually Frank Clark, behind him.
On the other flank, to balance, Viv Anderson was encouraged to attack from right back, with the right-sided midfielder, usually Martin O’Neill tucking in.
In 1977-78, Forest lost only three games as it swept to the league title. That, though, was only the beginning. The following season, it faced the reigning champion Liverpool in the first round of the European Cup and won 2-0 on aggregate. It saw off AEK Athens and Grasshoppers before a grueling semifinal against FC Cologne. Forest went 2-0 down in the home leg but came back to lead 3-2 before a late equalizer gave Cologne the advantage. In West Germany, though, Ian Bowyer headed the only goal of the game as Forest won 1-0.
In the final, a header from Trevor Francis, the first £1 million player in the English game, was enough to beat Malmo.
Having won it, Forest defended its crown the following year, with Robertson scoring the only goal of the final as Forest, inspired by the excellence of its goalkeeper Peter Shilton, held off a siege from Hamburg.
Clough had taken two provincial clubs to league championships and, even more incredibly, had made one of them European champions. Forest remains the only club to have won the European Cup more often than its domestic title.
4. Ipswich Town wins the title, 1961-62
When Ramsey was appointed manager of Ipswich Town in 1955, it had just been relegated after its only season in the Second Division. He had played for Arthur Rowe’s push-and-run side at Tottenham but recognized a more pragmatic style of play was necessary to get out of the Third Division South.
That December, he made a key tactical switch, pushing the inside-forward Jimmy Leadbetter, a skillful, intelligent player whose major failing was his lack of pace, out to the left wing. Leadbetter was worried he wasn’t fast enough, but Ramsey’s concern was more his use of the ball.
“I was pulled back, collecting balls from defense–the other fullbacks wouldn’t come that far out of defense to mark me, so I had space to move in,” he explained in Dave Bowler’s biography of Ramsey. “As I went further forward, I could draw the fullback out of position. He wouldn’t stay in the middle of the field marking nobody, he felt he had to come with me. That left a big gap on the left-hand side of the field. That was where [the center forward] Ted Phillips played. He needed space, but if you could give him that and the ball, it was in the back of the net.”
Promotion was won in 1957, and as center forward Ray Crawford was signed from Portsmouth and orthodox right winger Roy Stephenson from Leicester City, Ramsey’s plan took shape. Ipswich went up again in 1961, and, to widespread bewilderment, went on to win the title the following year, despite having spent only £30,000 assembling its squad, less than a third of what Tottenham paid to bring Jimmy Greaves back from Italy.
Ipswich, The Times said, “defy explanation–they do the simple things accurately and quickly; there are no frills about their play and no posing. They are not exciting; they do not make the pulses race… maybe, after all, there is a virtue in the honest laborer.”
With little or no television coverage to expose the Leadbetter tactic, nobody knew how to combat them to cope. The next season, though, teams knew what to expect. Ipswich lost the Charity Shield 5-1 to Spurs and by the end of October it had won just two of 15 games.
5. Aston Villa wins the 1982 European Cup
The end of 1980-81 was like a slow bicycle race. Aston Villa won only two of its final five games of the season but that was still enough to take the title from Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, which lost seven of its final 10 games of the season. Ron Saunders used a record low of 14 players that season, as Villa won its first league title in 71 years.
Results faltered badly the following year: Villa won just one of its first nine leagues games, and in February Saunders left the club following a dispute over his contract. He was replaced by his assistant Tony Barton, a 44-year-old former Portsmouth outside-right who had never managed a club before. Out of both cups and struggling in the league, Villa still had the European Cup to play for, having seen off Valur Reykjavik and Dynamo Berlin in the first two rounds.
In the quarterfinal, it drew 0-0 away to Dynamo Kyiv, then won the second leg 2-0 with goals from young forward Gary Shaw and the tough center back Ken McNaught. The winger Tony Morley got the only goal in the home leg of the semifinal against Anderlecht, and Villa kept another clean sheet in Brussels to go through 1-0 on aggregate.
In the final, Villa met the great Bayern Munich, a team featuring such internationals as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Klaus Augenthaler, Dieter Hoeness and Paul Breitner.
Villa had finished the season 11th. It seemed an absurd matchup, even more so when experienced goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer suffered a recurrence of a shoulder injury after 10 minutes and had to be replaced by 23-year-old Nigel Spink, who had played just one game for Villa before. He was superb, though, as Villa held Bayern at arm’s length and then, in the 67th minute, scored the most famous goal in club history.
Dennis Mortimer, the captain, played the ball forward to Shaw, who used the run of Gary Williams outside him as a decoy and slipped a pass in to Morley. He squared, and Peter Withe had a simple finish from six yards.
Villa held on and Mortimer collected the trophy; remarkably, it had been raised the previous year by Liverpool captain Phil Thompson, who had gone to the same school as him in Kirby, Liverpool.