Coventry City, Oxford United, Norwich City, Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Luton Town.
All of the above have one thing in common. They have all won a major English football trophy at Wembley within the last three decades.
We were the first – winning the League Cup in 1985. Oxford United succeeded us as winners of that trophy a year later and Coventry City won the FA Cup in 1987. Wimbledon and Luton Town won the FA and League Cups respectively in 1988 with Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in 2008.
There can be little doubt that, following each and every one of those trophy wins, both players and fans of the clubs concerned regarded it as the dawn of a new footballing age at those clubs; a springboard for success in the future.
Two of the clubs concerned spent some of the intervening years scratching around in non-league football. One was relocated to another town and had to start again from that level and, as I write, are marooned in League Two; a point and a place above Portsmouth (the team that lost at home to Accrington Stanley at the weekend and whose continuing existence as a football club at all, given their accumulation of debt in recent years, defies business logic).
Put it another way, a lot of businesses whose straits have not been as dire as Portsmouth’s were, and remain, have long gone under and are very dead and buried indeed.
Coventry City have got off relatively lightly. Yes they’re in League One (and look like they’ll be there for the foreseeable future), have been in administration and had a spell in exile at Northampton, but, other than that, are just about alive and starting to kick back.
These are ignominious times for a club that were members of English football’s top flight without a break (a period that saw teams with the perceived greater pedigree of Aston Villa, Leeds United, both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Newcastle United and Tottenham all drop out of it at one point or another) from 1967 to 2001; a run that included nine consecutive seasons as members of the Premier League.
Nine in a row. We’ve had three goes at the Premier League since 1992 and have managed three in a row at best (twice) plus a one-off campaign under Nigel Worthington. Seven in total. In other words, in terms of longevity, Coventry City have a better Premier League ‘pedigree’ than us. Even Wimbledon have had one season longer as members of the Premier League than us.
Yet look at them now.
We’ve all, at varying levels, been lamenting the fact that the Canaries have been struggling to adapt to life in the Championship this time around and that the board’s pre-season vow of intent to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking (and it was intent, not a promise – there’s a difference) has, at times, fallen rather flat.
The same old rows and accusations have broken out. “Plastics” versus “Bed Wetters” all over again, Norwich fans squabbling amongst each other and at each other, the management, the board and the players.
I do wonder if those that have given the likes of John Ruddy and Nathan Redmond the more than occasional broadside so far this season will then lament about those players perceived “lack of loyalty” if either, or both, depart for pastures new in January?
Doesn’t loyalty apply both ways? Or are we, as fans, able to be inconsistent in both support and opinion while the players are not?
Players are expected, it’s demanded of them to give their absolute best at all times for the good of the team and the club. No matter how bad things look on or off the pitch, how gloomy the outlook, the performance, the pitch, referee or opposing ground, the proverbial 110 per cent is expected of the players at all times and without exception.
And woe betide any who have a bad game or make a mistake. Just ask Ruddy.
Or Russell Martin. Or Michael Turner. Lewis Grabban come to that. And Bradley Johnson. Plus quite a few others.
Not to forget Neil Adams. Or Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones. Plus David McNally. And that Stephen Fry, what’s he ever done?
Boooo! Something should be done about things like this.
To which I would almost certainly agree, had I been a fan of Oxford United, Wimbledon, Luton Town, Coventry City or Portsmouth.
One of football’s most endearing consistencies is that it is cyclical – a state of affairs and inevitability which you could apply to most clubs, one way or the other. It might all be relative and, to paraphrase George Orwell, some clubs are more cyclical than others.
But there are few who have been completely immune to its wiles.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s look at the 1992/93 season. Premier League members on its opening day included Oldham Athletic, Sheffield United and Wimbledon.
Five current members of the Premier League started that season in Division Two (now League One), namely Stoke City, West Brom, Fulham, Burnley and Hull City – who avoided relegation that campaign by just three points.
Since the Premier League was introduced in 1992, a total of 46 clubs – half the current total of clubs in the four English leagues – have played in it, of which only seven have been there ever since – and four of them have never even won the thing.
Blackburn won it in 1995 but have spent the last three years in the Championship being nothing very special at all and, in all likelihood, never will again. “Ah, but…” the detractors would say, “… at least they’ve had a Premier League title win to look back on, at least they’ve had that memory.”
More reason to miss that and to want more I’d reckon than settle back on your laurels and accept mediocrity as a price to pay for ten minutes in the limelight.
Cyclical fate in football is relative?
It needn’t have such wide swings from one extreme to the other as some of the above examples demonstrate.
Liverpool dominated in the 70s and 80s to the extent that we weren’t all bored rigid with the equivalent of today’s top four. They were the top one. Look at them now, outplayed by FC Basel in the Champions League last week while, despite Brendan Rodgers claims to the contrary, Manchester United toyed with them the way a cat might a mouse on Sunday afternoon.
And a very old and poorly mouse at that.
Yet even Manchester United have found themselves subject to football’s cyclical ways. From 1993 to 2001 they won the Premier League title seven times. Yet from 2002 to 2010, they won it ‘just’ four times.
How many times from 2011-2019 I wonder. Less than four? Don’t be surprised if it is.
People often – and I include myself in this – refer to football with a world to the wise nod and utter that old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Yet is that right or even fair? English football is in a state of constant flux. Some clubs rise and rise, some rise and fall, some do nothing but fall. And then they fall some more.
Remember those cup winners I listed at the beginning of this piece? Who would have thought, for example, that, when the captains of Oxford United and Luton held those trophies aloft at Wembley that the next major trophy the clubs might have a chance of winning might be the one that belongs to the Football Conference?
As it is, it took Luton five attempts to even fight their way out of that level again, whilst Oxford did it in a season less. The current Conference includes eleven clubs that used to be Football League members, one of which, Grimsby Town, finished three places shy of a play-off place for the Premier League in 1993; that at the end of a season that saw them beat six clubs that have since played at that level.
And then there’s Notts County, relegated at the end of the 1991/92 campaign from the ‘old’ First Division and missing, as a consequence, by just four points, the chance to be founder members of the Premier League .
Instead City we were able to claim that place by a margin of just three points going the other way, a narrow squeak in the end that wasn’t helped by the fact we took just one point out of six against Notts County that season; drawing 2-2 at Meadow Lane and losing 1-0 at Carrow Road – a fifth consecutive defeat and one of seven we suffered in our last eight games that season.
We finished third in the first ever season of the Premier League, yet we were lucky to be there at all. Indeed, if the 1-0 home win over Luton Town on 26th October been reversed, it would have been us relegated at the end of that season with Luton taking our place in the Premier League the following August.
Who knows, maybe they would have ended up finishing third the following May whilst we eventually found ourselves kicking off the 2009/10 season facing AFC Wimbledon in the English Premier Conference?
Supposition of course. But an impossible one?
Not at all, as the fates of so many clubs in under three decades – and, in the case of Portsmouth, a time much shorter than that – have clearly shown.
But what is also very clear to see is the fact that – despite our apparent footballing failings – we have fared better than some much bigger clubs, who a greater track record of trophy success than us in recent years.
You could almost argue that, even taking this seasons ‘lows’ into account, we are still, even now, fighting above our weight and doing well; better than many and on a par with many more who would consider themselves bigger and better football clubs than us.
I want us back in the Premier League – despite everything – because it’s the highest level of the domestic game in England and, for all its faults, one of the most well regarded, prestigious and envied leagues in world football.
But we don’t belong there and it’s not, no matter what anyone says, our “rightful place”. Our rightful place is where we are, well, right now. The fact remains that since we were first promoted to the top flight of English football in 1972, the 43 seasons that have followed have, up to and including this one, seen us spend 24 of them in the First Division/Premier League, 18 in the Second Division/Championship and just one in League One – the old Third Division.
If you want to round it up and make it from the last 50 seasons that equates to another seven in the equivalent of the Championship. Fifty seasons then and all but one spent in one of the top two leagues of English football.
At a time of year when it’s traditional to step out of the ‘right here, right now’ and reflect, take a wider look at things, that’s not bad. Not bad at all.
In fact when you look at the carnage that has been unleashed in and amongst so many other clubs during that time, it’s more than good.
It’s bloody brilliant.
And it makes me proud to be a Norwich City fan.