Monday, February 22, 2016

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE

“And City are the first team ever to still be in four competitions going into February”

This was yet another of those moments on Twitter where you sit there thinking, “that can’t be right”. It had been blurted out excitedly after the FA Cup demolition of Aston Villa in the 4th round. The purveyor of the news probably meant well. I thought, but…

Although that four-pronged pursuit has now had its FA Cup prong well and truly removed, thanks to Manuel Pellegrini's sudden interest in the club's youth policy, it still sounded a little far-fetched, so I thought I’d take a little look. 

The research is not exhaustive, but it takes in all the major trophy winners of the modern era in probably their most successful seasons: Leeds United under Don Revie in 1973-74, Bob Paisley’s all conquering Liverpool team of 1977, Ipswich Town under Bobby Robson in 1980-81, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United treble winners of 1999,  the Arsenal Invincibles side of 2003-04.

The yardsticks are obvious. What we are looking for is not the most successful, otherwise that great but under-rewarded Ipswich side would not make the cut. These are all sides that were famously fighting on multiple fronts in the seasons quoted. The comparison, then, is with this season’s Manchester City, still very much involved in the title race almost despite themselves, awaiting Liverpool in the League Cup final and through to the Round of 16 of the Champions League against Dynamo Kiev. 

City's departure from the 5th round of the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge meant they were in all four competitions until 21st February. Can any side beat that?

Let’s take the contenders in chronological order. It will soon become obvious that it is the League Cup – a trophy that City have historically paid quite a bit of close attention to - that has often been the stumbling block:

1.    LEEDS UNITED, SEASON 1973-74


This was a season where Leeds raced away with the league. They were already 7 points clear of Liverpool by December 15th and would hold more or less the same lead right through to the end of the season. Some stuttering results towards the end meant the final margin over Liverpool closed to 5 points. Leeds would advance to the 5th round of the FA Cup, before losing surprisingly to 2nd division Bristol City in an Elland Road replay. They had been to the previous two finals in fact, losing to Sunderland in 1973 and beating Arsenal in a dull affair in 1972.

Leeds would go all the way in the European Cup the following season, losing to Bayern controversially in a Parc des Princes final liberally decorated with airborne seats, but on this occasion -operating in the UEFA Cup - they struggled past Hibernian on penalties, then went out to Vitoria de Setubal 3-2 on aggregate in the 3rd round, on 12th December 1973. 

With the FA Cup run not finishing until 19th February, their domestic three pronged attack depends on Leeds’ performance in the League Cup and here they also came unstuck.

The Yorkshire side had already been knocked out 2-0 by Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town as early as the 2nd round, on 8th October to be precise, meaning, by the time they reached February, they were fighting on only two fronts. 

2.    LIVERPOOL, SEASON 1976-77

Crucial Anfield fixture between Liverpool and City helps Paisley's side towards the title
Bob Paisley had taken over from Bill Shankly and was busy doing an even better job at Anfield by the mid-70s. 76-77 was famously the season, which found Liverpool chasing the fabled Treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup and, by late April, they were indeed on the point of scooping the lot. Much talk surrounded the possibility that tiredness and the heavy concentration of crucial games would do for them, but they kept ticking them off one by one. With City fighting them all the way in the league, the title went to Anfield by a slender one point margin. With that matter settled, Liverpool found themselves facing two finals in five days with the FA Cup final at Wembley against Manchester United on the Saturday and the European Cup final in Rome against German champions Borussia Monchengladbach the following midweek.

Paisley’s men lost to a robust United side at Wembley, the winner coming from a scuffed shot from Jimmy Greenhoff that glanced off Lou Macari’s chest seconds after Jimmy Case had equalized Stuart Pearson’s opener. With dreams of the Treble shattered. Liverpool went on to win in Rome, lifting the European Cup for the first time. To add to their incredible haul, they had also beaten Southampton 1-0 in the Charity Shield opener at Wembley the previous August, but once again it was the League Cup that let them down. As early as September, West Brom had turfed Paisley’s side out of the competition, meaning that, by February, they were fighting on just three fronts, like Leeds had before them. 

3.    IPSWICH TOWN, SEASON 1980-81

Players wait to kick off for the second half of extra time in the 1981 FA Cup semi final, after Power's goal for City
Ipswich Town are undoubtedly the poor cousins in present company as they ended up winning the least of the lot, despite coming into the pointy end of the season in contention on several fronts.

With tiredness and injuries getting the better of a smallish squad, Ipswich entered April fighting Aston Villa neck and neck for the title, about to face City in the semi-final of the FA Cup and up against IFC Köln in the semi finals of the UEFA Cup. They eventually trailed in 2nd to Villa and lost to City in a tense Villa Park semi final, but beat Cologne and went on to score freely in the two-legged final v AZ67 of Alkmaar to take the UEFA Cup, the club’s only continental triumph.

Despite the disappointments, then, Ipswich were still firing on three fronts going into April. Once again the League Cup let them down that season, however, being eliminated in the 4th round by Birmingham City as early as 28th October. 

4.    EVERTON, SEASON 1984-85

Howard Kendall with Trevor Steven and Kevin Ratcliffe
Having turned Everton’s dismal fortunes around in the early 80s, Howard Kendall set about doing quite a lot more than that in 84-85. Winning the Charity Shield against Liverpool in August, they set off on a league campaign that would end with the club fully 13 points clear of nearest challengers Liverpool and Tottenham come May. In that same month Everton were due to play Manchester United in the FA Cup final and Rapid Wien in Rotterdam for the Cup Winners’ Cup.

The final at Wembley was lost to a solitary Norman Whiteside goal but Rotterdam 1985 will for ever be remembered as a graceful triumph in European competition for Kendall’s pacy side. Again the League Cup becomes the focus and, despite being beaten finalists the year before, Everton exited this time in November at Grimsby Town, of all places.
Therefore, despite a great burst through to two finals and a runaway title win, the League Cup again scuppered chances.

5.    MANCHESTER UNITED, SEASON 1998-99

Tarnat and Matthäus in Barcelona
Alex Ferguson’s treble winners swept all before them this season and clearly, as winners of three trophies, were fighting a three-pronged attack right through to May, where they ended up league champions a point ahead of Arsenal, winners of the FA Cup in a 2-0 victory over a stage-struck Newcastle United and claimed the European Cup in that climactic finish v Bayern Munich in Barcelona.

United had participated in the Charity Shield that August too, but had been beaten convincingly (0-3) by Arsenal. Again the League Cup proved the stumbling block, with a 5th round exit to Tottenham dropping them out of contention before the end of the year. 

6.    ARSENAL, SEASON 2003-04

Arsenal pay an early season visit to Manchester.
The famous Invincibles side went through the entire league campaign unbeaten and went as far as the FA Cup semi final before bowing out to Manchester United and Ryan Giggs’s unfeasibly hairy chest. The title eventually came to Highbury with a comfortable 11 point gap over second placed Chelsea meaning it was sealed with a week or two to spare.

In Europe too things were firing on all cylinders as they made it past Celta Vigo to feature in an all-English quarter final with Chelsea. With the first leg drawn at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal went out with a home defeat to their rivals but had made it through to April on that front.

Despite the mighty showing of that side, once again the League Cup was the black sheep, with a semi final defeat in that competition to Middlesbrough on 3rd February, meaning they made it to February fighting on all four fronts, but not past 3rd of the month. Technically a success in the parametres we are using, but by three days only and not matching City's own exit on 21st February. 

There was one other team I wanted to look at: Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Not the Forest side that terrorized all-comers in winning the Division One title straight out of the 2nd division, a feat never achieved since, but the season after, when they lifted the first of their two consecutive European Cups:

7.    NOTTINGHAM FOREST, SEASON 1978-79

Forest start with the League Cup in 1979
That European Cup final final in Munich, won against a stubborn but lifeless Malmo side, was the second trophy of a wonderful season for Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s men. In the spring they had carried off the League Cup, beating Southampton 3-2 in a thrilling Wembley final, thus burying the League Cup bogey that seems to have effected all the other challengers to the 4-in-February target.

Although they fell short in the league, finishing 2nd to Liverpool, they were only 5 points behind and were still in contention going into February and beyond. This means that Forest’s FA Cup run of 1978-79 becomes all-important and, indeed, they did not leave that competition until a home defeat by Arsenal in the 4th round at the end of February. Having also carried off the Charity Shield 5-0 v. Ipswich that August, Forest were still fighting on all four fronts coming into February and indeed almost to the end of the month. 

Summary:
Leeds United 1973-74 League title
Liverpool 1976-77 League title, European Cup and FA Cup runners-up
Ipswich Town 1980-81 UEFA Cup winners, runners-up in the League
Everton 1984-85 League title, European Cup Winners Cup and FA Cup runners-up
Manchester United 1998-99 Double winners, Champions League
Arsenal 2003-04 Premier League winners
Nottingham Forest 1978-79 League Cup and European Cup winners, League runners-up

Thus, Manuel Pellegrini’s last season in charge can still end the most memorable of his three in Manchester, but the walls are beginning to close in. His City side have done remarkably well to overcome so many injuries to key personnel and make it this far in tact. Without really convincing, they are still in with a shout on three fronts. If that figure remains the same over the next ten days or so, there might be room for celebration yet.

The summary points out one very significant difference that City in their present clothing may well fall short on, however. All these great sides not only attacked on multiple fronts deep into the seasons in question, but, crucially, also won at least one trophy, several won two and, in United's case, three. It is all very well measuring progress in this way - and to some extent - it reveals some staying power, but the next few weeks will decide whether this City side can join these multiple trophy winners in annals of fame or leave a failed legacy in the sweaty hands of their outgoing manager.  

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