A totally impartial, skeptical, evidence-based look at which team really is ‘the greatest the world has ever seen’ . . . in England.
I’ve stood on the terraces (I’m older than I look) and chanted that ‘_____ are the greatest team the world has ever seen’ more times than I care to remember. But the same can be said of pretty much all football fans. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t all be right.
So perhaps a skeptical approach is called for to answer this most vibrant and passionate of discourses. I am, for the sake of this discussion, going to assume that when we say the ‘greatest team’ what we actually mean is the ‘greatest club’ – the team question can be answered on the basis of results at any given time but these are ephemeral. I’m looking for something less changeable, less tangible even – something that can’t change just because of a run of poor results.
Of course, results do matter. With the best will in the world Stalybridge Celtic or Dulwich Hamlet are never going to be serious contenders.
Only six clubs have won the top flight in English football five times or more (Manchester Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Aston Villa and Sunderland). Of those, only Liverpool, Manchester Utd, Arsenal and Villa have won the other main domestic title, the FA Cup, more than five times too. If you want to be picky and include the League Cup, then only Liverpool and Aston Villa have accumulated 5 wins, but Man U will reach that number all too soon. So we can count league wins and cup triumphs, but in five years time the same criteria might lead us to a very different answer, and other teams, specifically Chelsea, will be making the list. It is only one part of the jigsaw.
As is club success in Europe. Despite the 5 yr ban from European competition after the Heysel disaster (1986-90) English clubs have a proud record matching that of the clubs of Italy and Spain. And across the full range of European competition many English clubs have garnered glory, including Ipswich, Tottenham and Nottingham Forest. But some not all competitions are created equal.
The old European Cup (which only the league winners from each country could enter thus making it a truly elite competition) and
its replacement, the more financially motivated Champions’ League, are THE prestige European competitions. And Liverpool, Man Utd, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa are the only English clubs to have triumphed in one of these competitions. But as I’ve already said, results aren’t everything, and our ‘greatest’ really needs to have a great history too.
The 12 founding clubs of the Football League can all make a great historical claim. Established on the basis of an idea by Aston Villa director William McGregor, the Football League was the first of its kind in the world http://tinyurl.com/2497vg7 . 11 of those clubs are still around but not all have experienced stuck around near the top of football’s elite.
I would suggest longevity counts – as of this season only 2 clubs (Everton with 108 years and Aston Villa, who celebrate their centenary year in the 2010/11 season) have spent a total of 100 yrs in the top flight of English football (Liverpool and Arsenal will get there soon). So while I have some sympathy for clubs such as Notts County and Preston North End so much of their glory comes from a very proud, but very distant, history I think we can safely discount them too.
There is, of course, other history that can bring honour to a club. But this is subjective and often anecdotal. A great example would be the club that, in direct contrast to the England team the previous day, on a club on tour of Germany in 1938, refused to give the Nazi salute. Defying Hitler would rank right up there on the ‘proud history’ list for me, but I accept that most clubs will have their ‘moment’.
Just as many clubs can proudly claim to have found their way into the wider culture of society. Again – a search for almost any club can produce some fine examples of major national literary figures referring to a particular team. Focusing on some of the teams we have isolated above, Everton are referenced in The Rutles by Roger McGough and Boys from the Black Stuff, we find Philip Larkin http://tinyurl.com/333e3jd and Harold Pinter (in The Dumb Waiter) batting for Villa, and who can forget Scully trying to get into the Liverpool team?
I accept this isn’t very helpful in our final judgement just as the notoriously hard to define ‘most passionate’ fans issue can’t be easily quantified. Newcastle fans often claim this prize though I would hazard a guess Sunderland’s fans would disagree. Midlanders resigned to their fate are no less passionate than Scousers or Mancunians used to recent success.
And the sheen of the celebrity fan can dazzle in some cases, and bring embarrassment in others. But it must be rare for a club to be in the position, as one is now, of having the heir to the throne, the prime minister and the governor of the Bank of England all among its supporters.
There are of course many other criteria one could choose, quite legitimately, to justify claims to greatness. An iconic stadium, contributions of players or managers to international squads, perhaps even a progressive role in football’s anti-racism campaigns.
Can any one team claim success against ALL these criteria? Who is the greatest? Which club has a proud, long history, has won England’s top league several times, had FA and league cup success, elite European success and defied Hitler?
There is only club that fulfills all these criteria and more.
. . . sorry? Cherry-picking? Moi?