Saturday brought me: Gianluca Vialli, The Italian Job; Arthur Hobcraft, The Football Man; James Corbett, England Expects; and Connolly/MacWilliam, Fields of Glory, Paths of Gold. Consequently, I’m starting the week ill through lack of sleep. I’m going to hand you something light and thought-free. Five famous teams, all winners, that I feel have had just a little more glory than they actually deserve.
1. England 1966. Even the players must be tired of it all by now. Although this was the team that won the World Cup, it was actually a weak team by the standards of the time. In ’66, England were desperately short of strikers. Once Greaves was injured before the quarter-final, the front men became Hurst and Peters . Neither of them had had ten caps. And there was Roger Hunt. Can you name a Hunt goal for England?. In midfield, the formation was new and untried, involving Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton (whose goals were as important as Hurst’s) and Alan Ball (21 years old and with 12 caps to his name without ever having been a fixture. By comparison, the England team of Byrne, Edwards and Taylor, barrelling towards the World Cup eight years earlier, or the cool, elegant 1970 side of Lee, Mullery and Cooper, were better bedded-in, more coherent, and in both cases far more skilful across the side. The 1960-61 side, with the amazing, unequalled October-May hot streak (W7 D1 L0 F44 A11), the Charlton-Greaves show at its height, had bravura to burn. It’s one of the strange facts of football life that it was the weakest England team of its period, in transition, with inexperienced, limited players trying a new formation, that won the World Cup.
2. Aston Villa 1981-2. I don’t think Villa supporters will mind my saying that during the period in which they won the League title and the European Cup, they were the third best team in England. They were a team with good players – Withe, Shaw, Morley, Mortimer, Seeley in goal – but no more than Everton, or Manchester City were. What happened? Two things. One, they had a lucky season in terms of injuries, using only 14 players all year. It helped that they went out of the FA Cup and League Cup the first chance they had, losing 1-0 to Ipswich Town and 2-1 to Cambridge Town. Ipswich buckled under a huge fixture backlog towards the end of the season. Two, their opponents in the European Cup were weak, You can only beat the teams you’re put up against – but they were weak teams. That year, Celtic drew Juventus; Villa beat teams from Iceland, East Germany, Russia and Belgium before their genuinely creditable win over Bayern Munich in the Final. I can’t help feeling that had English sides not set the trend in the late seventies (winning in 76-77, 77-78, 78-79, 79-80, and 80-81) Villa might not have managed it. They rode a wave started by other, better sides.
3. West Germany/Germany 1976-date. Across this period the sole difference between England and Germany in international terms has been a psychological one. Within the teams, there has been little difference in the quality of the players. For Rumenigge and Klinsmann, read Keegan, Francis, Lineker and Beardsley. Only since the retirement of David Seaman have the Germans had the better goalkeeper. Yet, famously – or should that be tediously? over our period, Germany have won one World Cup and featured in three other World Cup Finals. They’ve won two European Championships. The 1970-76 team of Maier, Beckenbauer, Muller, Netzer and co. were genuinely good. It’s as if that side set some huge flywheel running that has carried the German national side on and on regardless of the on-field talent. It doesn’t even matter if they are “found out”: the current side, now coached by Klinsmann, had an appalling run to the Finals, yet flourished once the tournament was underway. They think they’re Liverpool, but they’ve been Wimbledon all along. They just haven’t noticed.
4. Arsenal 2003/4. The Invincibles. I’m a huge admirer of Wenger’s sides. Aesthetically, had I the choice of watching any team from history, I’d probably choose the 1970s Dutch team, then Wenger’s Arsenal. But not the 2003/4 team. The Invincibles rode their luck in an often quite outrageous fashion on their way to an undefeated season. Remember that missed Van Nistelrooy penalty in September 2003? And their form away from the Premiership was changeable. Although they reached the Champions League quarter final, they’d lost heavily at home to Inter Milan (taking memorable revenge in the return of course). That quarter final saw an edgy defeat to a disorganised but determined Chelsea side. Arsenal allowed themselves to be kicked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United, and anyone who saw the game knows I am not speaking figuratively. The Invincibles aren’t my Arsenal. My Arsenals are the first Wenger Double side, the gallivanting team of Bergkamp, Vieira, Petit and Overmars – and last year’s Champions League finalists, who I think have the potential to achieve far more than any previous Wenger side.
5. Manchester United 1996-2003. I know, but… a very good team, an excellent team, that invariably fell away whenever an opponent got into gear. And that constant failure in front of goal.. I’m referring to the frustrating two legs of the 1996-7 European Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, in which United spent 180 minutes camped in the Germans’ area, doing everything but score. Likewise Monaco in the quarter final a year later. And then triumph, and then Real Madrid, and then Arsenal, and then Chelsea. This Manchester United, like a flat-track bully, won its titles on its opponents’ off-days.
Who else would join a list like this? Every post-1982 Brazil team? Argentina 1986? The Leeds and Blackburn title sides of the 1990s? Chelsea now? The Rangers of the 1990s?