The Premier League First Eleven
On Monday, Ian King wrote on this very site that Liverpool’s current problems had “gone far enough to stop even being amusing to the neutral”. Whilst there are aspects of that which, as a devotedly cruel sociopathic iconoclast, I cannot necessarily agree with, there is one facet to the club’s current malaise which does concern me: their league position.
I started to follow football when I was eight. My first season was 1988/89, which has ceased to be quite recent within the past few years. Last Sunday, whilst watching some football or other, I decided for shits and giggles to write down a list of twenty teams who, if I had my way, would be locked off into a permanent top flight. What happened next was uncanny: 22 years down the line and without reference, 19 of my twenty selections were clubs who made up the First Division in my first season as a football fan.
In finishing order, the 1988/89 season’s cast of characters were: Arsenal, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Norwich City, Derby County,Tottenham Hotspur, Coventry City, Everton, Queens Park Rangers, Millwall, Manchester United, Wimbledon, Southampton, Charlton Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday, Luton Town, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, West Ham United and Newcastle United. For reference, the one team who didn’t make my cut were West Ham, replaced in my selection by one of the teams who replaced them in the following year’s top flight, Manchester City.
It’s a pretty remarkable piece of list making. As if my body had retained a sort of chemical memory of what constitutes proper top flight football and who are just Johnny-come-lately interlopers. Were Liverpool to get relegated at the end of this season – something which is still fairly unthinkable at this point in the season, I think a part of my childhood would die along with their 49-year tenure in the top flight.
I’m not one of these people who believes in sportsmen or clubs with a divine right to achieve anything. What makes sport so great for me is the fact that it is an unrelenting meritocracy where laurel resting will be brutally crushed. Every May, I spend countless happy hours in front of Match of the Day, laughing at idiots who cry when their teams are relegated, or throw their season ticket at the kit man. Their lack of any sense of perspective fills me with an invigorating cocktail of loathing, glee and bile.
But, but, but… the eight year old me just won’t go away. The First Division without Liverpool? What would become of John Aldridge? And so, in order to placate that stumpy idiot, I present a refined and pared-down list of the eleven football teams I would nominate for Premier League Heritage Status. Incidentally, if your club doesn’t make the list, or their great rival does, don’t shoot the messenger. My club aren’t in this list either. We just have to grow to accept, together, that some teams’ unstoppable dedication to underachievement will always be their undoing. (And before anyone whose team has makes the cut sends me a horse’s head, or knacker, they are listed in alphabetical order only).
One of two teams in this list to have never been relegated from the top flight, Arsenal are an irreducible part of top-level football in England. In an ideal world, of course, they’d move back to Highbury and still have John Lukic in goal, but these are just minor niggles.
A proud and upstanding outfit, winners of the English League Championship in the year of my birth and then the European Champions in the year after. Also founder members of the Football League, a brief flirtation with the third tier of the ladder during the 1970s can’t detract from their importance.
An article in a recent issue of When Saturday Comes magazine bemoans Coventry’s unrivalled record of not achieving very much at all. But that’s to miss the point! Sometimes just being there is enough, and Coventry somehow clung on to top flight status for 34 years, seemingly never finishing much above 17th place. A brilliant sporting story of defiance and they have an elephant on their badge.
A second club in the list to be a founder member of the Football League, and the other team to have never been relegated from the top level. Everton seriously considered relegation towards the end of the 1990s, something as unthinkable as Liverpool’s capitulation is to me now. So, you can all thank Kevin Campbell for sparing you from reading this rubbish for at least 12 extra years.
Built by Shanks, wrecked by Yanks, Liverpool FC’s rise to prominence was the most fascinating story in the history of 20th Century English sport. Between 1962 and 1990, they won eighteen league titles, plus four FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 4 European Cups and 2 UEFA Cups. But that’s just part of the story. To watch them play was the real experience. In the 1988/89 season, every single BBC Match of the Day Goal of the Month winner was a Liverpool player.
As juggernaut successful in recent times as Liverpool were in the 1970s and 1980s, but perhaps lacking the same Deep Heat-and-liniment charms. The top flight without England’s most famous club would be a poorer place. Yes, really.
Because we owe at least this much to Brian Clough.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
The exotic name! The hooped shirts! The plastic pitch! Big Les Ferdinand! Glenn Roeder! SIMON BARKER! This is a left-field choice, perhaps, but one which would delight the BBC, based just round the corner in Shepherds Bush.
Another founder member of the Football League and another team whose current problems will cause many a neutral football fan some pain. For having an owl on their badge and wearing black shorts with royal blue-and-white striped shirts, a strong look.
The Dell, the impossibly shallow goal nets necessitated by its dimensions and the improbable feats of Matthew Le Tissier are sufficient for their inclusion in my book. But if anything else were needed, the fact they come from the south coast of England, where people like football too (honest!), should swing it.
Flamboyantly named and, occasionally, flamboyant on the field as well. Spurs have given English football too much good stuff to miss out.
Students of Mathematics will no doubt have keenly observed that there are no fewer than 13 teams currently in the Premier League who do not feature anywhere in this list. Given carte blanche, I would fill the remaining nine spots with the teams I had already decreed worthy – namely Norwich, Derby, Millwall, Wimbledon, Charlton, Luton, Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Newcastle. Seven of these nine are currently top flight refugees.
But if I’m living in the past, then it is with one eye on the history books. Every one of the teams I have mentioned have a solid recent (or recent-ish) history of top flight involvement. Wolves, Blackburn, West Brom, Sunderland, Manchester City, Stoke, Bolton and Blackpool all boast rich histories – there are another five founder members of the Football League amongst them – but aside from Blackburn’s league title in 1995, now receding as rapidly into history as Alan Shearer’s hairline, not one of them can point to any real provenance in the past generation or three. Fulham have never finished higher than 7th in the top flight and spent much of the previous generation mired towards the bottom of the ladder. Birmingham and West Ham both boast distinguished yet largely unremarkable service to the cause while Wigan Athletic are just made-up. And dear old Chelsea may now be a footballing juggernaut whose presence can inspire BBC commentator Steve Wilson to exasperatedly squeak “have you ever seen a defensive display like this by a Chelsea side before?” during their 4-3 League Cup defeat to Newcastle last month, anyone over the age of 10 undoubtedly can.
I don’t begrudge anyone success. Well, as a football fan, I naturally do. But I can honestly say I don’t begrudge any of the teams I have mentioned here success. However, all the best bits about football are more important than success and failure. British sport would be so much poorer for the loss of any of these clubs, a fact which it has never been more important to not lose sight of.