Champions League: Chelsea now, and Leeds then

It’s being reported as a dire game. But for those of us who weren’t looking to it to “prove to Europe” something or other about the Premiership, it was both tense and compelling, spoiled only by ad breaks at insultingly-chosen moments. (We even went to ads between the end of extra time and the start of penalties, an ignorant and tasteless thing to do).

Liverpool now have far too much “history” with the European Cup for commentators to avoid making too much of it. My own thoughts aren’t “Rome, Istanbul, Athens”, but, well done and bully for you. The plain fact of the matter is that Liverpool have spent much of this season as spectators to other teams’ narratives, and their arrival in the Final this time is as much interruption as achievement.

Some of the greatest team seasons end without silverware. The ultimate example of this belongs of course to Leeds United in 1969-70 – runners-up in the League, FA Cup Finallists, semi-finalists in the European Cup. At one point that team played five games in eight days, at a time when Leeds played as a first team, not as a first team squad.

The League that year went west with a 3-1 defeat to Southampton, which Norman Hunter described as “embarrassing”. 1970 would be Everton and Alan Ball’s title. But there was nothing embarrassing about a narrow defeat to Jock Stein’s Celtic:

In 1970, FA Cup semi-finals didn’t go to penalties: drawn matches meant replays, until a winner emerged. Leeds needed three matches to get past Manchester United. And then, for the first time, the FA Cup Final went to a replay:

It was an infamously tough game:

And then came Chelsea’s equaliser, and, eventually, defeat:

That would be Leeds United who have just slipped into the equivalent of the old Third Division. Next season contains the sorry chance of two ghost-ridden Leeds v Forest matches, assuming that Forest don’t succeed in the play-offs. I don’t think I could bear to watch.

Liverpool came close to a treble – something that doesn’t seem to be mentioned often, for reasons I can’t fathom – in 1976-7. League and European Cup were obtained – and an FA Cup Final:

1969-70, 1976-7, and Manchester United’s successful tilt at the same targets in 1999, were all essentially one-team seasons. What has set this year apart is the way both Chelsea and the rejuvenated Manchester United have been doing a Leeds, something completely unprecedented. Treble attempts are rare enough even these days, with the top four clubs dominating trophies.

Until last weekend and Bolton’s farewell to Allardyce in a 2-2 draw against the Champions, not only were two teams going for the treble, but there was the prospect of the season ending in the armageddon atmosphere of three Chelsea-Manchester United matches that would decide the oldest football competition in the world, the wealthiest football competition in the world, and, not in any way incidentally, the Premiership title.

It would have felt like the culmination of more than just a football season. Victory would have given meaning and shape to Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea or a climax to Ferguson’s at Manchester United. The contest would have been the greatest display of football management in such a short space of time imaginable: how do two evidently great managers carry their players through such fire as this?

We’ll never know. In the real world, football doesn’t often attend to that kind of history. That saddening mediocrity that waits just below football’s surface has surfaced again, and, piece by piece, the season’s great ending is being taken apart. The title race has fizzled: if Milan win tonight by only one goal, the Champions League will be 2005 again, and it will be interesting to see if either United or Chelsea care too much about the FA Cup after that.

The last four seasons all seem to be about incredible possibility, never fulfilled. I can’t help tracking all that back to 2004 and Rooney’s injury against Portugal. Perhaps appropriately, it’s very hard to find the moment on internet video. Something good stopped growing that night, and now there’s a sense of it having gone away altogether.

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7 responses to “Champions League: Chelsea now, and Leeds then

  1. did you catch the Peter Ridsdale / John Humphries interview lat night?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/ontheropes/pip/f5yxh/

    I really don’t know whether he was right or wrong on the football points but I found him quite unconvincing on the business angle. At all the crucial points he keeps backing away and claiming that important decisions were taken by the board and that he secretly disagreed with them.

  2. “1969-70, 1976-7, and Manchester United’s successful tilt at the same targets in 1999, were all essentially one-team seasons.”

    In 1999, MU won the league by one point, and it took a replayed semifinal against Arsenal to get to the final of the FA cup. It was a whisker away from being a Double-winning season for Arsenal. I now it’s not quite like United and Chelsea both going for the treble at the same time, but it seems a bit harsh on the Arsenal to call it a one team season.

    And as for “Something good stopped growing that night, and now there’s a sense of it having gone away altogether.”—pshaw. Don’t be such a gloomy-guts. Michael Owen is back playing; Manchester United are about to win the treble with key performances in all competitions from a resurgent Wayne Rooney. Or, of course, maybe not; but let’s not write off the season, or indeed English football, just yet.

  3. I don’t think that ‘something good stopped growing that night’ either – to me it just seems more of the same. English football has been pretty much dominated by 2-3 clubs for the past decade and more. These clubs have been for the most part unable to transfer their success into Europe (with a couple of exceptions) – England are still underperforming nationally (although given that they have never really exceeded this level, it’s pertinent to wonder whether that is in fact their natural level) and all in all, I feel that little has changed in 10 years, or even 30…

  4. What is this nonsense about underperforming? Liverpool won the Champions League two years ago, Arsenal were very unfortunate to lose the final last year and this year England had three out of four semi-finalists. What possible planet do we expect to be living on? I was in Germany a few weeks ago and asked the son of a friend what sport he watched on TV. English football, he said. He thought German football was dull. I suspect you get more action, more speed, more constant passion, more sheer time (considering the number of games played), and – even, surprisingly – more skill under the given conditions of speed and power in England than anywhere else. Alas, you also get more exhaustion at the end of the season which is when the international competitions come to a climax.

    England has a potentially good team, the clubs certainly have good teams. One generation – the one just passing – was particularly promising but they were unlucky with injuries at the worst possible times. Nor did very hot conditions ever suit an England team. Even with all players fit and in ideal weather, with the best of all possible coaches, there is no guarantee they would have won the major trophies they were competing for, but then neither has any other team that guarantee, whether it be Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Spain, France, Germany or Italy. How many World Cups has Argentina won recently? Germany? Holland? Spain? Portugal? Uruguay? Do you even dare to think of Russia? I dare not think of Hungary.

    Could we begin to grow up a little and stop thinking England should run the world? That is, I think, a very good reason why England don’t do as well as they might. The expectation is too high: failure is ridicule. They are simply scared, and with good reason.

  5. At any rate, there’s every sign that British clubs (not just English, given the gradual improvement in “Rangers and Celtic”‘s European performances (UEFA final, reaching Champs League knockout rounds)) are once again dominating the European scene. Milan notwithstanding. Spurs did well in the UEFA this year too.

    The something-good-that-stopped-growing refers to England, of course. I’d defend my use of words. The momentum and growing confidence, especially with the arrival of Rooney, have never really returned since. Injuries, mostly. England’s full first team haven’t played together since 2005, and here we are halfway through 2007. We haven’t had that kind of bad luck since both Shearer and Gascoigne missed seasons at more or less the same time as the 1986-90 generation moved on. It would take a tabloid journalist or a 606 caller to assume that the English have a divine right to be good at the game: I can only aspire to be maudlin about how close we came to it.

  6. Well I certainly don’t think England should run the world – I’m not even English.

    And as for underperforming, I stand by that – what exactly has the English national team achieved in the last forty-one years? And as for club football, of the last twenty-two European Cups, English teams have won precisely two. Spain has five in that time, Italy six, even Portugal has two… I’ll not deny English teams, and British teams are getting better, and particularly over the past few years. But considering the size of the country, the importance of the league, and the supposed strength of the teams involved, it has been a shoddy preformance for British teams in Europe, with only a few exceptions. If Liverpool can win in Athens, we may reasonably start talking about a return to the ‘natural level’ of British teams in the 1970s-80s, but if they lose, England (and Britain in general) is even further behind the Mediterraneans than ever.

  7. For the first five of those 22 years, English teams were banned from European football because of Heysel. And it took a long time for them to catch up with the rest of Europe again.