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4th May 2020

Science English Football League: The best teams to grace the Championship and old Division Two

Science English Football League: The best teams to grace the Championship and old Division Two

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science Reading life the Championship trophy

Reading’s points tally in 2005-06 set a new second-tier record – but is it all about points tallies?

From Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest to Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City, some of English football’s most renowned champions have had to conquer the second tier before going on to reach the very top.

But which side has been the best of them all to pass through what is now known as the Championship?

BBC Sport has compiled a 10-team shortlist – and by no means a definitive one – of sides who have earned their place in the discussion for the season they won promotion and/or the team they became.

The sides cover the second tier in its various incarnations and we have also factored in the change from two points to three points for a win.

Before we tell you who we have picked and why, who would you rank as your best of the best?

Chelsea – Champions, Division Two 1983-84

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
42 25 13 4 90 40 88 2.11
Pat Nevin (left) savours the promotion-winning feeling after the 1-0 victory over Grimsby clinched the title on goal difference from Sheffield Wednesday

Boys in blue back from the brink

The summer of 1983 and the season that followed is seen by many Chelsea fans of a certain vintage as a glorious peak just as memorable as the trophy-rich times of the Roman Abramovich era.

Numerous new faces arrived at Stamford Bridge thanks to the wily recruitment of manager John Neal and assistant Ian McNeill, and years of misery, struggle and the very real threat of bankruptcy were soon forgotten.

Among the new recruits were winger Pat Nevin and future England international striker Kerry Dixon. The latter was to be the headline-grabbing hero, scoring 34 goals in the season as the Blues won the title on the back of a 17-game unbeaten run, which culminated in a final-day victory over Grimsby Town.

“It was an exciting, attack-minded team that scored a hell of a lot of goals and was lovely to watch,” Nevin told BBC Sport. “We gelled and it felt more special to the fans because Chelsea came from a real low point the previous season and had nearly gone down to the third tier.

“In 1985-86, there was a period where we were in the hunt to win the Division One title, but we didn’t have a big enough squad.”

Nevin said Neal’s “no-nonsense northern wisdom” provided the backbone for the success.

“He didn’t take any of the rubbish that has always surrounded football,” Nevin added. “He just didn’t accept it. On the playing side he wanted to attack, to enjoy and to create and when you defend, to work hard and be structured. It’s not complicated.”

Five years later history repeated itself as Chelsea were once again Division Two champions, with another fall from grace followed by an impressive title charge that also featured Dixon, as well as Graham Roberts, Gordon Durie and Tony Dorigo and could easily have earned a place in this list.

Fulham – Champions, First Division 2000-01

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 30 11 5 90 32 101 2.2
Fulham’s 2001 promotion winners had a British backbone, including Lee Clark (left), but was sprinkled with talent from abroad

The continental Cottage

Jean Tigana had spent his playing days mixing with Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse as a 1984 European Championship winner with France, and his managerial career coaching stars such as Enzo Scifo, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet at Monaco.

So when he rocked up at English second-tier side Fulham in the spring of 2000, fans wondered how he might cope. They need not have been worried. Owner Mohamed Al-Fayed had picked the right man.

In his first full season in charge the Cottagers amassed 101 points to sweep to the title having been league leaders since the second week.

“Jean was very much modern day in terms of sports science and fitness. He followed the Arsene Wenger blueprint,” ex-Fulham midfielder Lee Clark told BBC Sport. “He made us an unbelievably fit team.”

Where Ray Wilkins, Kevin Keegan and Paul Bracewell had laid the foundations before the Frenchman’s arrival with players such as Chris Coleman, Andy Melville and Clark, Tigana would sprinkle a bit of extra stardust.

“He brought in Louis Saha and John Collins from Monaco,” Clark continued. “At that time there was a strong core of British senior players. We were a bit concerned when he came in.

“We bought into his ideas on fitness and he’d give us his technical and tactical detail through the week – but then he gave us lots of freedom to play. It was such an exciting time and a start of a great period. That side went on to qualify for Europe a few years later.”

Fulham, thanks to Al-Fayed’s bankrolling, had climbed from the bottom tier to the top in six years.

Leeds United – Champions, Division Two 1963-64

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game*
42 24 15 3 71 34 63 (87) 2.07

*Based on 3pts for a win

Don Revie’s Division Two title winners included club legends Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles. Billy Bremner and Jack Charlton

The Revie revolution

Like Liverpool before them, it was not so much the manner of winning the Second Division title which puts Leeds in this ‘hall of greatness’, but rather the almost immediate impact they made on winning promotion.

Don Revie built a hard, yet skilful team featuring a fine blend of brains and brawn around soon-to-be stars such as Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner.

Within five seasons they were First Division champions, had won League Cup and Inter-City Fairs Cup trophies and had become a side of household names.

Leicester City – Champions, Championship 2013-14

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 31 9 6 83 43 102 2.22
Liam Moore gets to grips with “special talent” Riyad Mahrez, a £400,000 signing in January of their promotion season

Pearson’s wing wizards

There is little doubt Leicester’s relentless march to the Championship title of 2013-14 teed up their remarkable Premier League triumph two years later.

But the starting point to their second-tier success can be traced back to the most painful play-off semi-final defeat imaginable, with Watford eliminating the Foxes in 2012-13 by scoring the most dramatic of winners to settle the tie after breaking away from a saved Leicester spot-kick.

“That year before went down in history,” former Foxes defender and now Reading captain Liam Moore told BBC Sport. “It can go one way or another the following year, but there was a real steel in everyone to go again.”

That determination, according to Moore, who first joined Leicester at the age of six, was down to manager Nigel Pearson.

“I used to think I was scared of Nigel but as I have got older, I have realised it was just respect,” Moore added. “The respect he carried throughout the club was incredible. He looks after everybody but expects high standards and everyone bought into that.

“He’s funny too, but also intimidating and as young player I was always a bit on edge. He has a real aura about him that brings out the best in people.”

Jamie Vardy was a Pearson signing and he and the experienced David Nugent plundered 36 goals between them, but it was on the wing where the class shone through.

“We had a special team with some real high-quality players,” Moore added. “We had Kasper Schmeichel in goal, the experience of Wes Morgan and Paul Konchesky at the back and Danny Drinkwater in midfield.

“Anthony Knockaert was a wizard on the wing and then we signed someone even better in Riyad Mahrez in January. It was unbelievable. People were gobsmacked by his talents and I remember his first training session like it was yesterday. He had a crowd watching him and was tearing up everyone – a special talent.”

Liverpool – Champions, Division Two 1961-62

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game*
42 27 8 7 99 43 62 (89) 2.12

*Based on 3pts for a win

Liverpool manager Bill Shankly (left) with his coaching staff known as the Liverpool Boot Room, Bob Paisley, Ronnie Moran, Joe Fagan and Reuben Bennett

Shankly sows the seeds

The building blocks of what was to become a Europe-wide Liverpool domination were sown with the Second Division title win of 1961-62, launching Bill Shankly into top-flight management and the club on the road to unprecedented success.

Shankly’s Reds harnessed the goalscoring talent of future World Cup winner Roger Hunt, who along with Ian Callaghan, Ian St John and Ron Yeats would provide the backbone for the first great side of the Scot’s reign.

The trophies kept rolling in over the next three decades, but this success was the catalyst.

Newcastle – Champions, First Division 1992-93

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 29 9 8 92 38 96 2.09
Lee Clark (bottom, second left) was part of a title-winning team including Andy Cole, (bottom, second from right) who scored 12 goals in 12 appearances

A hero returns to Toon

Kevin Keegan was already a hero on Tyneside when he returned to Newcastle United, as manager, in February 1992. The Magpies, who he had helped to promotion at the end of two rip-roaring years in the twilight of his playing career, were now staring at relegation to the third tier.

Not only did Keegan help the Toon avoid the drop in last-gasp circumstances, the following season he achieved something almost unthinkable. Promotion. The title.

“We went from a team that struggled, to absolutely steaming away with the league,” former Magpies midfielder Lee Clark told BBC Sport. “It was a really exciting time.”

From a flying start which brought 33 points from the opening 11 games, Keegan’s side never wavered and were top from 5 September to the finish.

How did Keegan achieve it? Through relentless pursuit of improvement, Clark says.

“It was the type of football we played. Kevin put his stamp on the team and the club, and it was the signings he made,” he continued. “We signed players like John Beresford, Barry Venison, Paul Bracewell, Rob Lee and Andy Cole.

“It was what Kevin was about; he never rested on his laurels, he always wanted to improve things by getting better players in. You had to improve, the training standard continually rose. He had it all boxed off.”

Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ were immediate title contenders on arriving in the Premier League, and the stars continued to arrive – Philippe Albert, Les Ferdinand, Tino Asprilla and Alan Shearer to name just four. They swiftly became many fans’ second team for their enterprising football, but the big prize just eluded them.

Nottingham Forest – Third, Division Two 1976-77

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game*
42 21 10 11 77 43 52 (73) 1.74

*Based on 3pts for a win

Brian Clough had the Midas touch at Forest, winning back-to-back European Cups – a feat that means the Reds have still been champions of Europe one more time than all of the London clubs combined

Europe awaits

Forest were not even the second best team to be promoted in 1976-77, but somehow became the best in Europe within two seasons.

Their rapid ascent started by scraping into the First Division – thanks to already-promoted Wolves’ win over Bolton.

Before long, those flights to far-flung places became more frequent as the legendary duo Brian Clough and assistant Peter Taylor – who had already guided Derby to promotion and then a First Division league championship – repeated the feat at Forest. This time though, it was in consecutive seasons.

Midfielder Ian Bowyer said the side were very talented but “drifting along” and just needed some guidance. Clough and Taylor provided it in abundance.

John McGovern, who had gone from Hartlepool to Forest with Clough, twice lifted the European Cup aloft, in finals against Malmo and Hamburg. It was true fairytale stuff.

Defender Colin Barrett told BBC Radio Nottingham: “We had everything that you could want in a football team. You had defenders who could defend, in midfield you had people that could spoil, and people that could hurt you.

“Then up front you had a potent force with Tony Woodcock and Peter Withe or Garry Birtles (a youngster who broke into the side after the First Division title win). And then you had a master artist on the wing in John Robertson. He could do anything with a football.”

Reading – Champions, Championship 2005-2006

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 31 13 2 99 32 106 2.3
Leroy Lita was part of a prolific main strike trio who scored 47 league goals for Reading as they bulldozed their way to the title

The stats don’t lie

There is a famous phrase which says ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Well, there’s no fibbing about how good Reading were in 2005-06, particularly with economic history graduate Steve Coppell in charge.

The numbers stack up quite brilliantly. They qualified for automatic promotion by an enormous 25 points with a record tally. They won the title by 16 points. They scored three or more goals in a game on 14 occasions and had a plus 67 goal difference.

Dave Kitson top-scored with 22 goals in all competitions, assisted by Kevin Doyle on 19 and Leroy Lita on 15. Lita cost just £1m, Doyle was a bargain buy from Irish side Cork, and Kitson acquired from Cambridge for a mere £150,000.

No dynasty followed for the Royals – unlike Leeds or Liverpool. But in the modern era, finishing eighth in the Premier League is an achievement to be applauded against the chequebooks of the elite.

Sunderland – Champions, First Division 1998-1999

P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 31 12 3 91 28 105 2.28
Kevin Phillips strikes a familiar pose for Sunderland fans, this celebration in the Premier League marked one of 134 goals he scored for the Black Cats during a six-year spell

Wembley woes inspire Black Cats

Sunderland’s thrilling, record-breaking romp to the First Division title was a triumph borne out of disappointment.

Twelve months before the Black Cats stormed into the Premier League, they had lost to Charlton in a heartbreaking play-off final penalty shoot-out.

“We said we needed to make up for what happened at Wembley,” former Republic of Ireland striker Niall Quinn told BBC Sport. “No one rang their agents, or looked for a move.

“We brought in goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen and Paul Butler, who was a colossus – he brought the strength that made us intimidating.”

Not even losing Kevin Phillips – who still managed 23 goals in 26 league games – for almost half the season to injury could stop their surge, as Quinn, Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges picked up the slack. It was exciting, direct football, built on old-school wingplay.

“Peter Reid was brilliant and the assistant manager Bobby Saxton had such an attention to detail,” Quinn said.

“Defenders would be waiting for Nicky Summerbee to take them on, but he’d just whip this ball in and we’d steal a yard. His left foot was for standing but his right was a wand. On the other side Allan Johnston would tease the full-back but we’d see him drop the shoulder and know it was coming.”

Sunderland just missed out on Europe on their Premier League return, while Phillips made his England debut and won Europe’s Golden Boot. It really was the Stadium of Light for Wearsiders back then.

Wolves – Champions, Championship 2017-18

Ruben Neves (left) has been the star turn as head coach Nuno Espirito Santo has plotted the course from the second tier to European football
P W D L For Ag Pts Pts/game
46 30 9 7 82 39 99 2.15

The Nuno show

Wolves’ topsy-turvy six-year journey from the Premier League to League One and back again was completed in dominant fashion with promotion to the top flight in April 2018.

They started the season with a new Portuguese head coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, and a selection of signings who would form the backbone to their success. The influence of super agent Jorge Mendes played a big part behind the scenes.

Any doubts their foreign imports – including £16m midfielder Ruben Neves from Porto – would not be able to cope with the demands of England’s second tier were quickly dispelled as they rose to the top of the table in October and pretty much stayed there.

While Neves’ wonder goals and Diogo Jota’s direct running would catch the eye, this Wolves side also had a huge amount of fight – epitomised as they beat Middlesbrough with nine men and emerged victorious against Cardiff on a dramatic night where the hosts missed two late penalties.

Nuno’s impact on some of the players he inherited was key, too, with Matt Doherty among those who have since gone on to become a must-have for Fantasy Football managers.

Teams that did not make the cut

In whittling down such an illustrious list, some wonderful teams missed out. Tottenham, FA Cup winners a year after they were crowned Second Division champions in 1919-20, Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield Town that same year, plus free-scoring Everton’s class of 1930-31 – featuring the legendary Dixie Dean – were all candidates.

Tottenham – with future England manager Sir Alf Ramsey in their ranks – and Ipswich – with him as boss – can also consider themselves unfortunate to be left off having both won the First Division a year after winning Division Two in 1949-50 and 1960-61 respectively.

The Wimbledon side that sneaked up via third spot in 1985-86, completing a truly astonishing journey from Southern League to top flight in 10 years and went on to lift the FA Cup have a special case to be in the frame, while Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City title-winning entertainers from 2001-02 also deserve a mention.

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