First Division. Of course, Oxford’s victory would have been bigger news if there was no bigger bang in the top league, which takes more attention anyway. A new champion is always welcome and the irritating dominance of Liverpool made many want a change, but it was pleasantly surprising one, even if the title was not so heavily contested. What made the victory of Everton more important was the perception that England was on verge of having the biggest derby in the world – the biggest, because it involved not just leading teams, but world-leading teams. For all their aura, Milan vs Inter, Real vs Atletico, Boca Juniors vs River Plate, Flamengo vs Fluminense were either challenged by intercity derbies or at least one of the rivals was not a leading team at particular moment. Everton vs Liverpool, however, had both opponents at the top of world football and everything spoke in favour of staying on top of the world for years to come: Liverpool maintained its class for so many years and still there was no sign of coming crisis or losing focus. Everton was not at its peak yet, so it was expected the team to only get stronger. At least, that was how it looked at the moment, the potential was there. The season itself was not so bright and optimistic – it appeared that Tottenham Hotspur reached its limit and Manchester United seemingly was not able to win, always something missing. At least, there was a group of 4 strong teams, which was much better than having overwhelming Liverpool. The league was still competitive enough for dramatic season; the hooligans were still fighting and destroying everything in sight, the national team was promising at last, the clubs still trampled Europe, the foreign players still disliked and dimmed incapable to play the true British game. On the down side was having an outsider so weak it was a shame: no last placed team finished First Division season with fewer points since 1893-94 and that with current 3 points for a win! Speaking of wins, only one team matched the sorry achievement of this season – ironically, it was a record made by the same club both times, only the first time Stoke City distinguish itself with winning just 3 games was in 1889-90, when the league had only 12 teams, not 22.
Stoke City – arguably, the worst squad in the history of the English First Division. 3 wins, 8 ties, 31 losses, 24-91, and 17 points. Having Sammy McIlroy and Alan Hudson and nothing… or may be because of having McIlroy and Hudson there was nothing… from a certain perspective, both have been underachievers.
Sunderland was terrible as well, but Stoke City brought a level so low, everybody else looked if not a giant, at least a decent squad. Sunderland ended with 40 points. They won 10 games. They scored 40 goals. 8 teams allowed more goals in their nets than them. They finished 21st, though, and were relegated.
About 8 teams were in danger of relegation as well and battle for survival was fierce.
Norwich City was unlucky – they finished with 49 points and took the 20th place, the third relegation place. It was even ironic, because the Football League Cup final opposed Norwich to Sunderland. High and low in one season.
Queens Park Rangers was lucky to survive – 19th with 50 points. The squad was nothing like the one of the mid-70s, so nothing surprising this vintage just struggled for survival.
Coventry City – 18th with 50 points. Never great, but masters of keeping place in the league no matter what. Hard season, but the end was satisfying – no relegation. Just like the previous two seasons.
Ipswich Town – forget the dazzling team conquering Europe only a few years ago. The club took sharp turn after that and went down rapidly. Hard to tell why – looking at the squad, it was more than decent. Stronger names than the players most teams had. It did not look like real crisis, it looked like managerial incompetence: with such team, Ipswich barely escaped relegation. 17th with 50 points.
West Ham United – perhaps this squad tells of what the Hammers converted into: a smallish club, which occasionally could have strong year, but in general will be concerned only with avoiding relegation. Moving to the ranks of the leaders? Impossible. For good. 16th with 51 points and thanks God they were not relegated. Frank Lampard seemed to be eternal, although he still had to catch with Billy Bonds. Trademarks of West Ham eternity: long hairs and beards.
Leicester City – 15th with 51 points. One more lucky survivor,which was perhaps great for Gary Lineker – world class player should not suffer the disgrace of Second Division.
Newcastle United – 14th with 52 points. Managed to avoid relegation, but it was fine in general – they just came back from 6 years of Second Division exile, so the priority was to hold to the top league for now. Done. The trouble was Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley were not likely to remain.
Luton Town – they never lasted long in the top league, so survival was more or less their only aim. 13th with 54 points was not bad at all.
West Bromich Albion – in decline, but not yet hitting the bottom. Too bad Nobby Stiles was not 20 years younger. 12th with 55 points.
Watford – 11th with 55 points. Looked like Watford was settling comfortably as a midtable team. Even Elton John could not make them a big club – modest budget was their fate and solid and steady performance the best under the circumstances. Graham Taylor was still at the helm, so everything was fine, if not great. John Barnes was their hope for the future – at least in terms of potential income from a sale.
Aston Villa – there was hardly any doubt they were one-time wonder when they won the championship and the European Champions Cup: the almost unchanged winning squad was now 10th with 56 points. Even 9th place was far outside their reach. A team akin to Watford, not to the leading clubs. Midtable and nothing more.
Nottingham Forest – a bit of an enigma: they were never great even in their best years and surely lost their edge, but not a midtable team either. A lot had been said about the squad losing interest after winning everything, but more likely reason was the predicament of the club and its manager: little available money for big transfers on one hand and the inclination of Clough to make teams of somewhat oldish second-raters. So, Bowyer, Davenport, Hodge, and the former Dutch international Johhny Metgod were not exactly top-class players and may be even their peaks were passed, but it was a team able to give trouble to anybody, especially the leading teams. A team able to climb even to the top on occasion – but not a team able to stay on the top. 9th with 64 points – which is telling, for Forest was good 8 points ahead of Aston Villa.
Sheffield Wednesday – 8th with 65 points. Just came back from second division exile and doing very well. A team giving the impression of going up, a team to watch in the future. No great names here, but perhaps their Hungarian player was a clue: Imre Varadi was never a big star attracting tons of attention, but he proved to be very dependable and useful. For a relatively modest player, he made impressive foreign career, spending years in England and elsewhere. No many foreigners survived English football in the 1980s, but he adapted well. Wednesday was a team of such players and it was reasonable to look at it with hope.
Arsenal – 7th with 66 points. Somehow Arsenal always looked more promising than actually shown on the field. Judging by the names, this squad should have been a title contender. Instead, they finished behind Chelsea’s nobodies… it happened before, it will happen again. Doomed to underachievement.
Chelsea – 6th with 66 points. Great season, but the team was not eyed with hope and rightly so – it was quite a pedestrian squad, perhaps able to climb up, mostly driven on enthusiasm, for a year or two. Coming back from second division often brings a good season, but even the club fans did not believe this squad really belonged to the best teams. Unfortunately, making something better needed money and Chelsea’s financial problems were notorious.
Southampton – 5th with 68 points. Nothing to do with the real top of the table, but one more wonderful season. If Arsenal were underachievers, Southampton were overachievers. It was weird approach, but so far it did not misfire: the concept of acquiring old stars, well beyond their prime, is always risky and not long lasting. Amazingly, it worked perfectly for Southampton – a parade of great veterans, quickly stepping down and replaced with similar veterans. So, no Keegan anymore, but Peter Shilton (well, who would tell he will play another 10 years and some more? He was 34-35 already.), Mick Mills, Joe Jordan this season. As the things were going, Southampton provided particular excitement: who will be the next ancient player hired to ensure another strong season?
The last 4 teams were set apart and involved in their private struggle for outdoing each other. However, one team soared alone. It was exciting race for… second place.
Manchester United lost it, ending without a medal – 4th with 76 points. It was more than unfortune: Manchester United was underachiever bigger than Arsenal – Arsenal usually had not very deep sqaud, but United had plenty of talent for years. A good 13 worthy names here plus strong group of more than decent lads – a squad which should have been mighty champion, but it was not. It was hardly matter of wrong purchases – anyone can be blue with envy of a club getting Arnold Muhren, Gordon Strachan and Jesper Olsen on top of the players they already had. Manchester United traditionally made bigger purchases than Liverpool and yet never catch up with Liverpool. Ron Atkinson was to blame – great manager, but not a winner and it was already clear to the fans, perhaps the brass was coming to realizing it too. It was always something missing and the team lost season after season. Then again, it was the same with Docherty and Sexton… passion was getting thin.
Tottenham Hotspur – 3rd with 77 points. Lost second place on goal-difference. This was perhaps the finest season of that vintage – it was quite clear they would not go higher, that was their peak. The team achieved a lot, but the title was beyond their reach.
Liverpool – clinched 2nd place only thanks to better goal-difference and not really a title contender. It all depends on standpoint: to see Liverpool without any trophy in their hands almost spelled out ‘crisis’. But in England most viewers and observers were quite happy to see that, to see a change of Liverpool’s dominance and return to ‘true’ English game. However, Liverpool was not showing any signs of decline, the squad was formidable as ever, they reached the European Champions final again, they were world class. Their ‘weak’ season was only a momentary slip and perhaps not even that. If anything, this season was going to invigorate them, for they were stung by enemy next door and surely were not going to let it at that.
FC Liverpool lost, but Liverpool was still the king of England – Everton won the championship in such dominant manner, there was no doubt they were going to stay on top. 28 wins, 6 ties, 8 losses, 88-43, 90 points. The last number was all-time league record, eventually matched later, but remaining unbeaten until 1993-94. On the surface, it was monumental victory of the underdog, for Everton did not give any sign of improvement in the previous years and came more or less out of the blue. For club and fans it was splendid season, of course – finally coming out of the shadow of their hated neighbours and winning their first title since 1969-70. At last, after long years suffering the triumphs of Liverpool. And it was not some lucky victory, coming after ragged and gritty season and thanks to the mistakes of others and driven by oversized ambition rather than actual skills: Everton also triumphed in Europe and clearly it was not one-time-wonder. The club quietly built more than decent squad, having even advantage over Liverpool – for years, Livepool mostly managed to keep high level, but it was not developing further in game terms. Everton, on the other hand, was climbing up and was not yet on its peak. It was a team going to get stronger with time, most likely by carefully adding more talent. They were hungrier and success only wetting their appetite for more. Besting Liverpool was a great spur as well, so it looked like fantastic rivalry was coming fast and going to last long. It was more than potential unfolding of the greatest ever rivalry in the world – it looked like a fact. Now it looked like a fact even more, for thanks to Liverpool – their fans really – Everton did not become ruler of world football: unfortunately, the year of their success was also the year of the shameful tragedy in Brussels after which UEFA banned all English clubs from participation in the continental tournaments. As a result, the ‘fact’ became something stitched from speculations and ‘ifs’, a long litany of laments, perpetuated by the players of this Everton’s vintage. Usually, they claim they could have been the best in the world, if only UEFA did not cruelly punished the innocent, thus preventing Everton from conquering the world. They were the best, but had no chance to show it. How unfair, their development was stunted viciously. May be it was unfair and may be Everton was capable of becoming a world-class team similar to Liverpool, but speculations can go as far as one wishes them to go – wishful thinking is not a fact. Yet, the potential was there and it was lost. However, Everton did not become one-time wonder because of UEFA’s ban – they were really good and they stayed good. How much better they could have been will never be known, though – and that was unfortunate, but nothing can be done about it.