Sir Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest or Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City - which is football’s greatest fairytale?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 04 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:08 04 May 2016
Experts up and down the land are hailing Leicester City’s extraordinary triumph as the greatest against-all-odds achievement in the history of English football. But is it?
We’re all having a party with Jamie Vardy and his mates – well, all except very unhappy Spurs fans, that is. Leicester’s amazing Premier League title victory has warmed the hearts of millions of football fans, proving that fairytales can still happen, even in this most hard-nosed and money-dominated of sports.
Congratulations to manager Claudio Ranieri, his players, and the Foxes supporters, who must be as stunned as they are thrilled. It gives hope to every other “little’’ club” – Ipswich, for example – whose supporters thought any hope of winning major trophies had long been driven out by the power of money. Leicester have thrillingly ended the closed shop which had seen the same few teams win the Premier League year after dreary year – and good for them, and us.
But is it the greatest footballing achievement ever, as most pundits seem to be saying? Are they all getting carried away in the emotion and astonishment of the moment? It’s certainly “up there,’’ as they say, but there are at least two other strong contenders. So I’ll compare their relative merits, and then finish with the Judgement of Solomon. It will be in strictly chronological order…
Ipswich Town - First Division champions - 1961-62
When Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town team won the Third Division (South) title in 1957, it passed by virtually unnoticed outside Suffolk. But an incredible sporting story was developing in what had been very much a footballing outpost.
Ramsey had taken over as manager two years earlier, and was building a side consisting mostly of free transfers and cast-offs, mixed with some home-grown talent. Five of the regulars in the 1956-57 title winning team were goalkeeper Roy Bailey, full-back Larry Carberry, left-half John Elsworthy, winger Jimmy “Sticks’’ Leadbetter, and striker Ted Phillips, who grew up near Leiston.
Those five were still stalwarts four years later, when Ipswich made it into the First Division for the first time in the club’s history. By now, they had been joined by Scottish defender Bill Baxter, winger Roy “Rocky’’ Stephenson, inside forward Doug Moran and, most crucially, a young centre-forward called Ray Crawford, from Portsmouth.
What happened now defied all logic. Written off as relegation favourites (sound familiar, Leicester fans?), Ipswich simply took the division by storm. Twin strikers Phillips and Crawford scored 85 goals between them in all competitions. Ray Crawford will tell you that Ted – with one of the hardest shots in football – would simply hammer the ball goalwards, and Ray would pick up the rebounds from the hapless keepers.
But the real genius was the mercurial Ramsey. His Ipswich Town team changed the face of football forever. For decades, teams had set up with two wingers, and the opposition’s burly full-backs would spend their time trying to kick lumps out of “their man.’’
Ramsey’s masterstroke was to withdraw his number seven, Stephenson, and number 11, the ageing Leadbetter, into deep positions. This totally flummoxed the opposition. The full-backs had no-one to man mark, and Leadbetter and Stephenson were able to supply the prolific Crawford and Phillips. Before English football could blink, Ipswich Town were League Champions.
England came calling for Ramsey, and Ipswich went into decline. But Ramsey repeated the trick four years later with England. Before worldwide TV channels and the internet, international teams remained unaware of his “wingless wonders.’’ For Stephenson and Leadbetter in 1962, read Ball and Peters in 1966. Yes, you could say that the World Cup of 1966 was actually won in Ipswich in 1962!
Nottingham Forest - First Division champions - 1977-78
There were many parallels between the Nottingham Forest team of 1977-78 and Ipswich Town in the early 1960s.
Forest had only just come up to the top division, after being relegated in 1972, and they also had a genius of a football manager, in the brash but brilliant Brian Clough, right. He had already steered unsung Derby County to unimagined heights a few years earlier.
Like Ipswich, nothing much was expected of Forest. Their team was an unpromising mix of underachievers, journeymen, and raw youngsters. But Clough provided the inspiration to turn them into a top team, against all the odds.
As with Ramsey’s deployment of wingers Stephenson and Leadbettter, Clough’s triumph with Forest also depended hugely on getting the best from an unlikely source. In his case, it was Scottish winger John Robertson. When Clough arrived at Forest, Robertson was on the transfer list. In his autobiography, Clough describes the winger as a “scruffy, unfit, uninterested waste of time…but something told me he was worth persevering with.’’ How right he was. The unlikely, shambling figure of Robertson became a key figure in Forest’s triumph, supplying the ammunition for strikers Peter Withe and Tony Woodcock.
Of course, Forest also had a few star names, including the best keeper around in Peter Shilton. But, like Leicester this season, they also managed to create a title-winning team which included unlikely figures such as defenders Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns – prototypes for Wes Morgan and Robert Huth!
The Forest story got even better, as Clough signed Trevor Francis, and led his heroes to two European Cup victories in successive seasons (the Champions League, for younger readers). There’s another, crucial common thread which Forest shared with Ipswich from 16 years earlier – football was still a much more level playing field.
Of course, there were big clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal, and Man Utd, but these were the days before money dominated everything. A brilliant manager – a Ramsey, a Robson, or a Clough – could still achieve miracles against the odds. That all came to an end with the arrival of the Premier League, when big money became the be-all and end-all. Or so we thought…
Leicester City - Premier League champions – 2015-16
Let’s put things into perspective, shall we? If you had a few quid to spare before the start of the football season, you would have got better odds on Piers Morgan being appointed Arsenal manager, or Simon Cowell becoming Prime Minister, than on Leicester City winning the Premier League. Yes, it was viewed by the bookies as being that ludicrously unlikely – and they don’t get many things wrong. After all, a “little club’’ like Leicester could never compete with the big boys, could they? Not in a sport which has become totally governed by the amount of spending power at a club’s disposal. The Foxes somehow escaped relagtion by the skin on their teeth last year, and no-one could see anything other than another struggle for them.
When he was appointed, Claudio “Tinkerman’’ Ranieri, left, was hot favourite to be the first Premier League manager to get the boot.
But, joyfully, Ranieri and his team proved everyone spectacularly wrong. No matter that his entire squad cost only £23m – a sum which the big clubs would happily fork out for a single superstar. No matter that the Leicester team included journeymen like Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson – remember his rather underwhelming loan spell at Portman Road a few years back?
Oh, and they also had a chap called Riyad Mahrez, who they bought from Le Havre, in the French Second Division. Well, he was obviously no good, then.
Finally, there was Jamie Vardy, who joined Leicester from then Conference side Fleetwood for a non-league record of £1m four years ago.
Like Ramsey in 1962, and Clough in 1978, Ranieri has performed miracles with a team of players who, in most cases, had been written off. He’s moulded them into a formidable team with a fantastic spirit who don’t know when they’re beaten. And he’s done it all in an era when money means everything in football.
If you’re not mega-rich, you won’t win the league. Or so we thought.
Which is the greatest fairytale?
As a Town fan, my heart says Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich in 1962.
There’s also a strong argument for Brian Clough and Forest, who not only won the league, but also two European Cups.
But my head says that the greatest against-the-odds triumph in footballing history must be Leicester City. They have simply achieved what everyone believed was impossible in the modern game, which is so dominated by money.
They’ve restored faith in football – and put smiles on millions of faces.