Leicester City’s possible feat is surprising but not unprecedented

Claudio Ranieri’s team would become only the sixth club to win a Premier League title


We all know the possible narrative at this stage – Leicester City hold onto their six point lead at the top of the Premier League table over the next 13 games, win the title and confirm their place in the hearts of football fans around the world while giving a two-fingered salute to the money-saturated English football establishment.

Without a doubt it would be one of the great underdog stories of all time and, some would argue, the greatest given the huge financial power enjoyed by a small handful of Premier League clubs.

But it is a feat that is not unprecedented. There is even a current similar example. Although it would not be as surprising as a Leicester league title, Aberdeen could this season become the first club outside of Celtic or Rangers to win the Scottish Premier League since 1985.

And in that year it was won by? Aberdeen. Managed by? Alex Ferguson.

It is that sort of level of greatness that it takes to break the mould of the dominant clubs in leagues around the world.

But it has been done, and here are six examples of when.

Nottingham Forest – Division One champions 1977/78

If Leicester do go on to win the Premier League title it would almost pale into insignificance when placed alongside the achievements of the Nottingham Forest team of the late 70s.

Granted it can be argued that it is harder for a lesser club to win the top division in England nowadays given the financial factors already mentioned but the fact is that Forest didn’t just win the league – they won it the season after being promoted from Division Two and then topped it off with consecutive European Cup wins in 1978/79 and 1979/80.

To attempt to put some perspective on it: that would be like one of last season’s promoted teams (Bournemouth, Watford or Norwich) winning the league this season and then the Champions League for the next two years running.

Yes, none of those teams have ever won a top division title before but neither had Forest before 1978.

The mind-boggling elements of Forest’s achievements continue to stack up when you look at it more closely.

When Brian Clough took over in 1975 the team sat 13th in Division Two. Within five years they had gone from attracting gates of below 8,000 people to beating Barcelona, at the Nou Camp, to win the Super Cup.

When they left the ground a strange sight greeted them.

“Two rows of Barcelona fans, eight deep, all the way from the exit to our coach,” John McGovern, the captain, recalls in the excellent recently released I Believe in Miracles. “They were all very quiet and I thought: ‘We could be in trouble here.’ It was then they started clapping. As we walked to our coach they clapped us all the way. Not a Forest fan in sight, all Barcelona fans. Clapping us out of their own stadium.”

The team currently sitting 13th in the Championship is QPR. It’s difficult to see many backing the West London side to win the Premier League in 2019 and the Champions League in 2020 and 2021 before being applauded out of the Nou Camp.

Although many would have said that a team like Leicester winning the Premier League could never happen, it can categorically be said that no team will ever match what Forest did in those three years from 1977 to 1980.

Hellas Verona – Serie A champions 1984/85

The one and only Scudetto won by Hellas Verona in their 112 year history was a victory not only for the Northern Italian team but also for Italian football fans in general as it looked to pave the way towards a future not marred by scandal and corruption.

Just five years previously Lazio and AC Milan had been relegated to Serie B for their involvement in the Totonero match-fixing scandal.

As the Italian game looked to clean up its image the 1984/85 season was the first in which match officials were randomly drawn in the assigning of games, rather than the referee’s commission deciding who took charge of each match.

The step was taken after suspicions had been raised that the big clubs from Rome, Milan and Turin were always paired with favourable officials. Indeed in the two decades prior to Hellas’ achievement the title had only left those three cities once.

Second Captains

As was the case with Nottingham Forest and Clough in England just a few years previously, much of the success came down to the shrewd management of Osvaldo Bagnoli.

The Italian took over the team in 1981 after a long period in which Verona found themselves moving back and forth between Serie A and Serie B.

Bagnoli lead the team to promotion in his first season in charge before reaching consecutive Coppa Italia finals.

With wins against Juventus, Fiorentina and Torino, Hellas remained unbeaten until January and topped the table.

Much like Leicester’s current run it was a case of fans and pundits alike waiting for the collapse to happen. It never did.

Hellas went on to win the title, losing just two matches along the way and fielding only 17 players all season.

Five years later they would be relegated to Serie B and Bagnoli would move to Genoa.

The miracle of Hellas Verona not only stands out as one of the great underdog stories but as a season that many believe was one of the few fairly contested Serie A campaigns around the time.

The following season the selection of match officials was returned to the referee’s commission. Juventus were crowned champions.

Sampdoria – Serie A champions 1990/91

After Hellas Verona had shocked Italian football in 1985 it did not take long for another fairytale to be written, this time in the north western port city of Genoa.

More famed for giving the world Christopher Columbus, in the season of 1990/91 a Genoese team would march into uncharted territory by winning their one and only Serie A title.

Although Sampdoria were top-flight stalwarts and had won three Coppa Italia’s in the previous seven years, as well as the previous season’s Uefa Cup Winner’s Cup, their maiden league title came at a time when Italian football was in its’ heyday.

Italian clubs had won three of the previous six European Cups and Serie A was by far the most attractive league in Europe.

Diego Maradona’s Napoli, Internazionale led by Giovanni Trapttoni and AC Milan had dominated since Hellas had broken the mould six years previously.

But the Sampdoria team led by Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini would follow in the footsteps of Hellas, playing in the typical Italian defensive style that would stifle opponents before an unerring ruthlessnes in front of goal would see them off.

Two 4-1 wins over Napoli over the course of the season went a long way towards putting them three points clear of Inter when they visited the San Siro with four games to go.

In one of the most hectic matches ever seen Sampdoria won 2-0 but the game could easily have seen five times that many goals.

In the words of commentator Martin Tyler: “In years to come, people will be saying, ‘I was here. I was at that game’ … Grown men, hardened football-watchers, are scarcely able to turn their eyes to this.”

Two red cards, a missed penalty, a disallowed goal and Inter’s 24 shots to Sampdoria’s six barely go the way to telling the story of one of the greatest games ever played in Italian football.

And it proved to be the pivotal moment in the title race as Sampdoria kicked on to claim their first and only Scudetto.

Boavista – Primeira Liga champions 2000/01

Perhaps Portugal is the country where the top-flight has been most dominated by a small cohort of clubs.

Since the Primeira Liga was founded 82 years ago it has only been won twice by teams outside of the ‘Big Three’ – that being Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto.

In 1946 Belenenses beat Lisbon rivals Sporting and Benfica to top spot. Sporting would answer back quite comprehensively however, going on to win seven of the next eight titles.

Manchester United and Liverpool fans will remember Boavista and their chequered-flag shirts from Champions League ties in 2001 and 2002.

The Porto club’s rise to prominence through the late 1990s was fortunate to coincide with a crisis at Benfica which saw the 34-time champions finish outside the top two for three consecutive seasons, including a shocking sixth-place finish during Boavista’s league-winning campaign.

The best defensive record in the league and only one home loss during the 2000/01 season was pivotal in the Panthers claiming the title.

The following season a second place finish to Sporting gave substance to the possibility that the Portuguese top-flight could turn into a ‘Big Four’.

But as happens so often when a team breaks the mould to win a league title, they couldn’t sustain it.

A 10th place finish in 2002/03 saw them miss out on European football – a height that they have failed to reach since.

They currently sit just two points above the relegation zone with 13 games to go.

Montpellier – Ligue 1 champions 2011/12

The French top flight is one of the few leagues around Europe that is not alien to an unfancied side lifting the title.

Monaco, St Etienne and Bordeaux have all won the league in their first season after promotion but the achievement of Montpellier surely eclipses any of those as they went up against the new Qatari wealth and power of Paris St Germain. And beat them.

Despite PSG splashing €106 million on the likes of Javier Pastore, Thiago Motta and Alex that summer, as well as luring Carlo Ancelotti to Paris, the southern French club managed to beat them to the Ligue 1 title.

Not only that but Rene Girard’s team finished the season with 82 points – the second highest total in Ligue 1 history.

And of course, such a fairytale can’t possibly end without drama.

On the final day of the season Montpellier travelled to play Auxerre knowing that avoiding defeat would see them lift their first ever league title.

With the game at 1-1 in the second half and Auxerre already condemned to relegation, the home fans caused a 20 minute stoppage by pelting the pitch with eggs, tennis balls, toilet paper and flares.

With PSG having already won and needing Auxerre to score again to see the title go to Paris, their hopes were dashed when John Utaka struck a late winner to realise the dreams of the small club from the south of France.

And, as a final point – Montpellier finished the previous season a lowly 14th.

Last season’s 14th-placed Premier League team? Leicester City.

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