English Football’s Most Successful Clubs
It’s the second chance to win major domestic silverware this weekend as Chelsea and Liverpool face off at Wembley in the FA Cup final. Manchester United’s failure to win the Europa League last season was not only a real-time disappointment but also stopped them from regaining parity with Liverpool, after the Merseyside club had snuck ahead to 43 major honours with their Premier League title win in 2020. Liverpool’s Carabao Cup win in February nudged them two ahead of their eternal rivals and Saturday afternoon opens up the chance of stretching that to three.
For a game that venerates its own history so much, football has problems reconciling what should truly count when it comes to assessing the most successful clubs. Do you go for raw figures? Or do you apply some sort of era filter, given that the game’s laws have changed so much? For instance, three of Newcastle’s four league title came when goalkeepers could handle the ball up to the halfway line, while both of Preston’s league titles came before the penalty kick was introduced. Fair? Football is it? Those honours certainly count, but should they matter as much as a modern trophy, forged in the high-intensity cauldron of modern football? Let’s investigate.
Readers should note that the myriad forms of ‘Super Cup’ honours have not been included in these gloried calculations as these are a) quasi-friendlies a lot of time, and b) aren’t open to most clubs. And while you get a gold badge to wear on your shirt, we haven’t included the Club World Cup in these figures. Please add on one honour for each of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea if you deem that competition a worthy addition to this overall assessment of the most successful teams in English football history. The competitions included here are the FA Cup (started 1871), the league championship (started 1888, reconstituted to the Premier League in 1992), the League Cup (started 1960), the European Cup (started 1955, rebranded as the Champions League in 1992), the UEFA Cup (started 1971, rebranded as the Europa League in 2009), the European Cup Winners Cup (started 1960, abolished 1999) and, perhaps controversially, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which was ran from 1955 to 1971 and is widely seen as the forerunner of the UEFA Cup. In regards to English football Leeds won it twice, Newcastle and Arsenal once. It’s not recognised by UEFA as part of a club’s European record but FIFA do, and that’s good enough for us.
The All-Time Leaders
Let’s start with the headline figure, which is that Liverpool are on 44 major honours (19 league titles, seven FA Cups, nine League Cups, six European Cups and three UEFA Cups), two clear of their eternal rivals Manchester United, who are one ahead of them on English league titles as it stands but three behind them when it comes to the beacon of prestigiousness that is the European Cup/Champions League. United, like Chelsea, have won all three major European titles – Liverpool never won the Cup Winners Cup – and maybe, at some point, one of these sides will win the UEFA Conference League. Should West Ham overtake Manchester United in the next week, then Erik ten Hag will have a chance to tick that one off in his first season.
The other thing to note is that despite seemingly endless online debate about whether clubs like Manchester City (first major honour: the 1904 FA Cup) and Chelsea (first major honour: the 1954-55 league title) have “history,” the fact is they are the fourth and fifth most successful teams in English footballing history, and are both narrowing that gap to Arsenal in third.
Football didn’t start in either 1992 or 1888, but you can draw arbitrary lines at any point if you’re looking to bolster or supress a club’s cachet. As New Years Day 1900 dawned the most successful league sides were Aston Villa (four title wins), Sunderland (three) and Preston (two). Villa added a fifth later in 1900 and a sixth in 1910 but have been champions of England only once since, in 1981, although that did allow them the opportunity to become European champions in 1982.
Other midlands sides of note include Nottingham Forest, who parlayed their single league title in 1978 to a pair of European Cup wins in 1979 and 1980, and Leicester, who began the 2010s without having ever been champions of England or FA Cup winners, an issue they sorted out in 2016 and 2021 respectively.
But if we’re going to draw a dividing point, why not use the Second World War, which saw league football suspended for seven seasons, and, contrary to what a lot of 1992 deniers claim, was often used as a neat football history dividing point prior to the foundation of the Premier League. The Before The War table has Villa well clear on 12 honours, four ahead of Blackburn and then five sides on seven. Arsenal are in there, and can lay claim to being the most historically consistent side, the only club in this list to regularly challenge for honours in the 21st century. The decline of north east football always deserves some considered thought, with all of Sunderland’s and Newcastle’s league titles coming before the war. Sunderland, in 1936, remain the last champions of England to play in stripes, which contrasts England significantly with Italy, among other nations.
Manchester United fans may be interested to learn that if we start football from 1945 (the FA Cup was played in 1945-46 but league football didn’t resume until 1946-47), then they are still level with Liverpool, because the Anfield side lose out on four league titles won before the war, while United only lose two leagues and the 1909 FA Cup. Liverpool famously had to wait a long time before winning their first FA Cup in 1965, losing finals in 1914 – the last one held at Crystal Palace – and 1950. Tomorrow at Wembley Liverpool can win their first FA Cup since the “Gerrard Final” of 2006, and if they do so, they’ll go joint-third in the list, with only Arsenal and Manchester United ahead of them.
The truth is that no side has been able to permanently dominate English football, although Liverpool and Man Utd stand above all other clubs. The honours table since 1945 contains the same top five as the all-time one, albeit with Chelsea already ahead of Arsenal, and Man City surely set to reach 20 sooner rather than later. The only instruction to supporters is to make the most of every trophy and every big day out, because you never know when the ride is going to stop. Go back and tell a Preston fan in 1890, or a Sheffield United fan in 1898, or a West Brom fan in 1920, or a Huddersfield fan in 1926, or a Newcastle fan in 1927, or a Sheffield Wednesday fan in 1930, or a Sunderland fan in 1936, or a Wolves fan in 1959, or an Everton fan in 1987 or an Arsenal fan in 2004 that guess what, it was the last league title your club is going to win for a long time, perhaps forever. They simply won’t believe you because their team are the champions of England, and that’s not how it works.
There are few guarantees in football, but Liverpool and Manchester United maintaining their position as the two most successful clubs in the country is as close as it gets. Liverpool, with the 2022 League Cup in the bank and two more finals to play in the next fortnight, are creeping ahead of United but the pendulum will swing back at some point. In the meantime, Liverpool’s rediscovery of the joy of trying to win domestic cup competitions faces its second test of the season on Saturday at Wembley against Chelsea. Liverpool up to 45 honours? Or Chelsea up to 26?
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