Ten forgotten ‘title challengers’ that prove Solskjaer right

Matt Stead

“No-one will remember how the league table looked like on the 12th of January in 2021,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And glancing back at Premier League years gone by, he’s absolutely right. These ten sides promised title challenges in January that were long forgotten when all was said and done in May.


10) Liverpool (2016/17)
The prevailing argument of late is that Jurgen Klopp was given four years to help Liverpool achieve their extraordinary form so every other manager for the rest of history should be afforded that same courtesy by their club. It ignores a great deal of context and logic, not least the Premier League title challenge the Reds threatened to embark upon in his first full season as manager.

A New Year’s Eve 2016 victory over third-placed Manchester City meant six points separated Liverpool from Antonio Conte’s rampant Chelsea at the end of the year. The two sides would face each other at the end of January in a showdown between the favourites, but by then a stumble had become a trip, a fall and then a full-blown collapse for Klopp.

January 2017 was hilariously bad for Liverpool, a month in which they played nine times and won only once: an FA Cup third-round replay against League Two Plymouth with a Lucas Leiva first-half winner. They actually managed a draw at Anfield against Chelsea to bring in February, a result which kept them ten points off the eventual champions’ pace by that stage.


9) Aston Villa (1998/99)
If Aston Villa were to win both of their games in hand this season, they would close to within a single point of Liverpool at the top. That would have sounded unlikely at the start of the campaign but those with Villanous proclivities might suggest it is merely a couple of seasons too late.

While it is not quite Tottenham winning a trophy in a year ending in the number one, Villa have developed something of a habit for promising title challenges that fizzle out in years ending in the number nine. Ashley Young, John Carew and Martin O’Neill inspired them to the heights of third – three points behind leaders Liverpool – in February 2009. Yet a decade earlier it was Gareth Southgate, Julian Joachim and John Gregory leading an even unlikelier tilt.

They and Chelsea were engaged in quite the battle before Arsenal and Manchester United took over. Villa were top of the league on New Year’s Day but a run of no wins in ten games from January 9 to April 10 ended their participation altogether as they held on to finish sixth. It was a phenomenal effort from a team that was forced to sell its top goalscorer amid vague threats of managerial gun violence at the start of the campaign. They jeopardised Treble dreams long before they became a reality and still missed out on European qualification to Harry Redknapp’s West Ham.


8) Everton (2013/14)
“We were probably a centre-forward away from being contenders for the Premier League,” David Moyes once said of his wonderful Everton side. It would take his departure for them to go closer than they ever did under his stewardship.

Roberto Martinez inherited a team with the defensive structure of Moyes and soon imprinted his attacking impulses upon it. Romelu Lukaku was the striker the Toffees lacked all those years, scoring eight goals in his first nine Premier League games since joining from Chelsea on loan. By late December, Everton had been beaten once in 17 matches and were just two points behind their Merseyside brethren. Their slump was neither pronounced nor memorable, but a disappointing reminder of what could have been all the same.


7) Blackburn (1997/98)
It is quite the throwaway line, a glorious window into an alternate reality. ‘Pierluigi Casiraghi is the player Roy Hodgson wants to add an additional cutting edge to Blackburn Rovers’ attempt to win their second Premiership title in three years,’ read the opening paragraph to a November 1997 article in the Daily Mirror, enshrined forever by The Independent. But then comes the kicker: ‘He has also been watching other top strikers, such as Monaco’s Thierry Henry and Viktor Ikpeba.’

Few would blame Blackburn for relishing an unexpected second moment in the sun. Champions in 1995, Rovers finished 7th and then 13th in the following two seasons. Sven-Goran Eriksson was lined up to take over from perennial caretaker Tony Parkes, before Hodgson stepped in after the Swede reneged on an agreement.

It was a brief but bright moment of serendipity. Blackburn dreamed again after spending New Year’s Day second to Manchester United by five points. They had been beaten just twice in 21 games, powered by the goals of a reenergised Chris Sutton, the defensive prowess of new signing Stephane Henchoz and the youthful exuberance of Damien Duff. But they won five and lost ten of their final 17 matches, securing a UEFA Cup place on the final day as Hodgson was gone in the midst of a relegation battle by November. Thierry Henry has never had such a close call.


6) Tottenham (2011/12)
Anyone kidding themselves with the idea that Tottenham would challenge for the Premier League crown in 2011/12 was soon shown the error of their ways. Harry Redknapp, who reportedly took over a team that had two points from its first eight games three years prior, was handed a gentle start: Manchester United (a), Manchester City (h), Wolves (a), Liverpool (h), Wigan (a), Arsenal (h). Four of the previous season’s top six would immediately test their credentials in between visits to relegation candidates.

It went well. Manchester United thrashed Tottenham 3-0 at Old Trafford in an opening weekend fixture that was supposed to pit them against Everton before a postponement due to the London riots. Manchester City and Edin Dzeko then crushed them 5-1 at White Hart Lane. They were back at the bottom heading into the first international break, precisely where Redknapp found them in the first place.

What followed was a breathtaking run of 14 wins, three draws and a single defeat – to Stoke – as Tottenham scored 37 goals and conceded just 12 in 18 games to pull into third place behind both Manchester clubs by mid-January. Redknapp was spending his time suggesting Jake Livermore “is good enough to play for anyone”. Rafael van der Vaart stated that “if we can keep playing like this, then we’re also favourites to win the title” before speculating of City that “maybe it’s a little bit in their heads; the game against them is massive and we are really looking forward to it, but first we must beat Wolves”.

Tottenham proceeded to draw with Wolves in their next game before losing to City and promptly slipping into a battle for Champions League qualification, finishing fourth and still not making it because Chelsea just decided to win the whole bloody tournament. You can almost taste the “spineless” Spursiness.


5) Manchester City (2009/10)
Two years earlier, it was City themselves who were cosplaying as contenders. Mark Hughes was still screaming about never being relegated in the bowels of the Etihad when he was sacked for being sixth in late December. Roberto Mancini was drafted in to handily beat Stoke, Wolves and Blackburn as City were suddenly thrust into the fray, fourth at the start of January and only seven points behind Chelsea.

“I strongly believe we are not out of the title race here,” was the declaration made by new signing Patrick Vieira. “I do believe we can win the title,” added a midfielder with the requisite experience to aid the process. And while City did emerge victorious from a genuine Stamford Bridge classic often overlooked in a handshake haze, that February win closed the gap between the two sides to 12 points as Mancini’s beginner’s luck soon expired.


4) Sunderland (1999/00)
Anyone with a solid enough interest in the sport or Peter Ridsdale’s financial dealings will know who brought the millennium in as Premier League leaders. Not so many people realise that Sunderland were one of their main challengers, nor that the Black Cats led the chasing pack a year later.

On both occasions it was Peter Reid at the helm of a side taken to new heights by Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn. Sunderland started the year 2000 in fourth, six points behind Leeds after fighting for a 2-2 draw against Manchester United at the Stadium of Light. Twelve months later they were third, albeit 11 points off the pace of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side as they were well on course to wrap up their third consecutive title. Ipswich were a place behind them then; those two teams face each other in a fortnight under slightly different circumstances.


3) Southampton (2014/15)
In the hindsight of a Premier League title race in which Chelsea spent all but the second week top of the table, there were no alternative runners. But in the heat of the season Southampton put up a better fight than most, Ronald Koeman’s underrated side giving common enemies Newcastle and Sunderland some mutual ground by eviscerating them 4-0 and 8-0 as they rose as high as second by November.

Saints slipped somewhat with a five-game winless run that checked their credentials. Yet Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and pals timed their form to festive perfection by beating Everton, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle, while drawing with Chelsea, from December 20 to January 17.

It did not last. They won five of their final 16 games. But Southampton ended the season with Europa League qualification, the second-best defensive record of any side and the ultimate compliment for any team: a summer spent fending off asset-stripping attempts from elite clubs that cannot be bothered to properly scout for themselves in the first place.


2) Newcastle (2001/02)
Sir Bobby Robson, to his credit, never really bought into whatever hype there was. He realised Newcastle were punching above their weight, mere fish in the shark-infested deep end of the Premier League table. But those who insist they never believed for even a second that the Magpies might roll back the years and rekindle the mid-90s are surely lying.

The challenge came in two phases. The first saw Newcastle top at Christmas, celebrated aptly with a 3-0 hammering of Middlesbrough on Boxing Day. They then lost to Chelsea and Manchester United in successive games as the reality check bounced. But five wins and a draw in six matches, including victories against Tottenham, Sunderland and fellow pretenders Leeds, had them second and two points behind Manchester United with a game in hand as March began.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, they were caught in the cross-hairs of the Arsenal machine, who swept them away during their 13-game title-sealing winning run. Kevin Keegan would have been incredibly proud of a side that ended up finishing fourth after flirting with glory.


1) Wimbledon (1996/97)
Joe Kinnear? Nope, entirely serious. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will insist that no-one remembers the Premier League table on January 12, 2021, yet there must be at least one Wimbledon supporter who has the standings from that same date in 1997 plastered around their house.

The Crazy Gang was fifth on 38 points, level with Newcastle and two behind Arsenal in third. Manchester United were a further point ahead while Liverpool were on 43. Wimbledon, crucially, had at least two games in hand on each team. Win them and they would have been top by a point.

Four wins after the turn of the year soon put paid to those ludicrously possible hopes as Wimbledon finished eighth while exiting both domestic cups at the semi-final stage. It is perhaps one of the finest underrated seasons in terms of what almost was. Not bad at all to say they lost their first three Premier League games of the season without scoring before a 14-match unbeaten run dragged them back in.

Matt Stead