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Aug 1, 2014

The best of English football's also-rans

Kevin Keegan's Newcastle side let a 12-point lead at the top slip.

For a man supposedly so taken with emotion, Kevin Keegan offers a rather measured take on the season that provoked his most famous explosion.

Twelve years ago, ahead of a first competitive return to Newcastle United since leaving in 1997, the then Manchester City manager posed the question so many had been pondering.

"If I asked, 'What do you think about [my time at] Newcastle?' you'd say, 'You lost a 12-point lead in the championship [in 1995-96],' or, 'You spent 60 million pounds and never won anything,'" Keegan argued.

"Other people remember you winning your first 11 league games and having 33 points on the board; remember you signing Andy Cole; remember you selling Andy Cole; remember you buying Alan Shearer...

"Someone said to me: 'You lost every game 4-3.' I said: 'We lost one game 4-3.' But that's people's image of us. When you analyse it, the reality was that defensively we were quite good, but that wouldn't go with the legend."

Another reality, however, is that Newcastle's 1995-96 team also created a legend beyond many actual league winners. While Keegan's side may have never got their name on the list of title winners, they did foster memories beyond that, and are one of the most famous sides to have never won the English league title.

With all that in mind, and especially Keegan's words about Newcastle's actual record, we decided to assess the best teams never to have actually proven the best in their given time -- those that never got beyond second place.

It should be noted that teams like Arsenal 1998-99 are excluded, because that side are considered part of the same "cycle" as those who won the title in 1997-98. As such, no teams who won the title within three years either side of their seasons are considered. What is considered, though, are the points accumulated, other trophies won and the general performances of the team...

1. Liverpool 2008-09

With a points-per-game record (2.26) higher than any other team never to win the league, as well as the fact they were actually top of the table in May, Rafa Benitez's side offered the dimensions of a title-winning campaign but not the delivery.

It was a genuinely fine season, featuring three particularly fantastic months of utterly relentless football. That period saw a 4-0 win over Real Madrid, a 5-0 over Aston Villa and -- most remarkably -- a 4-1 win away to Manchester United.

It put Sir Alex Ferguson's side under real pressure, and the league genuinely looked on once United slipped to Fulham the following week. The one problem was that defeat also ended up deriving the maximum response from Old Trafford. A United team that came within whiskers of a quadruple went on to win seven games in a row, in what was one of the fastest-paced title races in recent memory. That says much about Liverpool's level that season.

Liverpool's 2008-09 side had the quality of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso to call on.

2. Liverpool 2013-14

A sensational whirlwind of a season, but one that also saw the trophy blown out of Liverpool's hands at the last.

Brendan Rodgers's team stormed past so many sides in the opening 20 minutes of games, but couldn't quite finish the job.

In between, there were 101 goals, one of the highest point hauls in Premier League history, Luis Suarez at his absolute best and an awful lot of devastatingly fluid football. Liverpool offered something genuinely new and so striking, as well as an awful lot of memories.

3. Newcastle United 1995-96

Keegan never got to enjoy the title victory over Manchester United that he would have so "loved," as he proclaimed in that unforgettable televised rant, but the reality of that season was that so many people loved watching Newcastle beat almost everyone else.

Their football was often joyous and it shouldn't be forgotten that, for much of the season, they were talked of as unstoppable. That may have led to one of the greatest collapses English football has ever seen as they squandered a 12-point lead, but it was also one of the great Manchester United sides that overtook them -- the young core that would eventually win the 1999 treble.

Against that kind of standard, Newcastle's stats also stand up well, almost as impressively as their football. "We had the third best defensive record," Keegan argued, and a genuinely excellent return of 2.05 points a game. The truth was there was still a lot to love about this team.

4. Ipswich Town 1980-81

The thrilling team that really should have won the 1981-82 league instead of Aston Villa, but it was almost as if four years of competing on so many fronts -- not least from their 1981 UEFA Cup victory -- cost them the ultimate prize.

Bobby Robson's side still offered some ultimately brilliant football, especially 1980's 6-0 win over Manchester United, in which Gary Bailey still had to save three penalties and Frans Thijssen and Paul Mariner absolutely sparkled.

5. Chelsea 1998-99

That season may have become famous for Manchester United's treble, but it is now overlooked that, for a fair amount of time, there were three teams in the title race.

This was the peak of a truly cosmopolitan Chelsea before Roman Abramovich took over, with the genius Gianfranco Zola at his very best.

Gianfranco Zola solidified his status as a Chelsea legend in the 1998-99 season.

6. West Ham United 1985-86

The dynamic team that finished just four points behind Liverpool's brilliant double-winners, which says an awful lot.

John Lyall's West Ham team impressed an awful lot, particularly new signing Frank McAvennie and his young strike partner Tony Cottee. The defining display came in an 8-1 win over Newcastle United, as defender Alvin Martin hit a hat trick.

They finally fell out of the title race on the penultimate weekend, but having put in an almighty challenge.

7. Preston North End 1952-53

No team has come so close to the title without actually winning it -- not even Liverpool 1988-89 or Manchester United 2011-12. Preston North End lost the league to Arsenal by as little as 0.009 of a goal, back in the days when strikes scored were divided by those conceded.

The fine side of Tom Finney had divided many a defence with scintillating football up to then.

8. Manchester United 1982-85

Manchester United may have become defined by glory and youth, but their team of the early to mid-1980s touched on the club's tradition in another way: an uplifting sense of adventure.

It was never enough to match a Liverpool who were simply the sleekest winning machine, but this United had a life more memorable than many of Sir Alex Ferguson's title winners.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.

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