|The Greatest Story Ever Told - Have Leicester Done an Ipswich?|
Written by Superfrans on Tuesday, 3rd May 2016 16:45
Congratulations to Leicester City, the incredible achievement of Ranieri, Vardy, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Schmeichel and co should have every fan, of every football club, doffing their caps in tribute this week – and for a long time to come.
In an era of big money football, Leicester’s title win has quite rightly excited a nation of football supporters. Finally, we have new league champions for the first time since 1978; after 20 years in which only four different clubs have won the Premier League title (Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd), we have a new name to add to the list.
Many fans and media have acclaimed Leicester’s victory as “the greatest football story ever told”, drawing obvious comparisons with Nottingham Forest's 1978 championship having been newly promoted from Division Two and, of course, Ipswich Town's own championship at the first attempt in 1961/62 under Alf Ramsey.
The media has an increasing desire to acclaim contemporary moments as the greatest ever, for pure marketing reasons among others.
And individuals too will always prefer to herald an event they have actually seen, or feel they are experiencing, as the greatest in history – that’s just a natural instinct, whether you are a fan, media pundit or football writer. We were there. We lived through history. It is a compelling narrative.
And, of course, memory dims over the years too. Who can truly remember the great achievements of our very own groundbreaking Ipswich Town team, in all their detail?
But whether Leicester’s achievement truly live up to the hyperbole is a valid question. It is clearly an extraordinary achievement. But the greatest achievement of all? Comparisons between such distant and different eras are fraught with challenges. The world in 1961/62 is so different from life in 2016, in so many fundamental ways.
The vast majority of those reading this will not have been born in 1962 for a start – anyone who can remember any of the games we played in that season is likely to be 65 years old at the very least.
The most difficult comparison to draw between the worlds in 1962 and 2016 is the financial one. For a start, while football discussion in 2016 is drowning in financial data, there is very little for 1962.
It IS undeniable, however, that the modern day sums are eye-watering – even for minnows such as Leicester. The Foxes, whose King Power crowds gave them the 12th biggest average attendance in English football in both 2014/15 and 2015/16 (this season’s average is almost 32,000), are now the 24th richest club in the world (according to the FT).
Such wealth is driven by TV income and prize money, which is estimated to lead to a £90.9m bounty for Leicester this season (according to Totalsportek.com) – in contrast, the biggest Premier League earner is likely to be Arsenal on £98m (because they featured in more TV games). Last season, Leicester received £71.6m (14th in the finance league), with Chelsea on top with £98.9m income.
That means that over the two seasons Leicester generated £161m income, probably around 20 per cent down on the biggest clubs – and have the 17th biggest wage bill in the Premiership this season (£48.2m, compared to Chelsea’s division-topping £215.6m). There is a discrepancy between the biggest and the rest, but it is a narrowing gap and (at these financial levels) how significant are they really?
Whatever the answer to that question, such sums certainly bear little comparison with the wage bills of the sixties. PFA average salary figures (collated by Sportingintelligence.com) only date back to the mid-eighties – but they indicate that the average wage for a top flight player was £24,934 pa in 1984/85 (2.5 times the average household income of £9,788) compared to £1.704m in 2014/15 (43 times the average household income, £39,449).
Of course, bigger clubs in the early sixties would still have had higher wage bills than smaller clubs, but the proportional difference would have been limited by the maximum wage.
That said, transfer fees could be paid by the biggest clubs – Man Utd making Denis Law the first £115,000 player in 1962. And the changes were percolating through, with Johnny Haynes becoming the first £100-a-week player in 1961 (£5,200 pa) after the abolition of the maximum wage.
Certainly, ticket income generated by the biggest clubs (tickets being the primary/only form of revenue in 1962) was significantly higher than little Ipswich. For these comparisons, it is worth focusing on Ipswich’s biggest titles challengers - the three other highest ranking clubs in 1961/62, Burnley, Spurs and Everton (who finished second, third and fourth respectively).
At the time, Spurs and Everton were the two best supported teams in English club football, with average attendances over the two seasons of 1960/61 and 1961/62 of 49,350 for Spurs, 42,440 for Everton.
In turn, Burnley attracted a two-season average of 25,979 (England's 13th biggest), compared to 18,979 for Ipswich (English football’s 24th biggest). There is little argument that Ipswich were in a different league in terms of attendance and income – assuming similar ticket pricing, Spurs and Everton would have generated around two-and-a-half times more ticket money than their Suffolk cousins.
But the achievements of Leicester and Ipswich should not be measured on pure finance alone - another important measure is the relative competitiveness of the divisions and the quality of the opposition. And, when Ramsey’s men took the title, there is little doubt that the established giants of the time were in their pomp.
Coming up from Division Two in 1961, Ipswich faced Bill Nicholson’s legendary Tottenham side who had just won the double in some style – Spurs remained one of Ipswich’s closest rivals in 1961/62, finishing third. In turn, Burnley (second in 1961/62) and Everton (fourth in 1961/62) had both finished top five the previous season.
The top three in the following 1962/63 season would underline these clubs' claim as the best in England, with Everton as champions, followed by Spurs and Burnley - as did the 1962 FA Cup final, which was contested by Burnley and Tottenham. The challenge faced by Sir Alf and his team was far from insubstantial.
The comparison with Leicester? Well, we all know how huge an achievement it is for any team to break into the top five clubs today. But it is also true to reflect that the big guns have all underperformed in 2015-/6, Chelsea finishing in mid-table (their lowest league position for 20 years), Man Utd currently scrabbling for fifth, Man City lower than at any point for six years. Only Arsenal have remained consistent with their performances of recent years.
As for pure performance, Leicester’s stats are pretty impressive, though. After 36 games (two games to go), they have 77 points, from 22 wins, 11 draws and three defeats – with two games to go, 83 points is within reach.
In contrast, Ipswich won 24 times in 1961/62, registered eight draws and 10 defeats in 42 games – using three points for a win (for comparison purposes), this would have given them 80 points and a lead of six points over second placed Burnley. Goals were a different commodity back then, though – Ipswich scored 93 and conceded 67, compared to Leicester’s current tally of 64 for and 34 against.
But the great fairytale of Ramsey’s Town team was its meteoric rise, beyond any previous league performance in the club's history. Ramsey took Ipswich from Division Three (South) to winners of Division One in five years - arriving in Division One for their debut season.
The scale of this achievement is underlined by the number of players who remained core to Ramsey’s team, from Division Three right through to the Division One championship – the 1961/62 team saw Roy Bailey, Larry Carberry, John Elsworthy, Ted Phillips and Jimmy Leadbetter become the first players in league history to win Divisions Three, Two and One.
The Ipswich victory was beyond even the most reasonable fantasy. When Andy Nelson lifted the trophy on behalf of Ramsey’s team, it was the first time Ipswich had even competed in the top division and came in just their 17th season since joining the Football League for the first time. Such a victory would be like a team promoted from the non-leagues in 1999 winning the title this season. Imagine it - Cheltenham Town, Premier League Champions!
In contrast, Leicester climbed from League One to Premier League champions in seven years (2009-2016), with one player (Andy King) the only one to win divisions three, two and one with them. But, notably, 2015/16 is Leicester's 48th season in the top flight and their 111th season in the league overall, following their election to the league in 1894. Only one other club has won the second tier division (including the Championship) so many times (seven) – Manchester City.
Of course, these are different eras, when teams and squads evolve quicker, players join and leave clubs more rapidly than they did in the early sixties. But Leicester's achievement is a victory for perseverance, a mature club finally reaching the top. Ipswich Town's title was the climax of a truly meteroic rise, an outfit with less than 20 years as a professional club behind them.
Of course, much of this debate is academic. Leicester will be celebrating their victory through this week and the summer too, no doubt, and quite right too.
There are clear pointers, both ways - but trying to reach a definitive conclusion on which is the ultimate fairytale team, Ipswich or Leicester, would be a fool's errand. The differences between both eras are so stark, they are almost impossible to bridge.
But I know what my view is - you may be able to guess.
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