Five unlikely title challenges from Premier League history


With Claudio Ranieri’s men only kept off top spot on goal difference, Leicester City supporters find themselves dreaming of an improbable title.

Most recall Newcastle’s near-miss with Kevin Keegan in 1995/96 and Brendan Rodgers’ brush with glory as Liverpool manager in 2013/14, but theirs aren’t the only stories.

From Norwich’s run in the inaugural Premier League to Newcastle’s oft-forgotten run under Sir Bobby Robson, there have been numerous surprise sojourns at the top of the table.

Here, we remember five unlikely challenges that excited the neutrals…

Norwich – 1992/93

Norwich had a fine side in the late 1980s and famously beat Bayern Munich over two legs with the help of Jeremy Goss’s stunning volley. But the closest they came to a league title during this period was in the first ever Premier League season under new boss Mike Walker.

By that stage, having sold star striker Robert Fleck in the summer, some were even tipping the Canaries for relegation. However, they defied those odds in emphatic fashion, beginning with a come-from-behind 4-2 win over Arsenal at Highbury.

It was the start of a strange sequence of results that saw improbable victories interspersed with heavy defeats. There was a 7-1 loss at Blackburn and a 4-1 reverse at Liverpool. Incredibly though, Norwich were eight points clear at the top of the table by the start of December.

They were still top on Christmas Day despite having a negative goal difference and a good run in March ensured they went into the crunch clash with Manchester United in early April as the form team with a slight advantage at the top of the table.

United were on a four-game winless run, while Norwich had won four of the last five. It counted for little. The visitors scored three times at Carrow Road before the midway point of the first half in a 3-1 win and the momentum was lost. Four days later, Norwich were thrashed 5-1 at Tottenham.

Any disappointment was masked by the thrill of the chase. After all, Norwich rallied sufficiently to edge out Blackburn and hold on to third spot – enough to bring European football back to the club. Walker got the Everton job the following year but neither he nor Norwich had it quite so good again.

Aston Villa – 1998/99

Few clubs have made better starts to a Premier League season than Aston Villa in 1998/99. John Gregory’s side finished October with 22 points from 10 games and remained unbeaten. They even bolstered the squad at that stage too, signing Dion Dublin from Coventry at the start of November.

Dublin’s impact was immediate. There was a brace in a debut win over Tottenham and a hat-trick as Southampton were seen off at The Dell. The striker made it seven in three with another two against Liverpool but the 13th game proved unlucky as the Reds won 4-2 to end the unbeaten run.

Not that it was the end of Villa’s challenge. In fact, a win over Sheffield Wednesday meant that they saw in the New Year as the Premier League leaders, albeit with a host of clubs including Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Leeds and West Ham all close on their tails.

The collapse was remarkable. Stan Collymore had scored in Dublin’s debut game in November but that was to be his last league goal of the campaign. The entire team managed only five goals in nine games between January and April, winning none of them.

Ultimately, Gregory’s first full season in charge ended with Villa in sixth spot. They’ve matched that finish five times in the years since but never bettered it – and certainly never been closer to mounting an unlikely tilt at the Premier League title.

Ipswich – 2000/01

Having been promoted after finishing third in the second-tier the previous season, Ipswich were expected to return from whence they came soon after. As it turned out, they were relegated in their second season in the top flight. But only after an extraordinary year under George Burley.

Playing a 3-5-2 formation that seemed to trouble much of the division, Ipswich thrived. Only Chelsea’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored more Premier League goals than Marcus Stewart, while the likes of Richard Wright and Matt Holland made names for themselves too.

Burley’s team actually took time to adjust, losing three of their first five, but went on to win nine out of 13 games in a run that took them into the top three. They proved particularly tricky opponents away from home during this period, winning at Leeds, Everton, Manchester City and Liverpool.

While few regarded it as a title challenge, Ipswich travelled to Old Trafford two days before Christmas knowing that a win would move them to within four of the league leaders as their nearest rivals. As it was, United had too much for the visitors and ran out 2-0 winners.

Much as their rivals Norwich had found to their cost eight years earlier, Ferguson’s team were far too strong in the run in. But there was no dramatic collapse from Ipswich. They were still third with three games to go only to lose at Charlton and draw at Derby.

In the end, a fifth-place finish was enough to secure a UEFA Cup adventure the following season that would take in a trip to the San Siro. Unfortunately, changes of formation and personnel meant the magic could not be repeated in the league and the relegation many predicted came one year on.

Newcastle – 2001/02

Newcastle had been bottom of the Premier League when Sir Bobby Robson took over in 1999 and finished outside the top 10 in his first full season in charge. But it all came together in the 2001/02 season as Newcastle qualified for the Champions League.

It threatened to be even better than that. Robson freshened up his forward options in the summer with the additions of Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert, and both were quick to make an impact – Bellamy in the Tyne-Wear derby and Robert with the opener in a 4-3 win over Manchester United.

Once again, Newcastle’s tag as ‘the entertainers’ rang true. They put four past Middlesbrough, Bolton and Leeds – all away from home – while proving their unpredictability by also losing convincingly against West Ham and Fulham.

But five wins on the bounce in December, including a 3-1 win at Arsenal thanks to late goals from Alan Shearer and the mercurial Robert, suggested the consistency had been found. At Christmas, they boasted a three-point lead over Liverpool and the Gunners at the top of the Premier League.

Back-to-back defeats to Chelsea and United might have ended Newcastle’s hopes but by the time that Nikos Dabizas headed in the only goal of the game at Sunderland in late February, Robson’s side were back in second spot. In fact, they were two points behind United with a game in hand.

However, it was Arsenal that they needed to worry about. Arsene Wenger’s team won at St James’ Park in the very next game as part of an incredible run of 13 straight Premier League victories. By then, the table looked emphatic. In truth, Newcastle had been in the hunt well into the spring.

Tottenham 2011/12

Tottenham had two points from eight games when Harry Redknapp took over in 2008. He soon turned it around. But his Spurs side were bottom again in 2011 having been thrashed 3-0 by Manchester United and 5-1 at home to Manchester City in their opening two games.

This time the turnaround was arguably even more impressive. Having signed Rafael van der Vaart on transfer deadline day, Redknapp’s men went on to win nine of the next 10 games, including a 2-1 victory in the North London derby courtesy of Kyle Walker’s second-half strike.

Spurs continued the momentum through the winter and a 2-0 home win over Everton in January lifted them level on points with second-placed United and just three points behind leaders City – some achievement given the apparent gulf in the opening weeks of the campaign.

A 3-2 defeat to City later that month dented any hopes of an unlikely title bid but the high point of the season was yet to come. Cleared of tax evasion charges earlier in the week, Redknapp celebrated by overseeing a scintillating 5-0 win over Newcastle in February.

With Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to the fore, it was emblematic of the sort of fast-paced and exciting football that Redknapp had restored at White Hart Lane. It also appeared to be a send-off with Fabio Capello having resigned as England boss just days earlier.

Instead, Roy Hodgson got the job and Tottenham’s season fizzled out. They won only one of the next nine and though there was an upturn in form to fend off Newcastle’s bid for fourth, even that proved to be in vain – Chelsea’s Champions League win denying them a return to that competition.

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