Soccer fans love belting out jaunty and uplifting tunes, like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Anfield and Parkhead, “Glory Glory Man United” at Old Trafford, “Delilah” at the Britannia, “No One Likes Us We Don’t Care” at the New Den, and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at West Ham’s new Olympic home. But unless you’re fortunate enough to support a trophy-gobbling upper crust club then the truest song to sing is Tom Petty’s “The Waiting.” Nothing defines the fan experience more – the near-misses the standing in the rain, the heartbreaks, the eons of drudgery, the fleeting bits of glory, the abject failures, the misery, the vain fleeting hopes that this could be the year – than the words “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Of course, some fans wait a lot longer than others. The Chicago Cubs just won their first World Series since 1908, a time so ancient that men with titles like Tsar, Sultan, and Kaiser still ruled in Europe, it could still be said that “sun never set” on the British Empire, and Manchester United had only just won their very first league title. The Cubs’ victory leaves Cleveland woebegone and waiting for its World Series win since 1948, a time so distant that it was the first Series to be broadcast nationally and modern titans Brazil and Germany had yet to win a World Cup.
This has been a year for historic breakthroughs though. The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals as the LeBron James’ Cavs, founded in 1970, won their first title. Kris Jenkins dramatically drained a three from waaay downtown at the buzzer to give Villanova its first NCAA title in 31 years. Further afield the Irish rugby team, which has been playing New Zealand for 111 years, finally beat the Kiwis for the very first time this past weekend. Coincidentally, Ireland’s historic win came in the city still nursing its World Series parade hangover – Chicago. Earlier this year in Australia the National Rugby League’s Cronulla Sharks, in their 49th year of play, withstood a late Melbourne charge to become the last of the nine Sydney-area based clubs to win it all. In Aussie rules football the Western Bulldogs snagged their first crown since 1954, which was an era when players were still wearing long-sleeved jumpers. In Ireland County Mayo almost won its first Gaelic Football Championship since 1951 as they dramatically drew against Dublin in the final only to lose the replay. The English County Cricket Championship, one of the world’s oldest sporting competitions, came down to the very last day this season. Owing to the competition’s vagaries and peculiarities, Somerset needed a draw between Middlesex and Yorkshire in order to win its first ever championship. It’s been a long wait. Somerset has been playing in the county championship since 1891, a drought that makes the Cubs’ seem as short as Sam Allardyce’s stint as England manager. Alas, it was not to be as Middlesex put down Yorkshire on the fourth and final day with only four overs to spare. At least Somerset doesn’t have it as bad as Gloucestershire, which remains titleless since its 1870 debut.
In soccer, Neymar shed the weight of a nation’s expectations by stutter-stepping and slicing home the decisive penalty kick to give Brazil its first, yes first, Olympic gold medal in the sport it has long dominated. And of course, there was Jamie “…Get Banged” Vardy leading once-lowly Leicester City, founded in 1884 as Leicester (not Bob) Fosse, to their very first top flight league title in the most unlikely underdog story of them all.
Broadly speaking, it’s difficult to compare title droughts in other sports to those in soccer because in the world’s greatest game league memberships are constantly changing as clubs move up and down the ladder. Moreover soccer clubs chase three, and sometimes as many as six, trophies in a single season. Different trophies mean different things to different supporters. Lifting the FA Cup would be far more meaningful for a club like Hull than for Arsenal fans lusting after the league.
Nonetheless, here are some of the prominent droughts in English football, with an added MLS bonus for good measure since it’s playoff time.
1. Liverpool in the League
In England there are 92 professional clubs spread across the Premier League, Football League Championship, League One and League Two. Of these, only 24 clubs have ever won a top flight title. So most clubs don’t have much sympathy for Liverpool’s 26 years of anguished waiting since their last league title in 1990.
But for Liverpool supporters it’s like the World War I classic ditty goes, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” It hurts more when you’ve tasted success and lived the high life only to slide down from the penthouse to the outhouse. Sure, 26 years is nothing compared to Leicester City’s 124-year wait since joining the Football League in 1891. But ignorance is bliss. Last year was an out-of-nowhere joyride for the Fox faithful. Whereas Liverpool enter each season with crushing expectations and the remembrance of bountiful glories past. Worse, the 18-time English champions have had to endure seeing Manchester United “knock them off their f’ing perch” as Sir Alex Ferguson elevated Man United from 7 titles to 20 in the Premier League era.
Even an English-record fifth Champions League/European Cup title won in miraculous fashion in 2005 didn’t satiate the ravenous hunger to recapture domestic domination. The Reds have come as close as second in 2009 and 2014, but each of those finishes was followed up by swift tumbles out of the all-important Top 4. With Jürgen Klopp setting a blistering pace and no European distraction, this could be the year Liverpool finally kicks down the door to resume its rightful place amongst England’s elite.
2. Arsenal in Europe
Arsenal first played in the European Cup in the 1971-72 season, bowing out to eventual champions Ajax in the quarterfinals. They wouldn’t play in Europe’s premier competition again until 1991 after the Heysel ban denied Arsenal a spot in 1989. Their first Premier League title under Arsène Wenger in 1997-98 got them into the following season’s Champions League and they’ve never looked back from there having qualified in every subsequent year. That’s nineteen consecutive seasons of Champions League football. It’s an unparalleled streak.
Yet the club has never lifted Ol’ Big Ears. Arsenal’s one lonely appearance in the Final was a bitter 2-1 defeat to a pre-tiki taka but still star-studded Barcelona squad that was lowlighted by keeper Jens Lehmann’s 18th minute red card. Meanwhile they’ve had to watch peers Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool conquer the continent.
Arsenal’s consecutive Champions League qualification streak and 21 overall appearances are the best, by far, of all the European sides never win club football’s grandest prize. That, combined with the fact that Arsenal hasn’t won the Prem since Tony Blair was still held in good esteem in 2004, is why Wenger’s grasp on his job is so tenuous
99% of other club supporters would maim and kill to qualify for the Champions League every year and pick up the odd FA Cup along the way. But that’s why Arsenal are the perfect example of how a fanbase can be both spoiled and starved all at the same time.
3. The Bridesmaids
Stoke City, of all the clubs in this year’s Premier League, has waited the longest to win its first ever top flight title. The Potters were one of the twelve founding clubs of the Football League in 1888-89. This is their 61st season of first division football and despite the difficulty of playing, as Andy Gray said, “on a cold, rainy night in Stoke” they’ve still never tasted domestic supremacy. Worse, Stoke hasn’t even won an FA Cup. Their best finish was losing 1-0 to Manchester City in the 2011 final. Middlesbrough, West Ham United, and Southampton are three other Premier League sides that have spent at least 40 seasons in England’s highest division without winning it all. Middlesbrough has never won the FA Cup either, while West Ham and Southampton’s last wins came in 1980 and 1976, respectively.
Of the 24 clubs that have won a top flight title, the longest droughts belong to Preston North End, winners of the first two League titles in 1889 and 1890, Sheffield United (1898), West Bromwich Albion (1920), Huddersfield Town (1926) and Newcastle United (1927).
Newcastle’s plight has been particularly painful. In the late 1990s they made a memorable charge to end their drought under the manager Kevin Keegan’s charismatic care. In January 1996 they were 12 points clear at the top of the table before Manchester United surged to pip them to the Prem by only 4 points. The title race’s pressure led to Keegan’s infamous “I WOULD LOVE IT” rant. Newcastle added Alan Shearer for the next season but cruelly finished runners-up to Man United again. The Magpies have spent more than 80 seasons in the top flight and finished 5th in the Prem as recently as four years ago but now find themselves in the 2nd Division. Moreover, the club’s last FA Cup came in 1955. Their only solace may be seeing neighbors Sunderland replace them in the Championship next year.
Special mention goes to League One side Rochdale AFC. The Dale joined the Football League in 1921 and have failed to ever win anything of note. The three times that they’ve been promoted from the fourth division to the third, in 1969, 2010, and 2014, came by virtue of finishing third. They’ve wallowed in the Fourth Division/League Two for so long that it has come to be known as “The Rochdale Division.” Shrewsbury Town joined the Football League in 1950. Since then they’ve won the Fourth Division and Third Division once. Aside from that, they have the odd distinction of winning six Welsh Cups. Until 1995 the Welsh Cup allowed clubs from border towns like Shrewsbury to compete.
4. This is England
Twenty years ago in 1996 England’s football fans boisterously sang the uplifting words “Three Lions on the shirt/Jules Rimet still gleaming/thirty years of hurt/never stopped me dreaming!” from the single “Three Lions.” The Lightning Seeds, along with comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, released the song for Euro ‘96 – to date the only European championship to be held in the land taught the rest of the continent the game. At the time it had been 30 years since England’s sole and solitary international triumph – its legendary 4-2 extra time win over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final. It’s now 50 years and counting waiting for a second serving of international silverware.
Despite the jaunty tune there was little reason for optimism as England slid into Euro ‘96 in a slimy state. At Euro ‘92 they scored just one goal in their three group-stage matches while finishing dead last. They sank even lower into the abyss when they failed to even make it to America for the 1994 World Cup with their denouement coming in a crushing 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands in their penultimate qualification match. Conceding a goal to San Marino just 8 seconds into their final qualification match was simply the final turd in the pudding.
But then the English, led by captain Tony Adams, Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, and Teddy Sheringham, took the country on a riveting romp through Euro ‘96. They stuffed seven goals into the net in the group stage, highlighted by Gazza’s brilliant flick-and-volley against Scotland at Wembley. They then emphatically won their group, and got cold-blooded revenge, with a 4-1 drubbing of the Dutch. In the quarterfinal England scored a shocking penalty shoot out win over Spain as Miguel Ángel Nadal AKA “The Beast” AKA Rafa Nadal’s Uncle missed the crucial kick. The joyride came to an end as the semi-final against West Germany put truth to Gary Lineker’s wise words that “football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
That semi-final loss represents the high-water mark of their nine European Championship appearances. England also lost in the semis to Yugoslavia in 1968, but that was only a four-team tournament and their qualification came relatively easily through their British Home Championship results against Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. England declined to enter the inaugural 1960 tourney and failed to qualify for the 1964, 1972, 1976, 1984, and 2008 (infamously) editions.
England is easily the best footballing nation to never win a European Championship. Germany, France, Spain, France, and the Netherlands have all won it. As have lesser lights like Russia (as the Soviet Union), the Czech Republic (as Czechoslovakia), Denmark, and Greece. And just this past summer, Portugal – the bane of English football in the 2000s – won it.
It’s hard to say which drought is worse, England having never won the Euros or the 50 years since England’s World Cup win. England are like the New York Knicks, who last won an NBA title in 1973. Both still rank among the biggest attractions in their respective sports despite providing mediocre entertainment. Both have greatly underachieved considering their history in the sport, their organizational wealth and their fans’ undying passion. Both achieved their greatest glory in the late 1960s and enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s. Both have been mismanaged and downright awful for quite some time. And both show little hope of rejoining the elite anytime soon.
5. Major League Success
Major League Soccer has only been around since 1996 so there hasn’t been enough time to generate any truly depressing droughts. Parity abounds as 10 different franchises have won it all. Still, three founding members – the New England Revolution, FC Dallas AKA the Burn, and the Red Bulls AKA the Metrostars, have yet to cop the MLS Cup. It may not be like the sale of Babe Ruth or the Billy Goat, but the Red Bulls even have a curse, Nicola Caricola’s own goal in their 1996 inaugural season home debut, to blame for 20 seasons of failure in New Jersey. The Revs have lost the final a frustrating five times, even while all the other Boston-area teams, the Pats, Bruins, Celtics, and Red Sox, have won championships. It may be cold comfort but at least the Revs and FC Dallas have won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
Four MLS Cup-winning clubs, DC United (most recently in 2004), Houston Dynamo (most recently in 2007), Real Salt Lake (2009), and the Portland Timbers (2015), are the most recent success stories in their respective hometowns. DC hasn’t seen its NFL team or the Bullets/Wizards win it all since 1992 and 1978 respectively while the Caps have never lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Houston Astros, Oilers, and Texans have never won a championship while the Rockets last title came in 1995. The Utah Jazz have never tasted final victory while BYU’s lone national title came in 1984. In Portland the Blazers last won it with Dr. Jack Ramsey and Bill Walton leading the way in 1977 while the somewhat nearby Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers have never won a national college football title.
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