With Aston Villa seemingly doomed to relegation after several seasons of struggle, it’s hard to imagine them as potential Premier League title challengers, let alone past winners of the European Cup. And yet in the first decade of the Premier League, they finished in the top 10 in nine seasons, and in five of those, they finished in the top 6, the best finish being as runners-up in the first Premier League season, 1992-93.
However, their last actual title challenge was 1998-99, and it has become somewhat overlooked in the annals of recent football history, mainly because of the incredible circumstances of what was a classic season for English football. Everyone remembers it as the year where Manchester United completed the first Treble, narrowly edging Arsenal in the Premier League by 1 goal, winning the FA Cup after beating the Gunners in the famous semi-final replay, and That Night in Barcelona. But it was perhaps the greatest season of Premier League action beyond that.
People talk about how wonderful the 2011-12 season was – and there’s no doubt it was a great year. But dubbing it the greatest Premier League season is undoubtedly recency bias. Even you exclude pre-1992 seasons, 1998-99 was far more competitive and had a higher overall standard relative to the time. Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea finished just 3 points behind United and Arsenal, while Leeds, who had lost George Graham to Tottenham during the season, were 11 points off the pace by the end. And then a bit of a chasm.
This is perhaps why we forget Villa’s role in this season. If you look at the final table, there’s no clue as to why one might include them as title challengers, and they become easily swept away in the grand narrative. But the fact is they were top of the table at Christmas, and still 2nd when February arrived.
Some context: Villa were coming off the back of finishing 7th in 1997-98. However, they might have finished higher but for a dreadful first half of the season which saw them lie 15th in February. Brian Little resigned and was surprisingly replaced by former Villa player and coach John Gregory, then the manager of Division Two side Wycombe Wanderers. Under Gregory, the team won 10 of their last 14 to surge up the table into a UEFA Cup spot, with star striker Dwight Yorke proving to be particularly influential.
The new season dawned in August with intense interest in Yorke from United, who were looking to strengthen their front line after losing the title to Arsenal the previous season. Eventually he would be sold for £12.6 million, seemingly ending any hopes Villa had of building on their promising form. For now, they would have to lean heavily on Julian Joachim and youngster Darius Vassell.
Even so, things started pretty well. Villa were unbeaten in their first 12 games, breaking the club record; this included wins over Newcastle, local rivals Coventry and Tottenham. Their first defeat came on 21st November, a 4-2 loss at home to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool in which Robbie Fowler scored a hat-trick and Stan Collymore was sent off against his former club. However, United and Arsenal lost the same weekend, so they retained their lead
By this point, Villa had strengthened significantly. The money from Yorke’s sale was put towards the purchase of Paul Merson from Middlesbrough and Dion Dublin from Coventry, and this new attack had begun to produce plenty of goals, even if defensively they were a little shaky.
The loss to Liverpool was the start of a four-game winless streak, which saw a 2-2 draw with struggling Nottingham Forest, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, and a dramatic 2-1 loss to Chelsea, with Tore Andre Flo scoring the winner in stoppage time in what seemed to be a key result in the title fight. United drew with Spurs to briefly go top, but Villa overtook them again by coming from 2 goals down to beat Arsenal 3-2 at Villa Park on 13th December, with Dublin grabbing a late winner in one of the most sensational games of the season.
A draw between United and Chelsea on 16th December, and a win at Charlton on 21st gave them Villa top spot on Christmas Day, though they would drop to 2nd behind Chelsea on Boxing Day after Tim Sherwood (of all people) scored an 88th-minute winner for relegation-battling Blackburn; goalkeeper Michael Oakes had earlier been controversially sent off for handling outside the area, with the officials’ decision described as by Gregory “a monumental error”. Sherwood would score another 88th-minute winner against Villa later in the season, this time for Tottenham at White Hart Lane in March.
Nonetheless, they were back top again soon after a further win over Sheffield Wednesday and another draw between Chelsea and United, leaving them two points clear at the end of 1998. But a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough on 9th January saw them lose their grip on the lead for the last time this season.
The 3-0 win over Everton on 18th January saw them seemingly maintain positive momentum: it was their 22nd league game of the season, with a record of 12 wins, 7 draws and 3 defeats so far. In his first full season as manager, Gregory was looking like a minor miracle worker, and probably a contender for the England job which was soon to become available.
The week after, they crashed out of the FA Cup at home to Kevin Keegan’s Fulham (en route to winning the Division Two title), sparking one of the most spectacular collapses in recent English football history. They promptly failed to win their next 10 league games, losing 7 of their next 8. In this period, they dropped from 2nd to 6th and any hope of sticking with United, Arsenal and Chelsea vanished. Their record over the last 16 games of the season was 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats. Ouch.
Nowadays, that sort of run would spell the end of a manager, but Gregory retained his job, lasting until January 2002. But never again would he look capable of masterminding a Premier League title challenge; instead, history probably judges him the same way we’ll be judging Brendan Rodgers in ten years’ time.
Similarly, this was probably the peak for Dublin, an Indian summer for Merson, and the best it got for several other players in the squad. Though they would again finish 6th in 1999-2000, this would be 33 points behind Manchester United. It soon became clear that 1998-99 had been their big chance.
But if there are lessons to be learned from this, it’s that a) history is written by the winners, and Aston Villa, not being winners (in 1998-99 and in general), have been erased from the narrative because they didn’t win, and b) it’s still possible for a team to totally unravel in January and February, even if they have spent the last six months looking like a team capable of winning the Premier League.
So for those of you still banking on Leicester falling apart for your team to win the Premier League or even make the top four, there’s still plenty of time.
Aston Villa Overall XI, 1998-99 (based on most appearances)
Goalkeeper: Michael Oakes
Sold to Wolves in October 1999 for £500,000 after David James was brought in to replace Manchester United-bound Mark Bosnich. Only played half a season in the Premier League with them in 2003-04. Retired after a season with Cardiff in 2008.
Right-Back: Steve Watson
Premier League stalwart Watson would later join Everton in 2000, for whom he would make 125 league appearances. Retired in 2009 after stints with West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday.
Centre-Back: Gareth Southgate
Club captain and a 57-time England international. Left Villa in 2001 after earlier submitting a transfer request in expectation of signing for a bigger club; he ended up at Middlesbrough, where he would finish his playing career and start his managerial career. Now England U21s manager.
Centre-Back: Ugo Ehiogu
Also left for Middlesbrough in 2000 after 237 league appearances over 9 years for Villa. Later stints for Leeds, Rangers and Sheffield United before retiring in 2009. Now Tottenham U21s manager.
Centre-Back: Gareth Barry
Started his career as a defender but eventually moved into midfield to become one of England’s best defensive midfielders. Left Villa for Manchester City in 2009 after 441 competitive appearances. Now at Everton. 53 caps for England over 12 years. The only member of this team still playing professionally.
Left-Back: Alan Wright
One of the shortest players in Premier League history at 5-foot-4. Made 260 league appearances for Villa until 2003, when he also left for Middlesbrough. Later career disrupted by injury but still found his way around several Championship clubs before finishing his career at Fleetwood Town in 2011.
Centre Midfielder: Ian Taylor
Made 235 league appearances for Villa and became a cult hero for the club before leaving for Derby in 2003. Finished his career in 2007 in League One with Northampton.
Centre Midfielder: Lee Hendrie
A one-time England international in 1998, he spent over a decade at Villa before leaving in 2007 after 308 competitive appearances. He then headed to a succession of Championship and lower league clubs and briefly to Indonesia before retiring from pro football in 2013, although he continued play part-time. Famously declared bankruptcy in 2012.
Attacking Midfielder: Paul Merson
After joining Villa at 30, Merson made over 100 appearances before leaving for Portsmouth in 2002 where he helped lead the club back to the Premier League. He later joined Walsall where he became player-manager until being sacked in 2006. Now a well-known face on Sky Sports.
Striker: Julian Joachim
Lasted at Villa until 2001 when he was part-traded to Coventry City for Mustapha El Hadji after the Sky Blues’ relegation. After a largely unsuccessful stint there, he joined Leeds, followed by stints in the lower leagues with Walsall, Boston and Darlington. Still playing in the semi-pro leagues until fairly recently.
Striker: Dion Dublin
Was reportedly on the verge of being sold in late 1999 but suffered a serious neck injury which could have easily ended his career. He fought back and eventually left in the summer of 2004 after nearly six years at Villa Park, joining Leicester, Celtic and Norwich, where he won the Player of the Year Award in 2008 after his last season. Often appeared as a centre-back in later years. Now a TV presenter and inventor of a musical instrument, the Dube.
We’d have seen even more of Jari Litmanen in a Finland shirt with 32 teams at the Euros
It’s now over eight months since I completed the 24-Team Euros series. Mulling over it recently, it was quite a useful venture, although it’s usefulness in predicting who was going to qualify for Euro 2016 seems to be pretty limited. Even so, it’s good to dream about Lithuania at Euro 96 or Armenia in Euro 2012.
Nonetheless, it’s left me pondering what if…what if it was taken further? Of course 32 teams in the Euros is a pretty stupid idea – if, as some would argue, 24 teams is arguably oversaturation point, including over half the continent’s teams in a major tournament is ridiculous. And yet…I can’t help but wonder what it would be like.
So let’s just ignore the practicalities for a moment. Following the same format as before, with the Euros and World Cup qualification expanded, I’ve worked through from Euro 96 on to see who would have qualified, including a reminder of the 24-team expansion qualifiers.
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey
17-24: Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden
25-32: Austria, Belarus, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine
1998 World Cup
Actual: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Scotland, Spain, Yugoslavia
16-24: Greece, Hungary, Israel, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine
25-32: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland
Actual: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Yugoslavia
17-24: Croatia, Israel, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Scotland, Switzerland, Ukraine
25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Slovakia
2002 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey
16-24: Austria, Belarus, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Romania, Scotland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia
25-32: Bulgaria, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Norway
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland
17-24: Belgium, Norway, Poland, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Turkey, Wales
25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iceland, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Serbia & Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine
2006 World Cup
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia & Montenegro, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine
15-24: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey
25-32: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Slovenia
Actual: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey
17-24: Bulgaria, England, Israel, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Serbia
25-32: Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Wales
2010 World Cup
Actual: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland
14-24: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine
25-32: Austria, Belarus, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Turkey
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine
17-24: Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Hungary, Montenegro, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey
25-32: Belarus, Belgium, Israel, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, Wales
2014 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland
14-24: Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine
25-32: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Finland, Israel, Montenegro, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Turkey
The mighty Azerbaijan would have made a 32-team ‘European Cup of Nations’ in 2014
– Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia and Moldova are the additions to the list of teams who would have made a major tournament. Azerbaijan (2014 WC) and Moldova (Euro 96) join Armenia on the one-hit-wonders list, while Cyprus (1998 WC and Euro 2000) would have qualified for 2 and Georgia (Euro 96, 1998 WC and 2002 WC) for 3
– At the other end of the scale, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Turkey and Ukraine would be added to the list of teams who would have qualified for every tournament, while Yugoslavia/Serbia qualified for every one they were eligible for (after being banned for Euro 96). This is particularly impressive/galling for Slovakia as they have only qualified for one actual tournament
– Just missing out on a full set are Austria (Euro 2012), Israel (Euro 96), Norway (2014 WC), Poland, Romania (both 2010 WC), Scotland (2014 WC) and Switzerland (2002 WC), who all made 9 of the 10 tournaments
– This leaves a core of about 25 regular teams, 10 of which would have qualified for every tournament even with only 24 teams (Croatia, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden). This essentially leaves between 7 and 12 spots free for others
– The team that made the most 32-team tournaments without making an actual one is Israel with 9. Next up is Finland with 8 (though only 1 24-team tournament), followed by Hungary with 7 and Lithuania and Iceland with 4.
– Wales and Northern Ireland would have both qualified for 3 tournaments, including both for Euro 2008, making it the only 32-team tournament of the last 10 with all of the Home Nations qualifying
I think the conclusion that we can draw from this is that if you’re Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Azeri, Cypriot, Georgian, Hungarian or Finnish, this would be brilliant, but if you’re a fan of high-quality football, it’s iffy at best. So obviously I’m massively in favour of it. Bring it on, Michel.
Gareth Bale would have represented Wales at a 32-team Euro 2012, but does Euro 2016 beckon?
All images used in the spirit of fair use. This is definitely the end of it – there will be no 48-team Euros article. That would just be silly
I searched for these on the internet and couldn’t find them, so thought it would be interesting to stick them up myself.
It’s clear to see just by glancing at the squads that football video game research has come a long way – there are various inaccuracies and there’s a general feel that certain squads are a season out of date. I’m not going to list every single one as there are too many. It’s just a brief overview. As it is I’ve had to type all of these figures out from the game as the only PC I have it on doesn’t have the internet.
Just to explain, FIFA 99’s ratings were based on eleven parameters: speed, shot power, shot accuracy, acceleration, tackling, header accuracy, ball control, agility, fitness, creativity and aggression. According to the in-game editor, the first ten of these added up to a limited total – aggression was controlled separately and didn’t count towards the overall total, but I’ve included it in the lists for completeness. They are all ranked out of 16. As a result, I’ve created a points average based on the main ten to work out who the best players are.
In the game, when on team management mode, you could only see the player’s number, name, position and the first four ratings. When I first played this game as a kid, I generally picked teams based on the first two – not exactly the worst way to pick a team considering at the time FIFA was mostly about running around and shooting. However, judging by the overall ratings, it seems that some of this may have been a bit misguided. Either way, that’s what you see. The first eleven players before the line are the default starters, while the next five are the default substitutes.
The other notable thing is that unlike future editions, it subtly avoids the issue of not having rights for certain players. Until recently, the only example I was aware of was Ronaldo – as he was the most famous player in the world at the time, it was a bit curious that he was absent and that some guy called “G. Silva” was listed in his place at Inter and Brazil. But looking through, there are other notable absentees and a couple of inclusions that don’t show up on the records even in the Premiership.
– Arsenal were just coming off the back of a Double under Arsene Wenger so it’s no surprise to see that they have one of the strongest squads in the league. Surprisingly, though, it’s not rated as the strongest
– Marc Overmars pips cover star Dennis Bergkamp to be the best player in the team
– Chris Kiwomya (usually a striker, incidentally) had left Arsenal in August 1998
– This proves that Fabio Capello wasn’t the first person to overrate Matthew Upson.
– Christopher Wreh’s ratings seem a bit high in hindsight, but then he was quite highly-rated at this point, before his career went from strength to strength with big money moves to Bournemouth, St Mirren, Bishop’s Stortford and Buckingham Town. German midfield Alberto Mendez’s career took a similar trajectory.
– Aston Villa actually made a surprising title challenge during the first half of the season under John Gregory before collapsing in spectacular fashion in the second half of the season. This had been with the assistance of Dion Dublin, who remains at Coventry in the game, but even so, I think some of these players are underrated.
– Adam Rachel is a goalkeeper. Not sure how they got that one wrong. Also “G. Byfield” is almost certainly Darren Byfield. Not sure if “Ferrerasi” is a typo by me or the game.
– I have no idea who “D. West” is supposed to be as I can’t find any Villa players with this name, but one forward who did make a few substitute appearances at this time was Darius Vassell. Possible alias? Other alternatives include Richard Walker and Alan Lee, who were also hanging around the senior squad at this time.
– Apparently Scott Murray left Villa in December 1997. He wasn’t really a defender either – he was a winger.
– Despite various mistakes with positions in this game, it’s worth remembering that Gareth Barry was actually a defender at this point, albeit more of a left-back.
– Back when Roy Hodgson was just another average English manager, he got sacked as Blackburn manager after a poor start to the season. Brian Kidd did no better and they were relegated, just four years after winning the title.
– A notable absentee here is Swedish striker Martin Dahlin, who did play five games during the season before picking up the injury that would eventually end his career. No Nathan Blake either, who joined four days after Oumar Konde in October 1998. And I don’t even know who Oumar Konde is.
– Alan Curbishley guided Charlton into the top flight via the most legendary of play-off finals in 1998 and they started the Premiership season well, before the inevitable slide to relegation.
– First thing to note is that Charlton’s home kit in this game is white with black shorts…nope, I have no idea either.
– The squad’s accurate, though, except the misspelling of Neil Redfearn’s surname (a geniune game mistake).
– This is the worst squad in the league.
– Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea have the highest-rated squad in the league, but it is worth noting that this includes Pierluigi Casiraghi, who suffered a career-ending knee injury early in the season, and Brian Laudrup, who left the club after making only seven appearances.
– Since when does Graeme Le Saux play on the right?
– Equally, Flo and Zola as wingers surely can’t be correct.
– This was Gianluca Vialli’s last season as a player. He seems quite highly-rated for a 34-year-old who was concentrating on management, but I guess he was good originally. Michael Duberry, though…
– Coventry were perennially on the brink under Gordon Strachan and it’s not hard to see with this bunch. But having said that, it does seem slightly out of date – Brian Borrows left Coventry for Swindon in September 1997. It’s more like the 97-98 squad.
– I’m surprised how bad Huckerby is. Mainly because he is a legend
– Derby, under the always-ancient Jim Smith, weren’t that bad at this point and the squad is actually rated as the seventh-best on average. But again, it does feel slightly out of date.
– Notable absentees are midfielders Darryl Powell and Rory Delap (who back then was just plain old Rory Delap, rather than the long throw machine he became).
– Everton were under Walter Smith at this point, and the glory days seemed a long time ago. They had actually spent some money this year, though (Dacourt, Collins, Bakayoko and, yes, Marco Materazzi).
– Note the erroneous ‘n’ in what is supposed to be Hutchison.
– Full-backs Michael Ball and Craig Short are notable by their absence despite playing plenty of games.
– This was the season where George Graham left Leeds for Tottenham. He was replaced by David O’Leary. I think we can see who benefited from this.
– Again, it’s more of a 97-98 squad, particularly looking at the reserves. Nuno Santos, Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, Jason Blunt, Derek Lilley – a stellar supporting cast.
– Also Wijnhard nearly being rated as high as Hasselbaink? What the fuck?
– Martin O’Neill did what only he could do at this point and kept Leicester respectable, even taking them to a League Cup Final, which they lost to Tottenham.
– Why is Spencer Prior missing? And why is Colin Hill still there after leaving Leicester in May 1997? I’m guessing the two are linked…
– I once simulated a season using the Generate Matches tool and Robbie Savage ended it as the league’s top scorer. Kinda sums this game up really.
– Christ this is a really average bunch of players. Heskey looks excellent in comparison. But only one man here has captained his side to European Championship glory.
– This was the year of the Roy Evans/Gerard Houllier job-share. That went well.
– I used to start Sean Dundee ahead of Robbie Fowler. Just look at that pace.
– Michael Owen is the highest-rated player in the Premiership. He was still only 18 when this game was released.
– Treble Season United has a familiar look given how much we’ve been exposed to it over the years.
– In addition to Dundee, I also used to pick Jordi Cruyff. I scored from the halfway line with him too. Not sure why he’s rated higher than Sheringham, though. Henning Berg is surprisingly crap, only just better than David May, and Nicky Butt is rated higher than Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. I’m pretty sure that if this game was remade today, none of these would survive. At least they got Roy Keane’s aggression right, though.
– Bryan Robson kept Boro up without Juninho this time. In fact, he didn’t need Marco Branca either, after the Italian striker busted his knee and ended up leaving, causing a long-running legal dispute between him and the club.
– There are probably going to be people reading this who have little/no conception of what a game would be like if Gazza was included. Well, here’s your answer – he’s alright, but he’s no David Batty.
– Ruud Gullit took this team to the FA Cup Final, although by then they had added Didier Domi, Duncan Ferguson and Silvio Maric to the squad, which obviously made all the difference.
– Stephane Guivarc’h. It speaks for itself.
– Warren Barton. It speaks for itself.
– This Forest team won just seven games all season, but did have Dave Bassett and then Ron Atkinson as manager, so their demise was at least entertaining.
– The big problem for me here is this “R. Irvine” guy. I’ve no idea who it is – searching brings up a forward called Robert Irving, who left in the summer of 1997 after making one appearance in 1995. But it is worth noting that Andy Johnson and Chris Bart-Williams, both regulars in midfield, are both missing here.
– The worst default starting XI in the league, which was proven to be correct.
– Danny Wilson’s Wednesday side features plenty of domestic players, none of whom were any good, so it’s not particularly surprising that they got relegated in 1999-2000.
– No Niclas Alexandersson, who made 33 league appearances and was definitely there the season before too.
– Well, what were you expecting? It’s Southampton under Dave Jones in the 1990s. Obviously they’re going to be shit.
– Richard Dryden ties with Adam Reed of Blackburn as the lowest-rated player in the league, while Paul Jones ties with Forest’s Nigel Quashie as the lowest-rated player in a default starting XI.
– Carlton Palmer.
– This is a squad largely built by Christian Gross, but it is actually surprisingly decent.
– Noted striker Darren Anderton there. Even more absurd than having Ginola as a central midfielder.
– No, I don’t know who Michael Ferrante is either, but he did exist. Frank Lampard made 33 starts in 98-99, though, and yet is curiously absent.
– Marc Keller was a France international. I don’t know if he was as crap as the ratings make out, but I doubt it.
– Ian Wright is rated as their best player but bombed there. Another example of Harry Redknapp’s astuteness in the transfer market…
– Stale Solbakken left Wimbledon in March 1998 after falling out with Joe Kinnear, and yet somehow this isn’t the most bizarre error in this game.
– Look at how terrible some of those reserves are, and then look at Carl Leaburn’s rating. Four goals in 58 appearances for Wimbledon. As a striker.
– Stewart Castledine played in 28 league games for Wimbledon. This would sound reasonable if it wasn’t spread over nine seasons.
So there we have it. I’m surprised anyone over the age of 10 took this game seriously, but I suppose that just shows how far these games have come since. With current FIFAs, people may quibble over the odd rating here or there, but at least Premier League goalkeepers aren’t being listed as defenders any more, at least squads are actually up to date, and at least notable players aren’t strangely missing.
I was just seven years old when I got this for Christmas in 1998 so I didn’t care. Was a fuss kicked up about the errors at the time? If anyone has any more info, it would be really interesting to hear.
No reasoning, as it’s mainly off the top of my head.
3. Czech Republic
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
(we’re doomed now, aren’t we?)
3. Republic of Ireland
6. San Marino
5. Northern Ireland
6. Faroe Islands
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Republic of Ireland
Thing I’m most looking forward to – (Hopefully) some new/different teams qualifying
Thing I’m least looking forward to – Tedious technocratic debates over whether or not minnows should have to pre-qualify after England thump San Marino 16-0
Norway seem likely to be heading back to the big stage in 2016
So after five tournaments, the Eurotopia is done, and it has provided an intriguing batch of alternative tournaments to dream about. But this did have a serious point to it. With qualifying for the first 24-team European Championships soon to get underway, there are two questions yet to be answered about the expansion:
– will the tournament become over-saturated with too many teams?
– who is likely to benefit?
I’ve always been in favour of the expansion, mainly for selfish reasons – it gives Wales a better chance of qualifying. But also I think it needs freshening up. With little difference between the number of UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup and the Euros, the same teams tend to qualify, which compares badly to the Africa Cup of Nations and the AFC Asian Cup.
I believe allowing new nations to step up will benefit European international football as a whole, in the same way the expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations has allowed countries like Botswana, Niger and Ethiopia to progress as footballing nations, in turn weakening the positions of the country’s juggernauts like Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt, who have all failed to qualify for recent tournaments.
But the counter-argument of it diluting the quality of the tournament should not be ignored. Euro 96, 2000 and 2008 in particular have gone down as classic tournaments, and this stems from a small competitive field of talented teams. Adding in weaker teams could disrupt that – no longer will we see groups like England-Germany-Portugal-Romania of Euro 2000 (or Shearer-Matthaus-Figo-Hagi if you want), or France-Italy-Netherlands-Romania of Euro 2008. At least one less competitive nation in each group at these tournaments was guaranteed.
In the light of disappointing recent World Cups, it looked as if we would have to prepare for more stilted group stage matches with the big teams doing just enough to get through. But the 2014 World Cup seems to have changed perceptions and brought out the optimism in people. Euro 2016 could yet follow it as an attacking tournament with plenty of surprise results.
Who will benefit?
Taken in isolation for a moment, here are the teams that gain an extra participation through 24-team Euros from 1996:
Norway – 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)
Rep of Ireland – 3 (1996, 2000, 2008)
Scotland – 3 (2000, 2004, 2008)
Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Israel – 2 (2000, 2008)
Northern Ireland – 2 (1996, 2008)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Switzerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Turkey – 2 (2004, 2012)
Armenia – 1 (2012)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 1 (2012)
Bulgaria – 1 (2008)
Croatia – 1 (2000)
England – 1 (2008)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Greece – 1 (1996)
Hungary – 1 (2012)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Romania – 1 (2004)
Russia – 1 (2000)
Slovakia – 1 (1996)
Slovenia – 1 (2004)
Serbia – 1 (2008)
Sweden – 1 (1996)
Ukraine – 1 (2000)
Wales – 1 (2004)
However, this clearly doesn’t tell the whole story – it won’t tell us who is likely or unlikely to qualify unless we combine actual and theoretical qualifications. In the event, Croatia, England, Norway, Russia and Sweden would have been added to the list of teams who would have qualified for all five of the Euros along with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, while a number of others would get four of the five.
But five tournaments is still a pretty small sample size, so I have another way of examining this.
“The European Cup of Nations”
Until fairly recently, the Africa Cup of Nations was held in even-numbered years, which meant every other tournament would be held in the same year as a World Cup. This led to qualification for the two tournaments being merged into one competition.
It gave me the idea of looking at what would have happened had UEFA brought in the same thing. Obviously this is in no way realistic on so many levels, even if it would have been enormous fun to travel to Sweden for an international tournament in January (so if you are reading Michel…). But it is interesting to look at who the 24 teams qualifying for such a tournament would be, if only to act as a further comparison.
I started with 1994, which was notable for being the last World Cup with 24 teams overall, giving me 20 years of fictional tournaments to work with.
The World Cup that none of the Home Nations qualified for would have produced the ECoN that all of them would have qualified for, giving England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a chance to compete at an as-yet undetermined location. Joining them there would be France, who famously missed out on a place in the USA courtesy of a wayward David Ginola cross, European champions Denmark and the golden generation of Portugal. Austria, Hungary and the Representation of Czechs and Slovaks (RCS for short; the former Czechoslovakia to you and I) would have made up the central European contingent, and Iceland would have made their first major tournament.
Play-off losers Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and the Republic of Ireland all would have progressed to a tournament that probably would have been in France as a dry run for the World Cup. Surprise non-qualifiers Sweden and Portugal would also have made it, along with Greece and Turkey. Israel and Lithuania were tied for the last place on the six-game record that was usually used to determine these things, but over eight matches, Israel had the better record so I’ve given them the place.
Louis van Gaal might not have guided the Netherlands to the World Cup but they would have made the ECoN as the best third-placed team. Scotland qualified in similar fashion after their disappointing campaign, along with Slovakia, Yugoslavia and surprise package Belarus. The play-off losers were Austria, Romania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, getting a reprieve after a surprising failure to qualify.
A reduction in the number of spots for UEFA teams means there would have been ten additional qualifiers for the ECoN in Germany, led by play-off losers Slovakia, Turkey and Norway. There would have been joined by seven of the eight third-placed teams: Bosnia & Herzegovina would have qualified for the first time, along with the more familiar flags of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Romania, Russia and Israel. Scotland were the third-placed team to miss out after picking up only 13 points from ten games.
With only 13 UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup, there would need to be eleven additions, and these were dominated by Eastern European teams. Russia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Ukraine were among the play-off losers, while Croatia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Latvia were amongst the best third-placed teams. In addition, play-off losers Norway and third-placed Sweden and Finland made up the Scandinavian additions, and the final spot went to the Republic of Ireland despite the Hand of Frog.
Another eleven teams and it’s the same old suspects. From the north, Sweden, Denmark and surprise package Iceland qualify as play-off losers, along with Ukraine and Romania. Of the third-placed teams, Serbia and Slovenia represent the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia represent the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and Austria represent the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finland, Montenegro and Israel finished third in their groups lost out, the former pair on goal difference.
Here are the combined total additional appearances including both 24-team Euros and ECoN
Norway – 6 (96, 04, 06, 08, 10, 12)
Republic of Ireland – 5 (96, 98, 00, 08, 10)
Scotland – 5 (94, 00, 02, 04, 08)
Ukraine – 5 (98, 00, 02, 10, 14)
Austria – 4 (94, 02, 06, 14)
RCS/Czech Rep – 4 (94, 02, 10, 14)
Hungary – 4 (94, 98, 12, 14)
Israel – 4 (98, 00, 06, 08)
Romania – 4 (02, 04, 06, 14)
Russia – 4 (98, 00, 06, 10)
Slovakia – 4 (96, 02, 06, 14)
Sweden – 4 (96, 98, 10, 14)
Turkey – 4 (98, 04, 06, 12)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 3 (2006, 2010, 2012)
Bulgaria – 3 (2006, 2008, 2010)
Denmark – 3 (1994, 2006, 2014)
Northern Ireland – 3 (1994, 1996, 2008)
Yugoslavia/Serbia – 3 (2002, 2008, 2014)
Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Croatia – 2 (2000, 2010)
England – 2 (1994, 2008)
Greece – 2 (1996, 1998)
Iceland – 2 (1994, 2014)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Portugal – 2 (1994, 1998)
Slovenia – 2 (2004, 2014)
Switerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Wales – 2 (1994, 2004)
Armenia – 1 (2012)
Belarus – 1 (2002)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Finland – 1 (2010)
France – 1 (1994)
Latvia – 1 (2010)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Netherlands – 1 (2002)
Combine it with the actual qualification figures and we have a tiered system on who is likely to qualify for 24-team European Championships in the future.
Almost certain – teams who would have qualified for all possible tournaments
England – 11
France – 11
Germany – 11
Italy – 11
Netherlands – 11
Portugal – 11
Russia – 11
Spain – 11
Sweden – 11
Croatia – 10 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
This group can feel fairly safe about their chances of making Euro 2016. Barring an absolute disaster, they will be there and most will be amongst the leading contenders for the title. Of these, only Germany, Italy and Spain have actually qualified for every tournament, with France missing the first of them and Netherlands missing 2002. By contrast, Russia and Sweden failed to qualify for four of them.
Very likely – teams who would have qualified for all bar one or two
Czech Republic – 10 (1 as RCS)
Denmark – 10
Norway – 9
Romania – 9
Switzerland – 9
Serbia – 7 (4 as Yugoslavia/Serbia & Montenegro; out of 9 attempts to qualify – banned for WC94 and Euro 96)
This group will also feel pretty confident as they have a good record in qualifiers, theoretically qualifying for three-quarters of the 24-team tournaments. Norway are perhaps the surprise package here having not qualified for an actual tournament since Euro 2000 but are consistently around the top three in their groups. When including theoretical qualifications, the Czech Republic missed only 1998 and Denmark missed only 2008.
Likely – teams who would have qualified for most tournaments but not all
Greece – 8
Republic of Ireland – 8
Turkey – 8
Belgium – 7
Bulgaria – 7
Scotland – 7
Ukraine – 7 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
This group are there more often than not but are on the margins – the running total of teams after this group is 23, so you can expect a couple of these teams to miss out. Nonetheless, expectations should and will be high, as a number of these nations haven’t been at a major tournament for some time, particularly Scotland, who last made one in 1998.
Semi-regulars – teams who would have qualified for around half the tournaments
Austria – 6
Poland – 6
Slovakia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Slovenia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 4 (out of 9 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC98)
Hungary – 4
Israel – 4
Montenegro – 1 (out of 3 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC10)
The fates of these countries will depend on the quality of generations of players – Austria benefited during the 1990s, Poland during the 2000s, and Hungary in the distant past but have also performed well in the 2010s. Bosnia & Herzegovina will be expected to qualify after making the 2014 World Cup and Israel, who last qualified for an actual major tournament in 1970, are in the same qualifying group as them. Montenegro are hard to call but I’ve put them in here as they have performed to this level in recent campaigns.
Outside shot – teams who would have qualified once or twice a generation
Northern Ireland – 3
Iceland – 2
Latvia – 2
Wales – 2
Armenia – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Belarus – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Estonia – 1
Finland – 1
Lithuania – 1
These teams will pop up once every now and then, making up one of the 24 countries at roughly every other tournament. There are five ex-Soviet states here, with only Latvia having qualified for an actual tournament. Iceland will be contenders for 2016 after a strong 2014 campaign. Northern Ireland, Finland and Wales lurch from struggling to being an occasional surprise package, which the latter have the potential to be in the upcoming campaign.
Very unlikely – teams who would never have qualified
Albania – 0
Andorra – 0 (out of 8 attempts to qualify – first attempt Euro 00)
Azerbaijan – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Cyprus – 0
Faroe Islands – 0
Georgia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Gibraltar – 0 (yet to enter)
Kazakhstan – 0 (out of 5 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC06)
Macedonia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Liechtenstein – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Luxembourg – 0
Malta – 0
Moldova – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
San Marino – 0
Of all these, Albania, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia and Moldova form their own little sub-group of nations ms who have the potential to make it with a very good generation, as demonstrated by Estonia who would have fallen into this group but for one outstanding campaign. Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and San Marino are almost certainly far too small to ever get anywhere near qualifying; even George Weah couldn’t drag this lot to a major tournament.
Things look grim for Lorik Cana and Albania
All images used in the spirit of fair use
The last qualifying campaign before the move to a 24-team format saw a shift back to smaller groups with only the group winners guaranteed to qualify. This time all the big guns made it through unscathed, with Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, England and Spain all winning their groups, along with Greece, Denmark and Russia, and Sweden qualifying as the best runners-up.
But behind them, there were plenty of surprises, with three teams entering the play-offs with a chance of making their first major tournament. For Bosnia & Herzegovina, it wasn’t much of a surprise, as they had been progressing for a while, and Montenegro were the new kids on the block but clearly had capable players. However, Estonia’s shock second place in a group also containing Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland was a huge shock, but they were unfortunate to be drawn with a Republic of Ireland side fired up after losing to France in the 2010 World Cup play-offs.
Similarly, Montenegro were beaten by old hands the Czech Republic, while Bosnia were dumped out by Portugal. In the last tie, Croatia beat Turkey, giving the tournament another familiar feel. It’s easy to see why many thought an expansion was necessary – by now, it was largely the same teams qualifying for every European Championship. A shake-up was needed.
The additional qualifiers
The evidence for this is all too clear in the list of teams that would have qualified for a 24-team Euro 2012 – it would have featured a stack of unfamiliar teams making a breakthrough. For a start, there are the play-off losers, which included three new teams, along with Turkey, who again missed out on a major tournament. Firstly, there is Bosnia & Herzegovina, who would instead qualify for their first major tournament two years later. In this campaign they were unfortunate to finish behind France, after a late Samir Nasri penalty forced a draw between the two teams in the final match of the group.
Estonia’s record goalscorer Andres Oper might have added to his tally at a 24-team Euro 2012
Montenegro finished behind England (despite not losing to them) and ahead of Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria to finish second in their group; it was only their second qualification campaign as an independent nation. Estonia were the true anomaly, though – after this campaign, they slipped back to fifth place in their World Cup qualifying group, suggesting it was a one-off. It may prove to be the closest they come to reaching a major tournament.
The other four spots are taken up by the four best third-placed finishers, and there were even more surprises. Joining semi-regular qualifiers Switzerland and the team that always gets close to qualifying but doesn’t, Norway, there was another new nation in a major tournament and one returning after a long absence.
Driven on by an emerging young generation including Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Yura Movsisyan, Armenia had finished third behind Russia and the Republic of Ireland after going into their final game in Dublin with a chance of making the play-offs (an opportunity lost when they lost 2-1 to the Irish). Nonetheless, they make a 24-team Euro 2012, along with Hungary, who would have finally qualified for a major tournament for the first time since 1986 and a European Championship for the first time since 1972.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Armenia narrowly missed out on a play-off berth but would have made a 24-team tournament
Of the third-placed teams missing out, Scotland were the most unfortunate, finishing behind Switzerland on goal difference. Israel, Belgium, Serbia and Romania were the other four teams, the latter having the worst record and thus would also miss out on a play-off if that was used to determine the final four spots.
Seeding is relatively straight forward. A modified version of the original co-efficient was used, and 15 of the 16 teams that actually qualified were the top 15 teams in the ranking, leaving only co-hosts Poland further down. The result is all of the additional teams fit below them.
In the actual seeding, World Cup finalists Spain and the Netherlands are seeded alongside the co-hosts, with Germany, Italy, England and Russia in Pot Two, Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Sweden in Pot Three, and Denmark, France, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland in Pot Four.
With the new teams slotting in below, it means that Germany and Italy are promoted into the top pot, with England and Russia joined by the four Pot Three teams in Pot Two. The four Pot Four teams are joined by Switzerland and Turkey in the new Pot Three, and the last pot is made up of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Norway, Hungary, Montenegro, Estonia and Armenia.
It’s quite a top-heavy seeding, with only France and a few tricky teams in Pot Three and a weak batch of new additions in Pot Four. It feels almost like a World Cup. After quite a competitive 24-team Euro 2008, this is more polarised, if only because some teams improved enormously in the interim period. But at the same time, it feels like a very interesting tournament because of the diverse range of teams in it.
Projected Pot One
Projected Pot Two
Projected Pot Three
Republic of Ireland
Projected Pot Four
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Mirko Vucinic came close to leading Montenegro into their first major tournament, but does Euro 2016 beckon?
All images used in the spirit of fair use
In a change from previous campaigns, Euro 2008 qualifying saw seven groups with the top two in each automatically qualifying and no play-offs. This was surely good news for the continent’s most powerful nations, with most finding their way to Austria and Switzerland, but it wasn’t enough for England, who became the campaign’s biggest casualty by finishing behind Croatia and Russia under the ill-fated leadership of Steve McClaren.
Joining usual suspects France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Portugal were semi-regulars Poland, Croatia and Russia, reigning European champions Greece, and two teams returning to a major tournament finals: Turkey, for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, and Romania, for the first time since Euro 2000. It was one of the most memorable qualifying campaigns ever, particularly for British fans, and yet despite many shock results, the teams that made it had a familiar feel.
The additional qualifiers
With eight extra spots open, though, it’s fairly clear that every team who finished third in a group would also have qualified. The British Isles as a whole would have benefited enormously from this in particular. England and McClaren would have been given a narrow reprieve after edging Israel on head-to-head, while Scotland, who beat 2006 World Cup finalists France twice but narrowly missed out, would have been fairly rewarded for their efforts.
The Republic of Ireland would have been back at the Euros (for the first time in twenty years if ignoring previous reprieves in 1996 and 2000) under the management of Steve Staunton, while their neighbours Northern Ireland would also have made it after a sensational campaign in which they beat Spain, Swden and Denmark and striker David Healy topped the overall qualifying scoring charts with a record tally of 13 goals.
David Healy inspired Northern Ireland to a famous win over Spain but missed out on a major tournament
Elsewhere, Norway feature after another reprieve (and there’s more to come), led by the goalscoring talents of John Carew and Steffen Iversen, and they are joined by Dimitar Berbatov’s Bulgaria, who finished a point behind the Netherlands in Group G despite drawing twice with Albania (the first of which cost Hristo Stoichkov his job as manager). The other third-placed team was Serbia in their first campaign since Montenegro’s independence; they finished ahead of Finland on head-to-head record in Group A.
This leaves one more spot for the fourth-placed team with the best record, being contested between Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Slovakia and Ukraine. In a huge disappointment for Jari Litmanen fans, Finland just miss out, finishing with the second-best record behind Israel, who again head to a 24-team Euros after previously “qualifying” for Euro 2000. However, we can just pretend that we could have had a play-off between the two sides and that Finland may have won it…
Despite scoring six goals, Dimitar Berbatov couldn’t inspire Bulgaria to Euro 2008 qualification
The national team co-efficient was again used for the seeding, and as usual it threw up some odd pots. With two co-hosts and reigning champions Greece automatically placed in Pot One, it would have seemed almost as if the top pot was actually the bottom one but for the inclusion of the Netherlands. Pot Two included Croatia, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden, while Pot Three included Germany, Portugal, Spain and Romania, and Pot Four featured France, Poland, Turkey and Russia. Remarkably, this could have produced a potential group of Netherlands-Italy-Spain-France, and indeed brought three of the teams together, with Romania as the Pot Three team.
Naturally, adding six extra teams to the mix is going to water this down somewhat. Croatia and Italy would have been promoted to Pot One, with Pot Two being made up of the Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Germany, Portugal and Spain. England, stuck in Pot Three with Poland, France, Turkey, Russia and Serbia, would likely have faced a tough draw. The bottom pot included Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Norway and Israel.
The toughest possible draw? Netherlands-Spain-England-Ireland would have been fun. Alternatively, Italy-Portugal-France-Scotland would have been fiercely competitive. Euro 2008 was a great tournament (with one of the best TV intros), but unlike its predecessors, adding more teams may not have detracted from its quality. This was definitely a time where there were more than 16 competitive international teams in Europe and provides arguably the best case for the expansion.
Projected Pot One
Projected Pot Two
Projected Pot Three
Projected Pot Four
Republic of Ireland
James McFadden sunk France in Paris with a brilliant strike; given the chance, could he have been Scotland’s hero on the big stage?
Next time – four new teams to the Euros, plus the return of one of the great footballing nations
All images used in the spirit of fair use