'It's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts'. A phrase I'm sure we've all heard before and perhaps even experienced first hand. And whilst it does have its place, when you're in the world of professional sport it is a belief that's often replaced by 'winning is all that matters'. The truth is we can't adequately sum up sports participation with a phrase because this ignores all of its nuances. For example, in football winning may well be all that matters, but then most people would agree that diving to win a match-winning penalty is against the spirit of the game.
For some football clubs though, their recent history suggests that they do have a bit of the 'taking part that counts' ethos. Now let's be clear, footballers at all levels have a burning desire to win every game, but only a minority of teams can ever win a trophy. Each club has expectations from the board, and depending on a number of circumstances, success will be quantified very differently from one to the other. So it turns out that some clubs in the English Football League (EFL) have become winners in their own unique way, they don't get promoted and they don't get relegated, instead these are the most consistently average teams in the country:
The most consistently average team playing in League Two are Accrington Stanley, who are now in their 11th consecutive season within the division. Their history, on the other hand, is a lot more chequered and interesting than the famous milk advert would have you believe.
The original version of the club was sadly disbanded in 1966, following resignation from the football league due to outstanding debts during the 1961/62 season. The present guise rose up in 1968 before resuming playing in 1970, and Accrington Stanley remained a non-league club until they made their historic return to the football league in 2006. Most of their time in League Two has resulted in lower half finishes, but in 2005 and last season they reached the play-off semis. Currently on an unbeaten league run since mid-February, it's likely that they've left it too late to reach another play-off attempt.
The Shrimps are possibly the most consistent team on this list. From their inception in 1921 until their promotion to the Conference in the 1994/95 season, they were a non league team. They then spent the next 12 campaigns in the upper half of the Conference table, only finishing outside of the top 7 three times. A play-off semi-final was lost in 2002/03, but then finally in 2007 they climbed into the football league for the 1st time, after defeating Exeter City in the play-off final at the recently reopened Wembley Stadium.
Since then they have maintained their football league status, this being their 10th League Two campaign, although it has been a struggle in more recent seasons. A step up to League One could have happened in 2010, but after their highest ever league position of 4th, they were heavily beaten in the play-off semi-final by Dagenham & Redbridge (7-2 on agg). Since then Morecambe have been a team stuck in the lower half of the table and last season they finished 4th from bottom, albeit with a comfortable cushion over the relegation places. Currently on an awful run of 6 consecutive defeats, they look to be relatively safe from the drop, and if they can turn their form around a mid-table finish is within reach.
I just about remember when Oldham Athletic were a Premier League team, back when I first got into football they were top flight material, but their 3 year stay ended with relegation in 1993/94. Another 3 seasons followed in what was then Division 1 but rather than seeing any signs of them bouncing back the 1996/97 campaign saw another relegation, to the 3rd tier, and that's where they've resided for 20 seasons now!
In the past 2 decades the average finishing position for Oldham has been 13.6, which tells the story really. Only twice have they managed to reach the play-offs (2003 & 2007), and on both occasions they suffered semi-final disappointment. In fact the club has failed to finish higher than 15th in the past 7 seasons, and sadly 2016/17 looks no different as at this present time they are in 18th place and flirting with a relegation battle. On the plus side this is exactly what they're used to and recent results suggest that they'll be just fine once again.
After a tight relegation battle resulted in Walsall finishing rock-bottom of League One in 2006, they rebounded in the best way possible by winning the League Two title 12 months later. Since then they've maintained their current status, with this being a 10th consecutive year in the league. The majority of that time has been spent around the mid-table region but the last 2 seasons saw a period of relative success. In 2015 they reached Wembley for the 1st time in their history, in a losing effort in the Football League Trophy final vs Bristol City. Then last season promotion to the Championship was cruelly missed by 1 point as they finished 3rd, and in the play-offs they were soundly beaten by Barnsley (6-1 on agg).
As for the present campaign, Walsall have slipped back into their more typical mid-table territory. For the time being they are 13th in League One, 10 points from the last play-off place and 11 above the last relegation spot. I think we can confidently predict that the club will be 'enjoying' an 11th straight season in the 3rd tier.
The 2nd tier of English football is a notoriously difficult league to get promoted from. Every season up to half the division have realistic ambitions of getting into the holy grail of the Premier League, and for the most part Ipswich Town have been one of those clubs for several years. Remarkably this is the Tractor Boys 15th consecutive season in the Championship, and try as they might they just can't escape it. Under the guidance of George Burley Ipswich had achieved 5th place in the 2000/01 Premier League, but the next campaign went very differently. A terrible start and end to the season was broken up by a curious 7 wins out of 8 in the middle of it, all of which led to 18th place and relegation.
In the intervening years the club has generally hung around mid-table or just inside the top half, and on 3 occasions they've got their act together enough to make the play-offs (2003/04, 2004/05 and 2014/15). Needless to say a return to the top tier eludes them still, as each play-off effort ended in a semi-final defeat, with the most recent being especially painful at the hands of their bitter rivals Norwich (4-2 on agg).
Unlike most Championship clubs Ipswich are loyal to their managers, and Mick McCarthy has been in charge for 5 seasons now. Up until 2016/17 there's been cause for optimism, with incremental league improvements, although last season they regressed by 1 place. With this campaign becoming a real disappointment and only 2 wins so far this year, the team are closer to relegation than the play-offs. Trouble may lie ahead for Mick but I still expect them to finish nearer mid-table, and what's certain is that a 16th year in tier 2 beckons.
Derby County & Nottingham Forest
Finally, it transpires that Derby County and Nottingham Forest not only share a fierce rivalry and the legend of Brian Clough, but they've also been stuck together in the Championship for the past 9 years. Nottingham Forest have only ever spent 5 seasons outside the top two divisions, a proud record, and 3 of those came between 2005/06 and 2007/08 until they gained automatic promotion from League One.
Since returning to the Championship 'Forest have managed 2 play-off finishes, and they both came under the management of the often angry Billy Davies in 2010 and 2011. Semi-final defeats befell the club in each and Davies was subsequently sacked. There have been an incredible 9 permanent managers between then and now, including a Davies return for a less successful and much angrier 2nd spell! Despite the endless upheaval 'Forest have stayed clear of relegation, but the price has been mid-lower table finishes and a glorious return to the Premier League appears further away than ever. That being said the new boss is Mark Warburton, so if Fawaz Al-Hasawi can restrain his interfering ways, perhaps the future is bright.
As for Derby County, their Championship stay began after they became (and remain) the worst Premier League team ever. During the 2007/08 season The Rams recorded 1 league win out of 38 and 29 losses. Until it happened the majority of football fans didn't think such depths could be plummeted to, but they were and it seems unlikely that Derby will ever lose this dubious record. Nigel Clough took up the reigns in January 2009 and steadied the ship for 4 years until the owners lost patience. However, in the past 3 seasons there have been signs of a resurgence as they've finished 3rd, 8th and 5th.
Steve McClaren was the boss behind Derby's best finish since their relegation, and they went on to trounce Brighton in the semi-finals before somehow losing 1-0 to an uninspiring QPR at Wembley. The drop to 8th the next year, and overtures from Newcastle United, led to the dismissal of Steve and that was that until he returned this season and was sacked again earlier this month. Gary Rowett is the new man tasked with restoring Derby to the top flight, but until next season at least, that ship has sailed again for now...