Monday, December 05, 2022

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The 'Most Successful Losers' in European Domestic Cups

2nd place medal (via pixabay)Every football season, we know that only so many clubs can achieve the ultimate success in securing silverware, be that major domestic or European honours, or with trophies from further down the footballing pyramid. But what about those teams that have got close to their goals, only to fall at the final hurdle?


It may be an unwanted record to have, but there are clubs that have done this more than once, and perhaps worse still, there are clubs that have been runners-up several times without ever winning a final. So, for those unfortunate special cases, here's the list of the 'most successful' losers in the primary European domestic cups.



The FA Cup*

With every new year, the focus turns to the 3rd round of the FA Cup, when the top tier join the competition and neutrals everywhere keenly anticipate a giant-killing. So far this season, Leicester City have avoided such ignominy, and in keeping with a very good first campaign under Brendan Rodgers, they await Coventry City or Birmingham City in the 5th round.


However, whilst the Foxes caused one of the greatest shocks in modern-day football by winning their 1st top division title with the Premier League in 2016, they are still yet to add an FA Cup to the trophy cabinet. In their 136 year history, Leicester City have lost all 4 FA Cup finals they've reached, making them top of the pile for FA Cup runners-up to never win.


Their 1st loss came in the 1948/49 season, when Wolves won the trophy for the 3rd time, 3-1. In fairness to Leicester, it was their 1st Wembley appearance, and that campaign saw them avoid relegation to the Third Division by just 1 point. Meanwhile, Wolves had finished 6th in the First Division, 12 points off what would have been a double.


More painful were the 2 cup final defeats in 3 years, during what was a relative purple-patch for the club under the guidance of their longest-serving manager, and former player, Matt Gillies (1958-1968). The Scot would eventually claim the 1st major honour for Leicester with the 1964 League Cup (narrowly pipping Stoke City over 2 legs), but prior to that the 1961 and 1963 FA Cup finals were respectively lost to a double-winning Tottenham Hotspur, and a Manchester United that were just beginning a great new era under Sir Matt Busby.


The legendary Gordon Banks kept goal in both finals for Leicester City, and sadly this was the closest he too would ever come to winning the most famous, and oldest, cup competition in football (although I suspect other silverware made up for it!). As for the final missed opportunity, it came in 1969, when the Foxes had another England goalkeeping legend in goal, a young Peter Shilton. He too would also never win an FA Cup winner's medal, as his team were narrowly beaten by Manchester City, 1-0. And to make matters worse, Leicester City were relegated by 1 point to the Second Division that season!



Coppa Italia


In Italy, the unwanted distinction for most domestic cup losses without winning one, is at least jointly held, Palermo and Hellas Verona share 3 Coppa Italia final losses each. The 1st of these occurred in 1974 and is probably the most tragic, Palermo faced off against Bologna in the final and led from the 32nd minute until the 90th. They then conceded a penalty that was dispatched by Giuseppe Savoldi, and after extra-time couldn't separate the 2 teams, Savoldi scored again in the penalty shoot-out that gifted I Rossoblù their 2nd cup win.


In 1979 Palermo lost their 2nd Coppa Italia final, to Juventus. Once again they grabbed the lead, this time in the 1st minute, only for La Vecchia Signora to equalise in the 83rd minute and then to grab the winner in the 117th minute of more extra-time. Palermo waited another 32 years to get a 3rd shot at winning the trophy, but this time there was to be no hard luck story as the Sicilian team were comfortably dispatched 3-1 by an Inter Milan team that successfully retained the cup.


Last season saw the culmination of several years of financial mismanagement by the owners of Palermo, which saw the club excluded from Serie B last summer due to issues over their insurance policy. As a result they have been reborn as a phoenix club and are currently topping Serie D. Needless to say, their next crack at winning the Coppa Italia is likely to be some way off.


Conversely, Hellas Verona were promoted in 2018/19 and regained their place in Serie A. In 1976 they reached their 1st Coppa Italia final, but any optimism they had that day was shattered by a dominant Napoli, who ran out as 4-0 winners. However, the next 2 final appearances for Hellas Verona came in quick succession, 1983 and 1984, during the undoubted high point in their history.


During this period the Coppa Italia final was played over 2 legs, and it was this set-up that was to prove particularly painful for I Mastini. In 1983 they defeated Juventus 2-0 at home, but lost the away leg 3-0, courtesy of an equaliser from Michel Platini in the 81st minute, and a winner from the Frenchman in the 119th minute of extra-time!


One year later Hellas Verona were back, and this time they faced Roma. After a 1-1 draw in the 1st leg, they fell to a 1-0 defeat in the Stadio Olimpico. Despite these disappointments, Verona were to reach a significant silver lining, when the very next season (1984/85) led to their 1st and only Scudetto.



Copa del Rey


Now, technically there are also 2 clubs that share the record for most Copa del Rey final losses without reward. Celta Vigo have lost all 3 of their finals, as have Club Espanol de Madrid. But, it's quite likely that you haven't heard of the latter team, and to be honest, the information available on them is scant. From what I understand, they were the club that the modern day Real Madrid split and came into being from in 1902. Club Espanol de Madrid are thought to have been disbanded in 1913, but what is certain is that in their short existence, they lost the Copa del Rey finals of 1904 and 1909-10.


Meanwhile,the history of Celta Vigo is much clearer. Their 1st Copa del Rey final came in 1948, and resulted in a 4-1 beating by a Sevilla securing their 3rd cup win. Célticos had to wait almost another 40 years to return to the same stage, and the result was to be heartbreaking. They faced Real Zaragoza and after 120 minutes the score remained 0-0, the subsequent penalty shoot-out saw the teams remain deadlocked at 4-4 until the defender Alejo scuffed a poor penalty into the welcoming arms of Andoni Cedrún and Francisco Higuera scored the winner for Los Maños.


In 2001 Celta Vigo reached their most recent final, and once again their opponents were Real Zaragoza. The opportunity for revenge and glory was tantalising, and Celta Vigo had the perfect start when they gained the lead after only 4 minutes. However, that was as good as it got for them, Zaragoza equalised after 24 minutes, grabbed the lead with a penalty before half time, and then made the scoreline an emphatic 3-1 in stoppage time at the end of the game.





In Germany, as in England, there is just 1 team that stands above all others as their 'most successful loser' in the domestic cup, and that team is MSV Duisburg. Another team that you're unlikely to be familiar with, after relegation last season they are currently residing in the 3rd division of German football (where they're top, for now).


The Zebras are actually one of the original 16 clubs to play in the newly formed Bundesliga in 1963, and came runners-up to the champions FC Köln in 1964. Duisburg maintained their place at the top table until relegation in 1983, and it was during this period that they reached their 1st and 2nd DFB-Pokal finals. The primary appearance was in 1966, when they faced the might of Bayern Munich in an entertaining contest that went back and forth, and which was only settled in the 82nd minute when Franz Beckenbauer scored to make it 4-2.


In 1975 Duisburg were back again, and this time they matched up against Eintracht Frankfurt. A tight game was decided by a solitary goal in the 57th minute, scored by the 1 club legend, record Eintracht, and in fact Bundesliga, appearance holder, Karl-Heinz Körbel.


It wasn't until 1998 that Duisburg returned to a DFB-Pokal final, and at this stage they were in the midst of a 4 year stay back in the top league. Once again Bayern Munich stood between them and their 1st cup win, and once again they were to come up agonisingly short. After taking a 20th minute lead, Duisburg stayed in front until the 70th minute, when Marcus Babbel equalised, and then with thoughts turning towards extra-time, Mario Basler snatched the winner in the 89th minute.


For now, the last DBF-Pokal final for Duisburg was actually not too long ago, in 2011 versus Schalke 04. The club were mid-table in the 2. Bundesliga, and so on this occasion they were the true underdogs, and sadly the final reflected that as the Zebras were unable to get a foothold in the game and soon found themselves facing an uphill battle, one that they eventually lost 5-0!



Coupe de France


The Coupe de France has been prone to the odd outlier over the years, with there being finalists from the 2nd, 3rd and even the 4th division in the past 20 years. Likewise, the history of the competition has seen a wide variety of obscure winners and losers, some with wide gaps between multiple successes or failures. The dubious distinction for the most final losses without winning, is jointly held by 2 such clubs, RC Lens and Nîmes Olympique.  


When it comes to Lens, they contested their 1st final in 1948, in a game that was very tit for tat, they eventually went down 3-2 to Lille, with the winner coming in the 86th minute. Sang et Or had to wait until 1975 for another chance to break their duck, but this time they had less of the ‘what ifs’ as AS Saint-Étienne secured their 5th Coupe de France 2-0. The most recent attempt at winning the cup came in 1998, when a Lens team containing Vladimir Smicer and the late Marc-Vivien Foé, were defeated by PSG 2-1. Smicer scored what ended up being a late consolation.


When it comes to Nîmes Olympique, 1958 turned out to be the year of what could have been. They finished runners-up in Ligue 1 to Stade de Reims, and then went on to lose the Coupe de France to them too, with the champions becoming double winners with a 3-1 victory. The start of this golden period for Nîmes saw them finish 2nd in the league for 3 consecutive years, and their 2nd cup final loss arrived a year later in 1961! 


This time Les Crocodiles slipped up against CS Sedan, once again falling to a 3-1 loss. It wasn’t until 1996 that Nimes had another chance to gain some coveted silverware, and this time the final was a lot closer. With the match tied at 1-1 and heading towards extra-time, Auxerre snatched an 88th minute winner to seal their 2nd cup success in 2 years.



KNVB Beker


Finally, we turn to the Netherlands, and like the FA Cup and DFB-Pokal, there is one club that stands above all others in the category of the ‘most successful runners-up’, and they are NEC Nijmegen. Four times they have played in the KNVB Beker final, and four times they have lost. Strangely enough these appearances have occurred in 4 consecutive decades, starting with the 1970s. 


In 1973 they lost 2-0 to the club with a similar acronym to their own, NAC Breda. Ten years later NEC had another go, and in 1983 the final was played over 2 legs. Unfortunately for NEC they lost both of these 3-1 to a double winning Ajax, with the legend that is Johan Cruyff scoring one of his final goals for the club in the 2nd leg.


Fast forward to the 1990s and NEC were ready for another crack at the cup. In the 1994 final they came up against Feyenoord, and whilst they only lost 2-1, they didn’t score until the 90th minute, and so it was another case of too little too late for the team from near the German border.


The most recent KNVB Beker final defeat for NEC was in the year 2000, their 100th year since being founded. Sadly Roda JC were not feeling nostalgic for the anniversary and they won their 2nd cup 2-0, swiftly following on from their 1st in 1997. Based upon their past form NEC are long overdue another go in the final, but with the club stuck in the Eerste Divisie, it’s not something to expect in the foreseeable future.


So there you have it, the ‘most successful’ runners-up in the biggest domestic cups in European football. We could quote Alfred Lord Tennyson to fans of these clubs, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, but I’m not sure how much consolation that would be...





*Remarkably, since this article was written, Leicester City have gone on to win their 1st ever FA Cup (beating Chelsea in the 2021 final). You’re welcome Foxes fans!


As a result, the new ‘most successful losers’ in the FA Cup is actually a four way tie. Queens Park, Birmingham City, Crystal Palace and Watford have all lost 2 finals out of 2.


The 1st name on that list is the only Scottish team to reach the FA Cup final, before the Scottish FA banned their teams from taking part in 1887. Queens Park lost the 1884 and 1885 finals to Blackburn Rovers on each occasion.


Birmingham City reached their 1st final in 1931. Although they were a First Division team, they’d finished the season 4th from bottom of the table and went on to lose the FA Cup to WBA, who also gained promotion as runners-up in the Second Division. Birmingham lost their 2nd final in 1956, to Manchester City. The game most famous for the heroics of The Sky Blues goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who played the last 17 minutes with a broken neck!


Crystal Palace and FA Cup finals are synonymous with Manchester United and Alan Pardew. In 1990, Pardew scored a famous 4-3 winner against the mighty Liverpool of that era. The final saw a dramatic 3-3 draw with The Red Devils, Palace being denied by a Mark Hughes equaliser in the 113th minute of extra-time.


The replay was a less striking affair, Manchester United secured a narrow 1-0 win and the future Sir Alex Ferguson had the 1st of his subsequent mountain of trophies.  


Fast-forward 26 years and Crystal Palace, now managed by Alan Pardew, reached their 2nd final, with Manchester United again standing in the way of glory. This time The Eagles took the lead with just 12 minutes remaining and Pardew became an infamous football meme with his celebratory dance on the touchline.


Fate would quickly intervene to solidify his embarrassment, as United equalised just 3 minutes later and Jesse Lingard wrote his name into FA Cup folklore by grabbing the winner for Louis van Gaal in the 110th minute of extra-time.


Finally, we have Watford FC, who twice came up against irresistible forces in the FA Cup final. In 1984, their 2-0 loss to Everton was in many ways the culmination of the club’s meteoric rise under Graham Taylor since 1977.


Having guided The Hornets from the 4th tier to First Division runners-up (to Liverpool) in 1983, the FA Cup final twelve months later was to be as close as Taylor would get to adding the cherry to his Watford cake.


The situation in 2019 was to be much less enjoyable. After Javi Gracia and his side won a dramatic semi-final against Wolves (3-2 after ET), they faced the daunting prospect of trying to stop Manchester City and Guardiola, who were on the hunt for an unprecedented domestic treble in English football.


That being said, Watford had genuine cause for hope, as both league games between the clubs had been relatively tight affairs, albeit with Manchester City winning both. In the final itself, Watford kept City at bay until the 26th minute and even had a debatable penalty shout turned down. However, once David Silva scored The Citizens went on the rampage and ran out 6-0 winners, equalling the biggest ever margin of victory for an FA Cup final.



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