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Measuring Football Success: Silverware Means More Than Money

Weighing Scale (via Wikipedia)Every football club has aspirations, from the non-league to the top tier. Some are realistic, whilst others are not so much. Regardless of this, football clubs will use these aspirations to determine the success and failure of their season. This article is about what should constitute success at the top level of football, and how the argument has evolved over the last decade, particularly in the Premier League.

Question: What's more important to a football club and their fans. Is it finishing high enough in the league to qualify for the Champions League, or is it winning trophies?

Answer: Silverware is what really matters.

Let me explain...

Context is Key to Measuring the Success of a Football Club

Context plays such a big part in reflecting the position of a football club, and it cannot be ignored when evaluating whether it's achieving success or failing. Take the achievement of Leicester City winning the 2015/16 Premier League title for example, it was a monumental triumph that flew in the face of all logic and will, in all likelihood, never be usurped as the greatest moment in the history of that club.

On the other hand, there are the final few years of Arsenal under the guidance of Arsène Wenger, which were increasingly represented as a series of missed opportunities and disappointment. When 'The Invinceables' were being lauded for their incredible unbeaten league campaign in 2003/04, no one imagined that the Gunners would still be waiting for a follow-up 14+ years later. However, whilst the 2nd half of the Wenger era certainly did not live up to the expectations established during the 1st half, there's no doubt that there were still significant successes.

Since 2004 Arsenal have won 4 FA Cups, 1 less than Manchester City or Everton have accumulated in their whole existence. In other words, this level of achievement would be unprecedented for the vast majority of clubs, but for Arsenal it was instead used as a stick to beat Wenger with. It's clear then that, depending on the context, football clubs are treated very differently when it comes to determining their accomplishments. 

Champions League Place is 'a trophy'

Between 2005 and 2014, as the Arsenal trophy drought ticked on and on, Wenger faced growing media scrutiny and questions from the fans. It was in 2012 that Le Prof made the assertion in the Arsenal AGM that securing a top four finish in the Premier League, and a Champions League qualifying place, was in fact of more value than winning the FA or League Cups. It was a comment that drew endless derision, and whilst I would still contend that winning silverware means more to fans in the long-term, Wenger was making a valid point about money and how priorities have changed for club hierarchies.

What's interesting is how in recent seasons, a similar argument has been used by Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur in an effort to alleviate the growing pressure on his squad to deliver some silverware. Whilst aiming for a top four finish was a sign of Arsenal going backwards, for Spurs it has conversely been seen as a sign of how far they've progressed under the management of the Argentinian. And it's true, Spurs have been consistently competitive over the last 4 years, but now that they are in this position they also have to accept the scrutiny that comes with each season that they fail to win a first trophy since 2008.

The fact is that if Tottenham now consider themselves above Arsenal in the pecking order of English football, then it's about time that they are judged by the same standards. If a top four finish is the bare minimum that Arsenal should be achieving, then their most fierce rivals shouldn't be using this same yardstick to congratulate themselves, and their manager shouldn't be naive enough to say that they "do not need to win the FA Cup or the League Cup". Since 2014 they have grown and grown as a force, but the brutal reality is that this squad will be another in a long line of failures if they do not kick-on and win something, anything!

English Clubs Trophy Success (2000-Present)

I've produced 2 charts that demonstrate where the bragging rights lie when it comes to major silverware secured by English clubs in the 21st Century (so far). The first simply details all of the trophies won by English clubs since (and including) the year 2000, both domestically and in European competition:

English Clubs Trophy Success (2000-Present)

The 2nd chart is based upon a points system that I have put together, which places value on the major trophies available to English clubs, and is as follows:

Trophy Points System:
Premier League & UEFA Champions League- 5 points
UEFA Europa League- 4 points
FA Cup- 3 points
League Cup- 2 points

Value of English Trophy Success (2000-Present)

I know some of you will disagree with my scoring system, but I think it's as fair as possible. Looking back at some of the more obscure trophy winners, I'm confident that Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic fans would view their respective FA Cup wins as the stunning highlights in their modern history, especially as both teams have since endured relegations down the football league pyramid, although they are now recovering and on the up. 

Memories of a Football Fan

The moments I most treasure as a fan are those when I've been lucky enough to see my club winning high-pressure games and lifting a trophy. In years to come those memories will stick with me, whilst the trophy-less ones will be forgotten, regardless of whether or not they finished 3rd/4th in the Premier League. I recognise that most fans will never get either, and instead they will get satisfaction from other significant moments, promotion, a dramatic escape from relegation, or a cup upset perhaps. It could be that your team has one, glorious season that shines like a beacon, when the usual expectations were exceeded. 

This is the beauty of football, millions of fans are devoted to their club and go through thick and thin in their unwavering loyalty, year after year, regardless of the pay-off. Don't get me wrong, football (and all sport) is primarily about winning, but it clearly means much, much more than that. Otherwise, how can you explain the reasons for people investing such an extent when their team is never likely to get anywhere near success. Perhaps it's because we love the game first, followed by the sense of belonging to something that brings so many strangers together with a shared sense of purpose. 

A large number of modern football clubs are huge businesses, with some operating on the stock market and many others attracting mind-boggling investment from far and wide. But before, and after, all of that, football is about communities. Ones that will never tire of analysing where it's all going wrong (or right), and who maintain a grassroots support that outlasts any chairman or chief executive. 

Finally, it's also about hope, however terrible your team may be, however pessimistic you are about their prospects, there are still those occasional moments when you start believing that things may be different this time. We romantically strive for a better tomorrow for our club, based within the context, expectations and aspirations that I've discussed. It is for these reasons that silverware is the ultimate barometer of success in football, the money comes and goes, but it's the glory of being the best that offers a tangible place in the record books and in our hearts.

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