Some teams don’t win anything, but they remain unforgettable. From bright young bucks to ball kings, TFF remembers the greatest Premier League cult teams of all time…
The biggest cameo of a Premier League season started humbly: three days before their opener, Blackpool had just 15 players. They had still not received promotion bonuses. Stadium delays forced them to play away. Ian Holloway signed five players in one day and saw newly acquired Marlon Harewood score twice in a 4-0 win at Wigan.
It was an amazing start to an amazing campaign. Blackpool lost their next game 6-0 but never stopped attacking: Driven by Charlie Adam, DJ Campbell and teenage supersub Matt Phillips, the Tangerines scored 55 goals, beating Liverpool twice.
Their two meetings against Manchester United summed it up best: leading 2-0 at Bloomfield Road and 2-1 at Old Trafford, Blackpool lost both encounters. After spending most of the season outside the bottom three, they were relegated with 39 points.
Who bought O’Leary Manager 2000 on Game Boy Color? Nope? Perhaps you preferred David’s follow-up, Leeds United On Trial: an eye-opening book about the investigation into the assault of two of its star players. Chairman Peter Ridsdale was no fan, although his rampant overspending brought “Doing a Leeds” into the lexicon, so pick your fighter.
In O’Leary’s first league game as boss, more than half of his XI were Under-21s. Two weeks later Alan Smith (18) scored on his Anfield debut; then Michael Bridges (21) arrived and scored 19 league goals in his debut season. The purchase of Rio Ferdinand (22) broke records, but also his sale two years later.
O’Leary & Sons propelled Leeds to 4th, 3rd, 4th and 5th places, as well as the semi-finals of the Champions League and UEFA Cup. The hangover was pretty messy, worthy of their Strongbow kit – but what a team.
Paris. Milano. Bolt. No, Bruno N’Gotty did not bring European podiums to Lancashire; he did, however, usher in the Galacticos-lite era of Bolton. The newly promoted Trotters had been in the lead for six weeks but stuttered when Sam Allardyce ensnared former Scudetto winner Bruno. Bigger names followed – Fredi Bobic and 34-year-old world champion Youri Djorkaeff helped provide security.
It was just the beginning. Jay-Jay Okocha arrived to save Bolton with a final day free kick, before Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, El-Hadji Diouf, Hidetoshi Nakata and Nicolas Anelka scrambled. The Allardyce formula combined stardust and courage: Kevin Davies found a home, while 37-year-old Gary Speed was always present alongside Kevin Nolan. Bolton surged to Europe and a League Cup final; their Champions League dream ended when Allardyce left Wanderers in fifth
Bryan Robson’s promoted side had finished mid-table and then signed Fabrizio Ravanelli and Emerson to join Juninho. Surely they were going to start in 1996-97? On matchday one, Ravanelli – making his first club appearance since Juventus’ Champions League final victory – scored a hat-trick as Boro drew with Liverpool.
The white feather plundered 16 league goals and another 15 as Middlesbrough reached – and then lost – the FA Cup and League Cup finals. Boro was sixth in September, so relegation was sickening…literally. They had postponed a December clash at Blackburn with Robson missing 23 players through illness; the resulting three-point deduction meant they finished 19th instead of 14th.
You don’t often see teams relegated and losing two finals as they train in a prison and two players battle it out before their club’s first-ever FA Cup final. The game is gone.
Four years after the Crazy Gang beat Culture Club in the 1988 FA Cup Final at Wembley, Liverpool had changed a lot and Wimbledon were still Bastard FC. Lawrie Sanchez and John Fashanu remained with the Dons; Vinnie Jones was back; and Joe Kinnear was holding the leash.
In 1992-93, Wimbledon collected five red cards while no other team managed four. They also attracted the lowest pre-COVID attendance in the Premier League when 3,036 people watched them take on Everton at their adopted home of Selhurst Park. But here’s the twist: the following season, Wimbledon received no red cards and recorded the best result (sixth) in its history. In 1996-97, they made it to two semi-finals, went 19 games unbeaten and achieved an impressive eighth, while garnering the fewest bookings in the division. There is a moral somewhere.
After reaching promotion on 105 points, Peter Reid’s Sunderland bought 30-year-old Stefan Schwarz for a club-record £3.75m on a contract banning space travel. Kevin Phillips went stratospheric instead, scoring 30 goals in his first top season to win the Golden Boot and European Golden Boot.
Niall Quinn and Phillips combined to form the ultimate big man-little man partnership, and halfway through 1999-2000 Sunderland sat in the top three. Then came an 11-game winless streak, which echoed the following season as Sunderland once again slipped from 3rd to 7th. This time the Black Cats didn’t land on their paws. Finishes of 7th, 7th, 17th and 20th ended with a then-record lowest points total of 19. Well done, Peter Reid.
Mark Hughes handed Blackburn their first two FA Cup semi-finals in 40 years, as well as a League Cup semi-final and two UEFA Cup appearances. Yet his true legacy was a team with some of the most respected players outside of the Big Four, as it was then.
Inspired arrivals included centre-backs Chris Samba and Ryan Nelsen – inexplicably good for a 27-year-old gift from MLS – as well as David Bentley and Stephen Warnock, who both picked up their first England caps. At the top, Benni McCarthy smashed 18 league goals in 2006-07, just behind Didier Drogba, before Roque Santa Cruz scored 19 in 2007-08 – none of them from penalties. It wasn’t all sunshine: Hughes’ rowdy Rovers backed up the disciplinary board during his four seasons there, picking up 24 red cards.
Not all cult teams are glamorous and pretentious. Under Tony Pulis, Stoke recorded regular runs of 45, 47, 46 and 45 before a slump at 42 triggered his departure.
Still, who would have thought Andy Wilkinson would make more Premier League outings than Roberto Di Matteo? Or that Stoke wingers could be exhilarating? But Pulis Potters were defined by their savagery and set pieces, especially Rory Delap’s long throws. Someone Delap-ing’s video to FIFA glory, complete with melodramatic music Sky Sports’ Requiem For A Dream, represents Stoke’s greatest achievement: inspiring a FIFA video worth watching viewed.