Greatest Teams Not Crowned European Champions (1956-92)

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As we look forward to the start of a new Champions League season, let’s take a look back at the great teams of the past who missed out on club football’s biggest prize. In part one, we take a look back at the European Cup era, first won by a Real Madrid team of Alfredo Di Stefano in 1956. Here are the greatest sides for whom the title European Champions proved elusive:

The Busby Babes line up in Belgrade for their final match

Manchester United 1957-58

The ‘Busby Babes’ have become a mythical team, football’s greatest what might have been, the photo (above) of them lining up in Belgrade only hours before tragedy took eight of their lives is a picture frozen in time.

This dynamic young team had already won back to back English titles in 1956 & 57 with a brand of attacking football that became the hallmark of the club. Key players included powerful forward Tommy Taylor, captain Roger Byrne, inside forward Billy Whelan, a young Bobby Charlton and one of their few signings goalkeeper Harry Gregg. The crown jewel of Busby’s side was fly half Duncan Edwards, rated by many as England’s greatest ever talent. By 1958 Edwards, still only 21 years old had already won 18 senior caps for England.

United’s inaugural European Cup campaign in 1957 had seen them reach the semi finals but lose 5-3 on aggregate to eventual champions Real Madrid. In 1957-58, United seemed well placed to challenge Di Stefano’s all-conquering Madrid side and won through to the quarter-finals where they faced Red Star Belgrade. They secured a 2-1 win at home and fought out a 3-3 draw in Belgrade. But tragedy struck on the journey home and 23 people, including 8 of United’s players died in the Munich Air Disaster. Amongst them were Byrne, Taylor, Whelan and Edwards who’d grimly clung to life in a Munich hospital for 15 days. Busby who’d been given the last rites in Munich, survived as did Charlton & Gregg. Ten years later Charlton & Busby finally raised the European Cup on an emotional night at Wembley.

Juventus circa 1973

Juventus 1973

It seems to be Juventus’ destiny to finish runners-up in the European Cup. In all they’ve contested nine finals, a record only bettered by Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich. But they’ve only walked away with the trophy twice, a record equalled by Porto and Nottingham Forest and perhaps the best of those teams was their 70s side that won five Italian titles in a seven-year spell and came oh so close in ’73.

They came to prominence by winning Serie A in 1972, ending a run of just one league title in the previous ten years. Managed by their former Czech star Cestmir Vycpálek, the side’s tight defence was marshalled by the legendary Dino Zoff and captain Sandro Salvadore. Italy regular Fabio Capello controlled midfield with fellow Azzuri regular Franco Causio providing guile down the right-wing, up front they had the prolific Roberto Bettega and Brazilian striker Jose Altafini.

In round one Juve suffered a surprise first leg defeat in Marseille but rallied to a 3-1 aggregate win, marching through to the semi finals without defeat. There they overwhelmed Brian Clough’s Derby County 3-1 in Turin with Atlafini getting the killer third goal and a draw at The Baseball Ground ensured a place in the final. The final couldn’t have been tougher, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax going for their third straight title. With a side that largely amounted to Holland’s dazzling 1974 World Cup side, Ajax scored early through Johnny Rep and Juve’s first European Cup Final ended in narrow defeat.

Despite their domestic dominance in the 70s and effectively becoming the Italian national side Juventus would not make it to the final again that decade. They finally got their hands on the cup in 1985 and finally got their revenge for ’73 by defeating Ajax in the 1996 final.

Leeds line up for the controversial 1975 Final

Leeds United 1970,75

Don Revie’s Leeds were not a universally popular side but they were amongst the best England ever produced. In 1969 they finally won their first English League title. The spine of the side was incredibly strong with England international centre backs Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton, midfield dynamo Billy Bremner partnering the more creative Johnny Giles and the predatory striker Allan Clarke.  They made it to the semi finals in 1970 but lost 3-1 on aggregate to Celtic, the second leg attracting 136,000 spectators to Glasgow’s Hampden Park.

Leeds rallied and by the early ’70s were shedding their uncompromising reputation and playing some incredible attacking football. They were winning trophies but a tendency to fight on multiple fronts saw them narrowly miss out on the League title six times, denying them more attempts at the European Cup.

In 1974 they got a second chance when they eased to the title setting a new record of 29 games unbeaten from the start of the season. But Revie left the club that summer and after a disastrous brief stint under Brian Clough, Jimmy Armfield took charge for the European campaign. Leeds breezed into the semi-finals where they edged Cryuff’s Barcelona 3-2.

The final against defending Champions Bayern Munich would prove hugely controversial. Clarke was brought down by Franz Beckenbauer but denied a penalty. In the second half Peter Lorimer scored but after initially giving the goal the referee disallowed it following a consultation with Beckenbauer. Bayern scored two late goals and for Revie’s Leeds the European Cup remained an unfulfilled dream.

Barca get ready for the ’86 Final

Barcelona 1986

Younger fans may be shocked to hear it but Barcelona’s name remained absent from the European Cup roll of honour for almost forty years. In 1984 such lofty ambitions seemed a distant dream at the Camp Nou. Barca hadn’t won the Spanish title since Cruyff’s side won in 1974. Barcelona turned to a new manager; Englishman Terry Venables. ‘El Tel’ was faced with an immediate problem, what to do with wayward superstar Diego Maradona? Venables acquiesced to his sale as the club grew frustrated with Maradona but were shocked at his choice of replacement, Scottish striker Steve Archibald.

‘Archigol’ proved a big hit in Catalonia. Venables set his team up in an English style 4-4-2, reliant on a strong defence made up of Spanish internationals Gerardo, Miguel, Julio Alberto and skipper Jose Alexanko. In midfield he had experienced Spanish international Victor Munoz and brilliant playmaker Bernd Schuster with Archibald in attack. Venables and Schuster didn’t always see eye to eye but he proved vital as Barcelona won the league with Schuster scoring 18 goals in all competition and coming third in the Ballon d’Or stakes.

Venables now targeted the European Cup. Barcelona edged past Porto and then Juventus but suffered a 3-0 away leg defeat to IFK Gothenburg in the semi final. Remarkably a hat trick from Pichi Alonso saw Barcelona level the tie at the Camp Nou. They went on to win 5-4 on penalties and Barca were in the final for the first time since 1961. The final was to be held in Sevilla and Barcelona dominated Romanian Champions Steaua Bucharest. However, they couldn’t score and the game went again to penalties. Barca hadn’t counted on the heroics of Steaua goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam who saved all four spot kicks and Barca were denied as Steaua surprised everyone to lift the trophy.

Venables fell out with Schuster and bizarrely his wife, casting the German into the reserves and signed World Cup golden boot Gary Lineker. El Tel was gone within year and the return of Cruyff would finally see Barca win their first European title at Wembley in 1992.

In part two: The Champions League era begins, Kiev dazzle, Klopp goes close, double trouble for Valencia and Magic on the riviera

Picture Credits: Four Four, Pes Miti Del Calcio, Equips De Futbol, Queensland Times

Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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  1. what happened to a mention of the EVERTON side from 84 to 86 .league winners twice and twice denied access .once due too the fact LIVERPOOL HAD WON THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE. but finished second in the domestic league behind EVERTON .EUFA DECIDED couldn’t have two teams from same city in competition,so decided that the the winners and automatic right to play in the champions cup must play a qualifying game .result lost on a disallowed goal for no reason .Off course Liverpool went in the draw .Next time league winners plus euro cup winners but again disqualified due to rioting at the Liverpool final against juventus. when it was deemed that all England fans were the same ,except evertons euro cup winners cup final was the best in history for no fan disturbances .

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