Unexpected League Leaders
A selection of minnows who, briefly, found themselves at the top of the tree
Norwich City 1992-93
Four years before the famous “Arsène who?” question, many pundits wondered “Mike who?” When the local favourite Dave Stringer resigned as Norwich manager after narrowly avoiding relegation in 1992, Mike Walker, a largely unknown Welshman who had spent the majority of his playing career at Colchester, was surprisingly promoted from the club’s youth academy to take over as manager. With Walker on the bench for the inaugural Premier League season, their chances of survival looked slim, especially when their main striker Robert Fleck was sold by to Chelsea — seemingly against the manager’s wishes — for a club record fee of more than £2 million.
Norwich went to Highbury on the opening day and were soon trailing 2-0. Then the unthinkable happened. Mark Robins, the Manchester United outcast who had famously scored the goal against Nottingham Forest that supposedly saved Alex Ferguson’s job, came on as a substitute and netted a brace, bookending a burst of four goals in 15 minutes. Norwich ran away with a 4-2 win; they never looked back.
Walker’s team oozed confidence, displaying their gung-ho approach wherever they went. The defence was fragile, with the goalkeeper Bryan Gunn seeming to appeal for offside every time the opponent attacked. Blackburn thrashed them 7-1, Liverpool put four goals past them, and their local rivals Ipswich defeated them at Carrow Road. But that didn’t stop Norwich from leading the table until Christmas. Their swift short-passing play was brilliant at times, while Gunn, who lost his daughter to leukaemia during the season, became a hero.
Almost every player seemed to improve under Walker’s management. The winger Ruel Fox, bench material for so many seasons, became a star. Ian Crook cruised from box to box, making crucial contributions in his best personal season. A young Chris Sutton scored eight goals in his first year in the starting line-up, while Robins added 15 goals of his own.
After nine games, Norwich had seven wins and enjoyed a three-point lead over Coventry. While the Sky Blues faded, the Canaries were relentless. They scored 34 times in the first 19 games, by which point they’d extended their lead over second-placed Blackburn to a hefty eight points, even though they only kept a clean sheet once during that period and their defensive record of 31 goals conceded was the third-worst in the league. The fans didn’t care: as far as they were concerned, Walker could have walked on water. They believed the championship was possible.
The first crisis came in December as Norwich went five games in a row without scoring and dropped to third, but remarkably they managed to come back. In late January, having beaten Everton 1-0 at Goodison Park, they led the table again, largely thanks to Ipswich beating Manchester United and Aston Villa losing at Southampton on the same day. After 26 games, the gap between the Canaries and the bottom club Oldham was just 21 points, as opposed to 48 separating United and QPR at the same stage last season: the league was far more competitive two decades ago.
It soon turned into a three-horse race and Norwich had to win at Villa in late March to keep their hopes alive. They did so, but their aspirations were ended in their next game as United scored three goals in the first 20 minutes at Carrow Road. Tottenham then put five past them and Walker’s side eventually finished third, qualifying for Europe for the first time — with a negative goal difference.
The Canaries’ adventure in the Uefa Cup proved memorable, including the famous 2-1 win against Bayern Munich at the Olympiastadion. Walker seemed the brightest managerial hope in the country, mentioned as a possible successor to Graham Taylor as England boss. Fed up with the chairman Robert Chase, Walker left for Everton in January 1994, only to fail spectacularly. Without him, Norwich fell apart and were relegated in 1995.
MSV Duisburg 1993-94
This story is probably the weirdest of them all, given the newly promoted minnows managed to lead the table until as late as February, with a negative goal difference.
Ewald Lienen, arguably better known as left-wing activist than a footballer in his playing days, took over as manager, his first coaching job, in March 1993 and guided MSV to a promotion. The squad was thin, though, and the Zebras were expected to go straight down. Their major acquisitions during the summer did little to inspire hope — Uwe Weidemann, a 30-year-old East German playmaker and Peter Közle, a striker who spent all his previous career in Belgium and Switzerland and had barely been heard of in his homeland.
Duisburg’s philosophy in their magical season was based on tigerish defence and very fast breaks. The first opponents fully to experience their power were the champions Werder Bremen, who sensationally conceded five goals in 20 second-half minutes in late August. Duisburg won 5-1, and were given the nickname ‘Konter-Könige’ — Kings of the Counterattack.
This was a bizarre adventure. MSV didn’t lose until mid-October, but failed to win any of their home games during that period. When defeat did come, it was a 4-1 thrashing at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Winfried Schäfer’s Karlsruhe crushed them 5-0 a month later and Stuttgart won 4-0 against them. But while everyone expected them to disappear, Duisburg also claimed numerous hard-fought wins. Weidemann’s passing proved a revelation, while Közle rattled in 13 goals.
Közle, not Roberto Baggio, was the Divine Ponytail for MSV fans. He suddenly became one of the most talked about players in the country and enjoyed enormous popularity in Duisburg. The charismatic striker opened his own pub, called Cash, and even participated in recording the club’s anthem — his voice can still be heard at the stadium every match day.
This was one of the tightest Bundesliga seasons ever. At the winter break, with 20 games played, Duisburg were seventh, but just two points behind the leaders Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt. When the league resumed, MSV won 2-1 against Leipzig thanks to a goal from their captain Torsten Wohlert, a no-nonsense centre-back. That took them fourth. Then, on February 18, history was made.
It was a Friday night, the opening game of the weekend. Duisburg hosted Bremen, level on points with them, still favourites to retain the title and eager to take sweet revenge for the shameful defeat in August. The visitors dominated the game for long spells, but Lienen’s players held firm and, with 15 minutes to go, Közle struck once again on the counter. 1-0 to the Zebras, and suddenly they were top.
This was a huge moment, but Eintracht and Leverkusen still had games to play on the Saturday afternoon. Amazingly, both lost. Eintracht succumbed at Karlsruhe, while Leverkusen wasted an early lead against Hamburg. Duisburg stayed top. After 22 games, their stats read: 27 points, 29 goals scored, 30 goals conceded. They were the strangest leaders German football has ever known. The local newspaper published a photo of a jubilant Közle shouting, “Look, we are number one!”
A week later, Bayern Munich — then second, a point behind Duisburg — hosted the leaders and that’s where the fairytale was brutally ended. The Bavarians scored four goals before the break, won 4-0 and MSV never recovered. They only recorded four more wins and eventually finished ninth, albeit just eight points behind Bayern who took the title. Even the dream of qualifying for Europe was not achieved.
The following season went from bad to worse for the Zebras. They never left the relegation zone, and Lienen, still considered a legend, was sacked in October. Közle stopped scoring and started drinking too much. His pub was smashed by angry fans and he fled the town before the season ended. The team went down without a fight.
This summer, Duisburg were demoted to the third division over financial irregularities.
Excelsior Mouscron 1996-97
The Mpenza sensation in Belgium was stunning. When Mouscron, promoted for the first time in their history via the playoffs in 1996, signed the Kinshasa-born brothers, Mbo and Emile, from second-division Kortrijk, they could never have expected such an explosion. A tiny club whose Canonnier stadium could house just 9,000 fans, Excelsior played football of astonishing intensity and quality. They feared no one, took the game to their opponents and attacked relentlessly. Destined to finish rock bottom according to the predictions ahead of the season, Mouscron went unbeaten in their first seven games, scoring 15 goals in the process.
Their coach Georges Leekens never had a good reputation in his country, even though he had had short spells at numerous top clubs, including Anderlecht and Club Brugge. At Mouscron, he unexpectedly fulfilled his potential, and as weeks went by the country became addicted to watching the most exciting team Belgium had seen in years.
Mbo Mpenza was 19 when the season started, Emile just 18. Their mutual understanding was telepathic, each of them scored 12 goals, and their youthful energy had the whole squad believing they could go all the way to win the title. Mouscron led the league from the first day of the season and continued their surge to be crowned winter champions.
Sadly, Leekens wasn’t patient enough to wait for his project to bear fruit. He was enjoying his sudden fame and when the Belgian football federation asked him to replace Wilfried van Moer as national coach in February 1997, he walked away from Excelsior. Geert Brouckaert, who replaced him, failed to maintain the momentum, and Mouscron’s challenge faded away. Leekens promoted the Mpenza brothers, as well as the veteran stopper Gordan Vidović and the midfielder Dominique Lemoine to the national team, but at the same time they only won three times in their last 11 league games, finishing third, 12 points behind the champions Lierse, led by Erik Gerets.
The Mpenza brothers left for Standard Liège in the summer of 1997. Both later left continued to bigger leagues and Emile had an especially prolific career at Schalke, where he went painfully close to winning the title in 2001. Mouscron were never top again, but remained a significant force in the first division before going bankrupt in 2009. Mouscron-Peruwelz, a new club built on their remains, are doing fine in the second division this season.
SC Sedan Ardennes 2000-01
Cédric Mionnet enjoyed his moment immensely. In the last minute of the game between Sedan and Paris St-Germain on 2 December 2000, he received the ball in the penalty area, expertly fooled the keeper Lionel Letizi, then proceeded to make fun of Éric Rabésandratana before slotting the ball into the net from a tight angle. It was a goal of rare beauty from a striker who became the darling of France that season, the icing on the cake in a 5-1 win that helped Sedan to go top of the league.
Like many of his teammates, Mionnet had never dared to dream of becoming a “real” footballer. When he joined Sedan in 1997, aged 23, they were a tiny third division club, with semi-professional status, on the brink of bankruptcy. Most of them stuck around and went on an unbelievable journey.
In 1998 they were promoted to the second division under Bruno Metsu, the man who was later responsible for the Senegal sensation at 2002 World Cup. Metsu left that summer, but the team achieved a second successive promotion without him, while also making it to the Cup final, where they unluckily lost to Nantes thanks to a controversial penalty.
Sedan finished a respectable seventh in their first season in the top flight in 1999-2000, but a year later, things got even better. With a new coach in Alex Dupont, playing at the newly built Stade Louis Dugauguez, named after the former player and manager, the Wild Boars in green shirts produced an effective and attractive style of football.
Olivier Quint was the brightest star with his mazy runs down the left flank. Salif Diao, soon to become one of the most memorable Anfield flops, bossed the midfield. Up front, they used a combination of two short strikers, both just 5’8” tall. Mionnet and the Cameroonian Pius N’Diefi each scored 10 goals that season.
It all started with a 1-0 win at Auxerre, and Sedan gradually became stronger as weeks went by. At the beginning of November, after a 3-0 triumph at Guingamp, they topped the first division table for the first time in their history. A week later, with the whole country watching, they dismantled Marseille 2-0 with a very assured performance. Suddenly, they were legitimate title contenders.
Dupont’s team then went three games without a win, but the clash with PSG revived their challenge. N’Diefi scored a magnificent hat-trick and then came Mionnet — a likeable, humble, down-to-earth guy with whom every fan could identify. Two weeks later, another home win against Strasbourg saw Sedan return to the top of the table for the final time.
Eventually, they just were not consistent enough. The most crucial game came in March when the leaders, and eventual champions, Nantes, hosted Sedan who trailed them by three points. The Boars were thrashed 4-1 and, more significantly, lost Mionnet who tore cruciate ligaments after a mistimed tackle by Nicolas Gillet. Not only was his season was ended, his whole career was ruined. Heartbroken, Sedan only finished fifth, some 16 points behind Nantes.
Henri Stambouli, who replaced Dupont in the summer of 2001, totally changed the system, breaking up the team, and Sedan were relegated in 2003, only to reappear in the 2006-07 season. They went bankrupt this summer and are now playing in the fifth division.
Sokol Saratov 2001
They were unheard of before, and have never been heard of ever since, but during the first months of 2001 Sokol Saratov were the biggest story in Russian football. Sokol means ‘falcon’ in Russian and the team suddenly soared after their first promotion to the top flight. After eight games, they were amazingly leading the table with a squad of nobodies.
Their debut in the top division was away at the Luzhniki stadium, against then seemingly eternal champions Spartak Moscow. The hosts were expecting a record win, but the Sokol coach Aleksandr Koreshkov secured a goalless draw by packing his entire team behind the ball. Thereafter, Saratov won five consecutive league fixtures against lesser teams, all by a one-goal margin. During that period, the team also recorded their most famous victory, beating Spartak 3-1 away in the Cup quarter finals with a hat-trick from Andrey Fedkov, a 29-year-old journeyman, who made such an impression that Oleg Romantsev called him into the national team almost immediately.
After recording a 1-1 draw at Dinamo Moscow, the stage was set for Sokol to feature in the most bizarre top-of-the-table clash ever played in Russia. Krylya Sovetov Samara led the table with 19 points, Sokol had two points fewer. The Saratov outfit duly won 1-0 and went top, with the whole town gleefully delirious. Could they stay there?
They couldn’t. Saratov’s fourth visit to Moscow ended with a 6-2 defeat at the hands of Torpedo, and the team never recovered. They lost 12 more games before the season ended and finished in eighth place.
Sokol were relegated in 2002 and sank without trace. Fedkov, though, still managed to make more headlines in his career, scoring the winning goal for Terek Grozny in 2004 Cup Final.
Chievo Verona 2001-02
Gianluigi Buffon became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper in history when Juventus paid Parma €51 million for him in the summer of 2001. But in the third week of the season, Buffon committed one of the most bizarre errors of his career, making a terrible mess of a simple corner kick and allowing Massimo Marazzina to score into the empty net. When Marazzina then made it 2-0 to Chievo at Delle Alpi, expertly finishing a team move of the highest quality, the country was shocked. Could the Flying Donkeys be for real?
The nickname was derived from the song sung by fans of Hellas Verona, Chievo’s bigger city rivals, who claimed that donkeys would fly before they faced their poor neighbours in Serie A. Who could blame them? When Preben Elkjær led Verona to the scudetto in 1985, Chievo were still in the fifth division. They were promoted to the fourth a year later, made it into Serie C in 1989 and quite unexpectedly rose to Serie B in 1994. The biggest promotion of them all, which followed in 2001, was a sensation.
This was a team representing a tiny district on the outskirts of Verona, owned by a family of bakers. No significant signings were made during that summer, which left as their best striker Marazzina, who returned from a loan spell at relegated Reggina, where he had scored four goals in 29 games. Nobody doubted that Chievo were destined to go straight down.
From the very first day of the season, though, the Flying Donkeys became the neutrals’ favourite team. Their coach Luigi Delneri gave his little-known players a free hand to improvise, and Chievo flourished. Fiorentina were beaten 2-0 at the Artemio Franchi and Chievo triumphed by the same scoreline against Bologna on their home Serie A debut. Juventus were the only other team to start the season with a maximum six points and so the clash at the Delle Alpi became a top-of-the-table event. Then, with the whole country watching in disbelief, Marazzina struck twice. It was a miracle.
Juve fans apart, Italy was brokenhearted when Juve eventually came back to win 3-2. But that was only start of the story, as Chievo went on to win four of their next five games, drawing the other one and scoring 12 goals in the process. It was November and the Flying Donkeys were leading the table. Although they suffered a few setbacks, such as a 3-2 defeat to Hellas Verona, who were eventually relegated, in the derby, they remained top until mid-December. When Marazzina and his lanky partner Bernardo Corradi scored in a 2-1 win against Inter at San Siro, it was no longer a surprise. The Italians learned to love and respect Chievo and some even believed they could actually go all the way and win the title.
It wasn’t to be. The defending champions Roma condemned Chievo to their first home defeat, beating the Donkeys 3-0, and they never regained the top spot. Delneri’s troops recorded just five wins in 19 games in 2001, and eventually finished fifth, missing out on the final Champions League berth by a single point. Marazzina ended with 13 goals, Corradi got 10.
Delneri became the most wanted managerial talent in Italy, but stayed at the club until 2004 and many of the stars, like Simone Perrotta and Eugenio Corini, also remained loyal for the following season. Chievo never challenged for the title again but they are the only team of the eight presented here who showed any sign of stability. Unluckily relegated in 2006-07, they immediately came back and have remained a well-respected midtable outfit ever since. And the derby is back this season, as Hellas Verona finally returned to Serie A after 11 years in the doldrums.
Leixões SC 2008-09
Looking at the badge of Leixões, you see a basketball, a tennis racquet and a cricket bat — but no football. That’s because the club, established in 1907, only played those sports until football was introduced in 1926. Tradition is very important in Matosinhos and so the logo was never altered.
Matosinhos is a small fishing town just north of Porto. The tiny club could never have competed with the Dragons, but the fans are extremely proud of its history nevertheless and memories of Portuguese Cup triumph in 1961 are passed from generation to generation. The 60s were the golden era of Leixões, when the majority of the players were homebred, and so received their nickname of ‘Os Bebes’ (The Babies). There has been very little to celebrate since then, apart from the Cup Final appearance in 2002 that led to qualification for Uefa Cup. Aspirations were always minimal, but that changed in the autumn of 2008.
Promoted in 2007, Leixões only survived in the top division in injury time of the last game of the season. They then appointed José Mota, a promising coach from Paços Ferreira, who was noted for his adventurous style of football. That attitude seemed to backfire when his debut ended in a dismal 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Nacional, but the team responded by going on a phenomenal run. Nobody could ever explain how these anonymous players managed to do it. It was beyond logic.
Leixões had only managed to record four wins during the previous season, the first of them coming in December. In the autumn of 2008, they amassed five away wins in a row — all of them by a one-goal margin. Porto, champions and unbeaten until they met their poor neighbours, entertained Leixões in late October, and were beaten 3-2 in a crazy game. Braga, an unheralded midfielder signed from the minnows Leça in the summer, became a hero, scoring a brace, and the town of Matosinhos went out to celebrate the historic victory.
A week later, Leixões became league leaders, and as such they visited Sporting in Lisbon. They beating the Lions 1-0 to remain top. It was a late evening game and by the time the team bus got back to the town after a journey of 300km, it was 2am. Fans were waiting for their beloved players, though, and partied with them on the streets through the night.
By that time, every rumour of a club possibly changing coach in Portugal terrified Leixões who didn’t want to lose José Mota to a bigger club. They didn’t have to worry for too long, though, as the magical run finally came to an end. The first four games of 2009 all ended in goalless draws, and from March Leixões began to add defeats to their repertoire. The Dragons were especially glad to take revenge with a 4-1 win at the tiny Estadio do Mar. Eventually, Leixões finished sixth, their best placing since 1963, but 25 points behind Porto.
2009-10 was a disaster, with José Mota resigning in February, and Leixões eventually finished last, winning just five games. They were relegated and have never returned to the top flight.
UD Levante 2011-12
Sergio Ballesteros outrunning Cristiano Ronaldo. Who could have imagined a 36-year-old journeyman, who had been mocked for his weight problems throughout his career, could outstrip the most expensive player in the world? Levante fans were so jubilant during the magical autumn of 2011 that they started campaigning for their captain to be called into the national team — and the Spanish press went along with them, for these were the most improbable leaders the country has ever witnessed.
It was surreal to see anyone but Barcelona or Real Madrid topping La Liga table anyway, but to have the poorest team of them all, the one that had only marginally avoided both relegation and bankruptcy the previous season, was incredible. Levante, a club from an industrial district of Valencia, are so small that Valencia CF fans never really considered them to be their rivals — many of the city’s football lovers support both teams.
The Frogs started the season with two draws, but then managed to beat Real thanks to a goal by Arouna Koné, a loanee from Sevilla who had previously scored just once in 40 league games for the Andalusians. That’s where the dream began. The team coached by Juan Ignacio Martínez, recruited from Cartagena of the second division, went on to record seven consecutive wins. Ballesteros became a symbol, but that was not just about him — most of the squad were veterans whom nobody else wanted. In the sensational 3-0 away win at the then-nouveau riche Malaga, the average age of Levante players was close to 32. José Barkero, their most talented midfielder had won the Under-20 World Cup alongside Xavi, but was mainly known for his time at Numancia.
Even the players were left stunned, Joselu calling the achievements “a miracle”. Spain fell in love with the sensation and Levante stories were told all across the country, including the bizarre case of a fan who buried a copy of the league table in his grandmother’s grave.
Eventually, the run came to an end with a 2-0 defeat at Osasuna in late October and Levante lost 14 more games before the season ended. They still finished sixth, 45 points behind the champions Real, and qualified for the Europa League.
During the 2012/13 season, Barkero accused Ballesteros of match fixing and the fairy-tale image disappeared. Nevertheless, Levante comfortably avoided the drop again.