The 16 best players never to win a league title
These men have been hailed individually over their careers, but were somehow never there when it all came together for their teams
The inspiration for this article, Lineker won more of football’s top individual awards than he did silverware. Players’ Player of the Year, Footballer of the Year (twice), runner-up in the Ballon d’Or, a Golden Boot winner three times in England and once at a World Cup – make no mistake, he was one of the all-time great strikers. And yet Lineker’s only major trophies were the FA Cup, the Copa del Rey and the Cup Winners’ Cup, while he ended up with as many league titles in his career as he did red and yellow cards: none.
OK, he did win the Second Division with Leicester as a teenager. But somehow a top-flight title eluded him, despite making a career of being in the right places at the right times. Everton finished 1st, 2nd and 1st from 1984 to 1987 – guess which season Lineker was there, scoring three hat-tricks among his 30 league goals?
When the Toffees reclaimed the title he was in Barcelona, finishing 2nd. Then 6th. Then 2nd again, followed by a third-place finish with Spurs just before Barça began a run of four Liga titles. He didn’t even come close in Japan.
Still, he’s done all right for himself, we suppose.
Sagan Tosu are currently fighting relegation to Japan’s second division, so their 34-year-old Spanish striker won’t be winning his first league title this season. Good things come to those who wait, right?
It seems so unlikely that a player whose neck is weighed down by winner’s medals for the Champions League, Europa League, World Cup and European Championship (two) would have no such trinket for finishing top of a domestic league, especially when he played for three big clubs in times of relative success and once came third in the Ballon d’Or voting behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – but that’s Torres.
Between two spells with Atletico Madrid, he joined Chelsea from Liverpool six months after the Blues’ Double triumph, and departed on loan the season they won the league in Jose Mourinho’s second spell. Some would say that isn’t a total coincidence.
The politically-active chain-smoking doctor and midfielder was never a title-winning politically-active chain-smoking doctor and midfielder. In fact, playing for a great team that famously won nothing – Brazil 1982 – means Socrates’ trophy cabinet was emptier than it should have been.
At club level, Socrates’ only appearances outside Brazil came for Fiorentina and, uh, Garforth Town – but even at home, his silverware consisted only of state-wide competitions, not national ones. However, the man himself said in concluding his book, Football Philosophy: “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.”
Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher
The Kop buddies are elephants in the room here. Include them in our list of great players who never won the league and it could look as if we’re winding up Liverpool fans by reminding them of the fact; ignore them, and it could look as if we’re winding up Liverpool fans by suggesting they weren’t great players.
So, let’s just namecheck them both, mention Istanbul in passing and move on. Next?
It’s easy to romanticise English footballers when placing them in a global context, but Matthews did win the inaugural Ballon d’Or when he was 41. It wasn’t an all-English affair, either; votes came in from 16 countries and runner-up Alfredo Di Stefano probably played for half of them.
Nonetheless, the long-serving winger’s trophy haul was limited to the one earned through a certain FA Cup Final performance – you may have heard of it – and a couple of Second Division titles, won 30 years apart. Yes, 30.
Matthews died in 2000 at the age of 85, and was substituted shortly afterwards.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
While he wasn’t at Ballon d’Or level, the Dutchman was a two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner and surely deserved to take home more than one paltry pot in his career – the 1996/97 Taça de Portugal with Boavista – if only for the fact that he kept coming so close.
Hasselbaink had already been a runner-up in the Copa del Rey (with Atletico Madrid), Premier League, FA Cup (both with Chelsea) and UEFA Cup (Middlesbrough) when he started for Cardiff in the 2008 FA Cup showpiece. It was his fourth final. He was 36, about to retire, and the Bluebirds were facing superior but eminently beatable opposition in Portsmouth. This, surely, was his moment.
Was it balls.
Griezmann is another runner-up with Atletico, his side having finished second in La Liga last season. In 2015/16 they amassed 88 points, conceded only 18 goals and still finished third, which is brutal.
Memories of winning the World Cup mean he’s probably OK with it, but the Frenchman is yet to claim a top-flight title, having joined Atleti from Real Sociedad immediately after the Rojiblancos’ remarkable topping of the division in 2013/14. He was also on the losing side in a Champions League final and had a turn as one of the third-place guest stars in The Ballon d’Or Show With Messi & Ronaldo.
The 1966 World Cup winner and all-time goalkeeping great won only two trophies at club level: one League Cup apiece with Leicester and Stoke. But if you think Banks’s career can be boiled down to one World Cup and a famous save from Pele four years later, remember that the highly respected IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics) rated him as the second-greatest keeper of all time, behind Lev Yashin.
But Banks wasn’t the only hero of ’66 never to be a league champion...
One-club men such as Gerrard and Carragher are easy targets in a list such as this, and while Moore did also represent Fulham before turning out for teams in the USA and Denmark, he was as West Ham as they come. He played for the Irons across a decade-and-a-half, either side of requesting a transfer in the spring of 1966 and winning the World Cup a few months later. In that time, they never finished higher than sixth.
Of course, immortality at a club isn’t necessarily predicated on silverware, which is why we’ve omitted several club legends who never won a league title, simply because that fact isn’t surprising: Matt Le Tissier at Southampton, for example, or Antonio Di Natale at Udinese. Our next entrant, however, could hardly have come closer.
Daniele De Rossi
Francesco Totti’s patient approach to retirement meant his heir at Roma was 34 years old by the time he finally assumed Il Gladiatore’s mantle. De Rossi captained Roma as they reached the Champions League semi-finals in their first post-Totti season, having played alongside him as they won the Coppa Italia twice (not to mention the 2006 World Cup with Italy) – but Totti lifted one trophy De Rossi never has.
The 2000/01 season brought Roma only the third Scudetto in their history, with 24-year-old Totti a key figure. Their success came slightly too soon for a 17-year-old De Rossi, who made his Giallorossi debut just a few months after they were crowned champions.
Since then, another 17 years have passed and De Rossi has helped Roma to eight – eight – second-place finishes in Serie A, but no title. It seems it’s just not meant to be.
“What, the Bolton guy?” you may be thinking. Well, shame on you, John Strawman, because Okocha fell into Sam Allardyce’s sweaty embrace only after he’d already played for some big clubs elsewhere.
Unfortunately for him, they kept falling short. A young Okocha’s Eintracht Frankfurt finished as high as 3rd and 5th in the Bundesliga, but no higher; at Fenerbahce he scored a goal every other game from midfield and/or free-kicks but ended up 2nd and 3rd in the Turkish Super Lig; and then he joined PSG – costing £14m, no small fee in 1998 – a little too late for their mid-’90s heyday, and had to settle for 2nd and 4th in Ligue 1.
Big Sam must have promised Okocha that at Bolton he could forget about actually winning the league and just enjoy what turned out to be a very fun ride.
Much like Griezmann at Atletico, Reus strolled into Dortmund’s party at the precise moment it was beginning to wind down.
BVB had just won back-to-back league titles when Reus arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2012, but a combination of Bayern Munich reasserting their dominance and Jurgen Klopp struggling in cup finals meant Dortmund were runners-up seven times in Reus’s first four seasons – once in the Champions League, three times in the Bundesliga and three years running in the German Cup. Reus also missed Germany’s World Cup triumph through injury in that time.
Thankfully, with Klopp having taken his hoodoo to Liverpool, the wideman was finally able to lift a trophy for the first time when Thomas Tuchel led Dortmund to their 2016/17 German Cup win.
Mata’s place among the pantheon of 21st-century footballing greats has taken a battering during his five years at Manchester United, and it’s easily forgotten now that when he was at Chelsea, he was considered David Silva’s equal. He’s also a lovely chap, so few fans would take pleasure from his unfortunate sense of timing.
Jettisoned in his teens by Real Madrid, Mata became one of Valencia’s best of the rest alongside Silva. But while the latter turned supernova at Manchester City, Mata joined Chelsea during a lean spell for them in the Premier League, then swapped the Blues for the Red Devils just as Mourinho’s Chelsea Mk.II were warming up and Alex Ferguson’s juggernaut was morphing into David Moyes’s three-wheeled car.
Mata did win the Champions League in his first season in England, mind, so it’s not all bad.
When you win the Capocannoniere three times in five years and score 107 goals in 152 games against famously stingy 1990s Serie A defences, only to see your team finish 5th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in that time, you’re entitled to ask what exactly is going on at the other end.
Welcome to Signori’s life at Lazio. The club scored 24 more goals than any other side in Italy during his half-decade there, but every year they were denied the Scudetto by ruthless rivals and their own leaky defence. Signori must have been quite the conversationalist at Lazio’s end-of-season parties.
Five seasons with serial winners Ajax. One season apiece with serial winners Milan and Real Madrid. Zero league titles.
Work that one out.
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Huw was on the FourFourTwo staff from 2009 to 2015, ultimately as the magazine's Managing Editor, before becoming a freelancer and moving to Wales. As a writer, editor and tragic statto, he still contributes regularly to FFT in print and online, though as a match-going #WalesAway fan, he left a small chunk of his brain on one of many bus journeys across France in 2016.
By Conor Pope
By Conor Pope