FourFourTwo’s 20 favourite cult clubs of all time: is yours in there?
Why you should care: In 1986, a wiry 15-year-old youth-teamer turned up to his prueba de la muneca – or ‘doll’s trial’ – to perform a series of tests to determine which La Masia starlets would be retained, based on whether they’d grow up to measure 1.80m (5ft 9in). “I’ll be taller than 1.80m!” said the kid. “I’m going to be a professional footballer.”
It took Johan Cruyff’s vision to change La Masia into the paragon of skill-over-physicality philosophy from 1988 – Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are all under 1.80m – realising a production line of technical waifs which turned Barcelona into football’s aesthetes.
Dubbed the Dream Team after sealing the Catalans’ maiden European Cup win in 1992, the side Cruyff built also won four consecutive La Liga titles from 1990/91.
Koeman, Laudrup, Stoichkov and later Romario – this is the team Blaugrana fans get misty-eyed about, not the 2009 or 2011 vintages with those three Lilliputians. “Cruyff reinvented the concept of football in Spain,” centre-back Miguel Angel Nadal once told FFT. Oh, and that ecstatic 15-year-old? You might have heard of him: Josep Guardiola Sala.
And finally… Vice-president Joan Gaspart promised to swim in the Thames if Barça won in 1992. “I could’ve said I’d go to breakfast with the Queen,” he said, drenched at 4am.
Why you should care: Football fans of a certain generation are thrilled to see Parma back in Serie A. In the 1990s they produced two great teams, the first oozing cool despite being backed by a multinational company in Parmalat; the second boasting indescribable individual talent.
In 1992, Parma got their first taste of silverware and liked it. So, the Coppa Italia in the bag, they brought in a 22-year-old forward from Colombia. For many, Tino Asprilla embodied this flair-filled side – either Asprilla or the brilliant but ballooning Tomas Brolin – although a year later, Gianfranco Zola arrived. In ’94 Fernando Couto and Dino Baggio rocked up, the latter scoring in each leg of Parma’s UEFA Cup final win over Juventus. Hristo Stoichkov landed in ’95 and a teenage Gigi Buffon kept a clean sheet on his debut against a Milan team with two Ballon d’Or-winning strikers.
Two factors raise their cult appeal abroad: Channel 4 launching Football Italia in ’92, and unfulfilled potential. Parma weren’t loveable losers. They won eight trophies, their only eight trophies, within a decade, but lost the 1996/97 Serie A title to Juventus by two points.
And finally… Boss Alberto Malesani once visited Barcelona to watch Johan Cruyff take training... while on his honeymoon.
Borussia Monchengladbach (1970-79)
Why you should care: Intangibles define a cult football team. A cool factor, legacy or revolutionary approach tops an interminable drudge towards success. So does appearing in a folk song, the cultier the better.
Step up Borussia Monchengladbach and Half Man Half Biscuit. Admittedly, the Merseyside folk rockers simply wanted a really long team name to help them complete the “Supercalifragilistic Borussia Monchengladbach” lyric on seminal The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman, but chief songwriter Nigel Blackwell was a former fanzine editor, spellbound by Die Folen’s defeat to Liverpool in the 1977 European Cup Final.
They featured gloriously attacking youngsters, many recruited from within a 10-mile radius of the German city near the Dutch border. Luxuriously talented (and coiffed) playmaker Gunter Netzer captured everyone’s imagination, with full-back attack dog Berti Vogts and pathological winner Jupp Heynckes the steel behind five Bundesliga crowns (including three in a row from 1975) and two UEFA Cups. They may have lost to Liverpool, but it’s not hard to see why Gladbach so enthralled HMHB.
And finally… Netzer was a law unto himself. Benched for the 1973 German Cup Final against Cologne because he’d revealed he was off to Madrid, the greengrocer’s son subbed himself on in extra time. “I’ll go and play now,” he told coach Hennes Weisweiler, before scoring the winner.
Tranmere Rovers (1990-95)
Why you should care: FFT makes no apologies for successive mentions of Half Man Half Biscuit, who refused to perform on Fridays so as to never miss Tranmere home matches. They even turned down an appearance on legendary yoof music show The Tube despite Channel 4’s offer of a helicopter to the north east studio from Prenton Park. “Friday night and the gates are low,” they sang on the eponymous single, “bastard slip of a sub’s ruined my weekend.”
At the beginning of the ’90s, HMHB had good reason for keeping up their Wirral appearances. After winning promotion to the Second Division in June 1991 – via the play-offs, their fourth trip to second home Wembley in 12 months – Rovers recruited John Aldridge from Real Sociedad for £250,000. Two years later, ultimate cult footballer Pat Nevin – who once had a column in the NME – arrived, forming a glorious front four in which he and John Morrissey flanked Aldridge and Chris Malkin.
“I can’t promise anyone success,” said boss Johnny King, “but I can promise a trip to the moon.” In the end he delivered the former, if not the latter. Three times they reached the play-offs and a shot at promotion to the Premier League, only to fall short.
And finally… It wasn’t just HMHB who had the music world gripped. King likened Rovers to a “deadly submarine” (compared to Liverpool or Everton’s “Queen Mary ocean liner”), so Elvis Costello used the nickname for his appearance on Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League.
Why you should care: By the time Rob Newman and David Baddiel became the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena in 1993, they’d only talk to each other on stage via their “That’s you, that is” university professor trope.
Internal hostilities were no less frenzied in the Lazio dressing room during the mid-70s. “Everyone detested each other,” recalled goalkeeper Felice Pulici. Legend has it, the squad would only wear shinpads in training – not bothering for games – so violent were the sessions. “By the time you played a league match, it felt like a friendly,” quipped midfielder Luigi Martini.
It didn’t help that, to ease boredom on away trips, the tooled-up players started a part-time shooting club to have a pop at “things in bushes and bits of furniture”. Striker Giorgio Chinaglia destroyed a training ground shed with his 6.5mm rifle, specifically bought because it was the same as the gun which Lee Harvey Oswald used to assassinate John F Kennedy a decade earlier. In 1977, midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi pretended to hold up a friend’s jewellery store, shouting: “Everybody stop, this is a raid!” The owner shot him. “It was a joke, it was a joke,” cried the fatally wounded Re Cecconi.
In between the gun-toting japery, a forward-thinking football team broke out – which won Serie A in 1973/74.
And finally… This Lazio vintage did little to dispel the idea that the Eagles were right-wing sympathisers. Martini became a minister for the neo-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party.
Why you should care: FFT first fell for this Boro team in 1994 when manager Bryan Robson turned up to a photo call announcing his Riverside arrival dressed half in football kit and half in a suit. But it was two summers later that Teesside truly delivered on its promise.
Signing £7 million Fabrizio Ravanelli – fresh from scoring in Juventus’s Champions League triumph against Ajax – and Brazilian midfielder Emerson was one of the Premier League’s biggest transfer coups for a side which already possessed pint-sized Samba waif Juninho buzzing about in a six-sizes-too-big bedsheet. And Craig Hignett and Phil Stamp.
The White Feather’s opening-day hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool proved prophetic for a Boro squad which scored and conceded with equal zeal. They lost just one of their first six league matches, but won only twice from mid-September until early March, staring relegation in the face.
Despite murmurings of discontent off the pitch – “they have a Ferrari, but no garage,” huffed self-referencing Ravanelli of the battered team bus – Boro proved the talent was there by reaching both cup finals. They lost both, and then went down.
And finally… Ravanelli and Neil Cox had a scrap just before walking out onto the Wembley pitch. “Rav was shouting at Neil at the back of the bus, reaching across players to have a fight with him,” remembered Robbie Mustoe. All while comedian Stan Boardman was trying to perform a gig at Robson’s insistence to relax the players. As you do.
Deportivo La Coruna (1999-2002)
Why you should care: Deportivo in the late-90s were the footballing version of Katherine Heigl in rotten 2008 chick-flick 27 Dresses – always the bridesmaid, never the bride, and with the wardrobe (natty blue-and-white stripes in Depor’s case) to prove it. But just like Heigl, their day would come.
You would generously label Donato and Mauro Silva as experienced, while Spurs fans will admit that Noureddine Naybet wasn’t the most consistent centre-back and playmaker Djalminha seldom exerted himself.
But the Spaniards sure could play, particularly their waddling Brazilian, whose skill was nearly as extensive as his post-retirement paunch. Real Madrid and Barça had won 14 of the previous 15 league titles at the start of 1999/00, but under dogmatic Basque boss Javier Irureta the underdogs defied the behemoths, thanks to Augusto Cesar Lendoiro’s mini-Galactico investment. Throw in Juan Carlos Valeron, essentially the Spanish Riquelme, and you’ve got quite the team.
They smashed Real Madrid twice: first, in 2000, with a 5-2 demolition at the Riazor. Then in 2002, facing their foes at the Bernabeu to celebrate 100 years of Copa del Rey finals, Deportivo pooped the biggest of parties. In both seasons, Los Blancos won the Champions League.
And finally… It was all down to basketball. Well, some of it. In that 5-2 Madrid hosing, Djalminha’s rainbow flick over Los Blancos’ defence was inspired by Sacramento Kings point guard Jason Williams’ ‘elbow pass’ from around his back. A thing of pure, arrogant beauty.
Borussia Dortmund (2011-15)
Why you should care: His gurning visage is now a semi-permanent fixture, but it was in Westphalia where the cult of Jurgen Klopp first began converting non-believers. “He’s like a father, friend and brother rolled into one,” said Sky Germany pundit Torben Hoffmann.
It was a slow process – Dortmund were in financial trouble when Klopp took charge – but seeing starlets Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and Sven Bender establish themselves alongside bargain recruits Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski was a perfect antidote to the ‘modern football is rubbish’ crowd. Even signing former youth-teamer Marco Reus for big money felt justifiable. Echte Liebe the club call it – ‘Real Love’.
BVB were the genesis of modern gegenpressing, the art of swarming around the opposition to win back the ball immediately after losing it. Klopp called his players ‘Monsters of Mentality’, for their insatiable ability to keep recovering for matches every three days.
With the cheapest season ticket available for £160 and atmosphere created by the Yellow Wall, it didn’t take very long for most of Europe to adopt Dortmund as their second team. Dedicated fans in England even took advantage of cheap flights and became frequent visitors to the Westfalenstadion.
Success – back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, plus the 2012 German Cup and a thrilling run to the 2013 Champions League Final at Wembley – was the least they deserved.
And finally... Fan Martin Huschen had Klopp’s face tattooed on his back in 2011. They hadn’t even won the title when the 41-year-old plastics engineer got it done. Dedication.
Why you should care: It’s easy to adore Barcelona, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and other hipster teams with all their passing, talent and general bonhomie. Less so a bunch of pyromaniac neanderthals from London, who insist on agricultural football, excessive force and eating sheep’s testicles.
Wimbledon were different. The Dons went from the Fourth Division to the First in four seasons courtesy of a ferocious team spirit and the abilities of former hod carrier Vinnie Jones, ex-Barnardo’s boy John Fashanu and pint-sized scamp Dennis Wise.
In beating Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final – thanks to Lawrie Sanchez’s header and Dave Beasant’s penalty save – the Dons achieved immortality. “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club,” preened John Motson.
Pretty it wasn’t – “the best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax,” huffed Gary Lineker – but first under Dave Bassett, then Bobby Gould, it wasn’t supposed to be. Newbies would be stripped naked and left to make their own way back through six fields of dog walkers to base. “If you couldn’t handle the pranks and abuse, you were f***ing out,” said future Hollywood ‘actor’ Jones.
And finally… They loved fire. When new signing Eric Young turned up with his Brighton bag in 1987, the squad burned it. Fire was also used to an advantage, with Alan Cork’s car torched so he could plead poverty for a new deal.
New York Cosmos (1975-80)
Why you should care: In 1974, the NASL All-Star Team’s biggest name was former Weymouth defender Dick Hall (four USA caps, four defeats). In 1977, the All-Stars XI featured Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Gordon Banks and the man who directly or indirectly brought them Stateside: Pele.
It took the Cosmos four years and a recording deal to sign Pele in 1975, having initially hung up his boots at Santos, but he had the desired impact. OK, they won nothing for two seasons, but people watched them win nothing. They epitomised cool: their kit was an instant classic, film stars attended matches and Mick Jagger was a dressing-room regular.
Pele and Beckenbauer notwithstanding, former Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia burned brightest. The Italian negotiated a contract by threatening to buy his own franchise, then stayed for eight years, wearing silk robes to post-match interviews and squabbling with the King. When Pele said he wouldn’t pass to a striker who shot from ridiculous areas, Giorgio said, “I am Chinaglia! If I shoot from a place, it’s because Chinaglia can score!”
Although the Cosmos won six regular-season titles on the spin after Pele re-retired in 1977, interest waned. Swagger, not success, made them cult icons.
And finally… When his team faced Fort Lauderdale Strikers en route to their 1977 triumph, Pele didn’t score but everybody else did. An 8-3 rout before a US record attendance of 77,691 featured a masterclass from Beckenbauer and Chinaglia hat-trick, and Gordon Banks wishing he didn’t play for Fort Lauderdale. Bafflingly, the Cosmos still had to win on penalties (the dribbling variety) after drawing the second leg 2-2. You do you, America.