The League Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool takes place at Wembley this weekend, and it will be the first chance to win domestic silverware. Manchester United’s inability to win the Europa League last season was not only a disappointment in the short term, but it also prevented them from catching up to Liverpool, who had crept ahead to 43 major titles with their Premier League title victory in 2020. Football has trouble reconciling what should genuinely count when it comes to evaluating the most successful clubs, despite the fact that it reveres its own history so much. Do you prefer raw numbers? Or, considering how much the game’s laws have evolved, do you use some type of era filter? For example, three of Newcastle’s four league victories occurred before goalkeepers were able to control the ball up to the halfway line, while both of Preston’s league titles occurred before the penalty kick was introduced. Fair? Isn’t it football? Those accolades are obviously valuable, but should they be valued as highly as a modern trophy forged in the high-pressure environment of modern football? Let’s look into it.
The many sorts of ‘Super Cup’ honours have not been included in these illustrious calculations because they are a) quasi-friendlies that take up a lot of time and b) aren’t open to most clubs. I haven’t included the Club World Cup in these figures, despite the fact that you earn a gold badge to wear on your shirt. If you think this competition is worthy of inclusion in this overall ranking of the most successful teams in English football history, please add one honour for each of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. The FA Cup (founded 1871), the league championship (founded 1888, renamed the Premier League in 1992), the League Cup (founded 1960), the European Cup (founded 1955, renamed the Champions League in 1992), the UEFA Cup (founded 1971, renamed the Europa League in 2009), the European Cup Winners Cup (founded 1960, renamed the Europa League in 2009), and, perhaps controversially, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (founded 1955, renamed the Europa Leeds won it twice in English football, Newcastle once, and Arsenal once. Although UEFA does not recognise it as part of a club’s European record, FIFA does, and that’s enough for us.
The All-Time Leaders
Let’s start with the headline figure, which is that Liverpool is on 43 major honours (19 league titles, seven FA Cups, eight League Cups, six European Cups and three UEFA Cups), one clear of their eternal rivals Manchester United, who are one ahead of them on English league titles as it stands but three behind them when it comes to the beacon of prestigiousness that is the European Cup/Champions League. United, like Chelsea, have won all three major European titles – Liverpool never won the Cup Winners Cup – and maybe, at some point, one of these sides will win the UEFA Conference League. Will this count as a major honour? Technically yes.
Also worth noting is that, despite seemingly endless online debate about whether Manchester City (first major honour: 1904 FA Cup) and Chelsea (first major honour: 1954-55 league title), are the fourth and fifth most successful teams in English football history, respectively, and are both closing the gap on Arsenal in third.
Football did not begin in 1992 or 1888, but you can create artificial lines at any point to boost or diminish a club’s reputation. The most successful league teams on New Year’s Day 1900 were Aston Villa (four titles), Sunderland (three), and Preston (two). Villa added a fifth in 1900 and a sixth in 1910, but they have only won the English title once since, in 1981, but that did give them the chance to win the European title in 1982.
Other notable midlands clubs include Nottingham Forest, who won their single league title in 1978 and went on to win two European Cups in 1979 and 1980, and Leicester City, who began the decade without ever having won the English Premier League or the FA Cup, an issue they resolved in 2016 and 2021, respectively.
But, if we’re going to draw a line, why not use the Second World War, which saw league football suspended for seven seasons and, contrary to popular belief, was frequently used as a crisp football history dividing point prior to the formation of the Premier League? Villa leads the standings with 12 points, four points ahead of Blackburn, and five points ahead of the next five teams. Arsenal is on the list and can boast of being the most historically consistent team, as well as the only club on the list to routinely compete for titles in the twenty-first century. With all of Sunderland’s and Newcastle’s league triumphs coming before them, the demise of northeast football is always worth contemplating. Sunderland is the last English champion to wear stripes, having done so since 1936, which sets England apart from other countries such as Italy.
Manchester United supporters may be interested to learn that if we start football in 1945 (the FA Cup was played in 1945-46, but league football didn’t resume until 1946-47), they are still tied with Liverpool, because Liverpool loses four league titles before the war, while United loses only two leagues and the 1909 FA Cup. Liverpool notoriously had to wait a long time before winning the FA Cup for the first time in 1965, having lost finals in 1914 and 1950 (the latest of which was contested at Crystal Palace).
The truth is that no team has ever been able to completely dominate English football, albeit Liverpool and Manchester United are undoubtedly the best. The top five teams in the honours chart since 1945 are the same as in the all-time list, with Chelsea already ahead of Arsenal and Man City on track to reach 20 titles sooner rather than later. The sole piece of advice given to fans is to make the most of every trophy and a big day out because you never know when the ride will end. Tell a Preston fan in 1890, or a Sheffield United fan in 1898, or a West Brom fan in 1920, or a Huddersfield fan in 1926, or a Newcastle fan in 1927, or a Sheffield Wednesday fan in 1930, or a Sunderland fan in 1936, or a Wolves fan in 1959, or an Everton fan in 1987, or an Arsenal fan in 2004 that this was the last league title their club would win for a long time, if not They won’t believe you because their team is the English champions, and that’s not how things work.
In football, there are few guarantees, but Liverpool and Manchester United maintaining the country’s two most successful clubs are as near as it comes. Liverpool, which is fighting on four fronts this season, may be able to pull ahead of United by the summer, but the pendulum will eventually swing back. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s apparent rediscovering of the joy of competing in domestic cup tournaments will be put to the test against Chelsea on Sunday at Wembley. Up to 44 trophies for Liverpool? Or Chelsea up to the age of 26?