Offside’s Premier League A-Z: U is for underdogs

U is for underdogs…

The potential for anyone can beat anyone else: that could almost be the unofficial PR mantra of the Premier League and its much lauded competitiveness at every level of the table.

Champions fall to newly promoted cannon fodder, dead certs tumble and unexpected winners stand ready to shred up the form book whenever the feeling takes them.

But which clubs are genuine underdogs? And what is an underdog anyway?

Simon Stacpoole: Can you really be an underdog when  you're funded by a tycoon, no matter how unhinged they may be?
Simon Stacpoole: Can you really be an underdog when you’re funded by a tycoon, no matter how unhinged they may be?

Cardiff City, with their rich, foreign owner and absurd off-field distractions, never felt like true underdogs. Neither will QPR this summer, as they resume their ambitious pursuit of expensive glamour and glory this season, once again bankrolled by Tony Fernandes. They may be one of London’s less fashionable clubs, but that doesn’t seem enough to make them out to be the affable, dark horse outsiders within the English top flight elite.

Similarly, Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Fulham and the rest were all either well moneyed or otherwise unromantic in how they went about their way.

Simon Stacpoole: Burnley's Robbie Blake scores against Manchester United.
Simon Stacpoole: Burnley’s Robbie Blake scores against Manchester United.

Burnley: now there’s a proper underdog. They’re salt-of-the-Earth provincial and look set to be outmatched and outclassed this season going by the opinions of most pundits and neutrals. Try finding a more suitable, non-tribal team to get behind though. They’re tiny compared to the commercial behemoths that trample all before them in the top four.

Simon Stacpoole: Stand numberings at Burnley's Turf Moor stadium.
Simon Stacpoole: Stand numberings at Burnley’s Turf Moor stadium.

Maybe this all ties into the idea of big clubs, and what determines size. Is it history, obscurity, success, fan base, shirt sales or what? Like trying to pin down a globally agreed upon definition for “world class” it seems like a non-starter. Yet there definitely is a sense that there’s more to big clubs than competitiveness. Same goes for underdogs.

Mark Leech:  Vinnie Jones remains an unofficial icon of Wimbledon's Premier League era for many, and therefore of all defiant, English footballing underdogs.
Mark Leech: Vinnie Jones remains an unofficial icon of Wimbledon’s Premier League era for many, and therefore of all defiant, English footballing underdogs.

Even though they head into the new season having broken their transfer fee record, and could grab a Champions League place this season if all goes well, Everton remain underdogs in the eyes of many. Newcastle United however? Probably not, or at least not as much.

Like Cardiff and QPR however, maybe that’s more to do with owner and melodrama that surrounds them.

Mark Leech: A WImbledon fan pulls a face as he gestures from the stands.
Mark Leech: A WImbledon fan pulls a face as he gestures from the stands.

None are fit to lace the boots of the true unorthodox and unheralded heroes of the past. Teams like Wimbledon, Swindon Town, Barnsley, Bradford City, Oldham Athletic, Watford and Sheffield United have all enjoyed turns in the Premier League as likeable underdogs to some extent.

Mark Leech: Charlie Adam leads Blackpool back to the centre circle.
Mark Leech: Charlie Adam leads Blackpool back to the centre circle.

Of all the teams to try and fight against the odds however, one stands tall ahead of the rest, and not just because of their seaside tower. Ian Holloway’s Blackpool remain one of the most entertaining, exciting and worthy relegation battlers to ever step foot into the division, and their demise was a great shame to many neutrals. Most fans wanted them to survive to fight for another day.

Simon Stacpoole: Ian Holloway only added to Blackpool's appeal.
Simon Stacpoole: Ian Holloway only added to Blackpool’s appeal.

And though they may have been described as “a breath of fresh air” at every turn,in this case, the well-worn cliché rang true. They tried to see off their doom with adventurous, all-guns-blazing attacking football rather than cagey, negative tactics designed to spoil.

Such positivity on the pitch certainly played a role in Liverpool’s popularity last year too, but you could only describe Brendan Rodgers’ surprise title candidates as underdogs with a hefty dose of relativity and comparison to their Goliath rivals.

Simon Stacpoole: Young Wigan fans get behind their team during another battle against relegation.
Simon Stacpoole: Young Wigan fans get behind their team during another battle against relegation.

Wigan Athletic on the other hand were always bona fide underdogs, especially under Roberto Martinez. They were a football team from a rugby league town, with a Championship-level budget, an annual need to stage some great escape from relegation and yet a desire to try and play good football. Their entire existence was set against them, but they managed to stave off the inevitable for a few highly eventful seasons. There was much to like about Wigan’s flight of fancy.

Then there’s Crystal Palace last year, who were cast adrift from safety before Christmas and had their last rites  read to them by the media. Yet once Tony Pulis grabbed the helm, all bets were off, and by the end of the season the team had subverted their almost certain fate and somehow finished 11th.

David Wilkinson: Palace came back from the dead in an incredible season of survival in 2013/14.
David Wilkinson: Palace came back from the dead in an incredible season of survival in 2013/14.

Beating seemingly insurmountable odds, or overcoming some sort of unfair imbalance of power, is the modus operandi of the underdog, and with the Premier League once again set to feature a massed, dramatic relegation scrap this year, you can be sure they’ll be plenty of teams recast as plucky minnows by the end of the season.

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of classic First Division and Premier League pictures as well as other images from across the world of sport. Explore Offside’s unique library at www.welloffside.com.

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.

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Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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