What is the ideal Premier League? Which twenty teams would make for the best season of Premier League football ever?
Answering this is not easy. When weighing up the options, at least 30 clubs can stake a claim.
I decided upon the below metrics to weigh up the claims for each respective teams.
1) Their history in the top tier of English football, not just Premier League history. This history is not limited to titles-being iconic matters.
2) Attached to a good rivalry that offers a mouthwatering, hallmark fixture in the footballing calendar
3) An active, engaged fanbase. The more tribal the better. Being able to sell out away allocations almost essential
4) Genuine excitement as an away fan to play this team/visit their stadium
5) Success outside of English football, such as continental competition – this is very much used as tie breaker and will largely be disregarded
These are in descending order – without a good history in the top flight, you have no chance. A team like Bradford ticks a number of boxes in my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th criteria, but without that storied history in the top flight, they do not make the cut.
So here it is, my 20 teams that together form the greatest Premier League conceivable. These are ordered roughly by Geography: London, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, The Midlands, Yorkshire, North East, North West and South Coast. The lack of East Anglia may provide a spoiler to disappointed Norwich and Ipswich fans.
ArsenalEmbed from Getty Images
They are in one of their toughest periods as a Premier League club currently, but there is no way that one of the most recognisable clubs in the country could be left out. Recent icons of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira complement the historic successes, and they were the winners of arguably the greatest ever climax to a domestic league season in 1988/89. The Emirates has not seen the Premier League trophy but is a worthy stadium for the ideal top flight.
ChelseaEmbed from Getty Images
Even before the dazzling success of the Abramovich era, Chelsea had great footballing iconography in the form of the Chelsea pensioners. They are a London club that historically exuded relatability, and Stamford Bridge remains a steep, atmosphere-charged stadium that is a must for away fans. They only had one title prior to the 2004/05 win, but recent success cannot be ignored.
Tottenham HotspurEmbed from Getty Images
Spurs fans are not going to like this, but I spent a long time considering whether it should be Tottenham or West Ham that filled this final London spot – although their two top flight trophies to the Hammers nil ultimately made the decision a clean one. A truly world class stadium that wants to be visited by fans all over the country certainly helps. They are carried in by the North London Derby rivalry- a super Premier League would not seem right without it.
LiverpoolEmbed from Getty Images
Another club, along with Arsenal, that would be carried into this list on history alone. Unlike Arsenal, they have incredibly recent success to back up their status as one of the super heavyweights of the top tier. Anfield is world-renowned, with it’s almost unparalleled Kop, and the magic of You’ll Never Walk Alone ringing around the terraces is a sound that has blessed the heights of English football for decades.
EvertonEmbed from Getty Images
Like Tottenham, part of the argument for inclusion is driven by the essential nature of the Merseyside Derby. But they have multiple periods of dominance in the top flight and have the most top flight seasons of anyone on the list at 118. They were also the club of arguably the country’s greatest ever league striker, Dixie Dean. Their fanbase remains loyal and engaged even throughout a long spell without notable success. They comfortably earn their spot.
Manchester UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
Among the elite of the elite, and they tick every box on the list. The Theatre of Dreams has been home to more Premier League titles than any other ground, they have significant and continued history through the life of the English top flight, each with their own iconic eras. To win at Old Trafford remains an ‘I was there’ moment for away fans across the country.
Manchester CityEmbed from Getty Images
The recent success is so pronounced at City that it makes it impossible to exclude them. With two top flight titles prior to the 2011/12 season, City would have been in the conversation anyway. But few clubs have ever had a decade like City have, and that certainly cements them among the elite on the list. The noisy neighbours had a significant period of inactivity from the upper echelons of the league, but that should not betray their traditional and contemporary history. The Manchester Derby is a ‘circle it’ date in the Premier League calendar. They lose points for being unable to sell out Wembley whenever they visit- perhaps their fans feel they got their money’s worth from the earlier FA & League Cup victories of their modern era.
Aston VillaEmbed from Getty Images
This one was easy, and they fit comfortably among the true elite in this list. Had they won the title in the first Premier League season in 1992, there would be no debate whatsoever (and even without it, I doubt many will contest their inclusion). Aston Villa are second all-time in top flight seasons and have 7 titles – the same as Manchester City. Their fans are famously passionate, selling out every game home and away without fail. Villa Park and its imperious Holte End are daunting, and leaving Villa Park with 3 points remains a deeply satisfying feeling even in their current form, which speaks to Villa’s wider stature. It is a shame cross-city rivals Birmingham City lack any notable history to speak of, because together these two clubs would form one of the most aggressive derbies in the division.
Leicester CityEmbed from Getty Images
Recent darlings of the English footballing world, it is impossible to hate Leicester, and indeed many around the country (and the world) have a soft spot for them. Their image is helped by a recent slew of excellent, notable signings like Ngolo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, all of which formed the shock title winning team of 2016. As a Premier League winner, they cannot be excluded, although a lack of quality rivalry and a middle-of-the-pack stadium hinders them. Without the title, I am sure they would have not made my list. They sit 24th in the all time top flight list- although they will crack the top 20 within a decade unless Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, Stoke City or Middlesbrough are promoted in that time.
WolvesEmbed from Getty Images
To choose between West Brom or Wolves to set up a West Midlands Derby to pair Aston Villa was hard. West Brom has 82 top flight years to Wolves 67, and that makes the baggies the highest ranked team to miss out on the all-time seasons metric (they sit 11th).
But Wolves won three titles in the 1950s and have an excellent, centre-of-community stadium that just pips the Hawthorns. Granted, this is not an essential away day nor is there a current fervour among fans that makes them stand out in the league. But they are of historic importance to the top flight, and in this ideal Premier League, there would certainly be an edge to the West Midlands derby that ensues.
Nottingham ForestEmbed from Getty Images
A sleeping giant, not dissimilar to what Leeds were until recently. They sit fairly precariously on this list, and are the only teams that made it in over others due to the 5th criteria of having European success. Without this, both Huddersfield and Preston would have made strong claims ahead of Forest.
But Forest are iconic. The city remains deeply passionate towards its football and they sold out repeatedly even in the seasons they threatened to return to League One. They have a singular title, fewer than Huddersfield and Preston, but the two back to back European Cup successes under legendary manager Brian Clough put their reputation in the stratosphere comparatively. Huddersfield and Preston are not recognised across Europe – Forest are.
Derby CountyEmbed from Getty Images
It is easy to look at the contemporary state of affairs of Derby, and their pitiful premier league record, and consign them to a fate outside of the top 20. But the case is there: Derby County have one of the most iconic top flight winning stories, with Brian Clough taking them to two fantastic titles in the 1970s. They have the 16th highest top flight seasons at 65. Finally, the rivalry with Nottingham Forest is fierce, and as a top flight fixture it is in the upper echelons in terms of bitterness and intensity.
Notts CountyEmbed from Getty Images
I have no doubt this will be the most controversial choice. Huddersfield, Preston North End and Burnley fans will be proverbially tapping their fingers on their top flight trophy cabinets and asking how they have been pipped to it by County. They have the lowest top flight seasons of any team to make my list, at 30, putting them 31st in the all time table.
But Notts County are the oldest professional club in the world, predating the FA. Their colours have inspired one of the worlds greatest football institutions, Juventus. It is easy to forget just how charged the rivalry is between the two Nottingham sides, and in an ideal Premier League this is one of the juiciest fixtures of them all. The sheer weight of their importance to English football means they cannot be ignored.
Sheffield UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
Both Steel City clubs are no-brainers, but I will take them one by one like the rest. On all the metrics, Sheffield United are well and truly up there. A wild, passionate fanbase that fills a fantastic traditional stadium in Bramall Lane as they sing about the heroic chip butty, it is marked on all calendars for away fans as a must. A solitary league title in the 1890s seals the deal.
Sheffield WednesdayEmbed from Getty Images
It may be surprising to those outside Sheffield that Wednesday have more top flight seasons than the Blades, and they sit comfortably in 15th on the all time list, ahead of major names like Leicester and Leeds. Not only that, but they have four titles to United’s one, and I’m sure this a point of heated debate in the city over which is the bigger club. The Steel City derby simply has to be part of the ideal Premier League – whether and Hillsborough or Bramall Lane, this is a truly amazing fixture that offers the juiciest of rivalries.
Leeds UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
Leeds don’t just have three league titles. Those titles were all legendary successes that are remembered in folklore in British footballing history, and their legacy echoes now to the present day, in the English top flight’s reputation as the most physical league in the world. Don Revie’s Leeds were bullies, and redefined what it meant to fight for a win title – doing so twice under the man who’s name still echoes in the pubs of the city. Even without a Premier League title, Leeds remain relevant, with a fanbase that never lost its fervour through a wilderness spell spanning 15 years of the early 21st century. Elland Road is a must-visit, deafening stadium, and the rivalry with Manchester United remains a vital, brutal one.
Newcastle UnitedEmbed from Getty Images
St James’ Park is an experience that every away fan must endure – just make sure to do a couple of park runs in the weeks running up to the fixture so your thighs can handle the ascent. The stadium is as grand as the culture among the fans who service it. The passion for football on the Tyne is almost peerless. The club was home to the Premier League’s record goal scorer Alan Shearer and it would not feel right to have an ideal Premier League without them.
All of this is before we get into their achievements. They are top flight stalwarts, 7th on the all time list ahead of Spurs and Chelsea. 4 top flight titles, even if they are all pre WW2, leaves little doubt to their place at the high alter of English football.
SunderlandEmbed from Getty Images
Say it quietly – Sunderland have more titles than Newcastle, and they’ve done it fewer top flight seasons. Like their Geordie counterparts, the Mackem’s six titles were achieved before the Second World War, but it puts them high, high up the all time list. Recent history has allowed us to see that there are no plastic fans among the Stadium of Light faithful, who turn out in their tens of thousands to season after season of third tier football – I am confident other big names on this list could not say the same were they in the same position.
The Tyne-Wear derby speaks for itself. The North East desperately needs a top flight derby back as it is watched by fans up and down the country.
Blackburn RoversEmbed from Getty Images
Like Leicester, I simply cannot exclude a Premier League title holder from the list, given how exclusive the list is. Blackburn had two titles prior to the inception of the Premier League, which certainly helps their cause. It is hard to argue that Ewood Park is an essential visit, although it does avoid the trappings of modern ‘bowl’ stadiums.
PortsmouthEmbed from Getty Images
A solitary south coast team, and as the last team on my list there are quite neatly also the most precariously placed. If other clubs weren’t fuming at the inclusion of Notts County, I am sure they will be when they see Pompey here.
But they deserve it. Pompey have two top flight titles, no different to Spurs, and more than the blades or Forest. Southampton fans will point to their 43 top flight seasons to Portsmouth’s 33, but they do not have a title and unfortunately now lack a must-visit stadium since leaving the Dell. Portsmouth on the other hand remains situated in a creaking, traditional ground in Fratton Park that the fans elevate into a special, unique experience which many have sorely missed since their relegation. So legendary that Thierry Henry, Jose Mourinho and even Ronaldinho speak so fondly of it. It must make the list.
And there it is- the Ideal Premier League. For the stattos:
Four teams with top flight titles did not make the list: Huddersfield (3), Preston and Burnley (2) and Ipswich (1)
The highest ranked ‘total top flight seasons’ not to make it, as mentioned above, is West Bromwich Albion. A further three teams in that top 20 (Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Middlesbrough) also did not make the list
Notts County made the list despite being 31st on the total top flight season metric, but did you know Ipswich Town, at 34th, are the lowest ranked team to have won the title? They won their solitary title more recently than Spurs.
Image Credit: Norio NAKAYAMA from saitama, japan, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons