Across the various European football competitions that have been held over the decades, there is usually a set of teams (three or four per national league) who can be expected to be in with a chance of winning. And yet, viewed with a broader historical scope, there have actually been quite a few upsets that have seen provincial teams, rarely in with a chance of winning their domestic leagues, surprise everyone and become winners of the various European club competitions. Such performances are always exciting, memorable and of special interest to those a bit more adventurous when it comes to football betting. For the teams themselves, these European victories often constitute nothing less than their all-time greatest moment, the time they surpassed all expectations.
So who are these teams? Typically, these sides fall into the mid-tier of their respective national leagues. Many have in the past been relegated down the divisions, although of course this is not at the same time as their run at European glory. In some cases, the fortunes of teams have been drastically turned round, usually thanks to a new manager or an owner funnelling investment into the club. In other cases, the teams have always maintained a steady performance and have snatched away a brief golden age. Since becoming a European winner normally implies a strong domestic performance as well, many of these teams were also successful at home around the same time as their European victory.
What follows are some of the unlikeliest European winners in European club competition history – and how they managed it.
Nottingham Forest is a classic provincial English team, yet one with a strong and loyal local support. Among that support, the name of Brian Clough is legendary. Clough did something extraordinary with a team who were playing in the second division when he assumed the helm in January 1975. Three years and two league victories later they were European Cup winners. It is hard to understate just what an extraordinary job Clough did with Forest, destroying AEK Athens and Grasshopper before knocking out Cologne in the semi-final. In the 1979 final against Malmo, Trevor Francis netted the winner in the 45th minute.
And, as a most astonishing climax to the most exciting four years in Forest’s (or perhaps any club’s) history, Clough managed to do it all over again the very next year, this time beating Hamburg at the Bernabeu in Madrid. No doubt, this is a footballing success story for the ages.
The success attained by PSV Eindhoven can be attributed to legendary manager Guus Hiddink. The Dutch club is today something of a footballing non-entity, and indeed that is what they were only a few short years before European glory in 1987/88. The victory of PSV Eindhoven is undoubtedly down to managerial skill of Hiddink, in what was one of his first successes. However, this particular upset makes our list because how unconventional a victory it was (and how much luck, undoubtedly, had a role to play). Amazingly, PSV did not win a single game after the quarterfinals. Instead, the Dutch team won their quarterfinal and semi-final match ups on away goals over Bordeaux and Real Madrid, respectively. In the final against Benfica, they won on penalties.
Outside of their own fanbase, very few people are actually aware that Aston Villa have in fact won a European Cup. In fact, the Villains became European champions in 1981/82, and their route to victory was an unusual one.
What made this victory so unlikely was the fact that manager Ron Saunders actually quit the club halfway through the tournament. After a disagreement with the club hierarchy, Saunders took off ahead of the quarter-final match against Dynamo Kyiv. Assistant Tony Barton took up the reins and, amazingly, led the club to victory in the competition. Aston Villa were crowned champions of Europe after a 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam. Making it through a crisis to become European champions is precisely what makes this story so memorable. How strange then that so few people remember it.
Aberdeen’s victory in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup is, on the face of it, certainly an upset. Shattering the supremacy of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland in order to qualify for the competition, the mighty Alex Ferguson led Aberdeen to European glory in 1983/84. Just like Clough with Nottingham Forest, this victory came on the back of a string of domestic successes, as Aberdeen swept up a host of domestic trophies before defeating Spanish champions Real Madrid in the final.
Given the trail of success that had preceded (the primary reason for Ferguson’s landing the Manchester United managerial role), such a victory might not actually seem “unlikely”. Indeed, the early 80s were a heyday for Aberdeen and their victories over the other Scottish teams were not upsets – Aberdeen was always the better team then. However, winning the UEFA Winner’s Cup certainly was unexpected, and remains the fondest of memories for the Dons fans.