Soccer is a cruel game at times. Just take a look at Chelsea. Last season, Jose Mourinho was being hailed as an all-time great to whom success was in his blood, whilst Eden Hazard was being praised universally for his fine form and labelled the third best player in the world by many. Fast forward six months and Mourinho has Chelsea in a relegation scrap; his position is very much in doubt and Hazard has been practically invisible, failing to score a single league goal, with only two assists to his name and having been benched.
That is the nature of the game. Every week it is eleven against eleven, and no one is safe. The fall from grace of Chelsea may seem spectacular, and it is, but even it does not compare to some of the extraordinary declines on this list. From players to managers to clubs, these are 20 of the most dramatic and seismic falls from grace the sport has ever seen.
All players, managers and teams have peaks and troughs throughout their career, making falls from grace, even extreme ones, fairly common place. As such, narrowing it down to just the 20 most notable is tricky. In terms of players only a decline in the years in which they should still have been at their best count, whilst with clubs only rapid declines are included. Here are the top 20 falls from grace in soccer history:
20. Eric Djemba-Djemba
Signed by Sir Alex Ferguson as a future replacement for Roy Keane with a reputation for being a fierce and uncompromising midfielder with bite and ability, Eric Djemba-Djemba didn’t quite live up the hype at Old Trafford. He arrived from Nantes having impressed in Ligue 1 and at the 2002 World Cup, and had a debut to remember for Manchester United, although not for all the right reasons, putting in a challenge on Sol Campbell which Arsene Wenger described a “obscene”. After being a huge flop, Djemba-Djemba began his fall from grace. Two years later he was playing in Qatar, and he never graced an elite league again.
19. Stefan Moore
Very highly regarded at one time, Stefan Moore was being touted for big things when he captained Aston Villa’s academy to win the FA Youth Cup in 2003, the most prestigious trophy in English academy football. But after four years at Aston Villa he failed to make a meaningful impression upon the first team, with similar struggles at his next club QPR. From there, Moore dropped like a stone. By the age of 25, when he should have been hitting his prime, Moore was playing non-league football with Kidderminster Harriers, and has remained in the non-league game ever since.
Portsmouth stand as the most damning indictment on the dangers of spending beyond your means to all football clubs. An FA Cup win in 2008 appeared an indication of Portsmouth establishing themselves among the best clubs in the country, twinned with their solid league performances and the European football which followed, as Pompey hosted European giants such as AC Milan. A year after facing the Italian outfit, Portsmouth had been relegated, finishing 20th in the Premier League and in financial disarray. Three years later they were in League Two, the fourth tier of English football, where they remain today.
17. Des Walker
Somewhat harsh given that Des Walker’s fall from grace was heavily due to a serious knee injury, but it is a fall well worth mentioning nonetheless. “You’ll never beat Des Walker,” was the chant that would ring around whenever Des played for club or country, and there was some truth in it. He was sensational for eight years at Nottingham Forest and arguably even better for England, especially at Italia ’90.
Two years later he joined Sampdoria though, where he suffered his injury. Walker had a tough time in Serie A and returned a shadow of his former self. Despite being quite possibly the finest English defender of his generation, his last England cap came at the age of just 27.
16. Preston North End
Tom Finney’s importance to Preston North End over the course of the 14 years in which he spent at the club really cannot be overstated. He inspired a thoroughly average team to finishing in the top three of the First Division three times and to an FA Cup final. In his final season, Preston still managed a reasonably impressive ninth place finish despite their star man’s ageing legs. Although his importance was clear for all to see, few expected the demise that followed. Preston’s fall from grace was immediate, they finished 22nd and were relegated the season after Finney hung up his boots, and wouldn’t return to the top flight for 40 years.
Michu’s rise and fall were both as rapid and spectacular as each other. Having impressed at Rayo Vallecano, Michu moved to the Premier League for £2 million, joining Swansea in 2012. He managed 22 goals from attacking midfield in his debut season, a tally bettered only by Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale and Christian Benteke, with Frank Lampard being the only midfielder to come close.
His value had multiplied 10-fold, and Michu was being described as the potential bargain of the decade. An injury in his second season crushed him though. Two goals in 17 games represented a miserable campaign, and aged 29, the once-capped Spaniard now plays for Langreo in the Spanish fourth tier, a club with a stadium which holds only 4,000 people.
14. Pro Vercelli
Not the most well-known team outside of Italy today, some may be surprised to know that Pro Vercelli have won more than twice as many league titles as Roma, Lazio, Napoli and Fiorentina. Enormously successful in the early years of Italian football, when Serie A was known as the Prima Categoria. Pro Vercelli won seven league titles in 12 seasons, the last of which came in 1922, but have had virtually zero success ever since. They were overtaken by the Milan and Turin-based teams in the 1920s and 40s before dropping into the amateur leagues by 1950, playing in the fourth tier, Serie D. Pro Vercelli have risen again somewhat, now playing in Serie B.
13. Leeds United
Leeds United were playing in a Champions League semi-final in 2001. By 2004, they were playing in the Championship, and by 2007 they’d fallen all the way down to League One. From sitting among Europe’s elite to a domestic third tier is a demise of catastrophic proportions by anyone’s standards. Financial disarray contributed heavily to the fall of the Yorkshire club, who still haven’t fully recovered, facing trouble with current owner Massimo Cellino and currently languishing in the bottom half of the Championship.
12. Peter Taylor
From England manager in 2000 to managing in the fourth tier in 2002, the fall of Peter Taylor in just two years is quite a sizeable one. The former Tottenham winger briefly managed the national team, and was the man who made David Beckham England captain, before joining Brighton in the third tier and then Hull in the fourth. Taylor’s decision to join the Tigers proved a reasonable one, given a large budget he won back-to-back promotions but soon fell out-of-favour once more, and most recently managed the Kerala Blasters in India.
11. Stade de Reims
The Stade de Reims team of 1953-1962 are a team that belong among the top table in footballing history. Between those nine years the club won five domestic titles and reached two European Cup finals, being thwarted twice by the legendary Real Madrid team of the 1950s. More than just their success, the team played with a certain style and attitude, always scoring prolifically and entertaining to the highest degree. They won the league in 1962, finished second in 1963 and were relegated in 1964. Reims haven’t won a league title since that shock relegation over 50 years ago.
10. Billy Kenny
At one time the hottest prospect in English football, at the age of 18, Billy Kenny had won man of the match in the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool, upstaging the opposition’s midfield including the likes of Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp. Capped at under-21 level, Kenny had played less than 20 games for Everton when his career came crumbling down. Injury spiralled the youngster into depression, which led to cocaine addiction and being released by Everton. A brief spell at Oldham ended in similar fashion and from England’s hottest prospect Kenny had retired at 21.
9. Fernando Torres
Under contract at AC Milan and on-loan at Atletico Madrid, it may not seem like Fernando Torres is struggling that much, and he is hardly in the dire straights that some of the players on this list ended up in. However, Torres was universally regarded as one of the most feared strikers in the world at Liverpool, so to be in a position now where he has scored only 26 league goals in the last five years is incredible. The World Cup and Champions League winner’s fortunes began to change following his $75 million move to Chelsea, and currently struggling at Atletico, it looks likely Torres’ fall could continue.
8. Lee Sharpe
England’s ‘Golden Generation’ was often considered to be strong in every position other than on the left of the midfield. Lee Sharpe could have been England’s answer to that problem, many believe he had the potential, but despite showing much promise, the wide man fell rapidly out-of-favour. Before the age of 20, Sharpe was already a Manchester United regular and an England international, but a combination of injuries and the emergence of a young Ryan Giggs caused a steep decline for Sharpe, whose career was as good as over by the age of 25. He retired at 33, his last three clubs were Exeter City, Grindavik and Garforth Town.
In 1998, aged 21, Denilson became the most expensive footballer of all time. In 2002, aged 25, Denilson became a world champion with Brazil at the World Cup. In 2006, aged 29, Denilson was plying his trade in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr FC. That is the epic rise and fall of one of the game’s brightest talents who never quite captured – or at least maintained – the fantastic ability he had. His career effectively ended before he reached 30, with his post-30 clubs including poor spells in the MLS, Brazilian fourth tier, Vietnam and the Greek third tier, quite the decline for a one-time world record fee setter.
6. Tomas Brolin
Within the space of a year Tomas Brolin went from one of the most highly regarded attacking midfielders on the planet to a laughing stock who was eventually named the second worst player in Premier League history. Brolin won the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup Winners Cup, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup with Parma in the early 90s, as well as being the creative force which took Sweden to a World Cup semi-final in 1994. He joined Leeds in 1995, but failed to recover from an injury, and fitness issues failed him from ever impressing in the Premier League. Aged 29, Brolin had dropped all the way to the Swedish fourth tier, where he played once before retiring.
5. Berliner FC Dynamo
A controversial club in the history of German football, Berliner FC Dynamo were by far the most successful club in East Germany, where they won 10 consecutive league titles and reached two European Cup quarter-finals. However, the clubs ties to the secret police and corruption somewhat tainted their achievements. Following the re-unification of Germany, Berliner fell to the fourth tier of German football, losing their best players to Bundesliga sides, some drop for a side that had become so accustomed to success. Still going today, Berliner remain in the fourth tier, where they finished fifth last season.
4. Robin Friday
A player of outstanding natural ability, Robin Friday played only four seasons of professional football, but is still regarded as a cult hero at both Reading and Cardiff, as well as being widely regarded as Reading’s greatest ever player. He won player of the season and was top scorer in both of his full seasons at Reading and has won supporter polls as the clubs greatest ever player on three separate occasions.
Friday always had disciplinary problems, as well as alcohol and drug issues which contributed to his career ending at 25 and his life ending at 38 in a tragic and rapid fall from grace.
3. Ipswich Town
The early 1960s were a quite incredible period for Ipswich Town. They won promotion to the First Division in 1961, won the First Division in 1962, finished 17th in 1963 and were relegated in 1963. Sir Alf Ramsey had guided them to their shock title win, on the back of which he was given the England job. Whilst he stayed on at Ipswich throughout the 1962-63 season, his priorities were with the national team, and with Ipswich’s tactics having been ‘found out’, the club fell like a stone, finishing dead last at the end of the season, 24 months after having won the league.
The decline of Kerlon is particularly notable by just how far the Brazilian has dropped. In 2005, he was the most highly regarded youngster in world football. Aged 17, he was already playing first team football for Cruzeiro and had lit up the U-17 South American Youth Championship’s, named Best Player and Top Scorer, as he hit eight goals in seven games from attacking midfield and exhibiting his outrageous ‘seal dribble’ to the world.
He eventually joined Inter Milan, but recurring injuries halted his progress. Kerlon barely played for several years and by 2011, aged 24, his career was as good as over, playing in the doldrums of Brazilian football and the Japanese third tier. He has since played in the APSL for Miami Dade and currently in the Maltese Premier League for Sliema Wanderers.
1. George Best
Surely the greatest of all falls from grace in footballing history, George Best’s decline is a thing of legend. By 1968, aged 22, Best had won the First Division twice and the European Cup once with Manchester United as well as the Ballon d’Or, and was widely considered as one of – if not the – greatest player on the planet. Quick of mind and feet, Best was an extremely gifted player, capable of beating a man and scoring goals with ease. He spent 11 years at Manchester United, but left in 1974, aged 27, which was the end of his career at the highest level, having already been in decline for the previous two years.
For Best’s career to have effectively ended at 25, when he should have been coming into his prime, is nothing short of tragedy. His demons are well-known, alcoholism being the most notable of them. The Northern Ireland international went on to play for 15 different clubs, all of them well below the level he should have played at; Jewish Gould and Dunstable Town being prime examples of that. Best continued to have drinking problems throughout his life, culminating in his death in 2005, aged 59.
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