Football is full of age-old debates and the fact that it is a game of opinions is one of the many reasons fans love it so much. Debates rage between pundits on TV, on social media and between friends down the pub and if nothing else give us something other than the weather to talk about! Today we are not looking at Messi versus Ronaldo (that’s settled after Qatar, right?). We’ll also avoid both debating the greatest side of all time, or how players such as George Best would have fared in the modern game.
Today’s debate is about the most successful teams in English football and could also be framed as “who is the best side in England?”. One might think that asking who the most successful teams are makes things objective, with no room for debate, just facts. Certainly it lends itself to hard facts more than if we used the word “best” but even so, as with most debates and questions, much depends on how key terms are defined.
How Is Success Defined?
This is a huge question in life generally, and – depending on who you ask – the answer might involve a big house, earning over X thousand quid per year, being happy, having a purpose, having children, having friends and family, being healthy, fitting into your skinniest jeans, or collecting every sticker in the Panini book for the World Cup. Or any one or more of countless other ways we, and society, denote success. Thankfully, in football terms, success is easier to define.
But unfortunately, not that much easier if one stops and really ponders the matter. Does success mean winning trophies? If so, which ones count, which ones don’t, and which count the most? Does it mean longevity, either as a club, or in the top division? For some people, a successful club is one that makes money and is sustainable, but unless their team fail in the most extreme way possible and go into administration, we doubt there are many fans who think this way. Do we look at success over the last 10 years, the Premier League era, or over the entire history of the sport? Do all of these factors count to varying degrees? If that is the case, how do we weigh it all up when asking who is the most successful club?
We now have a whole lot of questions and very few answers. However, in this article, given we have not specified a timeframe, we will look at football from its origins in England, more specifically since the foundation of the FA Cup in 1871. The next simple exclusion we will make is that of off-pitch finances. Football is a sport for us, not a business, so we won’t be examining turnover figures, P/L sheets or anything else that comes out of an accountant’s office.
That leaves us with trophies and longevity and in the case of the former we are interested in major pieces of silverware. We will include European trophies in this but only the Champions League (including European Cups), Europa Leagues (including the competition in its past guises) and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Domestically, we are concerned with the top-flight title, the FA Cup and the League Cup. When it comes to both realms, we will give more weight to the more prestigious contests… though quite how much we aren’t sure!
As for longevity, this is a lesser consideration but not one we will ignore entirely. We would rather support a club that had been around for 30 years and won the league twice than one that has been in the top flight for over 100 years but never finished higher than 10th. But at the same time, it would be foolish to ignore history and sustained, albeit relative excellence – and being among the top 20 teams in the land has to be given at least some merit as a measure of success.
Who Has Won the Most League Titles in English Football?
The first Football League title was won by Preston North End in 1889, the FA Cup pre-dating the formation of a structured league system by almost 20 years. It was all the more remarkable because they completed the first-ever league and FA Cup double and the first-ever “invincible” season (sorry, Gunners). They won the title the following season and finished second in the next two campaigns as well, so had you asked this question in the 1890s, “Preston” would have been a very common answer.
However, as stated, we are looking at the entirety of English football history, not a mere snapshot. As of the completion of the 2021/22 season, you can see the most successful sides in English football in terms of the number of top-tier championships won.
As we can see, on this metric, Man United are the most successful club in English football. Many feel that the league is the truest test too, given it requires season-long brilliance, in comparison to the cups that can be won with just a handful of good – or lucky – performances.
It is also interesting to see Everton in fourth position in this table. Many football fans under the age of 40 would probably find any argument that the Toffees are more successful than Man City a rather strange one. However, as the table shows, on arguably the most important measure of success, the Merseyside outfit are above both City and Chelsea… for now at least!
The FA Cup may have lost some of its sheen in the money-centric era of the Premier League but it remains a hugely important trophy in the English game. As small children, players did not dream of scoring the goal that keeps their club in the Premier League after they were rested in the midweek FA Cup replay their side lost. They dreamed of Wembley, silverware and the oldest and most famous club competition in the world.
The early years of the FA Cup were dominated by teams few modern fans have heard of – Wanderers (no relation to Bolton or Wolves) won the competition five times in the 1870s. They still sit proudly among the teams with the most victories in the FA Cup; coincidentally their five early wins puts them just above both Bolton and Wolverhampton, their fellow Wanderers, who have four apiece.
|Rank||Team||FA Cup Wins||Runners-up|
With the FA Cup we see most of the familiar names among the 10 most successful sides, though the order of the very elite is slightly different. It may also be worth noting that Blackburn, for example, won all of their FA Cups in a fairly narrow window of time from 1884 and 1928, whilst both Villa and Newcastle last tasted FA Cup glory in the 1950s.
Whilst we have said that we are looking at English football in all its long and storied history, that is not to say that we cannot also give a little more weight to more recent success. We do not in any way want to diminish Blackburn’s achievements but their glory was achieved in a very different era and is simply less relevant to fans who are currently alive. Unless they support the Lancashire side perhaps!
Whether you call it the EFL Cup, the League Cup or its current sponsored name, the Carabao Cup, this is the least prestigious trophy we are considering in this feature, either domestically or in Europe. Aston Villa were the inaugural winners back in 1961 and in terms of its history, prize money and status it is very much English football’s third competition.
In the modern era teams from all divisions will field weakened sides, especially in the earlier rounds. Even so, as the first piece of silverware awarded each season it has a special place in the season, has a final hosted by Wembley and sees the winners qualify for European competition. Note that the stats below are correct ahead of the 2023 final.
|Rank||Team||League Cup Wins||Runners-up|
As we can see, the League Cup top 10 looks rather different to either the league or FA Cup tables. We have some seemingly unlikely sides, such as Norwich, and East Midlands rivals Leicester and Forest, featuring. In addition, Man City’s incredible haul of six EFL Cup wins since 2014 sees them second, their only top-four appearance across the three competitions.
The first European Cup final was played on 13th June 1956 and as was the way back then, Real Madrid won – they won the first five editions of the competition in fact! In 1992/93 it changed its name, being rebranded as the UEFA Champions League (UCL) and the table that follows includes all tournaments between 1955/56 and 2021/22 inclusive.
The UCL has taken on semi-mythical import over the past couple of decades, which romantics will feel is due to its champions having a decent right to consider themselves the very best team in the entire world. More pragmatic followers of football will be well aware that the prestige afforded to the Champions League is down to the oodles of lucre it ladles out to those who take part.
In 2012 this led to Arsene Wenger suggesting that simply qualifying to play in the competition was akin to winning a trophy – though this may have been down to the fact that for some time Arsenal had been rather better at doing the former than the latter. That said, the Champions League very probably provides the highest standard of football in the world, even better than the World Cup. In addition, for the top sides in Europe it is at least as important as winning their own domestic league, if not more important.
Relatively few English sides have ever been European champions and there are some obvious notable absences from the list below. In addition, there are some names on there that may surprise younger fans of football but that reflect the dominance English clubs enjoyed on the continent in the 1970s and early 1980s.
|Team||European Cup/Champions League Wins||Years Won||Years Lost Final|
|Liverpool||6||1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005, 2019||1985, 2007, 2018, 2022 (4)|
|Manchester United||3||1968, 1999, 2008||2009, 2011 (2)|
|Chelsea||2||2012, 2021||2008 (1)|
|Nottingham Forest||2||1979, 1980||n/a|
In addition to the teams above four further English clubs have made the final of the UCL. These are Leeds United in 1975, Arsenal in 2006, Spurs in 2019 and Man City in 2021. Both of the two most recent finals were all-English affairs, with Liverpool getting the better of Tottenham and Chelsea defeating Man City.
The UEFA Europa League was rebranded from the UEFA Cup in 2009 and so once again we include results from both tournaments here. The Inter-City Fairs Cup was a predecessor but is usually considered to be a different competition so results from that, which started in 1955 are not included here. Spurs won the first-ever UEFA Cup, seeing off Wolves in an all-English final (over two legs) in the 1971/72 season.
Whilst the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, or ECWC (see below), existed it was ranked above the Europa League, this tournament being the third tier of continental competition. However, with the ECWC no longer existing, the Europa League is now the second-most prestigious club competition sanctioned by UEFA.
Over the years there have been various other European competitions too and as of 2022/23, the Europa Conference League is UEFA’s third competition. However, this was only founded in 2021; as such, with no history (and certainly not in relation to English representation in the final), we will disregard it for the purposes of this feature. The UEFA Cup/Europa League has certainly seen plenty of English teams at the business end though, as you can see:
|Team||UEFA Cup/Europa League Wins||Years Won||Years Lost Final|
|Liverpool||3||1973, 1976, 2001||2016|
|Tottenham Hotspur||2||1972, 1984||1974|
European Cup-Winners’ Cup
This was ranked above the UEFA Cup because, like the European Cup initially, it was only open to teams who had won a competition the previous year. It was held between 1960/61, when Fiorentina won, and 1998/99, when Lazio did the business. Winning the top-level domestic cup granted access to this competition and over the years various English sides tasted glory, as we can see.
|Team||European Cup-Winners’ Cup Wins||Years Won||Years Lost Final|
Overall Trophy Count: 10 Most Successful English Sides
There will always be a degree of subjectivity and arbitrariness to debates such as this. Whilst we could argue that our assessment is objective, as it is based on silverware and real titles, the truth is that these totals are shaped by which competitions we include and which we don’t. Nonetheless, based on the six competitions we are classing as major honours, here’s how the land lies…
|Club||Premier Leagues||Champions Leagues*||FA Cups||Europa League*||Cup-Winners’ Cup||League Cup||Total|
*Includes predecessor competitions
Note that the data above is prior to any silverware won during the 2022/23 campaign. As we can see, using these stats alone, Liverpool are just ahead of Manchester United when it comes to silverware, so they have a very good claim to being the most successful English football club.
However, it is worth noting that had we tweaked which competitions were included we could have achieved a different result. For example, the Red Devils have won five more Community Shield titles than Liverpool, so adding that would give us tallies of 63 for the former and 61 for the latter. However, is success about more than just silverware?
Longevity – Seasons in the Top Tier of English Football
The mere fact of being in the top tier of English football, the Premier League since 1992/93, can be viewed as success. After all, there are around 6,000 teams in the English football pyramid, so being in the top 20 puts a side among the top 0.3% of sides in the land. Whilst this does feel a little like Wenger’s fourth-place trophy, or awarding a prize for simply taking part, and cannot be held in the same regard as winning major honours, it is still an achievement and still, therefore, a measure of success.
The Football League was founded in 1888 and there were 12 founding members. Among the teams on the lists above there are three who were involved from the very beginning: Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Everton. The latter of that trio, Everton, have been in the top tier of English football in all but four seasons since 1888. That may change come the start of the 2023/24 campaign but for now they have played in more top-flight seasons than any other club.
Including the 2022/23 campaign, the Toffees have played 120 out of a possible 124 at the top of the football pyramid of English football. Their fans would have wished for more trophies but that is a real achievement, with Aston Villa next on 109. The only other two teams to have achieved a top-flight century are Liverpool (108) and Arsenal (106).
- Everton – 120 seasons
- Aston Villa – 109
- Liverpool – 108
- Arsenal – 106
- Manchester United – 98
- Manchester City – 94
- Newcastle United – 91
- Tottenham Hotspur – 88
- Chelsea – 88
- Sunderland – 86
As we can see, unsurprisingly there is significant crossover between the lost above and the teams who have won the most silverware. That said, it is interesting to see Man United relatively far down the list and also to note that they have only played four more top-tier seasons than their cross-city rivals.
In terms of teams with the most consecutive years in the top flight it is actually Arsenal who leads he way. They were last relegated in 1912/13 and were controversially promoted despite not finishing in the promotion places in 1914/15. They did not go up until 1919/20 following the war and have been in the top flight ever since, 97 seasons (due to WWII). Everton are next, having played 69 consecutive campaigns at the top level, with Liverpool (61) the only other side currently in excess of 50.
So, Who Is It Then?
When we look at all the major factors together there seems little doubt that we must class Liverpool and Man United as the two most successful sides in English football. They are both well clear of Arsenal and, perhaps just as importantly, they have won far more of the biggest, most important trophies.
What is less clear-cut is which of the two North West giants should stand alone as the number one. On our trophy count it is Liverpool but that count could so easily have been different. If we include the Community Shield or exclude the League Cup, which is surely the least significant of the competitions we did include, then United would pip the Kop side. So, in the spirit of encouraging debate, we’ll declare it a tie and leave you to battle it out with your friends!