Football’s Best Surprise Packages!


This article was first published on November 25th 2015.

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A quick glance at the Premier League table this week and you’d be forgiven for wanting to book an eye test at your local opticians – yes, Leicester City really are top of the pile. The fact that this time last year they were sitting 20th in the Premier League shows perfectly how much of an incredible U-turn they’ve taken.

Since early April this year, no team has won more Premier League points than the Foxes. By that stage they were gearing up for their miraculous escape from the drop zone, before taking English football by storm this campaign. They are truly a delight of the 2015/16 football season, the surprise package that has stunned the world.

They aren’t the first surprise package to make global audiences sit up and take notice however. Surprise packages come in many different shapes and sizes, with some going on to fulfil their promises, and others gloriously failing. Here, we’ve taken a look back at some of football’s greatest ever surprise packages!

Fulham’s 2009/10 Europa League Season

Roy Hodgson’s Fulham pulled off one of the most spectacular European runs seen in recent times. A total of 19 games were played in the campaign, and what’s more they were probably considered underdogs in every round of the competition bar third qualifying round and playoff.

Roma topped their Group E, something of course to be expected from one of Europe’s bigger teams. Champions League regulars FC Basel of Switzerland were also contesting for the knockout round, and the group stage boiled down to a crunch match away to Basel – winner goes through. Bobby Zamora scored a brace right before the half time whistle to get them on their way.

Fulham v Juventus - UEFA Europa League

Zoltan Gera celebrates scoring against Juventus in their phenomenal second leg. Photo: Phil Cole/Getty Images

Shakhtar Donetsk were first up in the knockout stage, before one of the most incredible ties the continent has ever seen with Juventus. The Old Lady stormed to a 3-1 win in Turin, before taking a 2nd minute 1-0 lead in London to cancel out Fulham’s away goal. The Craven Cottage crowd couldn’t believe their eyes when their side went 2-1 up before the half, and Clint Dempsey put the icing on the cake by completing the 4-1 turnaround with just eight minutes left on the clock.

Bundesliga’s Wolfsburg and Hamburg were then taken care of in the quarter and semi finals respectively, and an all-Premier League matchup look possible in the final before Atletico Madrid eventually overcame Liverpool in the other semi. Alas, that’s as far as the dream would go.

Simon Davies offered hope and excitement when he equalised Diego Forlan’s opener, but the masterful Uruguayan would decide the game late in extra time in the Spanish side’s favour.

Porto’s 2003/04 Champions League Win

In the summer of 2003, bookmakers had Porto, managed by a largely unknown Jose Mourinho, at 50/1 to win the Champions League that season. It would be a season that would change football and largely shape the landscape of the European game for the next decade, and perhaps beyond. We’ll have to wait and see, for that.

A defining image of one of the most important European campaigns in recent history is that of the young Portuguese coach galloping down the Old Trafford touchline and leaping in the air in celebration following their 90th minute second leg equaliser. Without the goal, they would have been dumped out at the first knockout round.

The next rounds saw them dispatch Lyon, who were fuelled with significant financial backing, and Deportivo La Coruña, just about hitting the end of their glory days and who progressed to the semi final even after losing their first leg quarter final 4-1 to AC Milan.

In actual fact, what would have been even more surprising about this European season would be if Monaco had beaten Porto in the final. Monaco were priced at 66/1 before the tournament to eventually lift the trophy, even higher priced than the eventual surprise winners!

Wigan’s 2012/13 FA Cup

A list of major honours won by Wigan Athletic FC, barring league titles below the top tier: 2012/13 FA Cup. That is all.

To say that Wigan were underdogs would be a massive understatement. They faced up against a Manchester City team that were reeling from just having given up the Premier League title to rivals Manchester United. However, having beaten Chelsea in the semi final, they gave themselves the chance to end the season not without silverware. All that stood in their way was Wigan, who were relegated from the Premier League that season.

Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure, David Silva, and Samir Nasri are just some of the names City could boast in their star-studded starting XI. As in turned out for Roberto Martinez’s men, that wouldn’t be a problem!

As if reaching 90 minutes without seeing City put at least one past Joel Robles was surprising enough, Ben Watson’s 91st minute strike past Joe Hart at the opposite end was even more surprising! City stunned, and the Latics were in raptures. Easily the greatest day in Wigan Athletic’s 83 year history.

Denmark’s Euro ’92 Fairytale

Denmark didn’t qualify for the 1992 European Championships. They missed out by one agonising point to a ferocious Yugoslavia team. So when the summer came round that year, where were the Danish international players? On the beach, on holiday of course!

With just over one week to go before the start of the tournament, Yugoslavia were forced to pull out due to the civil war that tore the country apart. Denmark were hastily phoned and invited to the party just across the bridge in Sweden.

Thrown into the group with hosts Sweden, alongside the talented England and France sides, Denmark were expected mostly just to make up the numbers. A draw with England, a loss to Sweden, and no goals scored spelled disaster for the Danes heading into their winner-goes-through final group game with France. Remarkably, Denmark went through with a goal ten minutes from time.

Henrik Larsen (not to be confused with Sweden’s striker who donned the Celtic and Barcelona jerseys in his career) was the hero against France, and was the hero against the Netherlands in the semi. Denis Bergkamp and Frank Rijkaard were on the scoresheet, but once Marco van Basten’s penalty was saved in the shootout, Denmark had the chance to send themselves into the final – and duly took it.

A dominant and resourceful 2-0 win over Germany in the final confirmed to the world that fairytales do indeed exist.

Norwich’s Best Ever Premier League Season – 1992/93

The inaugural Premier League season saw the regular favourites set the pace, along with one very surprising addition. They were one of the favourites to suffer the dreaded drop before a ball was kicked, but not long before Christmas, Norwich City held an 8-point lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Things looked bleak for the Canaries after they sold their star striker Robert Fleck to Chelsea for £2.1 million, but the £800,000 arrival from Manchester United, Mark Robins, proved an adequate replacement as the season went on, finishing with a total of 15 league goals to his name.

Coming to the end of the season, Norwich were still in the hunt for the first ever Premier League title, to the bewilderment of every onlooker. However, one win and three losses in April, including a 1-3 reverse at home to title rivals and eventual champions Manchester United, proved too much for Norwich to come back from. They eventually finished 3rd, slipping behind Aston Villa in the table too. Nobody will ever forget that wonderful Carrow Road season!

The fun didn’t stop there, however, as their UEFA Cup exploits the following season saw them defeat powerhouses Bayern Munich! They were halted in the third round with a 2-0 aggregate loss to Italian side Inter though.

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