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“Second place is nothing in Brazil,” said Rivaldo, when reflecting on the Seleção’s defeat to France in the 1998 FIFA World Cup final.

“People were booing us, swearing at us, and only two or three were clapping. In other countries it’s a different story, but when it comes to Brazil and World Cups, only winning counts.”

The Barcelona legend’s tale is perhaps applicable to any elite club or nation – if your aspirations are to be the best then you must win at all costs, no excuses. 

Manchester City will view finishing second in the Premier League as a failure this term, while coming runners-up in LaLiga is traditionally seen as a crisis at Real Madrid. The same is true of clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, where even domestic dominance isn’t enough and European success is demanded of any manager at Le Parc des Princes.

These giants of the global game will never be seen as underdogs, so victory is their only barometer for success. But for many of the teams below them in the pyramid it is undoubtedly possible to come second and view it as an achievement. 

Just ask Newcastle United fans how they remember their 1995/96 and 1996/97 campaigns, or whether Watford supporters look back fondly on the time they finished second to Liverpool in 1982/83. Sure, it’s not as good as winning, but these are seasons that are worthy of note for reasons beyond simply picking up a trophy. 

Perhaps the best examples of this can be found in continental competition. Getting to play in Europe is the ultimate rarity for the vast majority of teams, so just being able to take part in the Champions League or Europa League is often a source of great joy for supporters. As followers of Bolton Wanderers and Southampton will surely attest to, there’s nothing quite like seeing your side take on Inter Milan when you’re more used to a Tuesday night trip to Norwich.

But reaching a European final – that really is stuff of dreams for most clubs, whether the night ends in victory or not. They say that no one remembers the team that finishes second, but there are a whole host of cities around the United Kingdom where those nearly men are held in the highest possible esteem.

Dundee United’s class of 1986/87 certainly fall into that category. When you think of Scottish clubs’ great European nights your mind instinctively drifts towards Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ or Aberdeen’s Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Real Madrid in 1983. But it’s easy to forget that the Tangerines also reached a UEFA Cup final in the same decade, losing a tightly contested affair 2-1 on aggregate to IFK Göteborg. That achievement is all the more impressive when you consider who they had to beat en route to the final, with Barcelona and Borussia Mönchengladbach among the teams dispatched by Jim McLean’s men.

Alas, Dundee United never reached those heights again and have even spent the last three seasons in Scottish football’s second tier. In that sense there are parallels with two more recent finalists – Middlesbrough and Fulham. 

Europa League finalist Simon Davies in action for Fulham in the final against Atlético Madrid

A decade has passed since Roy Hodgson transformed Fulham from relegation battlers into continental giant killers, as his side beat a series of more established names over the course of a gruelling 19-match Europa League campaign. The Whites’ stunning comeback against Juventus (overturning a 3-1 away defeat with a 4-1 victory at Craven Cottage) was perhaps the greatest result in the club’s history, but the West Londoners ultimately came up just short by losing the final in extra time to Atlético Madrid.

Now plying their trade in the Championship, it seems unlikely that Fulham will match that achievement any time soon. The same is true of fellow second tier outfit Middlesbrough – UEFA Cup finalists in 2005/06. Boro beat Roma in the Round of 16 that year, but their run to the final was perhaps more notable for their thrilling comebacks against Basel and Steaua Bucharest (both 4-3 on aggregate) in the quarter-final and semi-final stages. 

Their 4-0 final defeat to Sevilla was a somewhat less memorable way to finish an incredible season, but Middlesbrough supporters were at least able to console themselves that their team had far surpassed all expectations by reaching that point.

The same can’t be said of Arsenal, who – despite not being a minnow in any sense of the word – warrant a mention because of their less than impressive record in European finals. The Gunners have fallen at the final hurdle five times out of seven, losing to Valencia and Real Zaragoza in the Cup Winners’ Cup (1979/90 and 1994/95), Galatasaray and Chelsea in the UEFA Cup / Europa League (1999/00 and 2018/19) and Barcelona in the Champions League (2005/06).

Still, at least they have two continental trophies in the cabinet, which is more than can be said for Leeds United. Despite their domestic success during the 1970s, the Yorkshire club lost both the European finals they took part in during that decade and have never reached another showpiece event, despite David O’Leary’s best efforts around the turn of the century. 

Arsenal and Leeds are very much the exception to the rule though. From Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-2 UEFA Cup defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in 1971/72 right through to their opponents’ unsuccessful Champions League final debut last season, the vast majority of Britain’s defeated finalists are more proud of the journey than they are hurt by its ending. 

Ajax vs Tottenham, Fulham vs Hamburg, Middlesbrough vs Steaua Bucharest – these are European nights that will live long in the memory. Try telling fans of those clubs that second place is nothing.


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