Unless you play in the MLS, it doesn’t matter how big you are, pretty much every football club stands a chance of getting relegated. The likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid are among the biggest football clubs on Earth, but all three have been relegated at one time or another during their illustrious pasts.
Of course, clubs of that stature tend to return to their former glory, or at least to the top flight, but a snapshot of any moment in time will show some mammoth clubs slumming it outside of their country’s top division. The longer a team spends outside of the top flight, often the harder it is to get back there, and every team in this seven will be desperately seeking promotion this season.
Now, I hate the term ‘big club’, and I think it’s pretty much impossible to define. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this video I am going to have to, so the main criteria I am looking at is the teams historical success in terms of league standing and trophies, their average attendances in recent years and right now, and the reputation they still command if football circles despite their fall from grace. There will also be just a few honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are my views on the 7 biggest non-top flight football clubs:
7. Hannover 96
It doesn’t matter how many fans you have or how much silverware you have in your trophy cabinet, the Bundesliga has the ability to chew you up and spit you out at any moment. There isn’t a single top flight team in Germany that haven’t suffered the ignominy of relegation at some stage during their history, and that includes the titans of Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Hannover 96 are a club that know that all too well, having been relegated seven times since being founded in 1896.
Less than a decade ago, Hannover finished fourth in the Bundesliga table, and reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Relegation in 2016 brought an end to a 14-year stay in Germany’s top flight, but Hannover bounced back at the first time of asking in 2016-17. Following a mid-table finish back in the big time, they were relegated in 17th place last season.
Two-time German champions in 1938 and 1954, Hannover won the DFB-Pokal in 1992. Only three major trophies is the least of any club in this seven, but it’s still an impressive tally for a club playing second tier football. Hannover play at the HDI-Arena, which previously had a capacity of 86,000. Following significant redevelopments, the ground now has 49,000 covered seats, and Hannover currently average 30,000 through the turnstiles in the 2 Bundesliga. Thirteen games into the current season, Hannover are languishing down in 15th place, and an unthinkable relegation to the third tier could even be on the cards.
6. Leeds United
Leeds United are an unusual club in many respects, since on the one hand they have a great history by the standards of current Championship teams, but as the sole Football League club in a massive city like Leeds, even historically one could argue that the club has underperformed. Leeds’ best years came in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s under Don Revie, when the club went six seasons without finishing lower than third in the First Division.
In total, Leeds have been crowned champions of England three times, they’ve won the FA Cup once and the League Cup once, as well as reaching a European Cup final in 1975. Five major trophies is the second fewest of any team in this seven, exceeding only Hannover, but it’s worth noting that Leeds won a top flight title as recently as 1992.
Gross mismanagement of funds saw Leeds spiral down the divisions at the start of the 2000’s, and they ended up spending three seasons in League One. There’s cause for optimism again now at Elland Road with Marcelo Bielsa in charge, and the club narrowly missed out on a return to the Premier League last season. They’ll be there or thereabouts in terms of promotion once again this season, currently in second place at the time of this recording. Elland Road itself could do with a lick of paint and a bit of TLC, but the ground does hold almost 38,000 people, and Leeds have averaged an impressive 35,000 at home games this season.
5. Nottingham Forest
Who is a bigger club between Nottingham Forest and Leeds United is an argument I’d rather not get involved in, but I inadvertently seem to have done so. Ultimately, I had to make a decision, and it is impossible to deny that Forest have historically achieved more. Back-to-back European Cups standout as the Trees finest accomplishment, an outrageous accomplishment that was pulled off by Brian Clough in 1979 and 1980.
The likes of Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Roma have never won the European Cup or Champions League, to put that in some context, and only Manchester United, Inter Milan, Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the tournament more times than Forest. In addition to those two trophies, Forest have also won one First Division title, two FA Cups and four League Cups, taking their overall tally of major trophies up to nine.
That all counts for little in the present day though, and Forest have now gone 20 years without tasting top flight football. The City Ground can accommodate just over 30,000 spectators, and Forest have averaged around 28,000 so far this season. At the time of this recording, Forest find themselves fifth in the Championship, three points behind Leeds. They’ve dropped some sloppy points here and there, but so too has everyone in the Championship, and just finding that rhythm and consistency will be key to any promotion hopefuls.
The only team in this seven outside of even the second tier of their domestic league system, we’ve been very English-centric with the last three inclusions here. Sunderland have won one fewer major honour than Nottingham Forest, but they have an enormous stadium and still average higher home attendances than the Championship side. Sunderland have been crowned national champions six times, which is the most of any team in this seven so far. They are also two-time FA Cup winners, trophies which they won in 1937 and 1973 respectively.
Despite not having competed for major honours for some time, Sunderland have spent a lot of time in the top flight. They routinely seemed to avoid relegation from the Premier League by the skin of their teeth, but finally bit off more than they could chew in 2017. They then made it back-to-back relegations after finishing 24th in the Championship, and they missed out on a return to the second tier with defeat in last seasons League One play-off final. The Black Cats demise has seen a significant drop-off of match-going fans, but they’re still averaging around 30,000 at the 49,000 capacity Stadium of Light in League One.
The second biggest club in Bavaria, competing with Bayern Munich is always likely to be an uphill task, but second tier Nuremberg are the most successful club in this entire seven. Founded in 1900, Nuremberg suffered their first relegation in 1969, and they even dropped into the third tier for a single season in 1996. Bizarrely, the year before they were relegated in 1969, Nuremberg had won the Bundesliga title for the ninth time in their history. That means they have been national champions more times than any other team in this seven, and they have also won the DFB-Pokal four times.
The most recent of the four came in 2007, when Nuremberg beat Stuttgart 3-2 after extra-time in front of more than 70,000 fans at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Again, they followed that major trophy up with relegation from the Bundesliga, so it seems the club has a real problem with trophy hangovers.
Nuremberg made a return to the Bundesliga in 2018 following four seasons away, but they were relegated in last place last season following a miserable campaign in which they won just three games. Now back in Bundesliga 2, they are way down in 14th place, level on points with our seventh placed entrants Hannover. Nuremberg’s Max-Morlock-Stadion was the setting for Portugal and the Netherlands famous ‘Battle of Nuremberg’ tie at the 2006 World Cup, and the ground has a capacity of 50,000, 32,000 of which are regularly occupied for Nuremberg’s home games.
2. VfB Stuttgart
This is a very Anglo-German seven, not intentionally, those two nations just have the biggest non-top flight clubs, and our runners-up are VfB Stuttgart. Stuttgart is the sixth largest city in Germany, and VfB Stuttgart are the eighth most successful club in German football. Founding members of the Bundesliga in 1963, Stuttgart have only spent three of the last 56 seasons outside of Germany’s highest level of professional football.
Those three were a couple of seasons in the mid-1970’s and one in 2016-17. Having bounced back into the Bundesliga in the 2016-17 campaign, Stuttgart pulled off a very respectable 7th placed finish, but they couldn’t build on that and were relegated via a relegation play-off last season. As well as having been regular fixtures in Germany’s top flight, Stuttgart have been German champions five times, most recently in 2007. They have also won the DFB-Pokal three times, although not since 1997.
A decade ago Stuttgart were playing in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and they were in the Europa League just five years ago. The club plays out of the enormous Mercedes-Benz Arena, which has a capacity in excess of 60,000. That makes it one of the largest non-top flight stadiums in the world, and Stuttgart average 51,000 paying fans at their home games, which I am 99% sure is the most of any current non-top flight team. As things stand, 13 games into the current campaign, Stuttgart are third in the 2 Bundesliga.
0. Honourable Mentions
I won’t dwell on the honourable mentions otherwise everyone will think their team ought to have got one, but the clubs who came closest to featuring include Malaga, Rayo Vallecano, Real Zaragoza, Belgrano and West Bromwich Albion.
The biggest football club on Earth that don’t play top flight football right now simply has to be Hamburg. As I said earlier, there isn’t a single team that have played in every single Bundesliga season, but Hamburg had gone their entire existence without a relegation up until 2018. They began to fall from grace at the start of the 2010’s though, and ultimately there was a feeling of inevitability about their end to a very prized record within the German game.
A decade ago, Hamburg were Europa League semi-finalists, but they slumped to a 15th place finish in 2015-16. Having flirted with relegation for some time, it finally came in 2017-18, and the club couldn’t quite seal a top flight return last season. Hamburg are former European champions, having defeated Juventus in the 1983 European Cup final, and they have also won six Bundesliga titles and three DFB-Pokals. Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion can hold 57,000 spectators, and the current Bundesliga 2 runners-up are averaging around 48,000 fans at their home games right now.