The Sweep of History
Decade by decade league tables chart the changing tides of footballing success
All tables show rankings based on total top-flight points won in the date range. 1888-1900 means from the 1888-89 season to the 1899-1900 season. All data calculated from Statto.com
1 Aston Villa
9 West Brom
An elongated decade in an embryonic division. The Football League began in 1888 with 12 clubs, all from Lancashire or the Midlands. By 1900, it featured 18 clubs, playing 34 games. The geographical expansion was north, not south, to Tyneside and Wearside. Aston Villa were the 19th century’s most successful club. They were also the most southerly in the top flight when the century ended; Small Heath, later rebranded Birmingham City, had been relegated in 1896.
The geography of the division indicates the extent to which organised, competitive football is a product of the industrial revolution. It was configured for factory and millworkers, in particular; it was later that the mines, shipyards and dockyards took over.
A table of the first dozen years shows the game’s original heartlands. Villa, who won their fifth title in 1900, replaced Preston as the game’s superpower. North End had lifted the first two titles, their Invincibles going unbeaten in 1888-89, but if the 1890s alone were assessed, they would slip below Sunderland, who joined the Football League in 1890.
Twenty-four teams had played top-flight football by 1900. The two least likely acquired the fewest points: Darwen and Glossop North End. Glossop did not resurface after World War I. Darwen, a mill town in Blackburn’s shadow, had left the Football League in 1899, never to return.
Yet the dynamics within the North-West tell a tale in themselves. With the notable exceptions of Everton, the big-city clubs were outperformed by their smaller neighbours. Liverpool provided a first hint of future eminence by finishing as runners-up in 1899, enabling them to out-perform Bury and Accrington in this first chart. Given professional football’s swift development in each direction, Manchester was something of a backwater. Manchester United – or Newton Heath, as they were then – were relegated from Division 1 in 1894. City were not promoted to it until 1899. In contrast, others who had not been founder members of the Football League, like the Sheffield clubs and Nottingham Forest, had established themselves as regular presences in the top flight.
10 of the top 11 places are filled by clubs who were rather arbitrarily selected in the initial dozen in 1888. The exceptions are Sunderland, whose comparative geographical isolation had explained their absence in a time of worse transport links. Of the Football League’s 12 inaugural clubs, Notts County and Accrington, destined to be the two least successful in future years, started as they carried on.
2 Aston Villa
5 Sheffield Wednesday
6 Sheffield United
7 Blackburn Rovers
10 Notts County
There was a dramatic shift towards the port cities. Liverpool were to become the 20th century’s most successful English club and they marked its start by becoming champions for the first time in 1901. They regained the crown in 1906, albeit after a spell in Division 2.
The team of the decade, however, were Newcastle, who exhibited the kind of consistency that would later became Liverpool’s hallmark. They were champions three times, in 1905, 1907 and 1909, third once and fourth three times. It was quite a transformation for a club that, in our 19th-century table, ranked 19th. Sunderland, runners-up in 1901 and champions in 1902, also offered suggestions that the game’s powerbase had switched to the North-East. The region had a third presence, in 13th-placed Middlesbrough. Yorkshire had begun to exert its muscle when Sheffield United became champions in 1898. Wednesday added back-to-back crowns in 1903 and 1904. The Steel City clubs were already starting to make their mark and, already, some of the Lancashire mill towns were slipping back.
The consistency of Aston Villa and Everton, who dropped a place each to record the second - and third - highest points tallies, shows how quickly both established themselves as heavyweights. Others’ progress proved significant: Manchester United only returned to the top tier in 1906 but were champions in 1908. Their stint in Division 2 meant they ranked only 21st.
But the most dramatic change in football’s expansion was signalled elsewhere. The city with the largest concentration of working-class people was represented, 16 years after the league’s inception. Arsenal became the capital’s first top-flight team in 1904. Chelsea and Tottenham secured promotions later in the decade. London was calling for football. Darwen and Glossop seemed anachronisms already.
2 Aston Villa
3 Blackburn Rovers
6 Manchester United
8 Manchester City
9 Sheffield Wednesday
10 Newcastle United
A truncated decade, with World War I meaning there were only six Football League seasons, but one for Sunderland to savour. They were champions in 1913 and, while Blackburn won two league titles, Sunderland’s greater consistency secured them the most points over the period. Everton and Aston Villa’s status as English football’s first true institutional clubs was reflected in their positions in second and fourth respectively. The more dramatic developments came either side of them as mill towns supplied footballing powers. Bradford boasted two top-flight teams. Blackburn won their first two league titles. Oldham were runners-up in 1915. That war reshaped English football, as it would again in 1945, was apparent when the competition resumed. Oldham finished 17th and Blackburn 20th in 1919-20, both behind Arsenal, whose promotion was unearned after they finished fifth in Division 2 in the previous season. Almost a century on, they have never returned to lower levels.
6 Aston Villa
10 Blackburn Rovers
A decade with a very different northern powerhouse: neither the North-West, usually the major force thereafter, nor the North-East, which had reigned supreme over the previous 20 years, but Yorkshire. The twenties began with the North-West supplying the top four teams in 1920-21, but ended with Sheffield Wednesday, as The Wednesday had been rebranded in 1929, securing a second successive title. Yet the team of the time were Huddersfield. They were also perhaps the first to show the significance of a transformative manager. Town were only promoted to Division 1 for the first time in 1920. They went on to become the first team to win the title in three successive seasons. Herbert Chapman had decamped to Arsenal before the hat-trick was secured, but his decade was still more dramatic. He began it banned for football for life following an investigation into alleged financial irregularities at the dissolved Leeds City and ended it in charge of English football’s big spenders. The willingness of leading players to join Arsenal was the first sign of London’s gravitational pull.
Its growing significance was also reflected in the opening of the national stadium, Wembley, in 1923 and in the increased number of derbies: Tottenham spent eight years in the 1920s in Division 1, West Ham seven and Chelsea four. Yet the Welsh capital could have provided the champion of England first: runners-up Cardiff only lost out to Huddersfield on goal average in 1924 and, under current laws, would have been crowned winners for scoring more goals. Like Huddersfield, a centre of rugby – albeit of a different code – was being conquered by football.
Meanwhile, Burnley, champions in 1921, and Bolton, three-time FA Cup winners, displaced Blackburn in the pecking order among the Lancashire clubs while Liverpool outperformed Everton for the first time. Bradford’s inability to sustain two top-flight clubs was indicated as Park Avenue suffered successive relegations to drop to Division 3 North. Not all of Yorkshire roared in the twenties.
10 Manchester City
The second decade dominated by Chapman even if, for different reasons, he still could not celebrate a hat-trick of league titles. He died in 1934 after making Arsenal London’s first champions, more than four decades after the foundation of the Football League. A maiden win in 1931 was followed by three in a row from 1933. The extent of their dominance became apparent under his successors, Joe Shaw and George Allison. Arsenal took 90 more points than anyone else in the decade, their goal difference of plus 372 was 270 better than anyone else’s. They had embarked on the journey from nouveau riche to aristocrats.
They brought consistency in a decade of volatility. Manchester City won the league in 1937, a year before relegation. Everton were champions in 1932, a year after promotion. While Derby earned the third-highest point total over the decade, they were troubled times for some of the Football League’s other founder members: Aston Villa and Blackburn were both relegated for the first time in 1936. Meanwhile, Manchester United spent three seasons in Division 1 and were relegated in two of them; this was Old Trafford’s Great Depression.
The sense that Arsenal were London’s only real established force is shown in Brentford and Charlton spending longer in the upper tier than Tottenham or West Ham. Athletic’s prowess was part of a changing dynamic among football’s blue-collar fanbase. The significance of dock and shipyard workers was also highlighted by the rise of coastal clubs. Portsmouth became the first southern force outside London. Grimsby spent seven seasons in the top flight and Blackpool five as Middlesbrough, while only finishing in the top six twice, nonetheless had the sixth-best points total.
1 Manchester United
8 Aston Villa
Another interrupted decade, featuring only four seasons of league football. World War II ended one era and started another. The difference is at its most marked in the fortunes at a future superpower: Manchester United only secured the 28th highest total of top-flight points in the 1930s. They had the most in the 1940s, even if a club who became serial winners in later decades were frequent nearly men then, finishing as runners-up in three successive seasons.
Matt Busby’s appointment in 1945 rivalled Chapman’s arrivals at first Huddersfield and then Arsenal as the most significant in English football’s history to date. The 1940s, such as they were, paved the way for the 1950s, when the rivalry between United and Wolves for dominance became more entrenched. The post-war era was dominated by managers in a way that, Chapman apart, the previous 50 years had not been. Busby and Stan Cullis sowed the seeds for the various visionaries, idealists, dictators and constants who were to revolutionise other clubs.
Yet the league went elsewhere. Portsmouth became the first club to take the title south of the Thames, even if their manager Bob Jackson’s name scarcely echoes through the ages like Busby’s. Their back-to-back triumphs make them the team of the 1940s in most senses: go on points, however, and the decade belonged to United.
1 Manchester United
7 West Brom
History repeated itself. While other clubs, particularly Aston Villa, Everton and Sunderland, had sustained excellence over several decades, this was the first time two had been the most successful in successive 10-year spells. Manchester United again top the table from Wolves, with a significant gap behind them.
Busby’s team won three league titles which, but for the Munich air disaster, could easily have been five. Cullis’s side won three more, even if triumphs in 1958 and 1959 were rendered easier by the deaths of eight United players. Wolves and United, in their different ways, changed the game outside these borders. The foundation of the European Cup was prompted in part by the response of L’Équipe’s editor Gabriel Hanot to jingoistic suggestions in the British press that Wolves’ 1954 win over Honvéd made them the continent’s outstanding team. United were the first English side to embrace it, at terrible cost.
Yet before then, the shifting shape of the domestic game was shown in the first half of the decade. Like London buses, London champions came at a flurry. In 1950, Arsenal were the city’s only club to have won the league. Tottenham, in 1951, and Chelsea, four years later, changed that. Arsenal now represented the establishment. Their seventh league title, secured in 1953, meant they supplanted Sunderland as the most successful side in history. The North-East was to never regain its pre-eminence.
But big cities and smaller towns competed for supremacy. This was the last decade before the abolition of the £20-a-week maximum wage. Lancashire clubs could fill three of the top seven positions behind United. Burnley were champions in 1960 which, apart from the Jack Walker-funded title Blackburn secured in 1995, is likely to remain the last time the Clarets, Rovers, Bolton, Blackpool or Preston are ever officially England’s top team. Bolton and Blackpool were FA Cup winners in the 1950s. They were both national and regional powers while their near-neighbours in Merseyside endured their darkest decade to date. Everton spent three seasons in Division 2 before returning in 1954 to begin a 62-season stay in the upper tier. Liverpool went down in 1954 and spent eight years in the second tier. The 1950s ended in symbolically significant fashion for them with 1959 bringing the FA Cup defeat to Worcester, the nadir, and the appointment of Bill Shankly, the start of the renaissance.
Yet it is still startling to see Liverpool, the 25th most successful Division 1 team of the decade, outperformed by Luton. If other clubs of that period represented throwbacks, Luton were ahead of their time. In future decades, over-performing outfits from southern towns and cities would become regular sights near the summit of English football. Not then.
3 Manchester United
7 West Brom
9 Sheffield Wednesday
10 Nottingham Forest
This was the shape of things to come. When the Premier League was formed, the so-called “Big Five” clubs who pushed to separate from the Football League were Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal. Go back to the 1960s and, over the decade, they fill five of the top six spots.
The sixties saw Britain cast off the shackles of post-war austerity and enjoy its greater spending power. Its biggest clubs enjoyed that. Its best players relished the opportunities that their predecessors were not afforded.
The maximum wage was abolished in 1961; symbolically, it was the year Preston, the original champions, left the top flight, never to return. Football started its journey to becoming big business, which was bad news for clubs with smaller incomes.
It is remarkable that Burnley, the fourth most successful team, remained competitive for as long as they did, but they were the exception. The balance of power had swung towards those based in the major conurbations. After Harry Potts’s team won the title in 1960, it only left London, Liverpool, Leeds or Manchester six times in fifty-five seasons, and one of those was to Birmingham, in the shape of Aston Villa. The other anomaly was Ipswich, promoted in 1961, champions in 1962 and losing manager Alf Ramsey to England in 1963. If they were the forerunners for some of the 1980s’ overachievers – and the south’s propensity to produce outsiders was shown as QPR, Leyton Orient and Northampton all graced the top flight for the first time – theirs was a fleeting taste of success, whereas others were building dynasties. The southern shift was symbolised in 1961-62 when, for the first time since 1890, the North-East was confined to the lower divisions. Never previously relegated, Sunderland had gone down in 1958. Newcastle, who had spent two earlier spells in Division 2, followed them in 1961. Middlesbrough were in the midst of a 20-year exile from the top flight.
Traditional heartlands were left behind by football’s aggressive expansionism: it is a familiar story. The sport conquered new territory in the 1960s. Leeds represented a final frontier within England, the last truly big city to produce champions. That wait was ended by Don Revie in 1969. His side took the highest points-per-game average in the Sixties, followed by Liverpool, but both began the decade in Division 2. Redraw the table to include only the eight seasons when they were in Division 1 and Shankly’s resurgent Liverpool claimed the second-most points. Yet they still rank behind Everton, whose feats over 10 years suggest that their manager Harry Catterick is an underrated figure. As football and popular culture became interlinked, Merseybeat became the dominant sound of the era. In a sporting context, however, few connect it with Everton’s stern manager.
The greatest single achievement of the 1960s belonged to Busby, winning the European Cup in 1968. He retired (for the first time) in 1969 with United having come first, first and third in three decade-long tables. If it seemed an inimitable feat, a successor surpassed even him.
5 Manchester City
8 Manchester United
A decade of two halves, reflecting the change from a competitive division laced with potential winners to one dominated by a single superclub. There were four champions in the first five years of the 1970s. Liverpool won four of the next five titles, plus a couple of European Cups. But for a one-man phenomenon, of whom more later, they may have secured five consecutive Division 1 crowns and a hat-trick in Europe’s premier club competition.
It is a measure of Liverpool’s supremacy that the second-highest points total was amassed by Leeds, who recorded 10 consecutive top-four finishes under Revie but none in Division 1 in the 16 seasons following his exit in 1974. It shows Liverpool were utterly unrivalled in their consistency.
Challengers faded away. Amid economic turmoil, it was a decade when British institutions were troubled. So were institutional clubs. Aston Villa dropped into Division 3 for the first time in 1970. Manchester United, Newcastle, Wolves and Tottenham all suffered the ignominy of demotion from the top flight.
There was a shift of power in the Midlands, away from the region’s traditional trophy-gatherers. Coventry were ever-presents in Division 1 during a 34-year stay, but the greater change was geographical. By 1970, the area had produced 10 champions, all – whether Villa, Wolves or West Bromwich Albion – from the county that would soon be created and named West Midlands. By 1980, the East Midlands had three title-winners: Derby, twice, and Nottingham Forest. It is a sign of the catalytic powers of Brian Clough: no one else has ever taken two provincial clubs from the lower half of Division Two and made them the best side in the country. Clough helped fill a void the underperforming bigger clubs created. He, and Bobby Robson who earned five top-four finishes with Ipswich, were an indication of the difference a manager could make in a less glamorous location.
Both hailed from the North-East. The 1970s ended with the South-West (in Bristol City) and East Anglia (in both Norwich and Ipswich) with top-flight clubs, but not the North-East. Yet the hotbed had produced the last seven title-winning managers, in Revie, Bob Paisley and Clough, and the winners of four successive European Cups. Paisley duly added a fifth in 1981.
3 Manchester United
5 Nottingham Forest
9 Aston Villa
10 West Ham
English football reflected Thatcherism and fought against it. Margaret Thatcher’s government was advised to abandon the city of Liverpool to a state of “managed decline” following the Toxteth riots in 1981. Yet Merseyside, with its mass unemployment and Militant-dominated council waging war with the Labour Party and the government alike, was a footballing story of managed success. The title did not leave the city for seven years when Liverpool were champions five times and Everton twice. They amassed the most points, the first time in Division 1 history that neighbours had topped a decade’s chart.
They helped crystallise the notion that a select few clubs were the game’s driving forces. As in the 1960s, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United ranked in the top six for points-scoring in the 1980s. The interlopers were Nottingham Forest, a sign that, even after his glory days, Clough could still confound the trends in the game.
Elsewhere, the make-up of Division 1 highlighted the change in Britain. The old order was abandoned. Some newcomers prospered. They were, almost exclusively, in the south. Brighton and Crystal Palace had entered the top tier for the first time at the end of the seventies. Swansea, Watford, Wimbledon, Millwall and Oxford joined them in the eighties.
Nine of the fifteen teams to earn most Division 1 points were from the south. Exceptions became isolated: Forest in the East Midlands, Coventry and Aston Villa in the West, Liverpool and Everton on Merseyside and Manchester United. Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester City, Leeds, Newcastle and Wolves were all outperformed by Luton. The 1980s were a time of social mobility, as 37 clubs played Division 1 football, but the opportunities seemed greater in London and its satellite towns than in the north. That was Thatcher’s Britain.
1 Manchester United
6 Aston Villa
10 Sheffield Wednesday
Football did not begin in 1992, but the Premier League did. The game’s renaissance can be dated back to the 1990 World Cup, the Taylor Report and the re-entry of English clubs to continental competition, with the revoking of the ban placed after the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster.
An influx of money brought irrevocable change. The 1980s’ over-performing small-town clubs started to be washed away. Watford, runners-up in 1983, took the fewest points of any club to play in the top flight in the 1990s. Only Wimbledon, with astute recruitment and bloody-minded resistance, defied the trend and nestled between Tottenham and Everton in the decade’s table, but by 2004 they had moved to Milton Keynes and changed their name. A club without an infrastructure, a stadium or a sizeable base of supporters proved archaic.
Manchester United were their opposites, allying a history with a sense of accelerating into the future. The stark divide between eras is highlighted by the change in divisions: Liverpool’s 18th and most recent title came in 1990, United’s first for 26 years in 1993. Manchester and Leeds, the northern cities that were regenerated most in the nineties, had champions. United, able to expand Old Trafford at will, were perfectly positioned for an age where a growing fanbase meant matchday revenue could become much more lucrative. Liverpool started being left behind as the defining rivalry became United against Arsenal, north versus south.
The North’s other success stories were paradoxes, clubs where Thatcherite millionaires invested their money to try to turn back time. Jack Walker helped make Blackburn champions for the first time in 81 years. Sir John Hall’s Newcastle almost ended a wait that dated back to 1927. Yet the first decade where neither Wolves nor West Brom played top-flight football showed some traditional clubs were being left behind. Blackburn’s eventful decade, including promotion and relegation, raised questions if their success was sustainable.
In any case, Hall and Walker’s investment predated another phenomenon that changed the game: the foreign influx. London, as a global financial centre and a multicultural city, benefited and changed most. Arsène Wenger became the first imported manager to win the league. Chelsea and Tottenham had looked abroad, too, and, in the last week of the millennium, the Blues’ Italian manager Gianluca Vialli named the first all-foreign starting XI ever in the division. Mapping the Premier League required a globe.
1 Manchester United
7 Aston Villa
9 Blackburn Rovers
10 Manchester City
The term “the Big Four” entered the vocabulary and the table shows why. The importance of Champions League participation – and its financial benefits – are clear. There is a gap of 165 points between Everton, the fifth-most successful team of the decade, and Liverpool, in fourth. That they were a further 67 points behind Arsenal shows that, as the decade progressed, they were the club in most risk of losing their privileged position. It duly, and symbolically, happened in 2010.
There were two landscape-changing, colossal investments from abroad, natural resources from thousands of miles away resulting in purchases of football clubs: Roman Abramovich’s 2003 buyout of Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 purchase of Manchester City. The latter is barely reflected in this table. The former is. The duopoly of Manchester United and Arsenal was broken up. The dynamic was changed. Arsenal went unbeaten in 2003-04, but have not won the Premier League since. That London and Manchester attracted the billionaires, however, was significant: power was increasingly concentrated in certain areas. The Glazer family’s 2005 takeover of United drained resources for debt repayment, but did not immediately hinder their competitiveness. For the second successive decade, Alex Ferguson steered them to the top of an era’s table.
Further down it, football revisited its past. By 1988, there were only two founder members of the Football League in Division 1. Twenty years later, the Premier League contained seven. The North and Midlands benefited from the years of the Blair government; prosperity was not evenly distributed but a greater proportion of government jobs helped provide support in less wealthy areas. The North-West again featured eight top-flight teams. Their clubs benefited, too, from cheaper property prices. 13 of the decade’s 29 most successful clubs ended it playing in new stadiums. It was the basis for renewal, albeit for a short period as matchday revenue became less important as commercial and broadcast income took over. Those who speculated to accumulate prize money, especially Leeds, discovered it was a more dangerous game. Fourth in the nineties, they stood 20th the following decade after relegation in 2004.
1 Manchester City
2 Manchester United
10 West Brom
The impact of Sheikh Mansour’s £1 billion-plus investment becomes clear. Manchester City are the decade’s most consistent team, aided by Manchester United’s wretched 2013-14. If they could have retained their form after Ferguson’s 2013 retirement, they would again top the table. Chelsea’s poor 2015-16 cost them third place to the more consistent Arsenal, in a comparatively rare setback for Abramovich. Yet the new framework of the English game has been cemented: the top four are owned by foreign billionaires, the fifth, Tottenham, by a Bermuda-based Brit, in Joe Lewis, and the sixth, Liverpool, by ambitious US investors. The first club owned by mere millionaires, Stoke, are eighth. That distinction did belong to Everton; until Farhad Moshiri became the majority investor in 2016, they seemed trapped on the wrong side of history.
They have avoided the fate of Sheffield Wednesday or Leeds, big-city clubs who are not among the 33 top-flight participants this decade. Now the trend suggests it will be difficult for Yorkshire clubs to return. The fixture lists look less anachronistic, featuring fewer industrial towns that grew to prominence in the 19th century.
There has been a swing back from north to south. In 2010-11, the division’s 20 members came from either London (five clubs), the West Midlands (four), the North-West (eight), the North-East (two) or Stoke. By 2016-17, there was a more even distribution across the country, with the demise of the four Lancashire clubs and the return of Swansea, Southampton, Hull, Leicester and Watford and the first appearance of Bournemouth. Only East Anglia, following Norwich’s relegation, and, as usual, the South-West were unrepresented. The other significant changes came with two absentees: Newcastle were demoted for the second time in seven seasons and Villa for the first in 28. It illustrated the perilous environment for listing giants in the provinces, suggesting the future map of Premier League football may be concentrated in London, with isolated enclaves in Manchester, Merseyside and occasional other places where a well-run club, such as Swansea or Southampton, could prosper for a time.
The most extreme example, and probably anomaly, came with Leicester’s unexpected title win in 2016, given England its first new champions since 1978, but the decade’s table illustrated how unlikely it was: even with that, they had only accumulated the 19th highest tally of points in the decade so far, sandwiched by Crystal Palace and Wigan. That should change – perhaps Leicester will prove a 21st-century success story – but perhaps before long only Everton of the 19th-century’s top 10 clubs will even be in the Premier League.
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