What’s the longest amount of time that a club has gone without being top (or bottom) of a division?
Last season I coded something that used a dated list of match results to calculate the league table on every day of a season, which I used to produce these popular “footprints” (which I’ll definitely be re-running later this season). Recently I realised that I could also use it to answer a different question: what’s the longest that any club has gone without sitting at the top or bottom of a division?
Boring (and skippable) explanation
The way this works is really simple – it’s just far too tedious to attempt without automation – although there were a couple of stumbling blocks. In essence all the code does is start with the earliest match date in a season and calculate the league table, then looks for any matches on the next day and calculates the table again, continuing one day at a time until it hits the last day of the season. It stores each table as it goes along, so once I’ve run it on enough prior seasons I can chuck it all into one great big list and search for the last time each club sat in a specific spot.
Stumbling block number one was points deductions. There are lots of them and while Wikipedia is pretty good at detailing who got deducted how many, getting an exact date for when each deduction was applied was trickier. This list came in really handy, but for some of the more obscure lower league chicanery there was no alternative to patient Googling.
The second issue was the Football League switching from goal difference to goals scored as the primary tie-breaker from 1992/93 to 1998/99, which I’d forgotten all about and meant tweaking the code slightly for those seasons.
Longest spells without sitting top
Without further ado, here are the 20 clubs from the current 92 playing in the top four English divisions who have gone the longest without sitting top of any table.
So Barnsley haven’t sat top of a league table for over 13 years, despite being promoted twice since then. To visually check that I hadn’t made any stupid coding mistakes, I built a quick graphic generator to visualise the day-by-day position data that I’d calculated. I also checked on statto.com, which is incredibly useful for this sort of thing.
So the Tykes topped the table early on in 2003/04 but then endured a few seasons in mid-table before being promoted via the play-offs (as they were again last season) and didn’t spend any time at the summit of a division. The early spikes in the four seasons from 2009/10 onwards are down to alphabetical order benefiting them on the first days of a season, but it was never quite enough to put them into top spot.
As we can see, they were promoted to the Football League as Conference champions in 2005/06 but haven’t topped the table since then, although they came close at the start of 2012/13 and again towards the end of last season when they narrowly missed out on promotion.
The Lilywhites last topped a table during a failed promotion campaign during the 2006/07 season, then came close without quite reaching top spot in two successive play-off finishes prior to their elevation back to the Championship at the end of 2014/15.
Longest spells without sitting bottom
It’s probably not a surprise that there are some clubs who have gone even longer without sitting at the bottom of a division, but the identity of one of the top three surprised me.
The graph is a bit squashed with so many seasons on it, but hopefully it’s still legible. The Blues went down to the second tier after finishing 18th in 1987/88 but never hit bottom spot. It was actually on Boxing Day 1986 – the season before – when they briefly touched the foot of the table.
The next name on the list is also unsurprising, with Manchester United not having sat bottom of a division since the very start of the Premier League era:
The Red Devils lost their first ever pair of Premier League games to sit bottom in August 1992 but drew their third to move upwards and have avoided returning there ever since. They’ve hovered in 19th a few times though, most recently at the start of 2007/08.
The third longest stint was far more surprising, given Birmingham‘s relatively recent troubles and three relegations having befallen them since they last hit the bottom of a division back in 1994:
Despite having been relegated from the Premier League three times (2005/06, 2007/08 and 2010/11), the Blues never found themselves at the bottom of the pile. The relegation before that – down to what is now League 1 – in 1993/94 was the last time that there were no clubs beneath them in a league table.
- Please let me know if you think I’ve gotten anything wrong or if you want to know about a specific club that I haven’t mentioned. I can generate those league position graphics really easily.
- An earlier version of this post had Brighton sitting in the wrong position on the “longest spell without finishing bottom” graph due to a coding error on my part (thanks to Toby Greenslade for spotting), but this is fixed now.
- I may well revisit this data later on in the season – for example I’m interested to know which team has spent the most time in the promotion / play-off / relegation zones in recent seasons, but that requires a bit more work to calculate exactly where those were.