How would football history be different if every season was suspended on 13 March and determined by ‘points per game’? Using the official website of the Association of Football Statisticians, we take a trip back through time to expose how PPG would have obliterated sporting integrity and airbrushed many of the game’s greatest teams, titles and moments from the record books…
Ossie Ardiles can’t quite believe his eyes. Garth Crooks – the Football Focus sofa a mere twinkle in his eye – is hoisted aloft by the masses of Spurs fans who have invaded the Goldstone Ground pitch, delirious at securing their first league title in 21 years.
The year is 1982. The date is Tuesday 9 March. And against the backdrop of simmering tensions in the South Atlantic as battle-lines are drawn in the Falklands War, Crooks’ 90th minute winner against Brighton, with Steve Archibald putting the cherry on top deep into injury time, has lifted Tottenham up to 7th place in their final game before lockdown to secure their first league title since the double in 1961.
Where there is ecstasy, so too there is agony. In East Anglia, Bobby Robson’s Ipswich are crestfallen. Sitting in 5thplace and with one hand on the trophy, the Spurs late show has denied them retaining the title they won in 1981.
And what of Liverpool, the real champions of 1982? They finish 6th. Welcome, everyone, to the wonderful world of points per game (PPG), the dystopian nightmare the EFL are dragging us all into.
A world in which Tranmere can be relegated when 3 points from safety with a game in hand and a quarter of the season remaining. A world in which Nottingham Forest would never win the European Cup and Leicester cannot achieve football’s biggest fairytale. And a world in which Tottenham, sitting in SEVENTH PLACE in Division 1 on 12 March 1982, actually win the title based on PPG (in reality they finish 4th).
In the interests of checking the sporting merit of PPG, we took a trip back through time using 11vs11.com, the official site of the Association of Football Statisticians, which brilliantly lets you view league tables on any date in history.
Based on English football’s suspension on 13 March 2020, we took a snapshot of the league tables after games played on 12 March each year, and finalised the tables based on PPG at the time.
Now it’s easy to trample on little old Tranmere. Or little old anyone in the lower leagues for that matter. But given that PPG inflicts a wrecking ball to some of the greats of football history, how could anyone argue it is close to fair?
Just like Marty McFly in Back to the Future II when faced with an alternate Almanac-fuelled, Biff-ruled universe, we were horrified by the difference between what PPG projected, and what actually transpired.
Let’s start with EFL Chairman Rick Parry’s own beloved Liverpool. Those fabled 18 league titles and 6 European Cups don’t look so shiny in PPG land.
Under PPG, our red neighbours have to hand back SEVEN of their titles (and take one extra at Everton’s expense in 1987). The last time they win the league in this brave new world is 1988, with Aston Villa (1.964ppg vs 1.963ppg) pipping them in 1990.
Kenny Dalglish’s double winners in 1986? Everton win the league that year (2.10ppg vs 1.86ppg) as Liverpool finish fifth.
Ole big ears isn’t looking quite so glorious either. Those fabled tales of Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes and King Kenny in 1977 and 1978 are mere myth in PPG land as Liverpool fail to even qualify for those European Cups, beaten to the title by Man United and Ipswich in 1976 and 1977. And as for Istanbul? Sorry, reds, you finish outside the top 5 in 2004, so no Champions League or Stevie G heroics for you.
So it’s down to three European Cups. And while we’re at it, can you hand back your UEFA Cup from 2001? You made the Champions League that year instead.
So that’s one of England’s most decorated clubs – and undoubtedly, unequivocally, one of the best based on sporting merit – arbitrarily stripped of its honours.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t rubbishing Liverpool, who won all those trophies fair and square. It’s ridiculing a proposed solution that very clearly penalises teams that by design peaked when it mattered, time and time again, in full knowledge of the rules at the start of every season.
Let’s see how else PPG reduces to rubble many of English football’s most iconic achievements.
Nottingham Forest – no European Cups for you unfortunately. You’re not promoted from Division 2 in 1977, so can’t win Division 1 in 1978 and begin your journey to improbable continental glory.
Aston Villa – no European Cup in 1982 for you either. Ipswich win the league in 1981.
Leicester – 2016 with Claudio Ranieri remains the fantasy never realised as you succumb to relegation the year before, stone dead last.
Arsenal – no double in 1971 thanks to Leeds winning the league.
Man City – forget about Aguero 93:20, United win the 2012 Premier League. And speaking of United…
Well, although Kevin Keegan gets to love beating them as Newcastle’s great entertainers actually do get over the line in 1996 (2.18ppg vs 2.07ppg), they actually won the title in 1976 and later, in 1992, beating Leeds (2.07ppg vs 1.94ppg) to the last championship before the arrival of the Premier League (wonder what Leeds fans would’ve made of PPG then?)
Think this only applies in the Premier League’s rarefied world of champagne and caviar? It’s the same story in the bread and butter of the EFL. And it makes pretty uncomfortable reading for some clubs set to benefit now from the PPG model…
Let’s start with Wycombe, whose automatic promotion in 2018 is rendered a figment of the imagination in PPG land as Notts County consign them to the play-offs (1.76ppg vs 1.75ppg).
And some Wembley winners from the past few years don’t even make the play-offs: think Blackpool, whose Premier League dream in 2010 never comes to pass, through to Crewe (2012) and AFC Wimbledon (2016). The same AFC Wimbledon that would’ve been relegated on PPG last season. Maybe they’ll change their mind after all?
Tongue-in-cheek this may be, but here’s some cold, hard statistics about relegation from League 1…
- In only TWO of the last 10 seasons – 2011/12 and 2012/13 – has PPG on 12 March accurately predicted all four relegated clubs at the end of the campaign.
- In SEVEN of the last 10 years, the team eventually relegated in 21st place was safe based on PPG on 12 March. PPG is incredibly unreliable at determining the highest relegation place.
- Of the 40 teams relegated across these 10 campaigns, 11 would have been safe based on PPG on 12 March – an average of more than 1 per season.
So even if using existing 2019/20 data was the answer, PPG is clearly an unreliable predictor of future outcomes.
We won’t go over ground covered elsewhere: even a toddler could see how clearly and obviously opposed to sporting integrity PPG is, just as they could see through those clubs intent on ending the season but holding play-offs while at the same time denying relegation-threatened teams the chance to fight for their own survival.
Football is about more than statistics. Time and time and time again, it’s more than mere ability that separates the champions and also-rans, the survivors and vanquished. At this time of year, it’s about psychology and mentality, withstanding and performing under the greatest of pressure, when bodies and brains are at their most tired and strained.
It’s why so many of the scenarios above never came to pass. Liverpool have won 18 titles and 6 European Cups – including the 1982 title when Spurs, pursuing trophies on four fronts, fluffed their games in hand – because their best teams peaked to reach their ruthless best when it counted, forcing their challengers to crack.
United have won so many titles – and the likes of Newcastle in 1996 haven’t – because knowing how to get over the line when the prize is so tantalisingly close is the stiffest challenge of all.
No team in 2019/20 – not a single one – has been subjected to the ultimate test of their mettle yet. The only true sporting integrity is in the meritocracy of playing every opponent twice. Any other measure strikes at the heart and soul of football, cheapening the successes of the arbitrary victors, and even worse, unforgivingly punishing those left in the cold.
And as for Tranmere? It’s why we made – and got promoted through – the Division 3 play-offs in 1991 instead of finishing outside on PPG, and why we again made the Division 2 play-offs in 1993 and 1994, instead of finishing outside on PPG.
Thank goodness Kingy and all the King’s men had the opportunity to pull on those oars in search of dry land, rather than being washed out to sea.