Following on from my post about Gillingham’s away record, I thought it important to update this post about away records and home records. Much as I love that spiralling graph, I think the topic can be tackled differently, so I’ll endeavour to do that here.
In the first season of Football League football, 132 games were played; only 32 of those were won by the away team (eight of those by Champions Preston North End). Incorporated within those figures is that fact that more than half the teams won two or fewer than away games. The next year things improved slightly for visitors – the 132 games providing 35 away wins. There’s myriad reasons for this, but the most pertinent are probably the more obvious ones. It was, in 1888, quite difficult to get around the country. While Bolton and Derby aren’t a million miles apart, the journeys then would have been a little more arduous. It wasn’t unknown, either, for players not to make journeys for any number of reasons. There would be a distinct home ‘field’ advantage, too. With pitch-craft not what it is today, there would be ambiguities in the playing surfaces; things that the home teams would be more used to than the away. Of course, back then, before Arsenal had left Plumstead, there was no real culture of away support either.
In 1896/97, something amazing (and coincidental) happened. Aston Villa romped the league, winning by 11 points (no mean feat in the days of 2 points for a win) ahead of Sheffield Utd. Both of those teams, though, had away records better than their home ones. The Champions collected 24 points on their travels (11-2-2) but only 23 at home (10-3-2), meanwhile, the Blades earned 20 points away (7-6-2) against a mere 16 at home (6-4-5). That was a high tidemark for away teams for a long long time, though. Indeed, only eight teams had better away records than home in the 47 seasons before World War II – which is less than a third of a percent of the possible teams (0.31%). Put another way, there’d been 28,667 home wins before World War II, but only 10,702 away wins.
Things changed a little bit after the war; I’ve taken the figures up to the end of the 1980/81 season, and in that post-war period, there was 22 teams who performed better away in the 35 seasons – four came in the first season after play resumed, three of those in the 3rd Division North (Doncaster, during their epically brilliant season, Rochdale (6th) and York City (15th).
Using the bare numbers (though its important to remember the league didn’t stabilise for a long time – so 1 team out of 12 is very different to 1 team out of 88) up to this point, we get a bar chart that looks a lot like the one above. There’s not a huge jump after the war, but there’s a definite ‘trend’ towards away teams being successful, isn’t there? Strange, too, that they tend to come in pairs.
I presume you realise why I made the break before 1981/82 – it was the introduction of three points for a win. Because the numbers are that much higher on this graph, I’ve taken the liberty to divide it up into divisions, too (just in case any patterns emerged there; if it was the top flight busy pummelling its weaker members, or some such) but there’s nothing really except to note that there is more from Tier 4 (League Two) than any other division, though the smaller numbers of teams in the Premier League would cover some of that shortfall.
Certainly, then, the introduction of 3 points for a win seems to have escalated the trend that was beginning before its introduction and equally certainly, now, there’s no real surprise when teams finish with better away records than home – as Gillingham are set to do for the first time in their history this season. While I’m doing that – other teams who might be about to jump that same barrier are AFC Wimbledon (though the original Wimbledon did it twice), Aldershot Town, Birmingham City, Millwall, Sheffield Weds, Southend Utd, Stevenage, Swindon Town. Watford, meanwhile, would be achieving that feat for a record seventh time (though Coventry may join them on six if their situation changes). So there’s something to look out for towards the end of the season, isn’t it?
What, you might ask, do I think the reason for this seachange in away results?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. My initial thought was that it would be more prevalent in the flamboyant counterattacking teams (not so – I could put up a graph showing average league positions, but it worked out at – across the four tiers – 11,12,12,10 – so very definitely not just the successful teams). If not that, then what? Certainly, away games are nothing like as daunting as they used to be, either in terms of crowd or travel, and pitches are far more consistent across the division, so if you push on to win, it doesn’t so much matter whether you’re at home or away, the glory of the three points outweighs the tragedy of losing the one more and more; in opening the divisions up, so that playoffs are reachable, or relegation fears spread further up the divisions, the need to get more has taken – in a lot of cases – over the terror of losing it. That would explain why the bottom division has so many more teams for whom this is the case. Nine teams end the season with the possibility of playing in another division, more than any other of the leagues. In order to achieve/avoid either fate, going all out for a win, home or away, will garner more points than drawing.
Drawing that conclusion is interesting in some ways. Lately, I’ve been grafting together Italian tables to draw similar stats from, so I might investigate what the later adoption of three points for a win did in Italy – Italy, of course, brought three points for a win in a lot later than England, and the changing of divisions is a lot less easy in Italy, too.
For something (as three points for a win does) that claims not to have affected results across the leagues, its a fairly important
development throughout recent times, I would say.