From top to bottom
By Rob Smyth
December 23, 2008
Rafael Benitez reckons that Liverpool have an 80% chance of winning the Premier League if they are top after the Christmas period. Yet the 120-year history of the English top flight suggests that, right now, their chances are only half that. Of all the teams who have been top of Christmas Day in the 109 seasons going back to 1888-89, only 41% have gone on to win the league. In the last 20 years, however, that figure shrinks to 30%, while in the Premier League era it is 38%.
Six of the 16 leaders at Christmas since 1992 have gone on to take the title: Manchester United (1993-94, 2000-01 and 2006-07), Blackburn (1994-95) and Chelsea (2004-05 and 2005-06). The only teams from outside the Big Four to have led the Premier League at Christmas only to slip down the table are Norwich (1992-93, when they finished third), Newcastle (1995-96, second), Aston Villa (1998-99, sixth), Leeds (1999-2000, third) and Newcastle (2001-02, fourth).
Percentage of Christmas leaders to win league
• Premier League (1992-2008) - 37.50 (6 out of 16)
• Football League (1888-1992) - 41.94 (39 out of 93)
• Overall (1888-2008) - 41.28 (45 out of 109)
The last time Liverpool led the league at Christmas, in 1996-97, they finished fourth. Still, it could be worse. In 1949-50, Liverpool were top on December 25 - and ended up in eighth place. That's the lowest a Christmas No1 has plummeted: Sunderland (1936-37) and Manchester United (1971-72) also achieved this dubious feat.
Overall Liverpool have been top at Christmas on 15 occasions, 10 of which (or 66.67%) they have converted into a title triumph. Yet perhaps their proudest Christmas-related statistic is the fact that they are the only side to win English football's main prize having been in the bottom half at Christmas. They were 12th in 1981-82, having taken 24 points from their first 16 games, but after that they won 20 of their final 26 games to take the title. The next-best new year charge came from Dave Mackay's Derby, who were 10th on 25/12/1974 and top of the pile when it really mattered, on 29/04/1975.
The bottom team, West Bromwich Albion, know all about great escapes: they are famously the only team to avoid relegation having been bottom of the Premier League on Christmas Day. That escape came under Bryan Robson in 2004-05; but while the statistics of the Premier League suggest they only have a 6% chance of avoiding relegation, the overall history of the English top flight is much more positive: 29% of teams (31 out of 106) have avoided relegation after propping up the rear on Christmas Day.
Percentage of teams bottom at Christmas to avoid relegation
• Premier League (1992-2008) - 6.25 (one out of 16)
• Football League (1888-1992) - 33.33 (30 out of 90)
• Overall (1888-2008) - 29.25 (31 out of 106*)
*NB: for the first three seasons of the Football League there was no relegation
One of the more dramatic recoveries came from Sheffield United in 1990-91. They did not win a game until December 22, and went into Christmas seven points off safety. But they finished 13th and, after December 25, took more points than Liverpool, who led the table at Christmas.
The most impressive revival, however, came from Sunderland, who are the only team to finish in the top half of the table having been bottom at Christmas. That occurred in 1929-30: they were 22nd on Christmas Day, but won 13 of the following 23 games to finish ninth.
The reverse, sides who have been relegated after enjoying Christmas in the top half of the table, is more common. There have been eight instances: Notts County in 1892-93 (7th to 14th), Nottingham Forest in 1910-11 (9th to 20th), Spurs in 1927-28 (7th to 21st), Southampton in 1973-74 (9th to 20th), Manchester City in 1982-83 (9th to 20th) Norwich in 1984-85 (11th to 18th), Chelsea in 1987-88 (8th to 18th) and Norwich again in 1994-95 (7th to 20th). With only nine points separating Hull City in sixth and Manchester City in 18th, a repeat is certainly not impossible.