2016 marked 35 years since the introduction of three points for a win in English football, an innovation brought in by the late, great Jimmy Hill. Certainly, the motivations for such an idea are understandable. If a match was all-square, teams would be rewarded for going for the win. It also came at a time when attendances in the top divisions were falling at a fairly substantial rate, as the recession bit across many parts of the country and the average number of goals per match was at a low ebb. A win would also now be worth more relative to a draw than under the old system.
Doubts have already been cast on the merits of this rule change. As The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson mentioned in a 2009 article, the amendment was made at a time when the tide was already beginning to turn in the purists’ favour anyway, as more goals were being scored by both home and away teams. Furthermore, the banishment of the back-pass and the tackle from behind can also be seen as a significant factor in the rise in the number of goals and the reduction in the number of draws.
However, this brief article will focus on another deficiency of the introduction of three points for a win – the fact that the points’ gap between teams has increased dramatically. First off, it is important to acknowledge that the post-1981 era also saw the injection of huge amounts of cash into the game, which have disproportionately benefited a select few teams, with the result that these teams have overwhelmingly dominated in recent decades. However, even allowing for this influx of money, the league table has opened out in the past 35 years.
A stark contrast can be drawn between the competitiveness of English football prior to the change and following the change. If one goes back to the 1920s, Division One (a 22-team league back then) was incredibly bunched up. This can be seen most clearly in 1927-28, when just 16 points separated champions Everton (53 points) and basement club Middlesbrough (37 points). In addition, the teams from 14th to 20th were all situated on 39 points, demonstrating just how close the league was right down to the last game.
This was certainly not an anomaly. In the 1949-1950 season, just five points separated the top eight. The bottom side was hardly ever cast adrift, and in quite a few cases was only a few points off escaping relegation. There are many more examples that could have been cited.
By the 1980s, due to the fact that a win was now worth more relative to a draw and that the top teams always win more games than those at the bottom, the gap between the best and the rest started to grow. Between 1920 and 1981, there were only three seasons where the average points’ difference between the teams in the league was greater than two. Since then however, there has only been one season where that hasn’t been the case, with 14 campaigns seeing the average difference rise above three.
Finally, the race for the title has become less nerve-wracking, as teams are more likely to win the top division with games to spare than pre-1981. The same is true at the other end of the table, as the sight of one or two teams being cut adrift before the season’s close has dramatically increased.
It is impossible to deny that the explanations for the changes in points’ distribution over the years are down to a number of different factors, but the rule change does seem to have taken some of the excitement out of the business end of the season. Of course, the amendment was designed to attract more fans to stadia across the land, but an unintentional impact has been the increased spread of points across the league, such that by the time the final matchday rolls around, most of the key scores have already been settled.
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