Tottenham Hotspur and the positive side of negative goal difference

Paul Gilham

Tottenham have had a frustrating season, yet could be on the edge of achieving something truly historical, something both unprecedented and largely irrelevant.

Generally speaking, goal difference is a predictable business. The teams at the top rack up big positive numbers, these dwindle down the table, and the teams at the bottom slip out of the division carrying serious debts. This is a natural consequence of the teams at the top being better at football than the teams at the bottom, and so scoring more while conceding less. It's how things work. It's football. It's kind of dull.

Occasionally, though, there's an outlier. Some team will manage to finish their season right down amongst the dross, despite scoring plenty along the way. Others end up far higher than their minus numbers should permit. It's a small thing, yes, but such oddities are pleasing to the eye, suggesting as they do that something peculiar is going on somewhere. That things haven't quite worked out the way they're expected to. This was perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Tomas Rosicky's goal to win Sunday's North London derby: yes, it was a nice hit and all, but more importantly it left Tottenham in fifth with a goal difference of negative-1.

Goal difference became the English top flight's preferred method of splitting tied teams in 1976/77, replacing goal average. Over the last few years, the highest-finishing team with a negative goal difference has typically ended the season around eighth or ninth, a slight increase on the late 70s, 80s and early 90s, when somewhere between 10th and 13th was more normal. We can, of course, blame this on the evil Premier League, the evil Champions League and the general stretching that English football has undergone ever since all those zeroes started appearing on the end of all those cheques.

However, several teams have finished significantly higher despite shipping more than they could score. In 1998/99, a West Ham side featuring bright-faced youngsters Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole finished fifth despite a goal difference of negative-7. Goalkeeper Shaka Hislop finished the season as Hammer of the Year, which perhaps tells its own story. Elsewhen, David Moyes, in happier times, led Everton to fourth place and the Champions League qualifiers in 2004/05. A 7-0 shredding at the hands of Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season left them with a goal difference of precisely zero; then they lost on the last day, 3-2 at Bolton.

But the highest-ever negative goal difference finish in the English top flight takes us back to the very first year of the Premier League. Manchester United finished top, as you may have heard, and Aston Villa second. But in third, heroically and vaguely inexplicably, were Norwich: played 42, won 21, goals for 61, goals against 65.

Managed by Mike Walker, this was perhaps the last time that a totally unexpected, completely left-field and thoroughly unfancied side had a real shot at winning at the league. With the legendary Bryan Gunn in goal, and the young Chris Sutton playing up front alongside former Manchester United player and saviour of Alex Ferguson's career Mark Robins, Norwich's challenge was built around odds-defying humblings of their biggers and betters. Their goal difference, though, was compromised by occasional hammerings on their travels, as reality asserted its miserable self. 7-1 at Blackburn and 4-1 at Liverpool early in the season; 5-1 at Tottenham late on, as the title slipped away. That they finished third at all was both laudable and surprising. That they did so having conceded a whopping 46 goals on their travels — more than any other team bar relegated Middlesbrough — is frankly remarkable. Perhaps their notoriously hideous home kit played a part.

Parts foreign do all this sort of thing better, of course. The RSSSF records six known examples of national champions with negative goal differences. Perhaps the most interesting comes from Brazil, where Coritiba FC were crowned champions in 1985 with a goal difference of negative-2, having conceded 27 goals and only scored 25. That year's competition consisted of four leagues of 10 or 12, from each of which four teams would qualify. Two would go through on their overall record, and two more would qualify on the basis of the league table for each round of fixtures. Coritiba finished seventh overall in group A, but topped the second round, and so went through despite having scored a measly 18 goals in 20 fixtures. Four round-robin groups of four followed, then semifinals and a final, which Coritiba naturally won on penalties. They had won 12 games of their 29; the runners-up, Bangu, had played 31 and won 20, scoring 55 goals in the process.

Back to England, and down at the other end of things, Manchester City and Derby County share between them the dubious honour of having finished lowest in the top flight — 16th — with a positive goal difference. Derby ended the 1989/90 season only three points (plus, obviously, goal difference) above the relegation zone, but throughout the season had won by two or more goals in eight of their nine home games against the rest of the bottom half, and so ended up safe with a goal difference of positive-3. Crystal Palace, two points ahead of them, finished on negative-24.

As for City, theirs was a less obvious route to positive numbers. In amongst the dross that saw them still in with a chance of relegation on the final day of the 2003/04 season were two 4-1 hidings of Manchester United (eventually third) and Aston Villa (sixth), along with a 6-2 thrashing of Bolton (eighth): A Kevin Keegan side being a Kevin Keegan side. We should probably also take a moment to acknowledge City's 1938 campaign which, though pre-goal difference, saw them relegated from Division One as defending champions despite scoring more goals than anybody else in the league.

One might expect such things to come about through a natural exaggeration of the home bias that characterises football; that was what worked for Norwich. Score loads at home despite being dreadful, or ship loads away despite being great. However, at the time of writing, this season's Tottenham have the second-best away record in the entire league, and the damage to their goal difference has largely been done by a trio of home skelpings, 0-5 to Liverpool, 1-5 to Manchester City, and 0-3 to West Ham. And while a friendly-ish fixture list might see them out of the red, an impending visit to Anfield offers hope that they might yet achieve something in this season of confusion and disappointment. Since goal difference began to matter, no team has ever finished sixth in the English top flight with negative numbers. Tim Sherwood, history is within your grasp.

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