If, as now appears likely, Manchester’s duelling giants end tomorrow tied on points, it will be the first time in two decades of the Premier League that the title is decided by another means. There are, however, historical examples of both goal difference and goal average being used to crown England’s champions, and FIFA.com looks back at the winners and losers involved.
1923/24: Terriers toast tightest of triumphs
Had the current rules been in place 88 years ago, England would have had its first and only Welsh champion. Cardiff City finished the season locked together with Huddersfield Town on 57 points and a goal difference of +27, but with the Bluebirds having scored 61 to their rivals’ 60. Goal difference and goals scored were not determining factors in those days, however, with a deadlocked title instead decided by a system known as ‘goal average’, where the number of goals scored is divided by the number conceded. So it was that Cardiff, whose star player Len Davies had missed a potentially championship-clinching penalty in a final day draw with Birmingham City, lost out by 0.024 of a goal. For Huddersfield, this was the start of a run of three successive championships, while for Cardiff, it was the closest they would ever come to top flight glory, with the team slipping down to Division 3 South within seven years.
1949/50: Wolves pipped by Pompey
This title race was one of the most open in English history, with the top seven clubs separated by just four points. Sunderland ended the season just a point behind the leading duo of Portsmouth and Wolverhampton Wanderers, who finished with 53 points apiece. Pompey, the reigning champions, had looked set to defend their crown by a more comfortable margin until the penultimate weekend, when they went down 2-0 at Arsenal. That allowed Wolves a glimmer of hope, but although they did their part – beating local rivals Birmingham City 6-1 – Portsmouth rose to the challenge with a convincing 5-1 victory over Aston Villa. The outcome was that the south coast side took the championship by a goal average of 1.947 to 1.551, although it was to be their last top flight title, while Wolves went on to take home the trophy three times before the decade was out.
1952/53: Gunners edge Finney's PNE
Just three years had passed when goal average was again called upon, and on this occasion it was not the outcome that most neutrals were hoping for. The much-admired Preston North End had not won a title since 1890 and, in Tom Finney, possessed arguably the greatest individual talent of that era. In the red corner, however, were six-time champions Arsenal, and despite losing 2-0 at Preston’s Deepdale Stadium on the penultimate weekend, they came from behind the following Friday to beat Burnley 3-2 and take the championship by just 0.099 of a goal. As for the beaten Lilywhites, they gained some consolation by winning the FA Cup the following year, but dropped out of the top flight in 1961 and have never returned since.
1964/65: Busby’s boys thwart Revie’s Leeds
With Manchester United winning their first title since the 1958 Munich air disaster, this season was as emotional as it was exciting. Don Revie’s Leeds United, newly promoted from the Second Division, pushed Matt Busby’s side all the way, but a 3-3 draw at Birmingham City on the final Monday of the league season proved fatal. Further north, goals from United’s Denis Law (2) and George Best were securing a 3-1 victory over Arsenal – their seventh win in succession – and establishing a lead that enabled them to lose to Aston Villa on the final day and still claim the title thanks to their significantly better goal average (2.282 to Leeds’ 1.596). Among the jubilant players were Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, members of the tragic Busby Babes, and within three years both would be holding aloft the European Cup.
1988/89: Thomas breaks Liverpool hearts
The only previous English league race decided by goal difference culminated in, without doubt, the most dramatic conclusion to any season in the nation’s history. A combination of luck, circumstances and the dreadful Hillsborough disaster had led to England’s top two facing off in the final game of the season, a week after Liverpool had lifted the FA Cup and with all the other teams having completed their fixtures. The Reds were at home, had won seven of the last ten championships and were unbeaten in 18 matches. They could even afford to lose by a single-goal margin and still retain the title. That looked the likely outcome as, with seconds to go, they held on against an Arsenal side 1-0 up and seemingly destined for gallant failure. That was until Michael Thomas wrote his name into football folklore, flicking the ball over Bruce Grobbelaar in the final minute of the season to score one of the most important and iconic goals in England’s football history.