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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Guardian sport

Which English football champions had the longest pre-season odds?

Kevin Richardson, Steve Bould, Paul Merson and Alan Smith celebrate Arsenal’s dramatic title triumph in 1989
Kevin Richardson, Steve Bould, Paul Merson and Alan Smith celebrate Arsenal’s dramatic title triumph at odds of 16-1 in 1989. Photograph: Getty Images

“Arsenal were 40-1 to win the Premier League at the start of the season,” notes Alex Norton. “In betting terms, who apart from Leicester are the most unlikely English champions?”

After enjoying a weekend away in the newspaper archive, we found – with one frustrating exception – pre-season odds for all champions of England since the mid-1960s. None come anywhere near Leicester’s 5,000-1 miracle in 2015-16. In fact, in the Premier League era, Leicester are the only team to win the title with odds in double figures, never mind quadruple.

The next most unlikely winners, according to the bookies, were Manchester United in 2006-07. After three years without a league title, they were 13-2 to usurp José Mourinho’s rampant Chelsea. Many people thought Sir Alex Ferguson was finished. They were truly, madly, deeply wrong: he won the league in five of his remaining seven seasons at Old Trafford.

Other relative outsiders include Chelsea (5-1 when they won it under Antonio Conte in 2016-17), Arsenal (9-2 in both 1997-98 and 2001-02), Manchester City (9-2 in 2011-12), Blackburn (4-1 in 1994-95), and Manchester United again (4-1 in 1992-93).

Antonio Conte (left) celebrates after the final whistle with Thibaut Courtois and Michy Batshuayi after Chelsea’s decisive win at West Brom in 2017
Antonio Conte (left) celebrates after the final whistle with Thibaut Courtois and Michy Batshuayi after Chelsea’s decisive win at West Brom in 2017. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The Premier League has become a bit of a closed shop, which made Leicester’s title win all the more remarkable. But football was more democratic in the days of the old Division One, when a number of teams won the league with pre-season odds in excess of 10-1. First up, Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds were 12-1 in 1991-92. It was only their second season back in the top flight and, though they had impressed in finishing fourth the previous year, almost everyone thought it was too soon for them to challenge for the title.

Howard Kendall’s emerging Everton were 14-1 before they romped thrillingly to the title in 1984-85. Another intrepid young Arsenal side, the 1988-89 vintage, had surprisingly long odds of 16-1 before winning their first title in 18 years. Arsenal were similarly priced to win the league in 1970-71, when they did the Double.

Brian Clough’s Derby were 25-1, joint ninth-favourites with Wolves, going into the 1971-72 campaign. Another Midlands club, Aston Villa, were also joint ninth-favourites in 1980-81, but at slightly longer odds of 33-1.

It will be a long time before we see odds of 66-1 on Manchester City to win the title again, but that was the case in August 1967. The odds jar now but at the time they made sense – City had finished 15th the previous season, their first back in the top flight. They pipped the reigning champions, Manchester United, by winning at Newcastle on the final day.

There is one fairytale that can match Leicester’s, certainly when you chuck in two European Cups. Clough and Peter Taylor’s newly promoted Nottingham Forest won the league in emphatic style in 1977-78. We couldn’t find their precise odds, but we do know from one contemporary advert that they were not in the top 14 favourites to win the championship that year.

Nottingham Forest’s captain, John McGovern, (left) leads a lap of honour with the League Championship trophy in 1978
Nottingham Forest’s captain, John McGovern, (left) leads a lap of honour with the League Championship trophy in 1978. Photograph: PA Photos/PA

The highest price among the fancied 14 was Chelsea at 40-1. In those days, 100-1 was usually the biggest price offered on any team to win the league, so it’s fair to assume Forest were between 40-1 and 100-1. But if anyone can confirm their odds in August 1977, please let us know.

(It’s a sign of how relatively uncompetitive the Premier League has become that Arsenal, 40-1 at the start of this season, were the fifth favourites. Chelsea were the same price in 1977-78, yet they were 14th favourites. And the 14th favourites in 2022-23, Crystal Palace, had odds of 500-1.)

You want the above in list form, don’t you? Here you go, all the English title winners since the mid-1960s with odds in excess of 10-1:

12-1 Leeds (1991-92)
14-1 Everton (1984-85)
16-1 Arsenal (1970-71 & 1988-89)
25-1 Derby County (1971-72)
33-1 Aston Villa (1980-81)
66-1 Manchester City (1967-68)
40-1 to 100-1 Nottingham Forest (1977-78)
5,000-1 Leicester City (2015-16)

Finally, as there’s a chance Arsenal won’t actually win the league, here are some of the outsiders who challenged for the title without winning it:

40-1 Aston Villa (2nd, 1992-93)
50-1 Watford (2nd, 1982-83)
66-1 West Ham (3rd, 1985-86)
100-1 Aston Villa (2nd, 1989-90)
125-1 Newcastle (4th, 2001-02)
150-1 Crystal Palace (3rd, 1990-91)
250-1 Norwich (3rd, 1992-93)

Half-century heroics

“Erling Haaland is about to reach 50 goals for the season,” notes Victoria Osborn. “Who was the last person to score reach that milestone in English football? Let’s limit it to the top four divisions.”

Haaland’s beastly productivity – 48 in 42 games before Wednesday’s match against Arsenal – is without precedent at the highest level of the modern English game. The last man to reach 50 goals in all competitions for a top-flight team was Tom ‘Pongo’ Waring for Aston Villa in 1930-31. The last to hit 60 was the legendary Dixie Dean, who bashed in 63 goals for Everton in 1927-28: 60 in the league, three in the FA Cup. (Some sources say Dean scored 65, which includes two in the Charity Shield, but that match was played in October 1928.)

Clive Allen famously scored 49 for Spurs in 1986-87, when he took advantage of the service of Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Chris Waddle among others. But we think the last man to hit 50 was the Wolves legend Steve Bull, who did it in consecutive seasons at the back end of the 1980s: 52 goals in the old Division Four in 1987-88, 50 in Division Three in 1988-89.

Bull made his England debut against Scotland in May 1989, shortly after Wolves had been promoted to the second tier. England won 2-0, with Bull rifling the second past Jim Leighton.

These are all the examples we could find of players scoring 50 goals in an English season, most of which occurred in the aftermath of a change in the offside law in 1925. Those in italics were not playing in the top flight:

63 Dixie Dean (Everton, 1927-28)
63 George Camsell (Middlesbrough, 1926-27)
58 Ted Harston (Mansfield, 1936-37)
58 Joe Payne (Luton, 1936-37)
54 Terry Bly (Peterborough, 1960-61)
52 Steve Bull (Wolves, 1987-88)
50 Vic Watson (West Ham, 1929-30)
50 Tom ‘Pongo’ Waring (Aston Villa, 1930-31)
50 Clarrie Bourton (Coventry, 1931-32)
50 Steve Bull (Wolves, 1988-89)

More stellar top twos

In last week’s Knowledge, we looked at the highest combined points total of the top two in a professional league. And, as tens of you pointed out, we missed a cracker from 2001-02.

That’s not the final word on this subject, because Joost Zwager and Dunstan Kessler directed our attention to the Romanian Divizia A in the late-1980s. “I am certain nothing tops the Ceausescu-era Romanian league,” writes Joost, “which was utterly dominated by army team Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest of the feared security police.”

In consecutive seasons from 1987-89, Steaua Bucharest (champions on both occasions without losing a game) and Dinamo Bucharest picked up 127 points between them. That’s in a 34-game season, with two points for a win. If you adjust it to three points, they would have picked up 187 and 188 points in those two seasons – while playing between four and 12 games fewer than all the teams that made last week’s list. As the league tables for 1987-88 and 1988-89 show, the standard was beyond stratospheric.

By our calculations, if they had maintained that form over a 46-game, three-points-for-a-win season, Steaua and Dinamo would have managed a frankly obscene combined total of 253 points in 1987-88 and 254 in 1988-89. In a 38-game season, the points totals would have been 209 and 210. That puts them well clear of last week’s clubhouse leader, the Serbian Superliga of 2020-21.

Knowledge archive

“Can you tell me why the ‘nutmeg’ is so called, and how long this term has been in use?” asked Dave Birrell in 2001. “I refuse to believe my girlfriend’s suggestion that it comes from an abbreviation of a hapless defender’s cry: ‘Not my legs.’”

“The term nutmeg is cockney rhyming slang for leg,” suggested Pete Tomlin. “Therefore, when the ball is played between an opponent’s legs, a player or fan shouts ‘Nutmegs.’” Jez Simmonds agreed: “According to none other than popular Sky pundit and former Fulham favourite Jimmy Hill, the expression nutmeg is little more than dodgy rhyming slang. Nutmeg equals leg, apparently, and was thus coined during the 1940s to describe the skill of placing the ball between an opponent’s legs before retrieving it t’other side. Although I wasn’t hugely convinced by this explanation, Jimmy generally knows his stuff – and, like me, was a Balham SW12 boy.”

Stephen Eustaquio of Canada nutmegs Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium in last years’s World Cup
Stephen Eustaquio of Canada nutmegs Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium in last year’s World Cup. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

But what about the “nut” part? According to Alex Leith’s book Over the Moon, Brian – The Language of Football, “nuts” – a term commonly used for nutmeg in the north of England “refers to the testicles of the player through whose legs the ball has been passed and nutmeg is just a development from this”. So now you know.

Can you help?

“What’s the longest time a team has had at the top of the Premier League without winning it?” asks Paul Martin.

“Erling Haaland seems odds-on to be leading scorer in both the Champions League and Premier League, but he’s rarely played a full game recently,” notes Julian Heather. “This has me wondering which players have won the golden boot while playing the fewest minutes.”

“What is the longest goal celebration, ie when has the most time passed between one team scoring a goal and the resumption of the play (the opponent moving the ball from the centre of the pitch)?” wonders Bogdan Kotarlic.

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