The goal average rule feels like one of those old football anachronisms that should have gone away with the Fairs Cup, black and white television or tossing a coin to decide European ties. It actually endured a lot longer than you might have thought. Based upon the common-sense principle that it would better reward goal scoring, Arsenal’s then chairman Denis Hill-Wood drove the campaign to have goal average dropped in favour of goal difference back in 1969. FIFA preferred goal difference for the 1970 World Cup groups, yet it would not be until the start of the 1976/77 season that the Football League finally adopted the change into the English game. In force since 1888, the goal average rule had at last been consigned to the historical dustbin.
It’s probably worth at this stage quickly recapping the difference in the systems for the benefit of younger readers. Like goal difference today, goal average was used as the method of deciding the final League table order of teams that had finished with the same number of points. Whereas goal difference is derived from subtracting goals conceded from goals scored, the goal average system instead divided the number of goals scored by the number conceded. Whichever team had the higher net figure in either system was awarded the higher place in the table.
The systems can throw up quite different results from the same scenario. Imagine a hypothetical situation with two teams finishing level on points and recording the following goals scored and conceded figures: Team A (80-40) and Team B (41-20). By the modern-day goal difference rule interpretation, Team A would be placed higher as their goal difference is 19 goals better (+40 to +21) than Team B. However using the old rule, Team A has a goal average of 2.00 (80 divided by 40) whilst Team B’s average is actually slightly better at 2.05. So Team B would be placed higher instead.
In eight decades of English football under the goal average rule, on only four occasions was it needed to separate two teams finishing joint-top of Division One with an identical points total. As a result, in 1950 Portsmouth pipped Wolves; in 1953 Arsenal placed ahead of Preston and in 1965 Manchester United were declared champions ahead of Leeds, yet none of these were controversial calls as the outcomes would have been identical under either system. The only team to lose out on the English title applying the modern system was Cardiff City in 1924. The South Wales team finished with the same 57 point total as Herbert Chapman’s Huddersfield Town and had a goals for and against record of 61-34; Huddersfield’s figures were an almost identical 60-33, giving them a slightly better goal average of 1.82 against 1.79. Had the goal difference rule been in place, although both teams had an identical +27 figure, Cardiff would have been champions by the secondary criteria of goals scored – having scored one more than the Yorkshire team.
Of course the goal average rule adjudicated on all positions within a table and not just the ones that decided titles. Wolves came off badly from the rule in successive seasons in the late 1950s. In both 1956 (to Blackpool) and 1957 (to Manchester United) they lost out on the Division One runners-up spot because of a poorer goal average. Use the goal difference system and Wolves would place second rather than third on both occasions. In 1950 the two Sheffield clubs were battling to finish as runners-up to Tottenham and secure promotion to the top flight. Both ended their seasons on 52 points and Wednesday got the nod because of their higher goal average. The goal difference for both teams was the same, but as United had scored one goal more than Wednesday, they would have been promoted under modern rules instead.
Like FIFA, the Scottish League was a much earlier adopter of goal difference than their English counterparts. The climax to the 1964/65 season probably explains a lot about why it was seen as a more pressing issue for reform north of the border. In the final First Division League tables in both countries, two teams tied on points at the top of the table and the goal average rule was used to separate them. In England, as we mentioned above, Manchester United placed above Leeds having both scored more goals and conceded less. This was not a scenario where the flaws of the goal average rule were exposed, so there was no real issue there to be challenged.
It couldn’t have been more different in Scotland. On that final day, second placed Kilmarnock travelled to Tynecastle to play the leaders, Hearts. Trailing the Edinburgh side by two points, to take the title the visitors needed to win and do so by two clear goals. They duly pulled off a memorable 2-0 win which meant both sides finished the season on 50 points and Kilmarnock were crowned champions thanks to a 1.88 goal average – compared to the 1.83 of Hearts. Although those were the rules and Kilmarnock won the title fair and square under them, the goal average system itself came in for a lot of criticism with its inherent problem being plainly revealed: it unduly favoured defences. Kilmarnock had conceded just 33 goals all season against the 49 of Hearts, but at the other end of the field the Tynecastle side had scored 90 goals against the 62 of the champions. Had goal difference been in place, Hearts could have lost 8-0 to Kilmarnock on that final day and still been champions.
The last occasion the goal average rule was called upon before its timely extinction was to the benefit of Liverpool at Ipswich’s expense when deciding second and third places in the First Division of 1974/75. Ipswich of course had the better goal difference. A season later Hill-Wood’s perseverance finally paid off and it wasn’t long before everyone was wondering why something as manifestly flawed as goal average had somehow survived for 80 years in the first place.
Out of curiosity, BTLM has taken a look back to see what differences we might have seen since 1976 had the status quo of the old goal average system been maintained. Just three titles in England and Scotland would have ended in different hands. Perhaps the most dramatic finish to an English season ever came in 1989 when Arsenal’s late second goal in a 2-0 win at Liverpool gave them the title on goals scored. Liverpool would still have still been champions despite that loss using goal average.
Up north Celtic would reclaim the 2003 title lost on goal difference to Rangers, although that gain would be cancelled out by the loss of the 1986 title they snatched from Hearts on the last day. Celtic had the better goal difference, but Hearts the better goal average. Poor Hearts; always the bridesmaids. No other British team has suffered such bad luck on the wrong end of the rules at the wrong time. In 1965 they had lost a title on goal average that they would have won on goal difference; 21 years later they lost a title on goal difference that they would have won on goal average;