JIMMY HILL was a character who divided opinion, but nobody can deny he was an ideas man. Not everybody agreed with some of his schemes, but Mr Hill had the good of the game at heart and was often concerned about football’s future. In 1981, the Football League introduced a new points system with the aim of making the game more interesting. Instead of two points for a win, the reward for victory would be three, with only one point for a draw. The idea came from Jimmy Hill’s committee that was looking at ways to halt the decline of English football, which was gathering momentum at an alarming pace.
It was a grim time for football in Britain: crowds were falling, hooliganism rife, costs getting out of control and the game’s appeal was deteriorating. The Football League looked bloated, stuck in the past and lacking in the commercial acumen to get the industry out of a hole. To make life that little bit more difficult, the UK economy, by the end of March 1981, had endured five consecutive quarters of negative growth. Unemployment had hit the 2.5 million mark by 1981.
People were bored with football as England’s position in the global game slumped. They had failed to qualify for two World Cups (1974 and 1978) and had been lacklustre in the European Championships in 1976 and 1980. Club football was doing well in Europe, however, with Liverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978 and 1981 and Nottingham Forest doing likewise in 1979 and 1980.
But at home, attendances were falling fast. From 1970, when the average first division gate was just over 32 thousand, football’s top flight lost almost 20% of its audience by 1980. By 1984, the figure had worsened to an average of less than 19 thousand. Between 1977 and 1981, even clubs like Manchester United (-17%), Liverpool (-21%), Manchester City (-17%) and Newcastle (-50%), were suffering at the turnstiles. The English game was some £ 60 million in debt in 1981, a small figure by today’s standards, but worrying at the time.
Hooliganism was a major problem for football and the UK government needed little excuse to demonise the sport and its followers. In the 1980s, annual arrests regularly exceeded five thousand per season and town centre skirmishes on matchdayswere not uncommon. This not only discouraged families and certain demographics, but also tarnished the image of football.
Stiffer penalties for hooligans were among the suggestions made by working groups looking at transforming football’s trajectory. Hill and his colleagues looked to reduce the size of the top divisions and reintroduce regionalisation in the lower divisions. The Football League also needed a new deal from TV and the pools. Transfer fees were spiralling and needed a ceiling. Finally, clubs wanted to curb the practice of hiring and firing managers in mid-season, a scenario that often triggered an exodus of players and inter-club tension.
Against all these suggestions and proposals, introducing three points for a win seemed relatively unimportant and somewhat cosmetic. In February 1981, the change to the points system was narrowly voted in. The headline news, however, was the gentleman’s agreement among club chairman not to poach a manager from another club during a season. Three points for a win was a laudable concept, it encouraged teams to go for a win rather than settle for a draw. In other words, strive for victory rather than avoid defeat. There were teams in the 1970s that had made an art of winning at home and drawing away, which often meant a defence-orientated strategy for away games.
The opening day of the 1981-82 season produced some surprise results: Arsenal were beaten 1-0 at home by Stoke; Notts County won 1-0 at Villa; an expensively-assembled Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by Coventry at all-seater Highfield Road; newly-promoted Swansea crushed Leeds 5-1; Wolves beat Liverpool 1-0. A total of 34 goals were scored and attendances were down 7% on the opening day of the previous campaign. There were just two draws and not a single goalless game.
By the end of 1981-82, the first division’s goals-per-game was down from 2.66 to 2.54 and attendances fell once more, this time by 8.6% to 22,556. Had there been any benefit from the points change? It was clear that football’s race to the bottom was not yet over, indeed, it would take the whole decade to reach a point of reinvention and reinvigoration.
Three points for a win did create a new dynamic and also revealed the damage that a high percentage of draws could do to a team. Eluding defeat was not enough but even though the incentive had been enhanced by 50%, increased coaching and tactical awareness has not eradicated the useful draw. For example, in 1981-82, the first season of three for a win, 26% of top flight games were stalemates. Over the last five seasons, the average has been well over 30%.
Nevertheless, England’s move was eventually followed by the other main leagues across Europe. In 1988-89, France adopted the format and six years later, Italy followed suit. Then, in 1995-96, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal all changed their points system.
The change has created its own champions. Blackburn in 1995 and Manchester City in 2019 would not have been title winners in a two-point league. And if the “three for a win” system had been introduced earlier in history, Ipswich Town would have won the 1974-75 championship instead of Derby County.
In the five years before 1981-82, the average goals-per-game was 2.60 but in the past five seasons, the Premier’s average goal-rate has been 2.74 – that’s a 5% increase. It’s hard to say whether it did make a difference to the way teams have played. If anything, it may have prompted a different state of mind, even if the stats don’t always evidence a sea-change. Generally-speaking, football is probably more attack-minded than it was in the late 1970s, so maybe three points has had a positive influence, but more likely, it has been one of the adjustments that helped football turn back from the abyss.
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