The last quadrilles

Attend almost any match at Anfield, and you will see the interplay of four partners dancing in harmony, to the background a formal melody, and dedicated to producing a memorable spectacle of the beautiful game. Each knows the place and functions of the other three, and understands that they all have the same overall aim – to overcome with skill, strength and determination any obstacles the visiting teams might put in their way, in order to share and enjoy the final result together. The four partners are 1) the fans, without whom such events would not (normally!) happen; 2) the players trying to satisfy their paying customers, owners, sponsors, and not least themselves, in the most attractive way possible; 3) the manager and staff who get the players fit, and determine how the particular players should best be recruited, selected and deployed in order to win matches; and 4) the local media, essential to the build-up of pre-match knowledge and the reporting of the event itself, but in a partisan style rather than the required home games impartiality of their national counterparts. (Listen to the same match on LFC radio and Radio 5 Live to hear the difference! Read about the same game in the ‘Liverpool Echo’ and the ‘Manchester Evening News’.

Sometimes, the quadrille on the pitch is matched perfectly by the results, when the eventual winner of the league is revealed only by the final whistle of the season – best of all, when the winner is playing at home before an exultant crowd. Who can forget that Sergio Agüero goal? Liverpool won the First Division championship on the last day in 1901, 1947, 1976 and 1986, but only once was it done before a home crowd – a 0-0 draw against Leicester City in 1973. So, we have achieved a last-day result in five out of our nineteen wins in the top flight of English football. How does that compare with every season’s title win since we were founded in 1892? In brief, it has been won on the final day thirty-seven times in 115 seasons. Six last-day wins would have given us a national average result, so we are quite close to par, but it also means we are slightly better than your average title winner at getting the job done earlier than the last day.

It appears that no club has failed to win the title as a result of points deductions, though Arsenal came mighty close in 1991 after a brawl involving MUFC players.

It is far more likely, statistically, that we, or any club, win with at least one more game to play. Still glowing in the euphoria of the league title, the four partners notice quite suddenly that the music driving the whole enterprise has changed. The tempo has slowed. Perhaps a little syncopation has crept in. Did the base player try 3/4 instead of 4/4 time for a few bars? Surely those trumpeters blasted out two discordant notes a semitone apart like Stan Kenton’s ‘Peanut vendor’! Suddenly, we can no longer take for granted that the four parties will be in perfect harmony or with a single purpose. Most fans simply expect no change from the skill which got their club to the top; the local media hope against hope that there will be a joyous ending to the season, and pressure builds for more records to be broken – it sells more papers after all. The players and manager have been crowned, but they now face an anticlimax, allowing other motives and priorities to intervene. They have entered the uncertain period of the last quadrilles where bookies should fear to tread.

Over the years, the successful clubs have all faced the same problem, with very different results. In twenty-nine of the 115 seasons, title winners have had a single game to spare. Take Leeds United, for example. They were First Division champions three times. In 1969, one game to spare, won it at home; 1974, one game to spare – won it away; 1992, one game in hand – won it at home. No problem. Liverpool, on the other hand, had one match to spare in six of our title wins and won only one of them (1906), drawing three (1966, 1982, 1984) and losing two (1977, 1980). They lost one last league game away at Ashton Gate in 1977 (facing a Bristol City threatened with relegation), not having lost the previous eighteen games, but cautious because of the impending Cup Final; and in 1980 with a full first team selected, when the Guardian excused the loss as Liverpool being ‘able to relax at last’ at Middlesbrough. I wonder if Shankly’s ghost, or the away fans who were paying customers used to watching serial winners, were pleased that their idols were in that fortunate position.

That relaxation is a first and recurring theme during the last quadrilles, and has a psychological basis rather than arising from, e.g., pecuniary considerations. We should therefore not be surprised to find it during the earliest seasons, and it becomes even more obvious when more than one spare fixture remains after a title has been won. At the end of the title race in the last 115 seasons, there have been 23 with two games to spare, 10 with three, 11 with four still to play, and only four with five (MUFC in 1908 and 2001, Everton in 1985 and MCFC in 2018). And no – I’ve not forgotten 2020 – who could?

The best and worst of the last quadrilles with four or five matches has been MUFC (winning all four of their games in hand in 2000, but gaining only one win and a draw from five games a year later. Having lost 3 games in the previous thirty-five, they lost to Derby, Southampton and Spurs.) The best performer involving five games has been MCFC with 4 wins and a draw in 2018.

In those 48 seasons with two to five games in hand, the newly-crowned title holders have won 60 games (43%), drawn 36 (26%), and lost 43 (31%). On average, therefore, had they played the full season with the same success as they had in their games after winning the title, they would have amassed 59 points in a Premier League season. Had they done this at any time in the last ten years, they would have finished 6th twice, 7th three times, 8th 4 times (where the endangered Kenny Dalglish actually was in 2012), or even 9th in 2016. No title. Not even a qualification for Champions League, and only a couple for the Europa. It is therefore the norm, not the disappointing tail end to a season, for the title winner to underperform for the remainder of their league fixtures.

These figures take the quadrille of 2019/20 onto a new dance floor. Liverpool had never won the title with even five games still to play, though Ian Rush claimed otherwise (autobiography p. 154); no club has won with six games left to play, let alone seven, which amounts to almost a fifth of the whole season. It also suggests that LFC’s record during those seven games in 2020 (won 4, drew 1, lost 2) holds up well against the national averages in the previous ‘multiple games in hand’ seasons, during which we should have won 3 or fewer, drawn nearly 2, and lost over two. The results alone should not be regarded a reason why 2020 felt a disappointing end to such a remarkable season.

A surprisingly polite reaction to LFC losing 4-0 at the Etihad (was on a ‘night off’ to which the LFC team were ‘entitled’) came from Gary Neville. He might have mentioned that Liverpool had done exactly the same thing to Arsenal when the latter had clinched their title in 1998. Players’ reaction to being accused of easing up, or even malingering, is usually one of being offended that anyone would think such a thing of them. Until a game is analysed in detail, however, they may be unaware of why they have not lived up to expectations. It might add up to as little as hitting the upright on the front instead of scoring an in-off. Graeme Sharp called the syndrome ‘taking your foot off the pedal’, claiming that even losing a game in hand does not generate the same reaction in the players. Everton had finished the 1984/85 season losing three of their five games to spare, including a 4-1 win for relegation-threatened Coventry City. "There is no way that Everton side would ever have lost three out of five in usual circumstances,” claimed Sharp, and he was probably right.

Until Liverpool were declared champion in 2020, we had dropped seven points; now, during the last quadrilles, we dropped eight. Liverpool’s loss to MCFC in the first game after the Covid-19 lockdown somehow didn’t seem a surprise, with both anti-climax and vengeance in the air, though the scoreline 4-0 was a trifle insulting. Losing to Arsenal felt worse, partly because overall control in the game was not reflected in the scoreline (we had 24 shots to Arsenal’s three), and the perception that both Arsenal’s goals had come from mistakes in our defence, but mostly because it denied LFC’s ability to break MCFC’s record of 100 points scored in a single season. (This had been threatened by the home draw against Burnley, widely celebrated in proud Sunderland when we could no longer equal their 100% home record of 1892. That was in the context of a 14-club top tier, but bragging rights still matter to fans everywhere!)

Breaking records once the title had been won was eagerly anticipated and analysed to death in the local and national media. In 2020 we had broken the earliest and latest winning date in the same year! We had gained 99 points, eighteen ahead of MCFC and 33 ahead of MUFC – – but winning by 18 points was not a record - we came second to MCFC who won by 19 points in 2018. We did have a record lead of 25 points during the season; shared a record 18 wins on the trot with MCFC; number of consecutive games without defeat, consecutive home wins, record away wins in one season – it became a statistician nerd’s paradise! More details on our records can be found on This is Anfield.

Another disturbance for the last quadrille dancers, I believe, is the decision to ‘rest’ some regular first-team players in favour of ‘giving the youngsters a chance’. This policy was frowned upon, and even fined, by the FA in earlier years, but it is a matter of protecting self-interest especially in the Premier League era. The fans are no longer singing on the same hymn sheet as each other, fueled by differences of approach in the press. What they want, but can’t always have, is to be able to see stars of the future in winning teams, even against clubs fighting to avoid relegation. It was widely believed that Jürgen Klopp preferred to give experience to younger players rather than break yet another record. However, the only ‘youngsters’ to appear were Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, and Neco Williams, all on the bench against Arsenal, for example, but none of whom were first-team debutants during these seven games.

Also interfering with the steady rhythm of the season is the transfer market, especially since the introduction of the transfer windows in 2003/04 (replacing the former ‘free for all until March 31’ system). Where are players’ minds? Pure enjoyment of the beautiful game? Their current contract talks? Pleasing the fans? Sharing with management a fear of getting injured and thus jeopardizing their chances in the transfer market? Keeping fit on some remote beach?

Other factors which might have had a disturbing effect on other clubs dancing the last quadrilles was the influence of having to face home or European cup competition towards the end of the season which, alas, did not apply to us in 2020; and also the all-pervading Covid-19, which removed the fans from the stands, predicted to be particularly important for Anfield – but there is little evidence to show that the 2020 result was distorted by it.


In the end, I guess, records are just that – mathematical anomalies. Winning any competition is one thing – winning for the first or winning for the nineteenth time still creates pride and joy for the fans. But winning, and then having to go on playing when the losers haven’t finished, because it’s your duty to do so? Games to spare can be a curse, as well as something to boast about. Give me the 2012 Agüero goal over winning with games to spare any day! It had everything – including one in the eye for Fergie and MUFC! Forget trying to win with eight games in hand, or even six to give us a ‘full house’ – let’s get our twentieth title by winning our last fixture at Anfield for the first time.

Written by Colin Rogers - Copyright


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