Confessions of a league table addict

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Some obsessions are truly magnificent. Sir Alex Ferguson’s love affair with the European Cup is worthy of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.

But I don’t need to spend gazillions on players or risk a ship and its crew to indulge my obsession. I just need a newspaper with some league tables in them.

I’d recommend studying league tables as an obsession: it’s cheap, unlikely to cost you your job and doesn’t do disastrous things to your body – apart from a slight curvature of the spine as you lean forward to check whether only eight points really did separate the 1965/66 Moroccan champions from the team that finished bottom and got relegated.

It’s true – see for yourself.

I pore over tables as if my intense scrutiny could decode their innermost secrets. Cursory inspections of the points totals are for dilettantes.

First, I scour the table for bizarre variations – teams that have scored 100 goals, sides where the contrast between their home and away form is perversely great – before getting down to start the serious, time-killing business of comparing different team records, feeling strangely joyful when I discover that, say, the team in 14th has conceded less goals than the one in sixth.

I blame my childhood. It came too early. With three TV channels, no internet and phones only for use in emergencies, there were so many hours to fill. I was hungry for data.

American presidential elections were great – I’d nick the pages from dad’s Telegraph to scrutinise the tally of votes in all 50 states – but they only happened every four years.

So I got my fix from league tables. Even today, when I am old enough – but not, alas, smart enough – to know better, I study this data as if it were a higher form of truth.

Some tables spotlight the comedy inherent in competitive football. Truly impressive in the 'won none' stakes are Kalev Tartu who lost all 18 games in the 1950 Estonian Soviet league.

The strikers who played for Kalev that season must have hung their heads in shame as they contemplated this table. Their defence wasn’t bad, but their forwards showed such ineptitude – their collective strike rate was 0.22 goals a game – they must be celebrated in the next edition of Stephen Pile’s Book Of Heroic Failures.

Other tables are historic. Take this one from Serie A in 1969/70.

No side has ever won a title and conceded as few goals in a major league as Cagliari in 1969/70. The Sardinians kept 20 clean sheets that season in Serie A. Bologna’s feat – drawing 53 percent of their games – is almost as remarkable.

Look at this extraordinary Hungarian league table from 1988/89.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the extra column. That’s because the Hungarian FA decided there should be no drawn games, penalty shoot-outs settled any match that finished level.

Teams got three points for a win, two points if they won the shootout, one point if they lost it and none if they were defeated in the old-fashioned way. How mad is that?

Honved were champions because they won 16 games within the usual 90 minutes and six in a shootout. Under any normal system, Honved would have had 55 points and come third behind Ferencvaros on goal difference and Videoton, with 56 points, would have been champions.

This wheeze was such a glorious success that Hungarian football rebelled, imprisoning the Mad Hatter who had devised this scheme and scrapping the shootouts for 1989/90.

And you thought it was only Americans who had a phobia about drawn games.

I’ll shut up now.

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