Which Manchester City winning run is the longest in English history? Why some football records make no sense

Manchester City
(Image credit: PA Images)

Manchester City have a record for the most consecutive wins in all competitions for any top-flight club in the history of English football: 15. Manchester City’s club record for most successive victories in all competitions is 20.

The contradiction is immediately apparent. It is explained by a triumph on penalties over Wolves in the Carabao Cup in 2017, which was the 12th of those 20 games. City class it as a victory; some others do not. As World Cups have been won on penalties, perhaps it is logical to determine games are: few, after all, say Italy drew the 1994 and 2006 World Cup finals. Certainly, it feels obvious to bracket matches decided in 120 minutes as wins, even if the decisive goals came in extra time. Whether those where both teams scored the same number of actual goals count as wins and losses for statistical purposes, as opposed to progress and exits from knockout competitions, is a moot point.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s 3-1 victory at Swansea either was or wasn’t Pep Guardiola’s 200th win in charge of City and the recent 1-0 victory over Sheffield United was or wasn’t his 500th in management, depending on whether triumphs on shootouts are factored in and creating the possibility for another 200th and 500th win in the next few weeks. 

It may all seem a blur of semantics and a mass of statistics. Modernity has generated more of them, a more data-driven game producing both insightful information and spurious numbers (for which some of us are guilty).

A personal view is that City’s most significant winning record is the 18 straight Premier League victories they reeled off in 2017-18, either side of the 0-0 draw / penalty shootout win (and each reader can delete as they see appropriate) against Wolves: all in 90 minutes, all against top-flight opponents, all in the same competition.  Some of the criticisms of the Premier League for pretending football was invented in 1992 are fair, but at least the division’s records tend to be indisputable. 

And in the far wider context of a global game that dates back to the 19th century, there are difficulties in quantifying and codifying everything. Some facts from the past are confused by the mists of time. Even seemingly the most important can be a matter of debate.

Last month, Cristiano Ronaldo became the scorer of the most goals in the history of football. Or did he? It was then apparent the Portuguese had 760 senior goals. But Josef Bican, who he supposedly overhauled, may have had 805 or 821 or 948, depending on which games have senior status, which are friendlies, the classification of matches in war-time Czechoslovakia, the way information was preserved and a myriad of other factors. Pele claims to have got 1,283. Romario insisted he got over 1,000, even if his quest to boost his tally may have involved Subbuteo matches. It is less contentious to say that Ronaldo, with 102, has the second most goals of any man in international football. Yet the fact the leader, with 109, is Ali Daei, illustrates that this is a strange contest. It would be a great achievement to have the most goals of any man ever in international football, yet the stark differences in the opponents they have faced mean a comparison between their respective tallies feels meaningless. After all, Stern John has two more international goals than Gerd Muller.

An attempt to give meaning to everything can lead to placing numbers above understanding when evidence should be used appropriately in a broader assessment. And, while it would be an impossible task to get every club, body and country to agree to a broader set of rules, records and landmarks can feel a matter of individual interpretation. Leicester thought Kasper Schmeichel’s 400th appearance for them was actually his 399th; they counted a League Cup tie against Torquay but not a Community Shield game with Manchester United. When Ryan Giggs assumed United’s appearance record, it was overshadowed by the reality it was in the 2008 Champions League final, but his 759th game came amid a bit of confusion: for 35 years, it was thought Bobby Charlton had played 759 times, before some research meant he was downgraded to 758.

Ultimately, it was a matter only for United, Charlton and Giggs, whose eventual tally of 963 looks the kind of record that will never be beaten, just as it is up to City to rule what they feel their longest winning run actually is. But recent events raise the question of when a record is and when it isn’t actually a record.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.