On ties, tables and time: History of Soccer, postscript

Well, that was a lot of fun. On Thursday, in a classroom at Judea Reform Congregation’s education center in Durham, I taught my first class for Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I greeted a dozen students and promised to teach them about the history of the beautiful and not-so-beautiful game.

After some unfortunate difficulties with the Blu-Ray player, we got started. An hour and a half later, I was less than halfway through my lesson plan, yet we were having marvelous discussions about the single table, promotion and relegation and the English football league pyramid. We got to enjoy the most famous FA Cup giant-slaying ever (here’s the link if you want to watch it again), and I even got to talk a bit about FC United of Manchester.

There were lots of good questions during the class, and here is a place to address some of them more fully.

To the question about drug testing of soccer players: 

As I stated during class, soccer players involved in international competitions such as the FIFA World Cup are indeed tested for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). I subsequently learned that FIFA’s chief medical officer, Jiri Dvorak, very recently expressed concern about the sample collection procedure for this summer’s competition. I was surprised to learn that there hasn’t been a sanctionable violation in 20 years, since Argentina star Diego Maradona was punished. However, as Dvorak says in the story, I suspect that soccer players, unlike solo athletes, baseball players or American football players, don’t get significant advantages from PEDs.

More about the English pyramid system. There are 11 levels to the English pyramid. They are as follows:

  1. Premier League—There are 20 teams in the English Premier League, and they play a 38-game schedule (each team plays two games against the other 19 teams in the league). This is widely considered the strong club competition in the world, with famous players like Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Yaya Touré, and celebrated teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool. Hundreds of millions of fans around the globe follow this league.

    The Premier League was formed in 1992 when the biggest clubs decided they wanted to negotiate their own television deals and keep most of the money for themselves. To accomplish this, they needed to break away from the original Football League, which had organized club football since the late 1880s. (David Conn, as noted in my bibliography, has written extensively about these events.)

    Although the Premier League is a separate entity, it is still connected to the rest of the leagues via promotion and relegation.

    At the end of each year, the bottom three teams are relegated to the…

  2. Football League Championship—After the creation of the Premier League, the Football League continued to operate the second, third and fourth divisions. However, they changed the name of the Second Division to the Championship, the Third Division to League One and the Fourth Division to League Two. In each of these divisions, there are 24 teams playing a schedule of 46 games (two games against each league team).

    As I stated in class, there is enormous pressure for many teams at the Championship level to push for promotion to the Premier League. At stake is a staggering amount of money: last year, £120 million or thereabouts for each promoted team.

    At the other end of the table, the bottom three teams of the Championship are relegated to…

  3. Football League One —The old Third Division is now League One. There are 24 teams playing a 46-game schedule and, at the end of the season, the bottom four teams are relegated to…
  4. Football League Two—I have a soft spot for the fourth division. The crowds are modest—typically 3,000–5,000—and the quality of play is often inelegant. But there’s an appealing folksiness at this level, and although these clubs usually don’t entertain illusions of making it to the Premier League, they are strong enough to give Premier League clubs a scare in the other tournaments.

    An excellent example of this occurred last season: League Two club Bradford City defeated three Premier League teams en route to the finals of a competition called the League Cup, not to be confused with the FA Cup that we discussed. Although the League Cup is less prestigious, Bradford’s run to the final in Wembley Stadium earned it an estimated £2.3 million, a huge amount of money for a small club.

    It was a really good year for Bradford, in fact: They had these glorious Cup victories during the season, and they also won promotion to League One. Here are highlights of their victory over mighty Arsenal, in front of delirious fans (Bradford is in red and yellow stripes).

    Now we are at the bottom of League Two, and the bottom of the entire Football League. What next? Here, the bottom two teams are relegated out of the Football League and into what is officially called the National League System but widely known as “non-league.” This is a confusing term, because non-league teams are certainly playing in leagues, but it refers to the fact that they are not in the Football League.

  5. This is where we get to what I diagrammed in class. The non-league system has seven levels and it’s pretty much all semiprofessional, with a few fully professional sides in the Conference National, having suffered a relegation from the Football League in recent years. This Wikipedia article provides a good overview and chart. My team, FC United of Manchester, is on the third level of the National League System, and the seventh level overall. They play in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League.

And finally, let me share with you a video that sheds further light on three issues we discussed:

  1. The clock doesn’t stop in soccer,
  2. Draws are an acceptable, even exciting, result, and
  3. My team, FC United of Manchester, and this season’s rival for the title, Chorley.

What you’re about to see are highlights from our game against Chorley two weeks ago. At that point, we were essentially tied with Chorley. The table looked like this:

The Northern Premier League table as it appeared prior to FC United’s game against Chorley.

Notice that FC United had played one fewer game than Chorley at this point. In soccer, this is called “having a game in hand.” So, if we defeat Chorley on this day, we will then be level on 86 points, but still have a game in hand (they will have played 42, and we will have 41). Because we would be achieving 86 points in one fewer game, we will be in first place.

What actually happened was a tense, pulsating 2-2 draw. Yes, an exciting draw. Chorley went ahead with a goal in the first half and another early in the second half. But with a huge crowd urging them on, FC United scored two goals in the final minutes of the game. While fans of FC United were a little disappointed not to win, they were delighted by the comeback to “salvage the draw.”

Both teams badly desired to win the game, but they also fervently wanted to avoid losing what is called, somewhat erroneously, a “six-pointer.” The term is a bit silly because ALL games are six-pointers, but if you look at the table, the stakes are clear: If Chorley wins the game, they would have a six-point lead. If FC United wins the game, Chorley and FC United are tied. Hence the term “six-pointer.”

In the end, a 2-2 draw was felt by most observers to be a just result, with each team taking a point. In soccer, it’s called “splitting the points.”

I should note that the size of this crowd is unusual for this level. FC United is a famous team, typically drawing 2,000 or so, far and away the most in this semipro league. Other teams in the league draw closer to 300-500. However, due to the magnitude of the contest for both sides, attendance on this day was 4,152.

Before we go to the video (which several of you saw after class), let me make a point about timekeeping:  When you see FC United finally score at 1:40, you’ll notice that the goal scorer grabs the ball and races back down the field. He’s not just having an exuberant celebration. He’s doing what soccer teams trailing in games do when they score: They grab the ball and race back to the center circle to restart the game because the clock has not stopped. You’ll see this happen again after the second goal, but with slightly less urgency.

And here’s the video. Feel free to leave questions and comments about the class below.

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