It’s no secret that supporting a football team can be an emotionally draining business, and the extent to which these feelings are felt is often to the complete bafflement of non-football fans.
A recent study by the University of Sussex found that football fans were more negatively affected by a loss than positively affected by a win, leading to headlines that claimed supporting football makes you ‘less happy’.
Not all clubs give their fans equal cause for excitement, however, with many treading water in the same league for years on end. We decided to find out which clubs from the top four divisions are historically the most (and least) exciting to support – you can find how your club fares in the search tool below.
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Using 60 years of results from the top four leagues, as well as the FA Cup, we looked at factors including promotions, titles, relegations (excitement cuts both ways), goals per game, win percentages and cup runs to come up with an Excitement Index by which to judge a season.
Which teams are most (and least) exciting?
With 16 league titles since 1958, the club that has treated its fans to the highest level of excitement over the years was – perhaps unsurprisingly – found to be Manchester United.
United had the highest goals scored per game average and the second highest win percentage across all teams (behind Liverpool).
Current top flight heavyweights, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all also finished in the top 10 (for clubs to have played at least 20 seasons in the top four leagues) along with Wolves, Wimbledon, Brighton, Luton and Cambridge.
At the opposite end of the spectrum Halifax Town emerged as the least exciting team in the ranking, slightly ahead of Rochdale, Barnet and Chester.
The most exciting seasons ever
Due to the season-by-season basis upon which we created these scores it is also possible to say which club has had the most and least exciting seasons over the past 60 years. The top five are as follows.
- Cambridge United’s division three winning 1990-91 season was found to be the most exciting on record. Their second of three consecutive promotions saw them win 54 per cent of their league games and reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup.
- Having finished 17th the previous year Mansfield Town surged up the table in the 1974-75 season to win the fourth division, losing just six times in the process. They also managed to reach to 5th round of the FA Cup – the only fourth tier side to do so that year.
- The only time Tottenham won a league title during the past 60 years was in 1960-61. They did so with an incredible 74 per cent win percentage, the highest for a 42-game season in the data. They also scored 2.7 goals per game (Manchester City managed 2.8 per game last season) and won the FA Cup.
- After flirting with relegation in 2008-09, Notts County found form the following season to top League Two and also became the first fourth-tier team to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup for six years.
- Another instance of going from zero to hero was Oxford United’s second consecutive title and promotion in 1984-85. The Us won promotion to Division 1 with a 60 per cent win percentage.
Honourable mention must also go to Wigan Athletic’s 2012-13 season which came seventh on the list of most exciting seasons ever. It is also the only season in which a team managed to win the FA Cup at the same time as being relegated.
Our sympathy also goes out to Oldham fans whose 2016-17 season was found to be the least exciting across 60 years of football. Oldham finished 17th in League One, the same as the previous year, scoring just 0.7 goals per game in the process and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the second round.
How we came up with our scores
Our Excitement Index uses 60 years of data from the top four tiers of English football as well as the FA Cup.
In order to judge how exciting a season was we assessed each one using 10 different measures to assess how well or badly a given team performed and how unusual this performance was relative to their usual performances.
To assess how well a team had done we awarded points for titles, promotion, relegation, a top or bottom six finish, goals per game, win percentage and the round they reached in the FA Cup. This largely explains how Manchester United emerged at the top. They scooped a lot of points for winning titles in often dominant fashion.
To assess how well they done in relation to how they usually perform we looked at how their ranking across the entire football pyramid compared from one season to the next and weighted the points awarded in the FA Cup by the average round they have historically reached in the competition.
This attention to relative performance explains why teams achieving back to back promotions feature prominently in the list of most exciting seasons above. Big improvements in performance from one year to the next result in big points, especially when combined with a cup run.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to James P. Curley and his R package engsoccerdata which contains the English Soccer Data 1871-2016 dataset used for this analysis.
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