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Who led the Premier League for the longest period of time without winning the championship?

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

“What’s the longest time a team has had at the top of the Premier League without winning it?” asks Paul Martin.

Whatever the record is, it could be about to be broken. Arsenal’s win over Chelsea on Tuesday night means they have been top of the table for 248 days, but Manchester City (16 days) have two games in hand and are odds-on favourites for the Premier League title.

The current holders of this unwelcome record are Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, who led the way for 212 days in 1995-96 before they were reeled in by Manchester United. Newcastle beat Coventry 3-0 on the opening day of the season and went top of the fledgling table. Barring two days in August (on each occasion, the leaders Leeds had played a game more), Newcastle were top until Eric Cantona scored an injury-time equaliser at QPR on 16 March 1996. Less than two months earlier, Newcastle had been 12 points clear.

Keegan’s team went back to the top two days later, beating West Ham 3-0 in one of their two games in hand on United. That put them ahead on goal difference – but only for five more days. At 3.03pm on 23 March 1996, the Scottish centre-back Scott Marshall headed Arsenal ahead at Highbury, and Newcastle slipped below United in the as-it-stands table. Ian Wright completed a 2-0 win with an insouciant finish, and Newcastle dropped off top spot for the final time that season.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s team did it again in 2002-03, extinguishing Arsenal’s hopes of retaining the title for the first time since the 1930s. Arsenal, playing some of the best football ever seen in this country, led the table for most of the season, including an uninterrupted spell from mid-November to mid-April. But things started to get hairy, particularly away from home – this was when Ferguson coined the phrase “squeaky-bum time” – and Ruud van Nistelrooy went into overdrive. He scored 13 goals in the last eight games, and United won the title by five points. Arsenal had been top for 189 days of the season.

Arsenal and Manchester United swapped roles in 1997-98. A young United side, playing some of the best football ever seen in this country, led the table for most of the season, including an uninterrupted spell from late-October to mid-April. But when the going got tough they desperately missed Roy Keane, who was out for the season after injuring himself while trying to leave one on Erling Haaland’s future dad.

Most people thought United had the title wrapped up at the start of March, and one publicity-shy bookmaker even paid out, but Arsenal had a number of games in hand. Their quietly emphatic 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in mid-March meant the title was in their hands and out of United’s, even if they still weren’t top of the league. Arsenal kept winning and finally went top – still with two games in hand – after thrashing Wimbledon 5-0 on 18 April. United had been top for 175 days consecutively and 187 across the whole season. Arsenal’s awesome, unprecedented run of 10 straight victories culminated in a title party against Everton, when Tony Adams summed it all up.

A decade later, Arsenal’s young side were top for most of autumn and winter, 156 days in total, but it was a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired United who won the league. Arsenal lost the lead once and for all on 15 March when they drew 1-1 at home to Middlesbrough. It was their fourth consecutive draw, a costly run that started with an infamous game at Birmingham.

Lastly, in the most unyielding Premier League race of all four seasons ago, Liverpool led the table for 141 days. They went top on 14 different occasions, but ultimately draws cost them, specifically four in six games as winter turned into spring, culminating in a goalless match at Goodison Park on 3 March. Liverpool won their last nine matches, and were top of the table at various points in April and May because of the way the matches were scheduled. But from early March, City knew it was in their hands. They won their last 14 games, an awesome, unprecedented run that determined the title by one point.

We think these are the top five unlucky losers of the Premier League era. But if we’ve missed somebody or completely messed up our calculations, you know what to do.

212 days Newcastle (1995-96)

189 Arsenal (2002-03)

187 Manchester United (1997-98)

156 Arsenal (2007-08)

141 Liverpool (2018-19)

Has an interim manager been sacked before? If so, what’s the highest number of different people to have taken charge of games between successive permanent managers?

Cristian Stellini isn’t even the first Italian caretaker to leave a London club prematurely, though whether Attilio Lombardo jumped or was pushed is open to debate. In March 1998, Crystal Palace were heading for relegation and decided to take a huge gamble: the manager Steve Coppell became director of football, and Lombardo – a fine player but one who barely spoke English – took over as player-manager. Tomas Brolin was his assistant/translator.

Chelsea had just appointed Lombardo’s old Sampdoria and Juventus teammate, Gianluca Vialli, in a similar role, though Lombardo was keen to stress one minor difference. “Gianluca is in a similar position,” he said, “although he is driving a Formula One car, as it were, while I’m in charge of a sinking ship.”

Palace conceded after 59 seconds of Lombardo’s first game, a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa, although it wasn’t all bad news. During his short spell in charge, they won at home for the first time in the league that season. On 18 April.

Lombardo lasted seven games (W2 D0 L5) before leaving when relegation was confirmed at the end of April. It was reported that he had stepped down, though that story soon changed: according to a number of reports he was sacked, and found out about it on Ceefax. He was replaced by an unlikely management duo: Ray Lewington (currently Roy Hodgson’s No 2 at Selhurst Park) and the outgoing chairman Ron Noades.

Noades left Palace that summer and became both chairman and manager of Brentford, who were promoted in his first season. Lombardo managed a few clubs in the 2000s but has more recently worked as an assistant to Roberto Mancini and others.

In last week’s Knowledge, we looked at English champions who had the longest pre-season odds. We couldn’t find Nottingham Forest’s in 1977-78, so thanks to Chris Clarke for directing us to this entry from RedRobbo on the Forest forum LTLF:

“If Luton finish higher than 12th in the Championship, which looks increasingly likely, it will be the seventh consecutive year they have improved their league position. Would that be a record?” wondered Bogdan Kotarlic in 2022.

First, a correction from John Curry: “Luton finished 11th in League Two in 2015-16 after coming eighth the year before – so they were chasing a sixth straight season of improvement. Local rivals Watford could beat that – they improved their league position for eight consecutive seasons between 1975-76 and 1982-83.” The Hornets climbed from eighth in Division Four to second in Division One in that time.

Chris Roe chimed in: “This will not be a record, not even for Luton. Their best record stands at nine straight seasons, starting in 1978. Only Gillingham (from 1994) and Oldham (from 1969) have equalled this.” Another set of Hatters, this time at Stockport, are coming, mind [update: they improved again].

Ian Ditchfield nominated National League South side Dorking Wanderers. “Their record stands at seven consecutive improvements, from fifth in the Sussex County League Division 3 in 2008-09 to second in the Isthmian League Division 1 South in 2015-16. The run was only broken by two consecutive second-place finishes, although they won the playoffs the second time. If that counts, and we disregard the voided 2021-22 season, the run will reach 12 as long as Wanderers (currently second) finish in the top six this term.” You can read more about Dorking’s remarkable rise here [update: they improved again].

@TheKnowledge_GU following Burnley being crowned champions of the championship at the home of Blackburn Rovers, how common an event is this. Who else has won the league at their local (not success rivals like man u arsenal) enemy?

“Sheffield Wednesday and Derby play each other on the last day of the League One season; if the table stays as it is, they’ll then play each other in the playoffs. I’m presuming this isn’t a first, but can anyone provide any examples?” asks James Murton.

Weymouth of National League South were in the relegation zone from the opening day of the season until they took the lead in the final game of the season to complete the great escape(on goal difference). Has anyone else done this?

“After Erling Haaland’s mid-game change of hairstyle against Arsenal, are there any other major instances of this happening?” asks Tim Robinson.

Given that we’re in pollen allergy season… has a player ever had to be substituted due to allergies?

“Idly looking at league tables pre-match at the weekend, and we discovered what we reckon was the worst season anyone has ever suffered, Airbus, in the Welsh Premier Division,” writes Andy Pechey. “Played 32, scored 18, conceded 100, points -4 (deducted 6). Can anyone find a grimmer campaign?”

One for next week: after losing to Man City, Sheff Utd have now lost their last 9 (at least) major games played at neutral venues (FA cup semi x5, play off final x4). Can anyone match that? They’ve also lost all 6 cup semi finals in my lifetime, is that another record?

“João Palhinha is on 12 yellow cards with six games to go, giving him a decent chance of reaching 15, which has never been ‘achieved’ in the Premier League,” notes Richard Powell. “Is there a suspension for reaching 15 yellows and what is the highest number of bookings in a single season anywhere?”

@TheKnowledge_GU in light of Dulwich Hamlet’s relegation this weekend what other teams have been relegated despite being the best supported club in their league? https://t.co/wxdB4vU2m3

“San Marino’s SS Cosmos finished second in the league this year – and were just one point from winning the title, which is remarkable considering they finished rock bottom last season with just five points. Has any other team ever won a league having finished in such a bad position the year before?” wonders Matthew Gregory.

Jurgen Klopp and Tony Mowbray both picked up injuries celebrating from the sidelines this weekend. Have there been any games where multiple non-players have picked up knocks? Is Klopp the first to be both carded and injured (player-managers excluded)?

@TheKnowledge_GU
Nakhon Pathom United have just won Thai League 2 having scored only 32 goals this season. Has a league ever been won with fewer goals scored?

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