If you are a football fan and follow West Ham, and if you are old enough, cast your mind back to May 1981 almost 38 years ago. If you aren’t old enough then you will have missed a significant change in English football. The 1980-81 season was just drawing to a close and ended with Aston Villa as Division One champions on 60 points, and Ipswich Town runners-up with 56 points. The Premier League was still more than a decade away, and in those days the four divisions of English football were called, very logically, Divisions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
60 points I hear you say. How could they have possibly finished as champions with such a low number of points? The answer is that 1980-81 was the final season in English football where, if you won a game you picked up only two points.
West Ham finished that season as champions of Division 2, the season after they were the last team from the second tier of English football to win the FA Cup when they beat high-flying Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley on May 10 1980 with Trevor Brooking’s infamous diving header. We ran away with the Division 2 Championship by 13 points (a massive margin when there were only 2 points for a win). We won 19 and drew 1 of our 21 home games, whilst away from home we won 9 and drew 9. That means we lost just four league games in the season and had a record points haul of 66. We also reached the final of the League Cup, unluckily losing a replay to Liverpool, and reached the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners Cup before losing to Dinamo Tbilisi.
It’s hardly surprising that we ran away with the Division 2 title when you look at the calibre of footballers on our books. We had probably the best team ever playing at that level, either before or since, with “international quality” players including Phil Parkes, Ray Stewart, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds, Alvin Martin, Trevor Brooking, Alan Devonshire, Paul Goddard and David Cross, all of whom barely missed a game meaning that we could field almost unchanged line-ups every week. In addition to those we had Pat Holland, Jimmy Neighbour, and the only ever-present outfield player Geoff Pike. In many ways, although we were only in the second tier, it was one of the best ever teams I’ve seen in my 60 years of following the club, and I’d love to see a similar quality throughout the team now.
So, following that record breaking season we moved into Division One and began with a home game against Brighton enjoying one of their rare forays into the top flight. The excitement of our return was quickly forgotten though as we struggled to impress in a 1-1 draw with Ray Stewart scoring a penalty as all we had to show from the game. However this all changed just four days later as we crushed our North London neighbours 4-0 at White Hart Lane. The game was a personal triumph for David Cross who had scored 33 goals in all competitions in our promotion season, including 22 in the league. He bagged all four goals in the game which will also be remembered for the very first time we collected three points in a match.
This was just the start of a terrific run where we remained unbeaten until mid-October, and led the first division for much of September. It was December before we lost our second game that season, and another record breaking campaign was on the cards. However in typical West Ham fashion we were unable to retain our consistency throughout a whole season and eventually finished 9th. We only lost two of our 21 home games that season which was fewer than any other team (Liverpool the champions lost 4) but our away form let us down with 10 defeats. However we will never forget that wonderful result at Tottenham and our very first three point haul in a game of football.
So why did the “powers that be” decide to make a change to award three points for a win instead of two? After all two points for a win had been in existence for over 100 years, and it seemed quite logical too. It stemmed from the days of challenge matches where two teams competed for a prize pot with the winner taking all, and if it was a draw the spoils were split equally. This principle went unchallenged for a century but by 1980 football was in serious trouble. Crowds had almost halved from their 1950s heyday and something needed to be done to bring them back. So why had attendances dwindled so much? Many blamed the recession which gave the footballing public a stricter sense of priorities. The increased cost of admission, getting to a match, and the continuing issue of crowd violence all played its part. But the football authorities believed that dull play was considered to be the key problem, and they set up a working party under the chairmanship of Jimmy Hill, an influential football figure in the latter half of the twentieth century, to try to resolve the problem. Their suggestion, which still operates today, was to increase the reward for a win to three points.
Many people accepted that this change would stop teams “settling for a draw” and believed that they would go all out for a win to collect additional points. It was felt that this would reduce the number of drawn games as a result. Some had other views though and Arsenal manager Terry Neill suggested that a team who went one goal up would want to sit on their lead more than they might have before the points for a win increase. Certainly, Arsenal became famous for their 1-0 wins for many years to follow.
But I would question the decision to increase points for a win, and the theory that drawn games are necessarily dull just because no team has won the game. Rugby Union, for example, in an attempt to improve the game as a spectacle, awards additional points for tries scored. Might it have benefitted football if instead they had awarded additional points for goals scored to reward attacking (and hence entertaining) play?
The irony is that in the season that followed the introduction of three points for a win there were more draws than the previous season and fewer goals scored in the top flight! And there is little evidence that three points for a win has changed the mindset of teams or the eventual outcome of titles (although Blackburn Rovers wouldn’t have been champions in the mid-1990s if two points for a win still existed).
Nevertheless all West Ham fans of a certain age will always remember our first three point haul. What chance of a repeat this weekend? A win of any kind would be welcome, but a win of that magnitude has never been repeated, and bookmakers’ will offer you virtually any odds you care to ask for to see another 4-0 victory at Tottenham.