Biggest Points Comebacks In Football

Football is a game that is full of surprises. The nature of the sport means that nothing is certain until the final whistle is blown at the end of the match or the final game at the end of the season is concluded. Teams have raced into a several goal advantage, only to see the opposition fight back and even go on to win the match.

But what are the greatest league comebacks of all time? How many points ahead have teams been before losing the title at the last moment? It has happened on numerous occasions over the years, with teams feeling the pressure of leading the pack and seeing sides below them chip away at their lead. It’s not just an English phenomenon either, as it’s happened throughout European football. Here we’ll have a look at examples from history.

Biggest English League Comebacks

Despite what some companies would have you believe, football didn’t start with the invention of the Premier League. Titles were won and lost before the financial behemoth that exists now came into being. It’s true that more seems to have been made of teams ‘blowing the title’ in recent years, however. Here’s a look at some teams who’ve snatched a title defeat from the jaws of victory.

Manchester City - 1972

Joe Mercer Way
Joe Mercer Way at the Etihad, named after Joe Mercer co-manager in 1972 - By Bluemoon1989 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1971-1972 season Manchester City went to the top of the table at the end of January. They were being chased for the league title by Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, Don Revie’s Leeds United and Brian Clough’s Derby County, but over the months leading up to the start of April they built up as much as a five point lead over their rivals. That may not sound like much, but those were the days when a win was worth two points rather than three, so that’s the equivalent of about an eight point lead in the modern game.

City had co-managers for that season, with Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer normally working together well to get the Citizens working towards the First Division title. Allison wasn’t happy with merely winning the title, however. He was annoyed that so many people loved George Best, playing for City’s rivals Manchester United. He decided to go against what Mercer believed was right and signed Rodney Marsh from Queens Park Rangers for £200,000. The problem was that Marsh might have been a glamorous footballer but he wasn’t in a good condition when he arrived at Maine Road.

One of City’s most decorated players, Mike Doyle, said that Marsh was ‘a stone overweight’ and that his inclusion in the side, at the expense of form player Tony Towers, resulted in the club’s subsequent collapse. It’s perhaps unfair, with Marsh scoring in four of the eight games he appeared in. The fact that City dropped their goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan, might have had more to do with it. Whatever the reason behind it, Manchester City ended up finishing fourth in a one-horse race, blowing a five point lead in the process.

Manchester United - 1998

Alex Ferguson Stand
Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at Old Trafford - By Duncan Hull (Flickr: Sir Alex Ferguson Stand) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By the time that the 1997-1998 season got underway Manchester United were virtually old hats in the Premier League. They’d already won four titles in the newly formed division, with the 1994-1995 season being the only blip in an otherwise perfect record. The arrival of a virtually unknown Frenchman named Arsene Wenger at Arsenal part way through the previous season had shaken things up a bit, but Alex Ferguson wasn’t unduly worried. He was even less concerned when his United side had an eleven point lead at the start of March.

The old adage in football is that it’s better to have the points on the board than games in hand, so Ferguson’s confidence in his side’s ability to win their fifth title in six seasons wasn’t dented by Arsenal having three games in hand on them. It probably should have been. The Gunners won all three of their extra matches and also beat United at Old Trafford in the middle of it all, meaning that they had the numbers to overtake the Red Devils.

In April Wenger made a comment about the fixtures favouring Manchester United and Ferguson couldn’t help but respond. The man who was considered to be the master of mind games said, “He should keep his mouth shut, firmly shut. He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football”. The Scot was rattled and well he should have been; Arsenal won ten games in a row towards the end of the season and could afford to lose their last two matches and still claim their first Premier League title by a single point.

Arsenal - 2003

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger bust - By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford and Largs, United Kingdom (16 Arsene Wenger bust) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You would hope that in the wake of their triumph at United’s expense in 1998 that Arsene Wenger would displayed a touch of humility; after all you never know how things are going to work out in the future. Certainly you imagine that the Frenchman would have learnt from United’s collapse that anything can happen in football. At the very least he will have been wary of the possibility of a comeback from the Red Devils when his side took an eight point lead at the start of March.

Only Wenger and his players truly know what happened next. Was it complacency? After all, the season before they’d completed the club’s third league and FA Cup double. 24 goals from Thierry Henry helped them on their way to being the division’s highest scorers with 85 goals, but it wasn’t enough. They didn’t collapse in truly spectacular fashion, but at the same time they picked up just four wins from their remaining nine fixtures. They lost to Blackburn Rovers and at home to Leeds United, drawing with Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers and their title rivals United.

It would be easy to point to Arsenal and say they blew it, but Manchester United were absolutely relentless that season. After losing to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day of 2002 they didn’t lose another game. They won six on the bounce, drew two, won another five, drew with Arsenal and then won their remaining four games to finish top by five points. A thirteen point swing in the space of three months is impressive by anyone’s standards.

Newcastle - 1996

Kevin Keegan
Kevin Keegan playing for Newcastle in 1982 - Newcastle Libraries /

Arguably the most iconic collapse of a football club of all time, Newcastle’s failure to win the Premier League in the 1995-1996 season went down in infamy thanks to Kevin Keegan’s rant towards the end of the season. The Magpies had not won a top-flight title since 1927 when Keegan’s free-flowing, attacking football sent them to the summit with a remarkable twelve point lead in January. Even towards the end of February Newcastle were in a commanding position. They were eight points clear of Manchester United in second and also had a game in hand on them.

With thirteen games of the campaign remaining that was a virtual eleven point lead over a side that was full of younger, inexperienced players. That led to one of the season’s other iconic moments when Match Of The Day pundit Alan Hansen declared that ‘you’ll never win anything with kids”. Newcastle had responded well to adversity throughout the season, winning eight out of eleven games after they suffered their first defeat to Southampton in September, drawing the other three. Even when they lost to United at Old Trafford at the end of December they bounced straight back an won their next five.

The end of February through March saw them endure an almost unprecedented collapse. They won just two games in eight, losing five and drawing the other one. In amongst that was a home loss to their title rivals as well as a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in a game widely considered to be the ‘game of the decade’. Alex Ferguson decided to play mind games with Keegan, suggesting that Leeds tried harder against United than other teams. It led to Keegan’s famous “I’d love it if we beat them” rant after his side had ground out a tough 1-0 win over Leeds. The Magpies drew their last two games and ended up missing out on the title by four points.

Biggest League Overhauls From Abroad

It is something of a cliche to suggest that the Premier League is the best league in the world, but what is true is that is is probably one of the most competitive divisions in Europe. Bottom placed sides regularly beat teams at the top, which is something that is a rarer occurrence in top-flight leagues elsewhere. That doesn’t mean there’s never been a non-English collapse, though, as these examples demonstrate.

Real Madrid - 2004

David Beckam Shirt
By Chris Brown (Beckham) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As the calendar flipped over from February to March in 2004 Real Madrid were busy measuring up space in their cabinet for the La Liga trophy to go. They were twelve points clear of second placed Deportivo with twelve games remaining, meaning seven wins and three draws from the games they had left would have been enough to see them crowded Champions for the thirtieth time in their history.

This was one of the most expensively assembled football teams in the history of the game. David Beckham had arrived in the summer to much fanfare, joining the likes of Brazilian Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Luís Figo in the Real side. No one could have predicted, therefore, that Los Blancos would lose seven of their last eight games, with four home losses on the bounce mixed in there. They had a twelve point lead at the top but ended up finishing fourth. A spectacular collapse indeed.

Bayer Leverkusen - 2002

This one isn’t about a league collapse in the same way that others we’ve mentioned have been. Instead it was an all-encompassing failure that nearly cost Leverkusen’s new manager, Klaus Toppmoller, his job. Towards the end of April the German club were two points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga with just two games left to play. They were also gearing up for a DFB-Pokal Cup final against Schalke and they would soon reach the final of the Champions League where they would take on Real Madrid. Can you see where this one is going?

Leverkusen lost the first of their remaining two games to Nurnberg, whilst Dortmund clinched a 4-3 victory over Hamburg to take a one point lead into the final day of the season. They beat Hertha Berlin 2-1 in the final game of the campaign only to see BvB get the same score against Bremen and win the Bundesliga title. They then went to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin for the cup final and even took the lead against Schalke before going on to lose 4-2. And in the Champions League final? They went 1-0 down after eight minutes and lost 2-1, finishing a possible treble season empty handed.

Bayern Munich - 2012

A not dissimilar experience for Bayern Munich rounds off our look at league collapses. Over the course of the season the German giants had run up an eight point lead over the defending champions Borussia Dortmund, thanks to three losses in six games for BvB. A 4-2 penalty win over Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of March had seen them reach the DFB-Pokal Cup final and a 3-1 penalty win over Real Madrid in the semi-final of the Champions League at the end of April meant that they would take on Chelsea in that competition’s final come May. Can you see where this one is going?!

Bayern didn’t exactly throw in the towel in the league. They lost just two games between the start of March and the end of the season, but one of them was against Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion, allowing BvB to do the double over them in the league. They also drew a home game against Mainz 05 and when the season came to its conclusion they’d lost out on the title by a remarkable eight points. They also got absolutely destroyed by Dortmund in the cup final, losing 5-2. Could a Champions League win rescue their season? No. The game against Chelsea finished 1-1 and the English side won 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out. Bye bye treble.