Football: How consistency and caution made Arsenal England's greatest team of the 20th century

Three outstanding managers put the Gunners above Liverpool and Manchester United in the biggest league table of all. By Guy Hodgson

THIS WILL have eyebrows rocketing upwards on anyone who was attracted to football for the first time in the 1990s: the English club of the last 100 years has nothing to do with Jack Rowley, Bobby Charlton, or David Beckham. Manchester United may have been the team of three decades but the 20th century title belongs elsewhere.

Boring Arsenal? Lucky Arsenal? The statistics would suggest Successful Arsenal is a more appropriate and kindly description. Liverpool may have won more championships, but in terms of consistency, of riding out the rough years, the London club that began as Dial Square on a pitch with an open sewer running by it come up smelling sweeter than anyone. "When I played for Arsenal," Ted Drake, their prolific centre-forward of the 1930s, recalled, "the saying was `what we have we hold'." It is a sentiment underpinning a solidity which has endured for nearly all the 100 years.

Judged by their finishing positions, Arsenal's average in England's top division is 8.5, which pips Liverpool's 8.7, while Old Trafford's near monopoly of honours in recent times has merely dragged Manchester United to fourth with 10.9. Surprisingly, to anyone who has closely followed the modern trials at Goodison Park, Everton are the century's third best club with a score of 10.6.

Arsenal's place at the top of the table has plenty to do with Arsene Wenger and George Graham, who won titles in the 80s and 90s, but they themselves would bow to Herbert Chapman who, arguably, surpasses even Bob Paisley and Matt Busby as the manager of the century.

In 1925 Arsenal's chief notoriety had been achieved by their scandalous inclusion in the post-Great War First Division at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur, thus becoming the only club to be promoted for reasons other than playing merit. Even then they were an undistinguished and perpetually broke institution whose advertisement for a new secretary-manager in the Athletic News read: "Only people who will not spend big money on transfer fees need apply".

For some reason this less-than-succulent morsel attracted Chapman, who had just guided Huddersfield Town to two of their three successive championships and, after the starter of the 1930 FA Cup, his team of Alex James, Cliff Bastin, David Jack and Ted Drake etc consumed five titles in seven years.

The Marble Halls, the allure of Highbury, a repute as England's premier club all stemmed from the period made more glittering by its backcloth of the Depression and the countdown to the Second World War.

Equally importantly in terms of their position as the club of the century, Arsenal's glory days were not followed by the anti-climax of relegation and their 80 successive years in the top division edge them ahead of Liverpool, whose 18 championships are undermined by two spells in the Second Division, the latter for eight seasons between 1954 and 1962.

Manchester United (12 titles) and Everton (eight), too, have had their years in the shadows while the other members of the top 10 - Aston Villa (two), Tottenham (two), Newcastle (four), Manchester City (two), Chelsea (one) and Sunderland (three) - have interspersed their successes with occasional visits to the lower orders of the Football League.

In a system which penalises relegation (Sunderland's First Division Championship last season gave them a finishing position only of 21st, for example) these lapses prove costly although it is also interesting how success has a lingering effect. Burnley, champions in 1921 and 1960, are 27th, Portsmouth, also two titles, are 30th.

The two Sheffield clubs, with seven titles between them, are both in the top 20 which makes their current plights even less bearable and underlines why local opinion would oppose a merger. Heritage and history are never easily shared.

Further down there are names that read like fading inscriptions on tombstones. Bradford Park Avenue are 53rd, ahead of last week's FA Cup giant-killers Wrexham and Tranmere, while New Brighton, who once had a ground that incorporated a tower to rival Blackpool's tourist attraction, are 70th and Accrington Stanley 73rd. The doleful list of clubs who no longer exist includes Gateshead (57th), who were voted into oblivion in 1960 after their first application for re-election since 1937. Theirs was possibly the most unjust rejection in Football League history.

Peterborough, who replaced Gateshead, have inched only to 86th of the 99 clubs who make the 20-season qualification, but newness does not necessarily mean lowliness. Wimbledon, who were elected in 1977, are 28th and Ipswich are 25th despite not joining the League until the season before the Second World War. Both have had to overcome the built-in handicap of having to rise through four divisions.

On a decade-by-decade basis some statistics are so remarkable they look like errors. Manchester United's average position in the 90s is 1.9, which means they have been first so often the lesser years cannot even drag them down to an average of second. Astonishing, except that the figure was equalled by Liverpool in the 70s and even surpassed with 1.7 in the 80s. That is a lot of win bonuses.

Lancashire has been predominant since the war as the old county boundaries have encompassed the team of the decade on each occasion, Manchester United taking the honours in the 40s (despite failing to win a championship), 50s and 90s, Liverpool in the 70s and 80s and Everton in the 60s. The north-east had its heyday at the turn of the century and Herbert Chapman's teams dominated the inter-war years.

But the tables also chronicle the accelerating trend of strength being drawn to the bright lights of the big cities. In the 50s Burnley, Blackpool, Bolton and Preston finished in the top 10 while even as recently as the 80s the most successful dozen included Norwich and Luton.

The rich variety those clubs brought is slowly dying thanks to the concentration of television money and playing resources towards a dwindling number. The seven most successful clubs of the 90s are arguably also the richest - and there is no reason to believe that the team of the next decade will come from outside their ranks.

The Independent's table is based on each club's League position - in the Football League and Premiership - at the end of every season in the 20th century. There is a minimum qualification of 20 seasons.

To calculate the average final League position, the Premiership and Football League divisions are counted as one continuous table. For example, Sunderland's finishing position last season (when they won the First Division championship) was 21st.

Top Division: First Division up to 1992, Premiership thereafter.

Second Division: Second Division up to 1992, First Division thereafter.

Third Division: Third Division (1920-21 season only), Third Division South or North (1921-1958), Third Division (1958-1992), Second Division (from 1992).

Fourth Division: Fourth Division (1958-1992), Third Division thereafter.

Where a club has finished in its highest position more than once, the most recent occasion is counted.

* Denotes clubs no longer in the league.

Seasons Top 2nd 3rd 4th Highest Ave final

in league Div Div Div Div finish position

1 Arsenal 89 83 6 0 0 11 titles 8.5

2 Liverpool 89 80 9 0 0 18 titles 8.7

3 Everton 89 85 4 0 0 8 titles 10.6

4 Manchester United 89 73 16 0 0 12 titles 10.9

5 Aston Villa 89 77 10 2 0 2 titles 12.5

6 Tottenham Hotspur 81 65 16 0 0 2 titles 13.2

7 Newcastle 89 68 21 0 0 4 titles 14.4

8 Manchester City 89 71 17 1 0 2 titles 14.5

9 Chelsea 84 65 19 0 0 1 title 15.4

10 Sunderland 89 62 26 1 0 3 titles 16.6

11 Sheffield Wednesday 89 59 25 5 0 4 titles 18.7

12 West Bromwich Albion 89 56 31 2 0 1 title 18.8

13 Leeds United 84 57 27 0 0 3 titles 18.8

14 West Ham United 74 45 29 0 0 3 titles 19.7

15 Derby County 89 50 35 4 0 2 titles 20.2

16 Middlesbrough 89 51 36 2 0 3 titles 20.8

17 Sheffield United 89 52 31 5 1 4 titles 21.2

18 Blackburn Rovers 89 59 25 5 0 3 titles 21.2

19 Wolverhampton Wanderers 89 47 37 3 2 3 titles 21.6

20 Nottingham Forest 89 48 39 2 0 1 title 21.9

21 Leicester City 89 43 46 0 0 2nd (D1) 1929 22.3

22 Birmingham City 89 48 37 4 0 6th (D1) 1956 22.9

23 Bolton Wanderers 89 51 26 11 1 3rd (D1) 1925 23.1

24 Stoke City 82 40 37 5 0 4th (D1) 1947 24.2

25 Ipswich Town 55 24 20 11 0 1 title 25.7

26 Southampton 73 30 34 9 0 2nd (D1) 1984 26.5

27 Burnley 89 40 31 11 7 2 titles 28.9

28 Wimbledon 23 14 2 3 4 6th (D1) 1994 29.4

29 Huddersfield Town 79 30 32 12 5 3 titles 30.3

30 Portsmouth 73 26 35 10 2 2 titles 30.4

31 Coventry City 74 33 18 22 1 6th (D1) 1970 31.8

32 Preston North End 89 34 31 19 5 2nd (D1) 1958 32.1

33 Charlton Athletic 72 19 39 14 0 2nd (D1) 1937 32.5

34 Blackpool 89 27 40 16 6 2nd (D1) 1956 33.6

35 Norwich City 73 20 25 28 0 3rd (D1) 1993 36.2

36 Fulham 82 12 49 18 3 10th (D1) 1960 36.7

37 Queen's Park Rangers 73 20 17 36 0 2nd (D1) 1976 37.3

38 Luton Town 73 16 29 25 3 7th (D1) 1987 37.6

39 Notts County 89 22 33 25 9 3rd (D1) 1901 39.5

40 Bristol City 88 9 41 36 2 2nd (D1) 1907 40.2

41 Cardiff City 73 15 32 17 9 2nd (D1) 1924 41.3

42 Crystal Palace 73 12 25 33 3 3rd (D1) 1991 41.4

43 Bury 89 17 38 22 12 4th (D1) 1926 41.6

44 Grimsby Town 88 12 41 27 8 5th (D1) 1935 41.9

45 Oldham Athletic 82 12 36 27 7 2nd (D1) 1915 42.0

46 Barnsley 89 1 61 17 10 19th (D1) 1998 42.6

47 Hull City 84 0 50 28 6 3rd (D2) 1910 43.8

48 Oxford United 38 3 18 14 3 18th (D1) 1987 45.3

49 Millwall 73 2 30 36 5 10th (D1) 1989 45.8

50 Plymouth Argyle 73 0 34 36 3 4th (D2) 1953 46.4

51 Watford 73 7 15 46 5 2nd (D1) 1983 48.2

52 Bradford City 86 11 26 32 17 5th (D1) 1911 48.2

53 *Bradford Park Avenue 51 3 22 16 10 9th (D1) 1915 48.5

54 Leyton Orient 84 1 41 33 9 22nd (D1) 1963 49.4

55 Bristol Rovers 73 0 19 54 0 6th (D2) 1956 50.1

56 Brighton & Hove Albion 73 4 15 48 6 13th (D1) 1982 50.2

57 *Gateshead 34 0 8 24 2 6th (D2) 1922 50.5

58 Port Vale 81 0 35 33 13 5th (D2) 1931 50.7

59 Swindon Town 73 1 18 50 4 22nd (D1) 1994 51.0

60 Swansea Town/City 73 2 34 23 14 6th (D1) 1982 51.7

61 Rotherham United 74 0 23 44 7 3rd (D2) 1955 52.0

62 Brentford 73 5 10 45 13 5th (D1) 1936 53.4

63 Reading 73 0 11 54 8 2nd (D2) 1995 54.0

64 Chesterfield 81 0 19 45 17 4th (D2) 1947 55.4

65 Shrewsbury Town 50 0 10 36 4 8th (D2) 1985 56.6

66 Bournemouth 70 0 3 59 8 12th (D2) 1989 56.7

67 Lincoln City 85 0 26 31 28 5th (D2) 1902 57.3

68 Carlisle United 65 1 15 33 16 22nd (D1) 1975 57.5

69 Stockport County 88 0 24 35 29 8th (D2) 1998 58.0

70 *New Brighton 22 0 1 21 0 4th (D2) 1901 58.1

71 Tranmere Rovers 72 0 10 45 17 4th (D2) 1993 58.3

72 Walsall 73 0 5 60 8 14th (D2) 1962 58.6

73 *Accrington Stanley 33 0 0 31 2 2nd (D3) 1958 59.3

74 Southend United 73 0 6 52 15 13th (D2) 1995 60.1

75 Wrexham 72 0 4 50 18 15th (D2) 1979 61.0

76 Cambridge United 30 0 8 7 15 5th (D2) 1992 62.6

77 *Doncaster Rovers 71 0 11 30 30 7th (D2) 1902 62.9

78 Gillingham 68 0 0 52 16 4th (D3) 1999 63.0

79 Wigan Athletic 22 0 0 14 8 4th (D3) 1987 63.8

80 Northampton Town 73 1 3 41 28 21st (D1) 1966 63.8

81 Mansfield Town 62 0 1 41 20 21st (D2) 1978 64.6

82 *Southport 50 0 0 34 16 4th (D3) 1939 65.9

83 *Barrow 44 0 0 33 11 5th (D3) 1932 66.0

84 York City 64 0 2 38 24 15th (D2) 1975 66.4

85 *Newport County 60 0 1 40 19 22nd (D2) 1947 66.5

86 Peterborough United 40 0 2 16 22 10th (D2) 1993 66.8

87 Crewe Alexandra 72 0 3 37 32 11th (D2) 1998 67.5

88 Scunthorpe United 50 0 6 15 29 4th (D2) 1962 67.8

89 Colchester United 48 0 0 24 24 3rd (D3) 1957 68.1

90 Chester City 62 0 0 35 27 3rd (D3) 1947 68.4

91 Exeter City 73 0 0 44 29 2nd (D3) 1933 68.6

92 Halifax Town 67 0 0 42 25 2nd (D3) 1935 68.6

93 Torquay United 66 0 0 33 33 2nd (D3) 1957 69.4

94 Darlington 71 0 2 32 37 15th (D2) 1926 70.7

95 Rochdale 72 0 0 36 36 2nd (D3) 1927 71.2

96 *Aldershot Town 52 0 0 24 28 10th (D3) 1939 71.5

97 Hartlepool United 72 0 0 34 38 2nd (D3) 1957 72.5

98 *Workington 26 0 0 10 16 4th (D3) 1957 73.8

99 *Hereford United 25 0 1 4 20 22nd (D2) 1977 77.5

CLUBS WITH LESS THAN 20 YEARS' LEAGUE EXPERIENCE

Gainsborough Trinity 12 0 12 0 0 6th (D2) 1905 32.7

Glossop North End 15 0 15 0 0 6th (D2) 1910 32.8

Burton United 7 0 7 0 0 10th (D2) 1902 34.4

Stalybridge Celtic 2 0 0 2 0 7th (D3) 1922 53.0

Nelson 10 0 1 9 0 21st (D2) 1924 54.9

Ashington 8 0 0 8 0 8th (D3) 1924 58.0

Aberdare Athletic 6 0 0 6 0 8th (D3) 1922 59.0

*Wycombe Wanderers 7 0 0 6 1 6th (D3) 1995 60.1

Durham City 7 0 0 7 0 11th (D3) 1922 60.1

Merthyr Tydfil 10 0 0 10 0 8th (D3) 1921 60.5

Thames 2 0 0 2 0 20th (D3) 1931 65.0

*Macclesfield Town 3 0 0 1 2 24th (D3) 1999 72.3

*Barnet 9 0 0 1 8 24th (D3) 1994 76.6

Maidstone United 3 0 0 0 3 5th (D4) 1990 82.0

Scarborough 12 0 0 0 12 5th (D4) 1989 82.1

*Cheltenham Town 1 0 0 0 1 16th (D4)** -

* Clubs currently in the League

** Current position

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