This article first appeared on The Tomkins Times on 21st June 2011.
Fans of smaller clubs like to believe that the big teams get preferential treatment from referees. Whilst this may take many forms, many of which are likely to be immeasurable, an obvious indicator of this would be the awarding of penalties.
I have obtained the Premier League penalty stats from 1999-2000 up to the season just ended, so thought I would see if this is indeed the case or not. Although Liverpool have finished outside the top four in the last two seasons, I will refer to them here as in the widely known ‘big four’, as they were for the majority of the time covered in this article.
As I have the statistics for the 20 teams that were in the top division last season, I have had to average the figures. This is because the time spent in the top flight varies from one year (Blackpool) up to the seven ever-present teams (I’m sure you don’t need me to name them for you!).
So which team has won the most penalties (per season) in the last 12 years? I would think most people would guess Manchester United, but is that the case?
Nope. Blackpool’s one season in the top flight makes them a statistical anomaly compared to some of the long standing teams at the top end of the list, but the table still demonstrates that the bigger teams are all to be found near the top.
Of course, they tend to do the most attacking, so it’s no evidence of bias in any way, but it’s easy to see why people believe they do benefit more in this regard.
It’s interesting to see Newcastle in second place, as this information begins after the first Kevin Keegan era, when they were regarded as arguably the top attacking side in the country, yet they have still won more penalties than most.
I was surprised to see that Liverpool have won more penalties than Chelsea and (especially) Manchester United over this period. This is only the total figure though, it does not take into account the timings of penalties awarded, which can be crucial, as can whether they should have been awarded or not. A softly awarded penalty when a team is struggling can have a massive bearing on a game, but of course, there are no statistics or records for such things.
Purely out of interest, rather than to try and prove or disprove anything, which teams are the most successful from 12 yards?
A common gripe from supporters of smaller teams is the home advantage applied by referees that only benefits the larger teams. The standard line is that referees are always swayed by the roar of the Kop, the imposing Stretford End at Old Trafford, or the, er, plastic flag waving in the Matthew Harding stand. Is this really the case though?
Bit of a mixed bag this one. Despite the Kop’s reputation for bullying refs, it’s interesting to note that nine teams have won more home penalties (pro-rata) than Liverpool over the last 12 years.
Surely if the bigger teams got preferential treatment from refs, then they’d also get more pens away from home. Has this been the case since August 1999?
Not especially. Despite all the assumptions about Manchester United being lucky with refs, and especially with a certain Mr Webb, teams such as Bolton and Wigan have won more penalties than the current champions away from home.
The awarding of penalties is hugely important at the defensive end of the field too. Do the bigger teams give away the fewest penalties?
Once again, Blackpool are the blip amongst the ‘big four’ teams, but they do make up the rest of the top five. Perhaps these teams don’t have quite so much defending to do as the less successful sides, and again it would be impossible to prove any bias from refs, but it certainly seems to back up what people asssume, whatever the reasons for it actually are.
Combining the two sets of main figures to show who benefits the most at both ends of the field is interesting. The following ratio shows what percentage of the penalties involved in a club’s matches they themselves are awarded. In other words, by winning lots of penalties and giving away fewer, a team would be at the top end of this table, as opposed to conceding lots and not winning so many.
Although Manchester United have won the least penalties of the big four sides, their superior tally for not giving them away puts them at the top of the established Premier League sides on this table. It could therefore be argued that they get the rub of the green most on penalty decisions at both ends of the pitch, though it’s impossible to prove of course.
Interesting to see that Liverpool are 4th of the big four, though still 5th overall in fairness. It may just be coincidence, but the big four clubs are ranked above in the same order as if ranking them on number of championships won over this period.
Unfortunately there are too many unknowns here to definitively prove anything regarding favouritism from referees, but the information should encourage some debate. If nothing else, it hopefully shows that the ‘big four’ are not as way out in front in many aspects of the penalty issue as people might assume.
Please take a look at my other articles, a list of which can be found here.