The Fleeting Stint: Uncovering Football Clubs with the Shortest Time in English Top Division

Updated: 34 Football

Dive into our fascinating study outlining football clubs that barely tasted English top division glory. Incorporating intriguing data on the 'one-season wonders' and the teams that lightly invested in the top tier.

The Fleeting Stint: Uncovering Football Clubs with the Shortest Time in English Top Division
In this article: Worst First Division Clubs
Dan Tracey Data Scientist and Football Editor

Writer, analyst, podcaster, Spurs fan. Three out of four is not bad. If there is a data angle, I will find it.

This article unveils an insightful exploration into the sides that spent the least time in the top tier of English football. Notably, you'll dive into the captivating tales of the 6 'one-season wonders', revealing what makes their short appearances so extraordinary. The piece presents rich context, shedding light on the intriguing dynamics of English football. It's a must-read for anyone seeking to appreciate the ebb and flow of this beautiful game, from high-stakes investments to the fleeting moments of top-tier glory.

Unearth the tales of English football's 'One-Season Wonders' ⚽️

Sometimes a fleeting moment of glory is all we get, but it makes the game all the more beautiful. Dive in now 🏆👉

They say that reaching the Premier League is the holy grail and although there is a large amount of truth in that statement, for some clubs just reaching the Football League is more than enough when it comes to progress.

With the current league structure comprising of four divisions – the Premier League takes care of the top, the EFL the remaining three, it means that 92 clubs can currently consider themselves as a league club.

A term that is afforded to any club that is operating between the Premier League and EFL League Two and although 92 teams are a part of this elite club at present, a total of 143 have graced the professional pyramid to date.

Within this group of 143, we know all about the dominance of Manchester United and Liverpool or the attempts by local rivals Manchester City to edge closer to their 20 and 19 First Division wins respectively but what about those clubs who have swum to the top tier and then be cast adrift? 

This is where we are going to look at those clubs that have had far less dalliance with the top tier – be it in its First Division or Premier League guise and see who has suffered when mixing it with the very best in English football.

Rank Club 1st Tier 2nd Tier 3rd Tier 4th Tier Season Debut League Debut First Last First 1st Tier %
1 Accrington 5 0 0 0 5 1888-89 1888-89 1892-93 100.00%
2 Everton 121 4 0 0 125 1888-89 1888-89 Current 96.80%
3 Liverpool 109 11 0 0 120 1893-94 1894-95 Current 90.83%
4 Arsenal 107 13 0 0 120 1893-94 1904-05 Current 89.17%
5 Aston Villa 110 13 2 0 125 1888-89 1888-89 Current 88.00%
6 Tottenham Hotspur 89 16 0 0 105 1908-09 1909-10 Current 84.76%
7 Chelsea 89 19 0 0 108 1905-06 1907-08 Current 82.41%
8 Manchester United 99 22 0 0 121 1892-93 1892-93 Current 81.82%
9 Manchester City 95 25 1 0 121 1892-93 1899-1900 Current 78.51%

First we should note that there have been 65 clubs that have competed in the top tier of English football and the only club to have a 100% record at this level is Accrington. Not the Accrington Stanley that we all know and love but Accrington.

A club that although has a 100% record in the top tier also has a rather large caveat attached to it. A caveat that saw them operate in just five league campaigns from 1888/89 to 1892/93 and with the club long since folded, they will never have the chance to see that record broken.

One and Only: Accrington Holds Unrivaled 100% Record in English Football's Top Tier

🏆⚽️ Only one club holds a 100% record in the top tier of English football: Accrington! Take note, it's not the beloved Accrington Stanley we're familiar with, but the original Accrington. 🥇

Which means if Accrington are the outlier, we must give a nod to Everton. They may be struggling on the field of play at present but across their 125 seasons of operation, 121 of them have been in the top tier.

A 96.80% strike rate and 5.97% higher than that of local rivals Liverpool who have contested 109 out of a possible 120 top tier seasons. Merseyside dominance should not be overlooked but nor should Arsenal who have an 89.17% strike rate after just 13 seasons from 120 away from the highest level.

These are all success stories from some of the most well-known clubs in the land, but what about those who have had one touch with greatness and failed to do anything with it? This is where things start to get a lot more interesting.

If we were to filter all the clubs that have just one top tier season and produce a new table, we would be left with this: 

Club 1st Tier 2nd Tier 3rd Tier 4th Tier Season Debut League Debut First Last First 1st Tier %
Glossop North End 1 16 0 0 17 1898-99 1899-1900 1899-1900 5.88%
Carlisle United 1 15 41 28 85 1928-29 1974-75 1974-75 1.18%
Swindon Town 1 19 65 9 94 1920-21 1993-94 1993-94 1.06%
Northampton Town 1 3 51 41 96 1920-21 1965-66 1965-66 1.04%
Leyton Orient 1 41 43 19 104 1905-06 1962-63 1962-93 0.96%
Barnsley 1 77 25 10 113 1898-99 1997-98 1997-98 0.88%

Of the 143 clubs that are in the sample, only six have had a one-time grace with either the First Division or the Premier League. Six clubs that celebrated promotion one May and then were commiserated on relegation the next.

The most recent was Barnsley, as the Oakwell outfit’s Premier League timeline consists of the 1997/98 season and nothing else. The good times were short but at least it gave their supporters a season of memories.

Or did it? Because as good as mixing it with the very best of the Premier League can be, there is sometimes the feeling of dread that soon follows, dread that comes once the celebrations connected with promotion have worn off. 

From Elation to Desolation: The Swift Downfall of Swindon Town

😰🔻 The joy that surrounded Swindon Town when Glenn Hoddle led them to the First Division play-off win in 1992/93 turned bitter quickly. Hoddle moved on to Chelsea, leaving John Gorman in charge, a decision that led to relegation and a crushing 100 goals conceded in their debut Premier League season. 🥅⚽️

That feeling of dread would certainly have been felt within Swindon Town and although there was nothing but jubilation when Glenn Hoddle lead the club to a dramatic First Division play-off win at the end of the 1992/93 season, things would turn sour rather quickly.

Hoddle would be snapped up by Chelsea, assistant John Gorman would take the Swindon Town job for himself. However, the Scot may have wished that he did not bother, not only were they relegated at the end of their debut Premier League season, but they also conceded 100 goals in the process.

After Swindon Town’s dismal season, you must go back nearly 20 years for the next one shot club. The club in question is Carlisle United, of the 85 league campaigns they have contested, just one of them was in the First Division.

Then again, things do not read well for Northampton Town or Leyton Orient. Both the Cobblers and the O’s spent one season in the First Division – that being one out of 96 and 104 seasons respectively.

The other club that makes up the sextuplet are Glossop North End, a club that currently plays in the ninth tier of English football. A club that had one season in the First Division back at the turn of the 20th century.

One of 17 eventual seasons in the Football League, they would need five promotions if they are to have any chance of adding to that tally. Then again, with the beauty of a fluid football pyramid, it is not something that you can rule out in the future.


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One thing we can certainly rule out though is the efforts of these six clubs and to add some further context, we will look at the individual league records of their top flight seasons and how they stack up against each other. 

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts PPG
18 Glossop North End 34 4 10 20 31 74 -43 18  
22 Leyton Orient 42 6 9 27 37 81 -44 21  
21 Northampton Town 42 10 13 19 55 92 -37 33  
22 Carlisle United 42 12 5 25 43 59 -16 29  
22 Swindon Town 42 5 15 22 47 100 -53 30  
19 Barnsley 38 10 5 23 37 82 -45 35  

In this table, we have simply captured the league performance of each of the six clubs. However, you will also notice that there is an element of inconsistency attached and this comes with the league sizes being different.

Glossop North End were one of 18 teams, Leyton Orient through to Swindon Town were one of 22 and Barnsley were one of 20. Therefore, we cannot make a direct comparison across each of the six clubs.

A Closer Look at Football Club Rankings: Using Points Per Game for Fair Comparisons

⚽📊 League sizes differ, making direct comparisons tricky among the six clubs: Glossop North End, Leyton Orient, Swindon Town, Barnsley, Northampton Town, and Carlisle United. Yet, 66.6% ended up at the bottom, 33.3% just above. Can't stack 'em up directly? No worries, Points Per Game (PPG) offers a workaround! 🔄🧮

However, we do know that four of the six clubs propped up the other teams in the division. Glossop North End, Leyton Orient, Carlisle United and Swindon all had an additional ignominy of finishing bottom of the table.

On the flipside, both Northampton Town and Barnsley at least saved some grace by finishing second bottom in their respective campaigns. 66.6% of our six-club finishing at the foot of the table, 33.3% finishing second bottom.

Even though we cannot make direct comparisons with the table above, there is a way to get around it and this is by looking at their respective seasons on a Points Per Game (PPG) basis, if we use the same data, we can rank the clubs as follows:

(points standardised as three points for a win)

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts PPG
21 Northampton Town 42 10 13 19 55 92 -37 43 1.02
22 Carlisle United 42 12 5 25 43 59 -16 41 0.98
19 Barnsley 38 10 5 23 37 82 -45 35 0.92
22 Swindon Town 42 5 15 22 47 100 -53 30 0.71
18 Glossop North End 34 4 10 20 31 74 -43 22 0.65
22 Leyton Orient 42 6 9 27 37 81 -44 27 0.64

Here we can see that although Northampton Town suffered the drop at the end of 1965/66 season, it is fair to say that they did not disgrace themselves. The Cobblers earned just over a single point on average, in other campaigns that may have been enough to keep them up.

The same could also be said for Carlisle United and with a PPG of 0.98 for their efforts of 1974/75, the Cumbrian outfit can at least suffer the drop with an element of pride attached to it. You could also make a slightly weaker case for Barnsley but the same can certainly not be said elsewhere.

Exploring PPG: Dignified Drops and Historical Lows in English Top Flight Football

⚽🔽 In 1965/66 Northampton Town may have been relegated, but with over a point per game, they held their own. The same applies to Carlisle United, boasting a PPG of 0.98 in 1974/75. Harder to justify for Swindon Town in 1993/94 with 100 goals against & a lowly 0.6 PPG! 🥅📉

Swindon Town’s 100 goals against is the key headline from the 1993/94 Premier League season, John Gorman’s men averaged just 0.71 PPG that season and have not been seen near the English top flight since.

Just 0.06 more than the historical efforts of Glossop North End, from the 34 league matches that they contested in their only First Division season, only four wins were recorded and this was a large factor in their eventual 0.65 PPG.

However, Glossop’s four wins went alongside 10 draws in the same season and those 22 points in total mean that Leyton Orient have to make do with the unwanted award of the worst ever one time First Division outfit.

The East London club had a season to forget during 1962/63, as they finished bottom of the First Division table. In doing so, they picked up just 27 total points (if there were three points for a win), giving them a PPG of 0.64.

Pushed into bottom by the barest of margins but bottom all the same and although Leyton Orient may have made club history by mixing it with the best just over 60 years, at the same time it may be a season that they want to forget.

Methodology and Author Information

This article was researched and fact-checked by Dan Tracey who also then added the words - Dan is a multi-talented writer, data analyst and podcaster whose six-year career in the sports data sphere has seen incredible successes. From helping UEFA create their annual technical reports to writing articles for Sports Betting Websites, including sites like TheLinesUS and Goal


Data correct as of October 20th 2023.

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