Updated: Feb 18, 2021
There have only ever been two teams that have gone an entire English league season undefeated: Preston North End in the inaugural Football League season of 1888-89 and Arsenal in the 2003-04 Premier League season.
There is 115 years that separate these two great achievements, and football has changed phenomenally since Preston’s unbeaten season.
Nevertheless, the fact that this feat has only ever occurred twice in the history of English football illustrates how impressive it is, writes Peter Jones.
Preston’s unbeaten run spanned across the League and the FA Cup, securing the Lilly Whites an unprecedented (and unequalled) unbeaten double. Arsenal’s undefeated run did not span into cup competitions, as they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United in the semi-final, defeated by Middlesbrough home and away in the League Cup semi-final, and lost to Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final.
Although Preston went on to win the only cup competition on offer to them, Arsenal’s undefeated run spanned 49 games, as their run continued into the next season. Preston’s run was only 23 games in the league as they faced defeat to Aston Villa in the second game of the following season. Preston’s unbeaten run supplied more silverware, yet Arsenal’s bridged a much longer period.
Differences between football in 1889 and 2004
The season that Preston went undefeated was the first ever season of the Football League. Therefore, it is obvious that there will be a lot of differences from football in the late 1800’s to the early 2000’s. Football was a new sport and was still gathering support; this is exemplified by the fact that “In season 1888-89 the average crowd was 6,000”.
This is miniscule in comparison to the 2003/04 season, where an average of 35,000 were watching Premier League games, with 38,000 at Arsenal. As well as crowd sizes being drastically different, so were many of the rules. Some notable amendments of rules that were introduced within the ten years prior to Preston’s unbeaten season were:
1878 – A player can be offside from a throw-in.
1881 – Referees are introduced, to decide disputes between the umpires. Cautions for “ungentlemanly behaviour” and sendings-off for violent conduct introduced.
1883 – Players are required to throw the ball from above the head using two hands. The goal must have a crossbar (using tape is removed). The kick-off must be kicked forwards.
1887 – The goalkeeper may not handle the ball in the opposition’s half.
1888 – The drop ball is introduced as a means of restarting play after it has been suspended by the referee.
This further illustrates how new football was as a game. Using tape for a crossbar and goalkeepers carrying the ball into the opposition half are rules that are so far from modern football, it can be hard to relate to the game that Preston were playing. It is also interesting to further highlight some key rules that were not yet introduced whilst Preston won the league in 1888-89:
1891 – Penalties are introduced, for offences within 12 yards of the goal line. The umpires are replaced by linesmen. Pitch markings are introduced.
1897 – The number of players on each team (11) and the duration of each match (90 minutes, unless agreed otherwise), confirmed in the laws.
1903 – Direct free kicks are introduced (previously all free-kicks awarded for infringements of the laws, other than penalty kicks, had been indirect). Referees can play advantage instead of awarding a free kick or penalty.
1912 – The goalkeeper may handle the ball only in the penalty area.
These rule changes do not diminish Preston’s achievements, but they are important to acknowledge. Football is by far the most popular and financially supported sport in Britain today.
The money that is available now, and in 2004, is astronomical compared to the late 1800’s. Just because there was more money, more teams, and a higher level of competition available for Arsenal to face, that does not mean that Preston’s achievements should be ignored or degraded.
There were 12 teams in Preston’s league compared to the 20 Arsenal had to compete with, so Arsenal had to play 16 more games than Preston. Despite this, Preston scored one more goal than Arsenal in much fewer games. It must also be noted that Preston were only awarded two points for a win and Arsenal received three, which makes their respective points tallies unfair to compare.
This section is just to illustrate that the football that Preston were playing was a lot different to what Arsenal had to deal with. Nevertheless, the challenge that faced both were monumental, and this should not take any credit away from Preston the fact that their era was so different to Arsenal’s. To fully asses which was the greater achievement, the seasons under examination will have to be more closely analysed.
Preston North End 1888/89 – 22 Games, 18 Wins, 4 Draws. 74 Goals For, 15 Goals Against
Founded in 1888, the Football League is the oldest such competition in world football. The 1888/89 Football League was the first edition of the Football League, which ran from the autumn of 1888 until the spring of 1889. The Football League was formally created and named in Manchester during a meeting on 17 April 1888.
The season began on the 8th of September 1888 with 12 clubs: Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Each club played each other twice, once at home and once away. Two points were awarded for a win and one for a draw. This point system was not actually agreed upon until after the season had started; an alternate proposal was to award only one point for a win.
Ten of the twelve teams took part in the first round of fixtures. Despite the league table not being published at the time, West Brom would have been the first team to top the table. If the league was ordered by modern-day rules, then it would have been Derby who were top of the league.
Derby’s would have been the first ever table toppers because of their goal difference being +3 after the first game. West Brom won 2-0 against Stoke in front of 4,500 fans and, due to an infinite goal average as they kept a clean sheet, would have been top. Goal Average was the number of goals scored divided by goals conceded.
Goal Average was used instead of Goal Difference to separate teams who were tied on points at that time. Preston started their unbeaten run with a 5-2 win over local rivals Burnley, and Fred Dewhurst scored their first goal of the season.
Preston North End found themselves top of the league after only two games, and wins against Wolves, Bolton, Derby and Stoke kept their winning run to five games. The Lilly Whites were looking untouchable, and when they faced West Brom in October, it was a big clash between the top two sides in the league.
Albion were two points behind Preston before the game and needed a win to keep the pressure on the league leaders. Preston stormed to a 3-0 victory and their winning streak did not cease. This was until their 0-0 draw against Accrington on the seventh game of the season; Preston remained top by two points, but their winning streak had finally come to an end.
Preston went on to secure wins against Wolves and Notts County, with John Goodall scoring consecutive hat-tricks. Another exciting fixture occurred at Deepdale at the start of November when second place Aston Villa came to face the unbeatable Preston. Villa were the second team to prevent Preston from winning (and the only team that stopped Preston winning every game at home that season) as they left with a 1-1 draw. Villa went on to have a successful season at their own home, Villa Park, as they won every game, except the visit of Preston.
Consecutive wins against Stoke, Accrington, Bolton and Derby was partnered with Preston’s third draw of the season away to Burnley. Late December victories against Everton, Derby and Blackburn meant that Preston entered the New Year seventeen games unbeaten. A victory in the first game of 1889 was enough to hand Preston the title. At home to Notts County, Preston won 4-1 and were relying on Burnley defeating Villa to secure the league title with four games remaining. Villa slumped to a 4-0 defeat, and Preston had won the first ever league title.
It was a tremendous achievement to go a whole season unbeaten, perhaps the only thing that would have diminished this feat was that it occurred in the first ever Football League season. Had the Preston team and fans known it was to be over 100 hundred years until the next team matched their achievement, it would have been celebrated more.
Supporters of the time would have appreciated their team’s incredible achievement, but perhaps not as much as they should have. As has been mentioned, Preston’s achievement should not be scoffed at merely because it happened so long ago.
Another factor that does not help Preston’s claim that their invincible season was the greater achievement is the lack of historical resources that can be used to support this claim, especially in comparison to Arsenal’s. Football was a new sport, and there is a huge gulf in available resources for Preston’s greatest achievement.
Arsenal 2003/04 – 38 Games, 26 Wins, 12 Draws. 73 Goals For, 26 Goals Against
The Arsenal side from the 2003/04 season have gained immortality by winning the Premier League without losing a game. A further reason as to why this Arsenal side is so fondly remembered is the style of football that they played. A rich flow of quick-tempo passing and attacking football was a joy to behold and phenomenally successful.
Arsenal entered the 2003/04 season on the back of a disappointing previous campaign. Manchester United had pipped them to the title by five points; the Gunners were determined for revenge.
Arsenal’s second place finish came with many plaudits. It was clear that Arsene Wenger did not have much to do in terms of strengthening the personnel in his squad ahead of the new campaign, as his team was already full of high quality players — Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp to name a few.
The only task (in terms of the transfer market) that Wenger was faced with was replacing the aged David Seaman in goal. By recruiting Jens Lehmann, Wenger had found a more than worthy successor. That summer was also the season where a host of youngsters were purchased, including future captain Cesc Fàbregas.
The aforementioned Pires and then-captain Patrick Vieira were also tied down to long-term deals. These were crucial for the sustained success of the club and to mount a challenge on Manchester United’s title.
The Manchester club was not the only opposition that Arsenal faced. Chelsea were emerging as possible candidates, with the new backing of multi-billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. Chelsea even attempted to lure the Arsenal hero Thierry Henry, but he remained loyal to his club.
The first test of the new season came in the traditional curtain-raiser, the Community Shield, where Arsenal faced Manchester United. United ran out winners, with Francis Jeffers receiving headlines for being sent off. It looked as though Manchester United would continue their domination of the league. Wenger quickly loaned out Jeffers and was ready to start the season with his strong squad.
Unlike with Preston, the cup competitions were not too favourable for Wenger’s side in that great season. A poor Champions League group stage campaign saw Arsenal fail to win any of the first three games. This brought with it scepticism over the possibility of Arsenal winning any silverware that season. Nevertheless, the Gunners remained resilient, and they eventually won the group following an impressive 5-1 victory over Inter Milan at the San Siro.
Whilst the battle in Europe was commencing, Arsenal were coasting along in the league; in their first twenty games of the season, they of course remained unbeaten. A famous chant synonymous with the Arsenal fans is “1-0 to the Arsenal” and this was due to their ability to go ahead in a game and remain in front. Of the first twenty games, Arsenal only won four by more than two goals. This shows the competence of the side to dominate football matches and win games comfortably without scoring a lot of goals.
Towards the tail-end of the season, Arsenal tripped up in the cup competitions: Middlesbrough saw off the Gunners over two legs in the League Cup, Chelsea eliminated them from the Champions League in a tight affair (again over two legs), then the FA Cup match-up against Manchester United proved too much for Arsenal. This does somewhat leave a blot on the achievements of this Arsenal side.
No doubt the achievement of this team was phenomenal, but when Arsenal fans had a team that was good enough to go unbeaten all season, it is surprising that they did not win more, particularly that year. Arsenal had the chance to win the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield that season.
Any team that is good enough to go a whole season unbeaten is good enough to win any trophy. Of course, winning the league is a huge achievement, and to many it is the pinnacle of football, but seeing as Preston were good enough to carry their form into the only cup competition available to them, it does raise criticism of the Arsenal side which cannot be placed toward Preston.
Preston only had one cup to play for as well as the league whereas Arsenal had three, this could be used to illustrate that it was harder for Arsenal to fight on four fronts. However, who is to say that, had Preston had these challenges in front of them, they would not have won all the silverware on offer.
The disappointment in the cup competitions would have hurt the Arsenal side, but they remained resolute in the Premier League. As the season was reaching its conclusion, Arsenal produced important wins at Chelsea away and Liverpool at home, as well as drawing with Manchester United. The confidence was growing within the side, and the mentality that was installed by Wenger to remain unbeaten saw them through to a crucial game against their local rivals at White Hart Lane.
Tottenham would have loved nothing more than to end Arsenal’s unbeaten run and stall the inevitable title party for at least another week. It was the 36th game of the season, and Arsenal’s terrific form meant that they only needed a point against Spurs to claim the title. Arsenal fans could not dream of a better scenario than to win the league at White Hart Lane.
As soon as Arsenal entered the field, they were flying: a quick breakaway from a corner saw captain Vieira put them 1-0 up early in the game. A well-worked goal from Pires saw them enter half time two goals up. Tottenham were on the ropes, but they fought back bravely, and a late equaliser from Robbie Keane provided a nerve filled few minutes for Arsenal, but they held on and had won the league.
Often, when a team secures the league title, they can become complacent in the final few games as there is nothing left to play for. Seldom is the opportunity there for a team to go a whole season unbeaten, and Wenger knew how impressive it would be if they could do so. Therefore, the remaining four games of the season were phenomenally important.
Despite this, Arsenal struggled to reproduce their blistering form after a long season. The final four games looked easily winnable on paper; Birmingham City, Portsmouth, Fulham and Leicester City were all that stood between Arsenal and immortality. None of the teams would finish higher than ninth in the league that season, and yet Arsenal stalled. They drew against Birmingham and Portsmouth and beat Fulham 1-0. Ordinarily, they would be poor results, but they were all that Arsenal needed at that time.
The last game of the season was at Highbury. It was a party atmosphere — just one more result, and they would be invincible. Leicester were already relegated, and Arsenal could hardly have picked an easier opposition, at least on paper. Yet, when Paul Dickov gave Leicester the early lead, the home fans were stunned. Wenger’s side would could not lose that game, and two of the most important players for that season mounted the comeback: Henry from the spot, and Vieira with the winner. Arsenal were invincible; they had matched the great achievement of Preston North End.
The assertion in the title is asking which is the greater achievement and it would be wrong not to supply an answer. Preston deserve major credit and their goals and points tally is very close to Arsenal’s despite playing much fewer games, and they won the FA Cup. What Preston did was more impressive, and they have earned their place in football folklore.
However, the question asks which is the greater achievement, and that feat has to be Arsenal’s, purely because Preston’s achievement was in the first ever football league season. Nobody could truly appreciate Preston’s feat as they were the first team to win the league; who was to say at that point it could not happen every year? However, Arsenal proved how hard Preston’s accomplishments were, as it took so long for anyone else to match them. Another tick in the Arsenal column is that they faced greater opposition from a very competitive league and had a lot of football to play that season.
Both deserve the respect they are given, yet Arsenal’s achievement was greater.
The current form of Manchester City must also be mentioned. They are a wonderful team playing even better football; no doubt they have the capacity to enter the annals of football history. However, January is very early in a football season for anything to be decided, and there is a lot of football still to be played. They have all the tools to complete the feat, but there is a lot of football to be played between now and May.
 The 42, ‘’The more Irish here, the better’: Preston’s strong Ireland contingent aim to shock Arsenal’, athttp://www.the42.ie/greg-cunningham-preston-ireland-3164310-Jan2017/ accessed 12 Jan. 18.
 Chronicle Live, ‘Celebrating 125 years of the beautiful game’, athttp://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/celebrating-125-years-league-football-5842502 accessed 12 Jan. 18.
 A. Harvey, Football: The First Hundred Years: The Untold Story (London, 2013), p.222.
 Stat Bunker, ‘Premier League 03/04 Home attendance’, athttps://www.statbunker.com/competitions/HomeAttendance?comp_id=163 accessed 12 Jan. 18.
 FIFA, ‘From 1863 to the Present Day’, at https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/who-we-are/the-laws/index.html accessed 12 Jan. 18.