Has it really been the “Worst Season Ever”?

Despite Saturday’s defeat to Kidderminster Harriers, the final home game of the 2022/23 season, Southport are now almost certain to be playing National League North football again next season. After being rooted to the foot of the form table for weeks, it is largely only thanks to a good haul of points before Christmas, and the poor form of other teams, that they are now all but mathematically certain to escape automatic relegation to the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of English football, for the first time in their history.

In his post match interview Liam described the season as his “worst ever” as a player or a manager but whether it is the worst season ever for the club itself is certainly an interesting question. Despite Liam’s feelings, for example, the average attendance this season has held quite firm, which on paper doesn’t indicate anything untoward. We finish the season with an average home attendance of 1007, 24 up on last year’s 983. In truth however it was helped significantly by the Chester game at which a sizeable away following swelled the gate well over the 2000 mark, making up for some of the worst home attendances in the last 30 years over the preceding month.

Where the season ranks in comparison to others is a difficult question to answer. At home we’ve won only 7 out of 23 (21 played last season), but that is only one fewer win than last term. Of the remaining games there were 7 draws (down from 11) and 9 defeats. It is this latter figure where the story of the season can really be told. Compared to the previous season a 39% loss ratio is a significant increase from the c.9.5% ratio in the season before (from just 2 defeats).

There are many other methods that could be chosen for comparison, however the most widely accepted method of comparing the performance of a club from season to season amongst football statisticians is to use a club’s national rank in the football pyramid. This method takes account of changes to the structure of the pyramid over time, and is often used by football commentators to discuss the relative merits of opponents in the FA Cup, using the number of places between them in the pyramid.

What a rank signifies however does require some clarification as it could either indicate how many places they would need to climb to reach the top spot, or how many teams are placed higher than them in the pyramid. When a team competes at national levels, rather than regional, these two numbers are always the same and there can only be one club holding that rank. When a team competes in regional football, multiple clubs can hold the same position at the same step. i.e. a club in 9th in the North, and a club in 9th in the South can be considered to hold the same rank in the pyramid. 

The most commonly used method to determine their ranking is to look at how many places they are away from top spot in the pyramid. For a National League North Club, this would mean adding the 92 teams in the Football League to the 24 teams in the National League and then add the club’s place in the National League North. A team placed 9th in the National League North therefore would see them ranked 125th (92+24+9). To reach top spot they would have to climb 124 places.

As this is the most commonly accepted method to calculate a clubs national rank, this is the method used on this site.

There is another method however, which is to determine how many clubs are placed in higher positions in the pyramid overall, and this takes into account teams in other regions that could consider themselves higher placed in the pyramid. A National League North Club therefore would need to add the 92 teams in the Football League to the 24 teams in the National League, add their own place in the National League North, but then also add the number of teams in the National League South that are higher than the club’s current position in the North. A team placed 9th in the National League North under this method therefore would be ranked 133rd as there are 132 clubs that hold a league position higher than their own in the pyramid. In this example whilst it is correct that there are 132 clubs in a higher league position, the club would not need to climb 132 places to reach top spot so this could be misleading. They would only have to climb 124 places.

Sadly however, whichever ranking method is used, Southport will finish this season with their lowest national ranking ever. Using the most common method they currently occupy 134th place in the pyramid (92 Football League + 24 National League + 18 National League North). If Banbury lose away at Scarborough and Southport win away at Leamington on the last day of the season then the very highest Southport could finish is 17th (133rd) but with Banbury being 3 points above Southport, there would also need to be a four goal swing in goal difference. Boston are also 3 points above Southport but there are 10 goals between the two teams and with Boston at home to already relegated Telford there’s every chance that goal difference will increase rather than decrease.

The previous record lowest rank was in the 1980/81 Season, where the club finished 20th in the Northern Premier League, with a ranking of 132nd (92 Football League + 20 Alliance + 20 NPL). It has been argued that this should be considered a “worse finish” as Southport were closer to the foot of the tier than they are currently – 20th out of 22 in tier 6, rather than 18 out of 24.

Southport’s highest ever ranking was 48th and this was achieved in both the 1924/25 and 1938/39 seasons where on both occasions the club finished 4th in the Third Division North. This was the closest the club has ever got to the second tier. As there are 20 clubs in today’s Premier League and 24 in the Championship, position 48 would still represent 4th place in the third tier today (League One).

The highest place that the club has achieved since the Football League was restructured to remove regionalisation in 1958 was 52nd in 1968/69, representing an 8th placed finish in the Third Division (today’s League One).

Southport were one of a number of clubs to successfully apply to join the football league in 1921, upon the creation of the Third Division North. Prior to this time there was no automatic promotion from any of the Leagues that the club had taken part in since their formation in 1888 (Lancashire League, Lancashire Combination or Central League). For this reason I have determined that a national rank can not be calculated for the club prior to 1921.

I have taken the same approach to the 1978/79 season, the club’s first season after their exit from the Football League as there was no automatic promotion to Football League Division 4 from the Northern Premier League either. This however I can accept might be controversial and open to challenge and therefore for any who might disagree, the ranking for that season would be 97 (92 Football League places, plus a 5th placed finish in the NPL). During that season Southport were offered the opportunity to join the Alliance League upon its formation in the summer of 1979 but turned it down due to travelling costs, effectively relegating them down a whole tier in the pyramid system.

As for declaring this season the “worst season ever”, the statistical comparison of results and league placings can only tell you what happens on the field. For anyone involved in football, they will all attest that it is just as important what happens off it. It is here that Liam’s feelings towards the season will have been equally as clouded, as he also holds position as a club director. He has made no secret of how hard he has had to work, alongside his fellow directors, to bring in commercial income alongside his role of managing the team.

Statistical analysis of off field activity is limited to the financial results of a club, but the current season’s financial picture will not be known for at least another year.

As with the majority of football clubs the financial year end for the club is the end of June. The normal filing deadline for a company’s accounts is 9 months after their financial year end. In previous years it would therefore be typical to learn about the previous seasons financial results around the end of March, however the pattern has been different over the past two years. Due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic companies whose original filing deadlines fell before 30th June 2020 were automatically granted a three month filing extension. Therefore whilst our accounts were filed in March 2020 for the financial year end of June 2019, the next set of accounts was not filed until 30th June 2021.

That automatic extension process ended on 6 April 2021, after which companies had to file documents at Companies House by their usual filing deadlines unless they could again demonstrate a covid 19 impact to their financial year in which case they would again be granted an extension. Our filing in 2022 was therefore made on 28th June, and these are the last results we have.

These accounts showed a small profit, but the club have been managing expectations for quite a while now that the 2022 and 2023 results will not be anywhere near as healthy. Liam has stated however that the club is in no debt, which is a much better picture than many at our level.

Companies house is showing Southport’s filing deadline for the 2022 accounts as 30th June 2023. They could be filed prior to this date as this is only a deadline, however this season’s results won’t be available until at the earliest the end of March 2024.

Good news however is just around the corner, with news of a significant new partnership and investment that should allow the club to draw a line under what has undoubtedly been a difficult time for everyone involved with the club.

Keep the faith. Up The Port.