While the language of football most often borrows from pantomime, points deductions are more in keeping with the genre of melodrama. While the game is usually about heroes and villains, slapstick performances and narrative fairytales, the threat of docked points suddenly adds an overblown emotional resonance to proceedings and makes the theatre of any given situation that much more profound. In the worst cases, we associate points deductions with match-fixing scandals, financial problems and administration, all of which tend to serve as imminent existential threats to a club. This means that such punishments generally come with a heady frisson of anxiety and horror, and inspire a strange and morbid fascination in those watching on from the sidelines and the stands.
The earliest official points deductions date back to the formation of the English league and its Scottish equivalent, usually pertaining to the fielding of ineligible players. According to an academic study on the docking of points in football conducted by CIBS and Coventry University, the first recorded examples were sanctions handed out to Wrexham and Grimsby Town in the Combination, a forerunner of the Football League which had jurisdiction in the north of England and Wales. Once the Football League came together in the autumn of 1888 as the first ever national division in world football, it didn't take long for further deductions to take place. Sunderland were the first to fall foul of the rules when, in a mix up over his registration, they fielded goalkeeper Ned Doig – a man who was so embarrassed by his baldness that he used to wear a cap on the pitch at all times – while he was still technically on the books at Blackburn. This resulted in the loss of two points, which saw Sunderland's famous 'Team of All Talents' finish a modest seventh come the end of the 1890/91 campaign, the third season of the Football League.
North of the border, Celtic, Third Lanark and Cowlairs were deducted four points each for the same misdemeanour during the inaugural season of the Scottish Football League in 1890/91. Celtic and Third Lanark finished mid-table regardless, while Cowlairs finished rock bottom on a mere six points, not that an extra four would have saved them. League football was a new invention at this point and, as such, it was little surprise that half the teams seemed to have no fucking clue what the actual rules were. Nonetheless, fielding an ineligible player is a relatively cheerful way of losing points in an arbitrary fashion, as opposed to the far more serious offence of failing to pay debts, wages and bills.
When it comes to points deductions for going into administration, we have to fast forward to the modern era. Football clubs have suffered insolvency issues and financial irregularities since league football began, but the introduction of a points penalty is a relatively recent thing. In the history of European football, many clubs have failed to pay their creditors and either been bailed out, gone bust altogether, vanished out of existence or been reborn as separate commercial entities. In England and Wales, the Football League only started punishing teams with points deductions for their financial troubles from the 2004/05 season onwards, however – this in the aftermath of the collapse of ITV Digital and the widespread solvency problems which came with it.
When ITV Digital went bankrupt in March 2002, still owing £180m to the Football League in television rights, the company inadvertently changed the face of the English game forever. Not only did their failure to pay drive many clubs to the cusp of liquidation, it also led to changes in the rules and regulations of the game. The powers that be perceived that clubs had previously used the administration process as a way of getting around their financial commitments – jettisoning debt and striking cut-price deals with their creditors, often before piling debt on again with further borrowing – and so they proposed 10 and nine-point penalties for those going into administration in the Football League and Premier League respectively. As well as the introduction of a 'fit and proper persons' test and parachute payments for relegated sides, this was intended to shore up a league system which was in a seriously shabby state financially.
The new rules were put in place ahead of the 2004/05 season, with the Scottish Football League following suit. Wrexham were once again early pioneers down south, going into administration in December 2004 and so becoming the first club to be docked the full 10 points. This was only the tip of the iceberg, with the late noughties exposing a vast body of fiscal problems from top to bottom of the league system. If points deductions were meant to be a harsh deterrent against irresponsible behaviour with money, there were nonetheless many clubs who were forced to accept their punishment with a grimace, many of whom could do little to resist the inconstant financial tides of an economy going into recession and a national sport still widely in arrears.
So, between the famous catastrophe at Leeds in the summer of 2007 and the disastrous financial collapse at Portsmouth in the winter of 2010, a total of seven Football League teams suffered points deductions for going into administration, along with a further six Conference sides. The biggest of these punishments was handed out to Luton Town, who were docked 10 points during the 2007/08 season in League One, relegated, and then relieved of a further 20 points having failed to agree to a Company Voluntary Arrangement and so exit administration in League Two. Combined with a further 10 point deduction for misconduct after the club was found to have paid agents via a third party, Luton started the 2008/09 season on an unprecedented -30 points. They were, unsurprisingly, relegated, although their end total of 26 points would have been enough to leave them solidly mid-table had they not already been plunged into the abyss.
Though Luton's plight was undoubtedly drastic, it failed to garner the same national interest as the situations at Leeds and Portsmouth. Both clubs came close to complete oblivion, and the collective trauma felt by their fanbases resonated strongly with supporters elsewhere. When Leeds were docked 10 points at the end of the 2006/07 season and guaranteed of relegation to the third tier, many felt it was utterly surreal, not least because they were still one of the best-supported clubs in the country and had been Champions League semi-finalists only five years before. The Elland Road outfit had never fallen below the second division in their entire history, but would spend three seasons in League One, the first of which they started with a further deficit of 15 points after failing to emerge from the financial mire.
Portsmouth, meanwhile, had won the FA Cup in 2008, and massively overreached themselves in doing so. Come the turn of the decade, each new season seemed to be greeted with a fresh announcement of deducted points. They became the first Premier League side to start the season with a nine-point shortfall in 2009/10 and were duly demoted to the Championship. Pompey would not have survived in the Premier League even without the points penalty, though that was not the case in 2011/12 when they were deducted a further 10 points for re-entering administration. That directly contributed to their relegation from the second tier, with the same punishment the following season – this time for leaving administration with a Company Voluntary Arrangement not fully compliant with the Football League's insolvency policy – seeing them complete their fall from grace, finishing bottom of the third division and so dropping down to League Two.
Clearly Portsmouth have a strong claim to being true masters of the points deduction, with the accumulative loss of 29 points and three relegations over the course of four seasons quite astonishing. Watching them slide inexorably down the leagues was a horrifying experience for most fans, with English football gripped by an overpowering sense of 'there but for the grace of God' during those bleak and desolate years. There was nothing like the same level of sympathy in Scottish football when Rangers went into administration at around the same time as Portsmouth's second financial crisis, also losing out on 10 points and all hope of the 2011/12 title with them. That season ended in the worst of all outcomes for the Ibrox giants, one which must have made even Portsmouth fans baulk – title winners only the term before, Rangers were liquidated and ended up in the Scottish third tier.
For one of the two biggest sides in Scotland to be docked 10 points was one thing, but for them to be forced to reform as a newco was the realisation of every fan's worst nightmare. Watching on, experiencing it vicariously, has been a source of much perverse pain and pleasure for supporters all over the world, whatever their sympathies in relation to the all-pervasive culture of the Old Firm. The thought of Rangers lurching from crisis to crisis in the time since is exactly why, by association, the promise of a points deduction makes the average football fan's blood run cold. Rangers' administration was nothing short of a national scandal in Scotland, and one of the most gripping things to happen in football since records and indeed points deductions began.
Speaking of national scandals, perhaps the most iconic points deductions of all time came along with the Calciopoli affair. In 2006, with Serie A still perhaps the pinnacle of domestic football in Europe, Italian police uncovered a network of contacts which implicated some of the country's biggest teams and their managers in match fixing and influencing referees. While the details are still controversial, with fans, the media and those involved contesting many of the allegations to this day, the outcome was that champions Juventus were relegated to Serie B, while Milan, Fiorentina, Reggina and Siena were all docked points for their involvement. It was originally proposed that Juve should start the 2006/07 Serie B season with -30 points, but this was reduced to nine on appeal and the Bianconeri went on to win the league.
After Juventus, Fiorentina received the harshest punishment, starting the Serie A season 15 points behind most of their rivals. Reggina were stripped of 11 points, Milan of eight, Lazio of three and Siena of one. Nonetheless, Fiorentina finished sixth in the league, essentially losing out on Champions League qualification because of their deduction but still qualifying for UEFA Cup football. Milan finished fourth, handing them the final Champions League spot, while neither Reggina or Siena were relegated on account of the sanction they received.
When they aren't being handed out on account of ineligible players, scandals and unmitigated financial disasters – not to mention the failure to fulfil a fixture, which condemned Middlesbrough to relegation in 1997 – the last port of call for points deductions is a big ol' scrap on the side of the pitch. That was exactly what led Arsenal and Manchester United to lose points in the midst of the 1990/91 season, when a game which would become known as 'The Battle of Old Trafford' – the first of many – boiled over into a mass melee. Kicked off by a vicious tackle by Nigel Winterburn on Denis Irwin, the ensuing scenes drew the overblown condemnation of the tabloids and the confiscation of two points from George Graham's men and one from Alex Ferguson's side. The FA decided the punishment would be doubly harsh for Arsenal because they had been involved in a similar incident in a match against Norwich the previous campaign, and no doubt because of their general reputation for being brilliant, nasty pricks.
In the end, Arsenal turned that points deduction into a psychological advantage, with George Graham by all accounts using it to foster a siege mentality within the squad. It was a season in which they would lose only a single game – a 2-1 away defeat to Chelsea – eventually pipping Liverpool to the title by a generous margin of seven points. When the title was wrapped up and celebrations began, the streets of Highbury and Islington reverberated with the sound of a new chant, directing the FA in explicit detail as to where they might insert their two points. To fans whose sides receive similar deductions in the future, then, it's worth remembering that losing a few spare points isn't always a bad thing.