How vital is a win on the opening game of the season?

You’ve heard it so many times before. Prior to the start of every season managers all over the country proclaim the importance of winning the opening League match. With only one potential winner per game there’s definitely someone going home disappointed and their manager’s well rehearsed plans now up in smoke by a defeat that wasn’t in the script.

Already managers are at it again, eager to inspire their troops and lay down the foundations for the season ahead. “We need to get off to a winning start, we didn’t last year, we know what we’ve got to do” stated a confident Gills boss Andy Hessenthaler expecting no repeat of the slow start that cost a year ago.

There are some already worried at the prospect of losing, having spent the past two months trying to engineer some sort of false sense of ability into a bunch of prima donnas or misfits. “We need to hit the ground running, we need to get a bit of momentum” recently said Yeovil Town Terry Skiverton. Perhaps the Glovers boss is already visioning the dire consequences of early defeats upon his side, a side needing a strong start to their fragile build confidence for a fight to stay in League One.

Last season the then Swindon manager Danny Wilson stressed before the first game against Brighton “There’s a feel good factor for everybody if you get a good result on the first day, and that optimism starts to build…you don’t want to be lagging behind after four or five games. You want to be up there and calling the shots if you can”. Unfortunately for us we lost 2-1 to Brighton and Wilson couldn’t have been more right as a winless first 5 games resulted in disastrous season and relegation. Whilst last season proved the rule for Swindon, a year previous we fell to an opening 5-0 defeat at Gillingham however this led to a Wembley play-off final and shot at promotion, so it’s how you recover and push on from early disappointment that is important.

Obviously ensuring your team wins every match is the object of the beautiful game, unless you’re part of a Asian betting scam, but is there any evidence to back up the onus placed on winning your opening fixture? Will an opening win give you a better chance of securing a promotion place at the end of the campaign and what about how will defeat affect your chances?

In all Swindon have participated in 84 completed Football League seasons. The opening game results have been heavily distorted in our favour of an opening day win at home. 45 opening home games have yielded 27 wins, 9 drawn and 9 defeats compared to the 39 matches away that secured only 6 wins, 10 draws and 23 defeats. With such a disparity between home and away first match success we couldn’t have wished for a better way to start 2011/12 under Di Canio at home to Crewe. Although as last season proved a home win isn’t guaranteed.

So you’ve won your first game, but how does that project to the final league fate of promotion or relegation?

Of all seasons when STFC have been promoted that has followed opening results of 5 wins, 1 draw and 2 defeats, against a first match record of 3 wins, 1 draw and 6 defeats when relegated that season. With a 63% to 30% win rate in favour of gaining promotion perhaps there is truth for us that an opening win is more important that we think.

Looking at the end league positions of our 84 campaigns more generally grouped by a top / bottom half positions you get a 60/40% split in favour of an opening win taking you to a top half finish. Again the opening win stacks the probability of a higher finish in your favour.

This pattern is replicated within the Football League from results studied over the previous 16 seasons. In that time the Championship, League One and League Two campaigns do show a positive trend of the higher percentage of wins on the opening day achieving success.

Breaking the win rate down into teams securing automatic promotion, play-offs and relegation finishes, the opening day result accurately describes the hierarchy of each division.

% games won on opening day 1995/96 to 2010/11
Automatic Promotion Play-Off Relegation
Championship 47% 25% 25%
League One 50% 50% 23%
League Two 46% 38% 20%
Overall 49% 38% 23%

Of course none of these opening day win percentages are that high to suggest that a victory is essential at all costs. If that was the case then you’d be expecting plus 80% win success rate, but the trend is clear in favour of a higher finish if you win this weekend.

Win lose or draw on Saturday this season won’t be decided on one game alone. The statistics show how an opening win can be a springboard to later success, but there are still 45 games to play and the season shouldn’t be written off after just a single game. It seems Crewe boss Dario Gradi has got it right when commenting “There is always a lot placed on the opening game of the season because it feels like you have worked all pre-season for this one game. People forget that you are soon into the season and we have Preston on the Tuesday, then Gillingham and then Rotherham so very quickly you are in the thick of it.”

Even if you lose don’t give up on promotion by any means. Remember back in 1985/86 under Lou Macari when Swindon had an awful start, losing the first 2 games and securing a poor return of 7 points from the opening eight games and 14 points adrift of the leaders, only to romp to the Division Four title with a then record 102 points. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

4 comments

  • Interesting stuff! For a relatively small sample I’m surprised by how similar the automatic promotion and relegation figures are across the divisions. The play-offs being significantly less so is probably a measure of the more diverse quality of participants. Given how awful Crewe were away last season and them looking arguably weaker this time around, I’d say you’ve got a great chance of starting with a win.

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    • I was pleasantly surprised by the Football League sample results being similar across all three divisions and clearly showing a trend with the league fate. I should clarify that the play-off percentage is that of the winner and not of all the four teams.

      As for Crewe this Saturday, despite the very high chance of a win, I’ve a feeling it’ll be a score draw.

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  • Should also say that I’ve got some more stats on percentage of games won by each league champion and each relegated posiiton which I’ll share in this comment thread tomorrow.

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  • Championship

    Winner – win rate 44% | runner up 50% – No winner between 2003/04 and 2009/10 won their opening game of the season.

    No play-off winner has won their opening game since Palace in 2003/04

    4 of the last 8 bottom placed teams have won their first game of the season compared to just 1 league winner.

    League One

    Winner – win rate 56% | runner up 44%

    The 1998/1999 season in the third tier is the only season in the 16 years studied (in all divisions) when all promoted teams won and all relegated teams lost their opening game

    League Two

    Winner – win rate 44% | runner up 69% | third 38%

    No team since 2 relegation places were introduced in 2002/2003 that has finished 23rd has won their opening game. No team finishing 24th has won their opening game for the past 4 seasons.

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