The feat of Arsenal in avoiding defeat in their 38 Premiership matches during the 2003-04 season has rightly been acclaimed as a marvelous achievement.
However, it is not a unique achievement in senior British football for five other clubs that have previously passed through a season without meeting with defeat in league competition.
In England, Preston North End was undefeated in 18 Football League games during the 1888- 89 season, and Liverpool (as a Division Two club) in 1893-94, while in Scotland Celtic (1897-98) and Kilmarnock (Division Two, 1898-99) both avoided defeat in league matches.
However, standing head and shoulders above this comes the feat of Rangers in the 1898-99 season when they won all 18 Scottish League games, creating a unique soccer world record that still stands today.
Even though Rangers had yet to win the Scottish League title outright, they began the 1898-99 season as firm favorites in some quarters, mainly because of their excellent record in cup competitions in recent years.
Scottish Sport, for example, spoke of “The consistent excellence of the Ibrox Park team during the past two seasons,” which placed them above their immediate rivals.
The squad for the new campaign showed a mere handful of changes. Out went Robert Glen (to Hibernian), Peter Turnbull (to Millwall), Tom Hyslop (to Stoke) and, Andrew McCreadie (who had spent most of the 1897-98 season on the injury list).
Newcomers were the Sharp brothers from Dalziel Rovers, John Campbell and John Wilkie (from Blackburn Rovers) and, Finlayson from Inverness Caledonian. However, the first-choice selection was mainly made up of existing players. Only Campbell regularly featured in the line-up, although another newcomer, James Miller from Elgin City, was added to the squad in December.
There were only four teams with realistic prospects of winning the title: Rangers, Celtic, Hearts and, Hibernian, the remaining effectively also-rans. The first big test came in their third fixture against Hearts at Tynecastle. A strong opposition side was overcome, albeit with some difficulty. The fifth match saw the Light Blues (as Rangers were known) establish a new record for consecutive wins from the start of a season. St Bernard’s were despatched with ease. The following Saturday, Rangers faced the biggest hurdle of all, a trip to Parkhead, home of reigning champions Celtic and a ground on which they had yet to register a Scottish League victory. A 4-0 win surpassed perhaps even their wildest dreams, and when Hearts were defeated in the return game, the newspapers were already predicting the title race was all but over – even though the season was barely six weeks old.
Defeat in the Glasgow Cup final by Queen’s Park was merely a temporary setback. On 19 November came perhaps the most controversial of all 18 victories. Rangers visited Easter Road to play Hibernian, who themselves still harbored outside hopes of the title. A tense, hard-fought match was reaching its final minutes when a home defender appeared to impede John Campbell as he sought the winner. The referee awarded a penalty and, Neil slotted the ball home to bring the Light Blues a 4-3 victory. The home fans were furious and invaded the pitch to attack the hapless official, but the 100 percent record remained intact.
An 8-0 win over Clyde brought the team a new Scottish League record for successive victories, but the run almost came to an end against St Bernard’s, at Ibrox of all places. The visitors led 1-0 up to the 60th minute and were 2-1 in front with ten minutes remaining until John Campbell got to work netting four goals in quick succession to leave the home side as comfortable winners. Few serious hurdles were remaining. St Mirren, too, nearly caused an upset at Ibrox, leading twice and narrowly missing out on a draw when they had an equalizing goal disallowed. Celtic were beaten for a second time, despite their efforts, a 3-1 deficit at half-time proving insurmountable. When Clyde was defeated 3-0 at Shawfield Rangers, this win secured the only 100 percent record in senior football in England or Scotland to date.
There were several factors present that assisted Rangers to their soccer world record. The first was that the Scottish League season effectively ran for the first half of the campaign only. The plan was to complete the program by early January, before the Scottish Cup and the annual representative fixtures. As a result, teams played a mixture of cup football interspersed by regional supplementary leagues such as the Glasgow, East of Scotland and, Western Leagues. By telescoping the league fixtures and avoiding the disruption of cup football (except for the Glasgow Cup).
It avoided the worst weather in the early New Year when heavy, almost unplayable pitches might lead to injury. This was certainly the case for Rangers, whose line-up was only occasionally affected by relatively minor injuries during the league campaign, but who were then forced to field many reserves in the second half of the season following injuries and international call-ups. Nevertheless, the club’s feat in winning the title without dropping a single point was remarkable.
Contemporaries compared Celtic’s unbeaten league record of 1897-98 and with the Preston North End team that had won the inaugural Football League title in 1888-89, also avoiding defeat. Preston had created something of a sensation with their unbeaten run and had achieved the ‘double’ by winning the league title and the FA Cup and this without conceding a goal.
In league competition, the two were perhaps matched, for although Rangers played 18 games as opposed to the 22 games played by North End, the two had similar ‘winning margins’ of 10 and 11 points, respectively. Preston, too had one or two narrow squeaks, notably when gaining a 2-2 draw at Blackburn in early January. Both had the fortune to complete their fixtures relatively early (Preston’s last league match was against Aston Villa on 9 February). Both had excellent all-around seasons: Rangers may have won a single trophy, but they reached three cup finals (Scottish Cup, Glasgow Cup, and Glasgow Charity Cup) and were runners-up to Celtic in the supplementary Glasgow League. Both teams were met with several defeats in friendly games, and neither did particularly well in fixtures against teams from across the border.
Preston fell to Cambuslang, Queen’s Park and, Celtic while Rangers were defeated by Liverpool, Millwall and, Aston Villa. Both teams relied heavily on Scots: six of the Preston team that won the FA Cup were Scots, and another had played in Scotland.
That is perhaps where the comparisons end. The Rangers team of 1898-99 was renowned principally for winning matches and laying the foundations for a run of success that saw them dominate the Scottish League, for this was the first of four consecutive championships. Preston, in contrast, was not only of significance for their winning of trophies. They were considered the greatest of all teams to practice the ‘combination’ style of football.
How would either team fare against modern giants such as Arsenal?
Modern commentators tend to stress how much faster and technically complex the game has become and therefore consider that nineteenth-century teams would have little chance of success. However, that it is to consider the two in the light of the nature of football today. Should there be a contest under nineteenth-century conditions, with a much greater emphasis on the physical side of the game. Particularly concerning goalkeepers who dare not hold onto the ball unless the great sides such as Preston and Rangers would indeed hold their own in exceptional circumstances.
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