Football statistician, Andrew Howe, compares this season’s extraordinary rise of Adelaide United, the newly crowned Hyundai A-League Premiers, to similar stories in our sporting landscape.
Adelaide United’s stunning rise from last in round eight to first on the Hyundai A-League final ladder this season is something never seen before in over a century of Australia’s major football leagues.
After eight games Adelaide were stuck in tenth place on the ten-team A-League ladder and without a win.
However an incredible turnaround in form – a 14-match undefeated streak – took the Reds to first position by round 22
Following a minor slip-up against Melbourne City in round 23, Adelaide United ultimately regained top spot in an eventful final round where the Reds gained a revenge 2-0 away win over City.
In terms of the worst start to a campaign by an eventual Premier, Adelaide United’s effort this season clearly surpasses any other turnaround seen in a national football league season since the NSL commenced in 1977.
In 2011/12 the Central Coast Mariners were last after round three and were on top of the ladder at the end of the season. Western Sydney Wanderers did precisely the same in 2012/13.
However these three-match winless starts to the season, when teams are often finding their feet for the campaign, could be seen as not really long enough to be then considered as a meaningful turnaround to a team’s fortunes in a season.
In the 14-team 1978 season, West Adelaide were 11th after round nine, with just three wins and two draws, and ended up finishing on top of the ladder.
That was an unforgettable year for the South Australian club in an era where the final ladder position determined the champion team.
West Adelaide won the title in a dream scenario, against fierce rivals Adelaide City on the last day of the season.
With a point needed to clinch the championship Vic Bozanic, father of Mebourne Victory’s Oliver, scored the late equaliser at Hindmarsh (now Coopers) Stadium.
In the 1984 southern division South Melbourne were also on three wins and four losses after nine rounds and ended the season on top of the ladder.
In a team that included teenager Ange Postecoglou, South Melbourne went on to win the 1984 grand final in the first year where the finals system determined the champion team.
Before 2015/16, these recoveries by West Adelaide in 1978 and South Melbourne in 1984 are probably considered the most significant ever seen in Australian national league history, although they still come nowhere near Adelaide United’s surge this season in the A-League.
Looking back over the 100-plus year history of Australia’s major rugby league competition, now called the NRL, you need to go all the way back to 1953 to find the best rise from being in last position after round three.
The ten-team 1953 season saw South Sydney last after round four, winning just one game to this time, before a good run led the team to first on the ladder at the end of the year.
In 1933 Newtown lost their first four matches to trail the ladder after round 4, but ended up losing just one more match over the 14-round season and ended up in first position on the final ladder.
In the 1980 season Eastern Suburbs (now Sydney Roosters) were second-last after six games with just two wins to their name, however finished as the first-placed team after 22 rounds.
Turning to Australian Rules, the very first year of the old VFL competition in 1897 started with three losses in a row for Geelong, who then went on an 11-match winning streak to end the inaugural VFL season first on the eight-team ladder.
Exactly 100 years later St Kilda were sitting second-to-bottom on the 1997 AFL ladder at round six after winning only two of their first six games, before the Saints marched through the rest of the 22-match season with just three further losses to take out top spot on the final ladder.
It’s difficult to find any other examples from the AFL (formerly VFL) competition which comes close to St Kilda’s improvement throughout 1997.
The Reds’ resurgence in comparison
While all of these historically significant rises from the wrong end of the league ladder to first place by season’s end are impressive, they don’t quite match the turnaround achieved by the Reds in the A-League in 2015/16.
Premiers Adelaide United were winless in their first eight games.
The longest winless start by any other first-placed team on a final Australian national football (soccer) league ladder was four, by West Adelaide in 1978.
In over 100 seasons of top-level rugby league the record longest streak of losses from the start of the season for an eventual top-placed team was four, set by Newtown in 1933.
In the 120-year old VFL/AFL competition, Geelong in 1897 and Essendon in 1993 were the only teams to not win any of their first three games but finish the year at the top of the ladder.
But from last and winless after round eight – almost a third of the season in – to top spot on the final ladder, Adelaide United’s feat in the 2015/16 A-League season is clearly unmatched, and unlikely to be seen again at the top level of any Australian football league for a long time.
Follow Andrew Howe’s Australian football stats updates at @AndyHowe_statto