1) Perugia (Serie A, 37 games, May 1978 to October 1979)
Arrigo Sacchi's Milan side are more iconic than the later Fabio Capello version but surely not as good. Sacchi's side won two European Cups but only one Serie A title; Capello led Milan to three titles in four years, plus one Champions League, the latter with the only performance in a final seriously to rival the one given by Real Madrid in 1960. Capello went his first season, and the best part of the following one, unbeaten. The run stretched for 58 matches, an Italian record.
But in many ways it is not an Italian record. Having already won the 1991-92 title, Milan's last-day celebrations in Foggia were an eye-opener; they were 2-1 down at half-time, only to prevail 8-2. During their run they had put four past Roma, Ascoli, Cagliari and Verona, five past Napoli and Sampdoria. The following season they won 5-4 at Pescara, 5-1 at Napoli, 5-3 at home to Lazio and 7-3 at Fiorentina. No, it is not a very Italian record at all.
Compare and contrast with the only other team to go unbeaten all season in Serie A during the modern era: Perugia. They remained undefeated during the 1978-79 season, which had begun with a fortune teller who lived a couple of streets away from the stadium declaring that Perugia would win the scudetto. Her reasoning was that they played in red and white, which happened to be the national colours of the fresh-from-the-box pope.
Sadly this papal blessing proved to be a lot of bull. Though Perugia went through the entire campaign unsullied by defeat, they recorded only 11 wins out of 30, drawing the other 19 games. Nearly a quarter of their games – seven – ended in goalless draws – none more Latin. They were notorious for keeping possession well enough but doing little with the ball. They had the best defence in the league, built around the captain, Pierluigi Frosio, which conceded only 16 goals. But their main striker, Walter Speggiorin, scored only nine, a fairly poor return even for Serie A back in the day. The right-winger Salvatore Bagni managed eight.
With six matches to play, Perugia trailed the leaders, Milan, by two points. They could manage only a draw against Milan in Perugia, the first of four in their last six. They ended the season in second, three points behind Nils Liedholm's side, for whom Gianni Rivera enjoyed a scudetto-winning swansong as another legend in the making, Franco Baresi, made his debut. Perugia's unbeaten stretch lasted seven games into the following season, until Torino turned them over at home 2-0. It would be the first of nine league defeats, as they ended mid-table, the aura resolutely gone.
2) Celtic (Scottish First Division, 62 games, November 1915 to April 1917)
Only two clubs have gone through an entire Scottish top-flight season unbeaten. No prizes are on offer. But you will be pleased to hear the relentless sitcom-style one-upmanship of the Old Firm has been in evidence since the early days. In 1897 Celtic appointed the 29-year-old Willie Maley as manager. He won the title in his first season, the team unbeaten in all 18 games, winning 15 and drawing three, as they ran rings round opponents in their then green-and-white vertical stripes and black shorts.
Sure enough, the next year Rangers had to go one better. They too had a young boss – the 33-year-old match secretary and future manager William Wilton, who had been running the team at Ibrox since the age of 26 – and now they had an unbeaten season to match. Unlike Celtic, they did not drop a point, winning all 18 games and scoring 78 goals in the process.
The nearest either team has come since to an unbeaten season was Rangers's near miss of 1967-68. Davie White's team's only defeat of the season came in their last match, at home against Aberdeen, a 3-2 reverse that saw them hand the title to Jock Stein's Celtic. After the game the Rangers striker Alex Ferguson – the club's leading scorer that season with 23 goals – was approached by a frustrated fan who toe-punted him viciously in the shin before wandering off. "I couldn't really blame him," said Ferguson. "I felt as sick as he did."
Celtic too have nearly, but not quite, gone through an entire campaign unbeaten, though despite falling two hurdles from home, at least they won the league that season. It was also the end of a Homeric unbeaten run that stands as a record in Scotland today.
The Scottish First Division was not suspended for hostilities during the Great War. They won four titles in a row under a middle-aged Maley between 1914 and 1917. The 1915-16 and 1916-17 seasons were the peak for a legendary team featuring the playmaker Jimmy McMenemy and the goalscorer Jimmy Quinn. They lost three times in the first 12 games of the 1915-16 season, then not again in the league until Kilmarnock beat them in the second-last game of the following season. Two titles were in the bag, but perhaps the 62-game unbeaten run has more resonance. No mean feat, especially when, on 15 April 1916, they had to play two games in one day, winning 3-1 at Motherwell before heading back to Parkhead to tank Raith Rovers 6-0.
3) Preston North End (FA Cup and friendlies, 42 games, 1887 to 1888)
Arsenal hold the English league record for going unbeaten, their brilliant side of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires sashaying through the 2003-04 campaign unscathed, a run that had begun with a 6-1 win at home to Southampton in the penultimate game of the previous season and continued until they lost 6.0 6.0 6.0 6.0 6.0 6.0 to Wayne Rooney's saucy triple salchow and pike at Old Trafford in the 10th game of the 2004-05 season. At 49 games the run was a magnificent achievement, albeit one tinged with the bittersweet pain of falling one match short of an historic half- century not out, and to a dodgy penalty to boot. However, any sympathy soon evaporated with the side's graceless reaction to their first taste of league defeat in 17 months, an unnamed Gunner throwing a pizza-and-soup meal-deal combo in the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson in the tunnel after the game. A monstrous sulk lasting a month ensued; by the time they came round, they had won only one of five league matches and José Mourinho was disappearing into the distance, flicking Vs into the rear-view mirror.
For their unbeaten Premiership efforts in 2003-04 that Arsenal team were crowned the Invincibles. It is a monicker that has failed to catch on outside the red-and-white half of north London, however, and here is why. Elsewhere during that season Arsène Wenger's side lost: the opening game of the campaign, the Community Shield against Manchester United, on penalties; an FA Cup semi to the same opposition; a League Cup fixture against Middlesbrough; and Champions League matches against Internazionale, Dynamo Kyiv and Chelsea. Only a churl would attempt to demean their stunning efforts in the league by bringing other competitions into the discussion but then, if anyone is going to start bandying terms like Invincibles about, well, the churl will not be the one who has started the row.
The thing is, precedents have been set, and there are only one true Invincibles in English football: the Preston North End side of 1888-89, who romped the first season of the Football League, finishing 11 points ahead of Aston Villa after winning 18 of their games, drawing the other four and scoring 74 goals. It is fair to point out that Preston had only 22 league matches to play, as opposed to Arsenal's 38. And Wenger's side had five competitions to contest, not two. On the other hand, you can only beat what is put in front of you and Preston did not lose a single competitive match that season; they also won the FA Cup, keeping a clean sheet in every game in their run. Now that is invincible. (In the interests of balance, Arsenal fans irritated with any Preston one-upmanship may like to point out that Tom Watson's Sunderland side thrashed North End 4-1 in a friendly during their so-called Invincible year.)
And yet arguably Preston's grandest achievement came the season before, with a barely believable 42-game run of consecutive wins. Sadly, William Sudell's team bridled at the very last jump, the 1888 FA Cup final against West Bromwich Albion. Having beaten Hyde 26-0 along the way to the final – a score that is still an English record – they were so confident of winning that they requested a photo of themselves taken with the trophy. Before the match had started. "Hadn't you better win it first?" asked the referee. Good call, ref! George Woodhall's goal 13 minutes from time gave WBA a 2-1 win and ensured Preston were sent back to Lancashire to think on. Which, in fairness, they clearly did.
4) Hungary (Friendlies, Olympic Games, Central European International Cup, World Cup, 30 games, June 1950 to July 1954)
Spain hold the record for the longest unbeaten run in the international arena, a stretch which began after a 1-0 friendly defeat by Romania in Cadiz, took in their victorious 2008 European Championship campaign and ended with a surprisingly comprehensive 2-0 defeat by the USA in the semi-finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup. But nobody really remembers any of this. In a strange quirk of a sport which has been going for the best part of a century and a half, there is only one unbeaten international run with any real historical or emotional heft: the 30-game pomp of the golden Hungarian team of the early 1950s.
Those 30 games were actually 32: a 7-1 win over Turkey in the 1952 Olympics and a 5-0 thrashing of East Germany are matches which do not seem to count, for strange bureaucratic reasons that fly over the Joy of Six's simple head. But 30 it officially is, and what a run in any case, starting with a 5-2 win in Poland in June 1950, taking in the gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – chiefly memorable to Jeno Buzanszky for the kiss he got off Miss World at the medal ceremony – and Hungary's famed 6-3 and 7-1 eviscerations of England in late 1953 and early 1954.
The run also took in some of the most famous matches of all time at the 1954 World Cup: an 8-3 skelping of West Germany; a hard-fought 4-2 win over Brazil (after which Ferenc Puskas hit Pinheiro upside the head with a broken bottle during a dressing-room brawl that lasted over 10 minutes); a sparkling skillfest against Uruguay (which nevertheless contained the best card-marking reducer in the entire history of football); and the run-ending defeat by West Germany, with a little help from linesman Sandy Griffiths, who controversially flagged Puskas offside late in the final.
Unlike Arsenal at the Battle of the Buffet, Puskas was philosophical in the wake of defeat. "To take defeats with the same dignity as we accepted triumphs must be our aim," he mused. Although like Arsenal, food was on the mind of the player later christened by Alfredo di Stefano as the Galloping Gut: "Had we been offered the role of runners-up before the series started, we might have accepted gladly. But then the appetite for success grows as one eats."
Hungary immediately went on another unbeaten run after their shock defeat in Berne, another 18 matches, giving them a total of one defeat in 49 games between June 1950 and February 1956. The team, however, was starting to break up as players fled for the west.
5) England (Friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, September 1988 to May 1990)
And the award for the longest unbeaten international run by any of the home nations goes to … Scotland. Between 1879 and 1888, the Scots went 22 matches without defeat, a run which included 13 straight wins, only two draws, and wins over England by 5-4, 6-1 and 5-1. On the flip side the only other teams Scotland played over the nine-year period were a not particularly good Wales and an equally dismal Ireland. And the run was bookended by defeats by England; 5-4 in London in 1879, a 5-0 humiliation in Glasgow in 1888.
(That run of 13 wins, incidentally, has been bettered only by Spain, Brazil, France and Australia, the last for the most part swatting aside nonentities such as Tahiti and the Solomon Islands.)
England's best run of results – statistically speaking – were between 1890 and 1896, a 20-game unbeaten stretch. This time it was Scotland's turn to bookend a run of fixtures which generally turned out to be one-sided wallopings of the Welsh and Irish. Their post-war record is a much more impressive 19, between October 1965 and April 1967, taking in as it does the winning of the World Cup in 1966. Two 3-2 Wembley defeats propped up either end of this golden era: Austria coming back from 2-1 down with 17 minutes to play in 1965, half the Scotland team messing around with ball tricks in the 1967 Home Championship while Denis Law had the funk on because he wanted to rattle in more goals.
Often forgotten now, though, because of what immediately followed it, is England's staunch run after Euro 88 under Bobby Robson. England's stock had rarely been lower after losing all three games in Germany that summer but, though they went home with their tails between their legs, they also took back the knowledge that they had for the most part matched the new European champions, Holland, in an undeserved 3-1 defeat.
It was not always smooth. England stuttered to a lucky 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia late in 1988, causing the Daily Mirror to pen the headline GO, IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, GO, which, while being slightly unfair on Robson, may well be the last time a British tabloid has shown any form of thought, reverence or respect to Islam. England mooched with some uncertainty through their World Cup qualifying group. But they made it through unbeaten and in the run-up to Italia 90 form began to pick up, with a 1-0 win over Brazil at Wembley, followed by Paul Gascoigne's greatest display, that daft-as-a-brush 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia.
The 17-game run was ended in May 1990, when Uruguay won England's World Cup send-off at Wembley 2-1, Peter Shilton letting a José Perdomo free-kick through his hands, which were flapping like the doors of a haunted saloon in the wind. Robson announced his relief at the end of the run – better a defeat when it did not matter than at the World Cup finals. That long period unbeaten would stand England in good stead: they escaped defeat in their final warm-up match against Tunisia with a last-minute Steve Bull goal, then grimly battled their way to that night in Turin.
England went 12 games unbeaten at the start of Graham Taylor's reign, too, before Germany turned up at Wembley. But let us not go anywhere near there.
6) Sparta Prague (51 games, Central Bohemian league, 1920 to 1923)
Only three teams have put together a longer unbeaten run in the league than the aforementioned Celtic team of the world war one. Al Ahly of Egypt remained undefeated between May 2004 and January 2007, a run of 70 games. Steaua Bucharest and Ceausescu's goons helped themselves to a tainted 104-game run in Romania between August 1986 and September 1989 (though their European Cup win of 1986 and appearance in the 1988 final shows there really was little need to load the dice). The world record is held by ASEC Abidjan of the Cote d'Ivoire, a 108-match combination between December 1989 and 1994.
But here is the one: between 1920 and 1923, before the advent of a national Czechoslovakian league, Sparta Prague won all four of the regional titles on offer. They played 51 times during those four campaigns – and won all 51 matches. Which is truly ridiculous, even before you tot up the goals for and against: 237 to 40. And people say modern football is an uncompetitive nonsense.
Many thanks to Cris Freddi and Rob Smyth