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What Is a Six-Pointer in Football?

Football is a sport bedevilled by cliché and idioms. If you’re a long-time fan, that’s no problem – you’ve become accustomed to the often unusual turns of phrase used when discussing the beautiful game. But newcomers to football are left scratching their heads at some of the parlance – no more so than when discussion turns to the ‘six pointer’ game.

Are there really football matches in which the winner earns six points, rather than the traditional three?

Why Is a Football Game Described as a Six-Pointer?

The short answer is no – there is no football game from which the victor is given six points. In the absolute vast majority of leagues and competitions around the world, you get three points for a win, one point for a draw and nothing for a loss – that’s set in stone.

Instead, the term ‘six-pointer’ refers to a game between two teams that are close together in the league table. If one of these sides beats their rival, it’s considered to be a six-point swing – the winner effectively doubles their advantage, knowing that the losing side will get nothing and also miss a chance to gain the upper hand.

For example, let’s say Arsenal are playing Liverpool, with both embroiled in the race for the Premier League title. Here is how they stand before the off:

  • Arsenal – 58 points
  • Liverpool – 57 points

Now let’s imagine that Arsenal win the game. They get three points for the victory and three points only, but look what happens to the league table now:

  • Arsenal – 61 points
  • Liverpool – 57 points

Not only have Arsenal gained the advantage, they also deprived Liverpool of winning any points – which they might have done if they were playing somebody else. So, why the shift in the standings in only three points to Arsenal, it’s a result that prevented Liverpool from gaining three points of their own, bringing the total to six.

Six points were never on the line, of course – it’s just semantics, but six-pointer is a phrase that helps to explain the importance of a game between two teams within close proximity to one another in the standings. Generally, the term is used primarily to describe games between two sides bogged in the relegation battle, where every point becomes important – or three, or (if you prefer) six. But teams trying to win the title or qualify for the play-offs can also find themselves involved in one of these mythical six-pointers.

Typically, a six-pointer occurs towards the end of the season, when the points tally of the respective teams becomes of even greater significance. But as this BBC column confirms, sometimes six-point chatter can start as early as four months into the campaign!

When Was the Phrase ‘Six-Pointer’ First Used?

Goal block

For many years in English football, teams only got two points for a win – therefore, there was no such thing as a six-pointer in the beautiful game, and there’s no documented record of a commentator, pundit, player or manager describing a match as a ‘four pointer’.

But the rules of engagement changed in 1981, when Jimmy Hill suggested to the Football League that teams should get three points, instead of two, for a win – the idea being that it would encourage attacking football and make games more entertaining to watch.

The Football League agreed and the new rule was introduced in time for the 1981/82 season, meaning the birth of the mythological six-pointer. Ironically, there was one played that very season between Leeds United and Birmingham City, with both teams in relegation trouble. They ended up drawing, Leeds were relegated, and the phrase ‘six-pointer’ was coined for the first time.

Examples of Six-Pointer Games

There have been plenty of examples of the proverbial six-pointer in the Premier League over the years – at both ends of the table. The maths behind the six-point game is neatly described by the contest between Norwich City and Sunderland in the EPL back in 2015/16. The Canaries went into the game with a four-point cushion over their relegation rivals – so, if they had won, their lead would have been stretched to seven points.

As it was, the Black Cats trounced Norwich 3-0 at Carrow Road, reducing their lead in the league table to one point. So, that’s why it was called a six-pointer game – a Sunderland win cut the gap to one point, whereas a Norwich victory would have stretched it to seven. Bolton and West Ham met at the former’s home ground in April 2003. With just a matter of weeks left until the end of the season, Bolton led the Hammers by three points in the league table – but both sides were nonetheless in the relegation mire.

The six-pointer tag was wheeled out for this one, with the maths easy enough to explain why – if Bolton won, their lead over West Ham would be stretched to six points. If the Londoners prevailed, they would draw level with the Trotters… and prevent them from winning too, thus it would have been a six-point swing. In the end, it was Bolton who enjoyed the spoils of this particular six-pointer courtesy of Jay-Jay Okocha’s stunning goal.

It’s not just at the bottom of the table that a six-pointer can unfold. In February 2024, Arsenal did welcome Liverpool to the Emirates Stadium in a game that would have a huge say in the destination of the Premier League title. The Gunners were on 46 points heading into the game and Liverpool on 51, so victory for the Merseysiders would have stretched their lead to eight points – essentially ending Arsenal’s hopes of challenging for the trophy.

Sensing the importance of this particular six-pointer, Arsenal produced a stellar performance in a 3-1 win – thus ending fears of an eight-point deficit and instead closing the gap to Liverpool to just two points. With Manchester City also in the mix, it was very much game on in the title race.