When Harry Kane breaks Jimmy Greaves’ long-standing goalscoring record, it will be a historic moment for supporters of Tottenham Hotspur. Greaves remains a legendary figure in English football, primarily because no one has ever come close to his overall tally of 357 English top-flight goals, scored while playing for ChelseaTottenham and West Ham. When a modern-day player matches one of his records by him, you know it’s something special.
For neutrals, though, the feeling will seem relatively familiar. In recent years, we’ve seen the all-time goalscoring record broken at arsenalchelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United too, courtesy of Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney. That means once Kane scores another two, five of the ‘Big Six’ goalscoring records will have been set — taking the time of that player’s final goal for the club — within the past 11 years.
But outside the major six teams, it’s an entirely different picture. Of the other 86 clubs in the top four divisions, only two goalscoring records have been set in that time —and one of those is at Milton Keynes Dons, who have existed for less than 20 years.
And while the big boys are accustomed to seeing their record being broken, the average goalscoring record across the four divisions has stood for 57 years. For many clubs, it’s almost impossible to imagine their record ever being beaten.
There’s tremendous variety across the 92 clubs in terms of goalscoring record. The three oldest records date back to the pre-war period, with the most notable being Steve Bloomer’s legendary 332-goal haul for Derby County. He remains second, behind Greaves, in terms of all-time top flight goals.
Bloomer’s Derby tally was particularly impressive considering he spent four years at Middlesbrough between two spells at the club, and also because he also played regularly for Derby Baseball Club — Derby’s ground, of course, was called the Baseball Ground — becoming a British champion on three occasions.
If you were looking to become a club’s record goalscorer, the optimum era to be playing in was the late 1920s and 1930s. Not only did this mean your career wasn’t interrupted by war, as would be the case for the generation either side, but those attackers also benefited from the 1925 change in offside law, which meant a player would now be onside if two opponents were goal side of him, as remains the case today, rather than the previous three. Immediately, the goals-per-game rate shot up from 2.6 to 3.7 and would stay above 3.0 until the Second World War.
This period produced some of football’s most famous goalscoring achievements: Aston Villa scoring 128 in a season, Everton‘s Dixie Dean scoring 60 on his own for Everton, and Arsenal’s Ted Drake hitting seven in a single game. And, more relevantly, it was the decade where 22 of the 92 clubs’ all-time goalscoring records were set, from Carlisle’s Jimmy McConnell to Plymouth Argyle’s Sammy Black. No other decade comes close.
The period after the Second World War was also a fertile time for record goalscorers. Preston‘s Tom Finney and Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse scored the bulk of their goals in the 1950s but ended their stints in 1960, while the same applies to Greaves in the 60s, with his Spurs career concluding in 1970.
The highest goalscoring tally set for a current Football League club, meanwhile, was Tony Horseman for Wycombe, who scored 416 goals between 1961 and 1978, although none of them came in the Football League. Wycombe repeatedly turned down the offer of a move into the professional leagues, and first played in the top four tiers in 1993.
There’s a similar case for various clubs who have been promoted from non-league relatively recently: none of Forest Green, Barrow, AFC Wimbledon or Sutton United’s record goalscorers ever played in the Football League, while the same is probably true for Salford City. Salford don’t display any goalscorer record on their website, and when contacted by The Athletic for further information, they said that their records had been destroyed in an arson attack in 2009. They only have complete records since then.
The least intimidating record, incidentally, is held by Wigan Athletic‘s Andy Liddell, an attacking midfielder who spent six seasons at the club. Wigan are one of many clubs who specify their record league goalscorer rather than the all-competitions holder. Perhaps they should add on goals scored in cup competitions, as 70 is a somewhat modest total.
Recent years have been — almost — all about the big clubs. It felt inevitable for years that Henry, Lampard, Rooney and Aguero would become their club’s record goalscorer.
And if the Premier League‘s regular Big Six is now a Big Seven thanks to the rise of Newcastlethat fits into this pattern, as Alan Shearer surpassed Jackie Milburn’s long-standing record of 200 by half a dozen, ending his Newcastle career in 2006 on 206 goals.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that modern supporters of clubs lower down the pyramid probably won’t ever watch their club’s record goalscorer in the flesh. As inequality has increased between clubs, and players are more likely to transfer to a bigger club in search of money and trophies, records are less likely to be set.
It is striking, for example, that of Aston Villa’s 10 all-time record goalscorers, the most recent, Northern Irishman Peter McParland, left the club in 1962. The man who came closest in recent times was Dwight Yorke, whose 98 goals put him just two away from Villa’s top 10, but ultimately he was too good for Villa, so moved on to Manchester United, where he promptly won the treble.
This now seems inevitable for a club like Villa. Either their attackers score so frequently they move onto bigger and better things, like Yorke, or they’re not prolific enough to attract interest from richer clubs, and therefore don’t score regularly enough to trouble the records.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, for instance, who spent his entire career with Villa aside from a couple of loans as a youngster, only managed 87 goals. A genuine love for the club won’t be enough to keep top-class players around unless Villa become a Champions League club, as the example of Jack Grealish shows.
The same is true of Everton and Wayne Rooney, while the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Richardson also moved up the league when they outgrew the club. Neither would have challenged Dean’s outright record, although Lukaku was 10 goals away from reaching Everton’s top 10.
It’s difficult to identify many current Premier League players who might trouble their club’s record books. Aleksandar Mitrovic is 72 goals off Fulham‘s record, although is arguably scoring too many this season to give himself a proper chance — it almost certainly means Fulham will stay up, and he won’t get another chance to smash in 43 goals in a single Championship campaign, as he did last season. Wilfried Zaha‘s contract expires in the summer, and he probably won’t score another 76 Crystal Palace goals, while if Ivan Toney is prolific enough to look like he might score another 90-odd goals for Brentfordhe’ll surely be snapped up by another club.
Perhaps we need to look at the big clubs for further records. Mohamed Salah is now halfway to Ian Rush’s total, although surely won’t stay at Liverpool for long enough to seriously challenge. Marcus Rashford isn’t far off half the way to Rooney’s tally, and on current form might get there if he spends his entire career at Old Trafford. Erling Haaland is 10 percent of the way to matching Sergio Aguero in just half a season, although there are so many factors — form, fitness, a transfer, a change of position — that can affect a player’s ability to score consistently over a number of years .
And that just underlines the point that it’s only the biggest clubs where these records will realistically be broken. Discounting MK Dons because of their recent formation, there’s only one anomaly.
In November 2022, Rochdale’s Ian Henderson broke the club’s 49-year goalscoring record with a neat header against his former club Salford City. As if to demonstrate his longevity, the goal was assisted by youngster Ethan Brierley, who had walked out alongside Henderson as a 10-year-old mascot in 2014.
Henderson originally arrived at Rochdale in 2013 as a winger rather than a centre-forward but became renowned for his clever movement into the channels and inventive finishing. He was released, against his wishes di lui, when Rochdale struggled to renew contracts in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, just four goals short of Reg Jenkins’ record, set in 1973, but returned last summer to complete the job.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I wasn’t feeling incredibly proud, honoured, over the moon, overwhelmed and very emotional at this moment in time,” Henderson said in a fantastic interview afterwards, holding back the tears. “It’s an overwhelming feeling, an achievement that’s taken quite a long time to get to, but I’m incredibly proud.”
Henderson was well aware of his place in Rochdale’s history, but probably wasn’t aware quite how rare it is these days, for a player outside the true elite to become his club’s record goalscorer in the modern era. It requires both prolific goalscoring and longevity at a club. The latter, these days, is in short supply.
That makes Kane’s imminent achievement interesting. While employed by regular Premier League challengers, there’s no need for a player to move clubs, while at clubs that can’t hope to win the title, ambitious players look to move up the league. Most clubs can be clearly sorted into either category.
But Kane has spent most of his Spurs career in something of a corridor of uncertainty; a rare position where there’s a dilemma for the player about whether to stay or go.
Maybe, though, that much-cited lack of trophies makes Kane’s imminent achievement even more special to Spurs fans. Arsenal supporters don’t remember Henry’s record above the Invincibles season; Chelsea’s don’t think of Lampard’s record over the European Cup he lifted as captain.
Perhaps overtaking Greaves will be Kane’s legacy at Spurs — particularly if he breaks the record against Arsenal this weekend — and the major achievement from this Tottenham era that will live on in the record books for decades.
But even if you’re not a Tottenham fan, it’s worth savoring the moment. We’ve become accustomed to seeing club goalscoring records set, but it might be a long time before it happens again.