How Common Are Red Cards & Do They Effect The Result?

Referee Red CardRed cards are major events in a game of football, up there with goals and injuries, and they occur more often than you might think. If a player pushes their luck one too many times or commits an act so dangerous, illegal, or offensive that the referee immediately shows them the exit, their team is down to 10 men for the remainder of the game.

In the most basic of terms this gives the opposing team the advantage because they now outnumber red carded player’s team, but exactly how much of an effect does this have on the outcome of the game? How much more likely is it that the 10 man team will lose, and is there any truth to the saying “It’s harder to win against 10 men”?

This is difficult to answer definitively.

Not all teams are created equal, for a start – a 10 man Tottenham Hotspur still have a good chance of beating a full strength Ebbsfleet United, for example – so for this article we are going to be looking at statistics from the Premier League only. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s as close as we can get.

Read on to find out more, but behave yourselves, alright?

The Effect of Psychology

Against The Odds ConceptThere is a line of thinking, and this has been studied, tested, and proved to be true in some cases, that says a smaller group facing a larger opposition can actually perform better precisely because they are at a disadvantage.

Look at how the Vietcong, a poorly equipped and hungry army, harassed the French into submission and then beat back the might of the USA with their helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets. Or watch 300.

This translates into football as well, because a team that is put at an unexpected disadvantage by having a player red carded – especially if it happens later on – can rally themselves and come out all guns blazing, determined to perform in the face of adversity and putting in far more effort than usual.

Of course, you need the right sort of players with the right sort of mentality to achieve this, but it can happen. In 2012, Chelsea famously beat Barcelona to progress to the final of the Champions League after John Terry was sent off towards the end of the 1st half, with Chelsea already 1-0 down and playing away. The match ended 2-2, giving Chelsea a 3-2 win on aggregate – heroic stuff.

But one example does not prove a theory, so let’s look at some date and facts.

Adam Greenburg

Why does this guy get his own section of the article?

Well, Adam Greenburg is an economics and econometrics graduate (we don’t know either, it just means he’s good with statistics at a guess), and he studied the results of 1,520 Premier League matches between 2009 and 2013 – that’s four seasons.

The number of red cards dished out in each season can be seen below:

Season Red Cards Total
09/10 68
10/11 64
11/12 66
12/13 52

That’s an average of 62.5, which represents 16.44% of the 380 Premier League games played each season. These four seasons are fairly typical too, with most seasons netting between 55 and 75 reds since the mid 90’s.

Red Card Man Utd v Liverpool 2009
Sdo216 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Greenburg also found that the old cliché; “It’s harder to play against 10 men” wasn’t true statistically speaking. The data shows teams that have a man sent off do indeed score fewer goals and win less points, as we might have originally suspected, so a red card does indeed affect the outcome of the game.

One of the most interesting findings though, was the effect the red card had on home teams as opposed to away teams. The numbers below show the average points won per game for the home team across the same four seasons as before:

H = Home Team

A = Away Team

H11 v A11 H11 v A10 H10 v A11
1.69 2.05 0.83

This shows us that if the home team loses a player it has a much bigger impact on their winning chances than if the opposing side loses a player. If the home team usually wins 1.69 points per game on average across those four seasons, they only gain an extra 0.36 points per game when playing with an extra man. However, they lose out on more than double that if they themselves lose a man, with an 0.86 point deficit per game.


Football Refs Whistle and CardsFrom Greenburg’s findings we can deduce that a red card will pop up in approximately 16% of games, which is higher than the probability of a 1-1 draw believe it or not, so you might want to remember that next time you’re putting a bet on.

We also know that losing a man can have a devastating effect on the home team, but when the home team’s opposition loses a man the home team doesn’t gain too much of an advantage. In fact, even if both teams have a man sent off the home team tends to come out of it worse, probably due to the pressure of not wanting to lose on home turf. Oh, the embarrassment!

Of course, these stats are skewed somewhat by the fact that some teams are stronger than others and some red cards will have been given later in the game when the result was already more or less decided, but they still point towards the obvious: if you lose a player you are more likely to lose the game, no matter how fired up you get.

Red Cards For Fun

It’s been a bit humourless and stat heavy so far hasn’t it, so let’s have a bit if trivia that you can take as your own and show off next time you’re doing a pub quiz.

A few red card related firsts and worsts, if you will.

Fastest Ever Red Card in the Premier League

Sheffield Utd BadgeKeith Gillespie holds the crown for the fastest ever early shower in the UK’s top flight. While playing for Sheffield United against Reading in 2007, he was brought on as a substitute and lasted all of 12 seconds – which according to his wife… sorry, immature.

While pushing for a position during a throw in he decided to elbow Reading’s Stephen Hunt directly in the face, and directly in front of the referee.

There are players who have been sent off faster in other competitions, but the fact that play was stopped when he came on and hadn’t actually started again by the time he was sent off meant that although he was on the pitch for 12 seconds, he didn’t play a single second of game time.

Maybe he just didn’t fancy working that day.

Most Career Red Cards

Gerardo Bedoya
Pipe26 [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If we are talking about English players then it’s the one and only Vinnie Jones with 12 career red cards who tops this list – which is a surprisingly low number actually if you ever saw him play.

Vinnie was less footballer and more ‘crazy guy from the pub who overheard you were having a game on Saturday and decided to join in without asking.”

While playing for Sheffield Utd, he was famously yellow carded after just 5 seconds for a terrible tackle before being sent off 9 minutes into the second half for an even worse one, a fly kicking challenge that Bruce Lee would have been proud of.

However, the most red cards for any player anywhere in the world is Columbian, Gerado Bedoya, the filthiest plyer ever to grace the game.

He racked up 46 red cards over his career, including the time he wiped out a player and then kicked him in the head while he was down.

He became a manager after retiring as a player and even managed to get sent off doing that. During his very first game. After just 19 minutes. Sheesh, someone needs to relax.

Most Red Cards For a Single Team in One Season

Joey Barton QPR
Brian Minkoff-London Pixels [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Again, sticking with the Premier League here, and it is Queens Park Rangers who managed to bag the trophy for most red cards in single season, and with so little time spent playing in the top flight too.

After a brief spell in the Premier League in the early 90’s when it was first formed, QPR were relegated and didn’t come up again for air until 2011.

It was during that 2011/2012 season that they topped West Ham, Wimbledon, and Leicester’s joint record of 8 red cards in a season, with a new record of 9.

Way to let everybody know you’re back, huh?

They did have renowned trouble maker Joey Barton on their side though, to be fair, along with Djibril Cisse. They both got 2 apiece.