Football: Days of fear and falls, delight and disaster

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The Independent Online
GOING DOWN IN HISTORY: Some of the most compelling moments in football have occurred when the relegation issues are eventually settled - often by the narrowest of margins. Trevor Haylett looks back on some celebrated matches

1984-85: COVENTRY REACH FOR THE SKIES

AFTER lifting their one and only major prize, a Milk Cup triumph over Sunderland who were also relegated, Norwich City went into free-fall down the First Division table, losing eight of their final 13 league games which included only three victories. The last came in their final outing at Chelsea, taking the Canaries to 49 points.

Theirs was an anxious wait while Coventry embarked on their remaining fixtures. With 41 points, Don Mackay's side knew the score: they had to win all three games. The first victory came at Stoke, courtesy of Stuart Pearce's penalty after Ian Painter had missed from the spot for the hosts.

The second game was even tighter, Brian Kilcline's free-kick was just enough to defeat Luton Town with only six minutes remaining.

Now only Everton barred the way, champions it is true, but undermined by an awful sequence of injuries. It was a Sunday morning game with an 11.30 start and Cyrille Regis rose early to give Coventry the lead, later adding another in their 4-1 escape.

1982-83: ANTIC'S ANTICS BRING PLEAT PLEASURE

LUTON'S debut season in the First Division had one of the most dramatic finales. Chances to secure their place were passed up in defeats by Everton and Manchester United, loading everything on to the last day at Maine Road. Manchester City required a point to survive; Luton had to win. It was an intense occasion for David Pleat, one of the game's most emotional managers, who the previous day had been consoling his wife after the death of her father. With five minutes remaining City looked good for their point. Then out of the blue and from some distance struck Luton's Yugoslav international, Raddy Antic.

The closing minutes were like an eternity for Pleat before the final whistle sent him on a delirious whirligig across the Maine Road pitch. It remains one of the game's most compelling images, an ambitious manager released from his chains in an unbridled explosion of joy. The Luton nerve ends are spared another ordeal this weekend because for the first time in six years they have made their place safe before the final afternoon. Another spectacular reprieve came in 1990 when a win at Derby, allied to Sheffield Wednesday's home reverse by Nottingham Forest, saved them.

1973-74: UNITED FOUGHT LAW AND LAW WON

MANCHESTER UNITED had struggled all season and Tommy Docherty's team needed wins from both the last two games to have a survivors' chance. Not the best circumstances then to stage a Manchester derby especially against a City side who brought Denis Law back for his first return to Old Trafford. Docherty had discarded the legendary goalscorer the previous summer although the first Law knew of it came as he sat drinking in an Aberdeen bar and heard television reporting his free transfer.

In the derby game only eight minutes were left and the score 0-0 when the ball ran loose in United's penalty area. The merest of touches would force it home and there was Law executing the fateful backheel which beat Alex Stepney. His team and supporters cavorted in delight but this time there was not the trademark one-fingered salute of triumph from Law. Instead he turned slowly upfield, saddened that he - and events elsewhere - had sentenced his old club to the Second Division for the first time in more than 35 years. It was his final goal, indeed the final touch of a golden career. A couple of minutes later he was substituted and departed, as planned, towards retirement, admitting it was the most heartbreaking weeekend of his life.

1927-28: HOW SPURS AND BORO SLIPPED

AN INCREDIBLE finish to the First Division as 12 teams,including Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham, were separated by just three points going into the final day. Spurs had finished their programme with 38 points and with five teams below them believed they had avoided the worst. Instead they succumbed, along with Middlesbrough, as the other results went against them. Those who grasped the lifeline included United, who beat Liverpool 6-1, and Sheffield United who drew at Bolton. Ayresome Park staged a do-or-die North-east argument with defeat certain to lead to relegation. In the event Sunderland's William George Death showed an appropriate sense of timing with his team's third in a 3-0 victory. Sheffield Wednesday, who began the day in last place, beat Aston Villa to complete a remarkable escape. With 10 games outstanding they were seven points adrift but proceeded to win seven and draw three. They continued to prosper; ending both the following seasons as champions.

1986-87: DOG BITES MAN BUT MAN PROVES DOGGED

A POLICE dog called Bryn ran on to the pitch at Torquay and sunk his teeth into the home side's Jim McNichol. Then in time added on, while the wound was being treated, came the goal that saved the Plainmoor club from the ignominy of going out of the League and into Vauxhall Conference obscurity. The first season of automatic demotion saw three clubs imperilled, among them Burnley. Torquay, last the previous two seasons, were favourites to fall and at half-time trailed 2-0 to Crewe, with a certain David Platt among the scorers. During the interval the 50p match programme was fetching offers of pounds 5 - so sure were the locals that their team were down and out. Early in the second half McNichol made his mark with the goal that gave Torquay hope before Bryn left his mark on him. With Lincoln losing at Swansea, Torquay needed just one more goal and in injury time Paul Dobson struck the decisive blow. Burnley overcame Leyton Orient leaving Lincoln to the drop.

1988-89: THE CRUEL KILLING OF THE KILLIES

HOPE for all today's salvation-seekers that what looks to be the 'impossible' need not be so. Well almost. The final Saturday of the Scottish First Division campaign saw Kilmarnock needing to win by at least five more goals than Clyde to put the Glasgow side down in their place. Kilmarnock were away to Queen of the South, the basement club and long since doomed. Resistance was scant and with 10 minutes to go the Killies had established a six-goal lead, five of which had come from Willie Waters, who equalled the club record. It was enough to keep Kilmarnock afloat because Clyde were only a goal up on St Johnstone. Then, the cruellest of twists for Waters and his team as the fifth minute of injury time brought Clyde a penalty. Up stepped Colin McGlashan for what was his fourth successful conversion in five games, his side surviving because their goal difference was better by one than Kilmarnock's.

1992-93: RED FACES AT CRYSTAL PALACE

VICTORY over Ipswich in their final home game sent Crystal Palace eight points clear of Oldham in the scrap to avoid the last Premier League relegation place. A lap of honour and Steve Coppell's declaration that he was going out 'to get drunk' showed that at Selhurst Park the chickens had already been counted. Nobody reckoned Oldham could win their three final games in a week to survive and even then Palace would condemn them with two points from their concluding fixtures. The first hint that they were premature celebrations came when Oldham silenced an expectant home crowd to extinguish Aston Villa's championship hopes. Three days later Joe Royle's revivers beat Liverpool while Palace were drawing at Manchester City. On to the last afternoon with Palace at Arsenal and crossing fingers that Oldham would not do the hat-trick. They did - despite Matt Le Tissier's threesome for Southampton while Palace's 3-0 destruction at Highbury was begun by their old sharpshot, Ian Wright. Twelve days later Coppell resigned.

(Photograph omitted)

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