Mind The Gap: From élite to also-rans, the harder they fall

Clubs relegated from the Premiership like to think of themselves as among the front runners for promotion. However, as this season's experiences of Crystal Palace, Norwich and Harry Redknapp's Southampton show, there are no guarantees. By Paul Newman
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The Independent Football

Darren Huckerby is not complaining, but as the Norwich City winger treads gingerly in bare feet around the club's training complex he appears to be feeling more than his 29 years.

"I never feel 100 per cent," he admitted. "You're playing every three days in this division and that's tough. You don't get much time for training. You play a game, recover from it and then the next game's upon you. In the Premier League we sometimes wouldn't play for two weeks or more.

"Your body just doesn't recover fully. It's OK if you're 20 years old, but once you get to 25 or so you start to feel it. One of the reasons we've struggled this season is that so many of us have been carrying knocks. You just don't get a rest between games."

While Huckerby's team have fared the worst of the three clubs relegated from the Premiership in the summer, Crystal Palace and Southampton have also found it tough. Norwich, who failed to win any of their first six matches, have not won two successive League games all season and lie 16th. Southampton, having won five of their 20 Championship matches, are 12th. Ninth-placed Palace, despite a recent run of six wins in nine matches, are 20 and 16 points respectively behind the clubs in the automatic promotion places, Reading and Sheffield United.

The Championship's physical demands have quickly taken their toll on teams which had happily adjusted to a 38-match Premiership season. Norwich have completed 21 of their 46 League games; at this stage last year they had played 15.

"The sheer volume of games is the major thing that separates this division from the Premiership," Iain Dowie, Palace's manager, said yesterday. "I like to be well prepared for matches, but it's very difficult to do that when you're playing game after game after game. Last week we played on the Sunday against Brighton and on the Tuesday against Coventry. If you spoke to anyone else in the world of sport about that they'd ask if you were mad."

Norwich's Nigel Worthington agrees. "The number of games is relentless, though it's obviously the same for every club," he said. "I think it's unfair on both players and paying supporters. Clubs have smaller squads these days and you're having to turn to the same group of players week in and week out. There's only so much that the body can take."

In the previous three seasons West Bromwich Albion were the only club to win promotion back to the Premiership at the first attempt. All too often relegation from the Premiership has led to financial calamity and wholesale departures, although this summer, ironically, there were signs that clubs were learning to prepare properly for demotion. Many Premiership contracts now have pay cuts triggered by relegation - some of Southampton's players have 50 per cent less in their pay packets this season - while the £8m annual parachute payments made to relegated clubs for two years helps to ease the burden.

Not that relegation comes without a cost. Norwich have debts of £18m, while Simon Jordan, the Palace chairman, said recently that he had put £32m into the club over five years (when asked for his net football wage by the Football Association, pending a disciplinary hearing into comments he had made about referees, Jordan said "minus £127,000 a week").

Southampton, relegated after 27 unbroken years in the top flight, suffered the most upheaval in the summer. Peter Crouch and Kevin Phillips, the first-choice strikers, headed a long list of departures, while continuing speculation over Harry Redknapp's future as manager and his relationship with the club's performance director Sir Clive Woodward may not have helped their cause.

Palace and Norwich, however, kept stronger squads than their fans may have dared to hope. Both retained most of their Premiership players and in particular hung on to their key strikers, Andy Johnson (who even signed an extended contract at Selhurst Park) and Dean Ashton. There were departures, but both clubs brought in fresh blood, with Palace spending nearly £2m on two Premiership forwards, Clinton Morrison and Jon Macken.

"I keep waiting for Norwich to climb the table," Redknapp said. "They kept their players and I thought they had a great chance. Palace also kept Johnson and I was the only manager of the three to ship out. I lost 13 players. Six of them would walk into the team now and we would have walked away with this league if I had kept them. Imagine if we still had Crouch and Phillips up front, because we are lacking a natural goalscorer."

Some would argue that being forced to rebuild can be a blessing in disguise. Jason McAteer, now playing in League One with Tranmere, recalls relegation under Brian Kidd at Blackburn. "He's one of the best coaches but the mistake he made was he then tried to get promoted with Premier League players," McAteer said. "You need Championship players to get you out of the Championship. I struggle in our division at times. I find it hard to adapt, to just kick it out, because I'm looking for a pass all the time."

This season's relegated trio all remain committed to trying to play their way back. "We have a formula that's worked well over the last few years, " Worthington said. "Now that things haven't gone as well it's been only natural that we've looked at the way we do things and wondered if we should make changes, but I think it's important that we stick to the methods that have served us well in the past."

Dowie, who admits that it could be difficult to keep the likes of Johnson if Palace fail to return to the Premiership at the first attempt, is refusing to look to short-term fixes, even after games like last week's emphatic 2-0 defeat at Luton, where his England Under-21 central midfield pairing of Ben Watson and Tom Soares was given the runaround by more experienced opponents.

"I'm a big believer in investing in youth," Dowie said. " This is a long-term job and I'll build for the future at all costs. Watson and Soares didn't play well on Saturday, but it's a massive learning curve for them.

"It may sound difficult, but it was a good thing for them to experience defeat like that. It will be another building block for them as they build towards being top players."

What the relegated clubs have all had to recognise is that the Championship is much more physical and offers no easy games. Millwall and Brighton proved that by winning away to Wolves and Palace respectively from bottom place in the table.

"It's a very honest division, with a fantastic array of players who are prepared to run through brick walls and unless you match that you can get caught out," Dowie said. "The Premiership gives you tactical problems. This division gives you much more physical problems, through both the number of games and the way teams play."

While Dowie does not accept that his players are more suited to Premiership football, Worthington concedes that it has taken time for his players to adapt.

"The football is more hurly-burly, more rough-and-ready," he said. "We have a group of good footballers who enjoyed their time in the Premiership. In this division you need battlers as well as good footballers, people who are going to compete game in and game out."

Worthington believes the Championship places particular physical demands on defenders, who are given no time on the ball because of the hard work of forwards.

Craig Short, who dropped out of the Premiership to join Sheffield United in the summer, agrees. "As a centre-half playing in the Premier League, if the right-back for Chelsea or Manchester United gets the ball he's not going to launch it and stick it over my head for two centre-forwards to chase," Short said. "He'll pass it or keep it, so that's when you get your rest. In this division it's more end to end."

Redknapp insists there is still plenty of time for teams to make a promotion charge and the relegated clubs can take heart from recent history. West Ham went up last season despite losing 15 matches, while Palace won promotion in the previous campaign having been 20th on Boxing Day. "Anybody who's capable of putting a run together knows that anything can happen," Worthington said. "We just have to keep working at it."

How clubs relegated from the Premiership have fared in the following season

2001-02 Season/Now *

Man City 1st (P) 8th (Prem)

Coventry 11th 21st

Bradford 15th 14th (Lge 1)

2002-03

Ipswich 7th 15th

Derby 18th 17th

Leicester 2nd (P) 14th

2003-04

W Ham 4th 9th (Prem)

WBA 2nd (P) 17th (Prem)

Sun'd 3rd 20th (Prem)

2004-05

Leicester 15th 14th

Leeds 14th 4th

Wolves 9th 9th

2005-06

Palace n/a 8th

Norwich n/a 16th

So'ton n/a 12th

* Season refers to where club finished that season, ie the one after relegation. P = promoted

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