The great escapes from Premier League relegation
Wolves are already down and for Blackburn, Bolton, Wigan and QPR, the trapdoor is perilously close. But history has taught us that there is always at least one club that turns escapology into an art form. Here are five of the most memorable – and unlikely – survivors
Wednesday 25 April 2012
Position on last day 20th (third bottom)
Number of teams in danger of the drop: Two from five Southampton, Sheffield United*, Ipswich, Everton, Oldham*. *indicates relegated.
Form over last 10 games 0.5pts per game.
There is often a big club that sleepwalks through the season, drifts down the league and then wakes up in its pyjamas staring at the drop without quite knowing how to cope. Almost invariably, like Newcastle in 2009 or Manchester City in 1996, they are relegated, killed off by the little clubs that have learned how to scrap. Almost but not always.
Everton had frittered away the season. After three games they were top but momentum began to seep away. Howard Kendall, his powers fading, resigned in December after a needless row over the failure to sign Dion Dublin. Everton were 11th.
Mike Walker, who had taken Norwich to victory over Bayern Munich, was appointed and would win six games in 10 months. Walker brought in the lumbering figure of Brett Angell, a striker for whom no barn door was quite big enough to hit, and Everton kept on drifting.
After a 3-0 defeat to Leeds they found themselves in the relegation zone. They had one match left. The club seemed overwhelmed by fear. Several players refused point blank to be Everton's designated penalty taker, leaving Graham Stuart to inherit the task. He predicted he would have to score in the last game against Wimbledon to keep Everton up, adding: "And I'll be terrified."
So was virtually everyone else who occupied every vantage point at Goodison on 7 May, a day designed for Sky's split screens. Any two of five could join Swindon in relegation. A draw would only be good enough for Everton if Ipswich lost at Blackburn (which they didn't). However, critically, Everton were the only one of the five at home for a game some suggest was thrown by Wimbledon.
Even now, it seems a ridiculous allegation since Everton, beset by nerves, appeared bent on suicide. Anders Limpar handled in his own area to give away a penalty. Dave Watson and David Unsworth collided with each other as Gary Ablett scored an own goal.
The recovery almost defied belief. Limpar won a penalty without anyone quite knowing why. Stuart, terrified or not, converted it and Barry Horne, who had not scored all season, suddenly decided this was the moment to send a 30-yard drive crashing in off the underside of Hans Segers' crossbar. It was still not enough but when Stuart sent a scuffed shot trundling goalwards, it evaded Segers to begin all those rumours – although the ball bounced awkwardly on an end-of-season pitch. A ground that had greeted a championship seven years before erupted to embrace 17th place.
Position on last day 19th (second bottom)
Number of teams in danger of the drop: Two from three Sunderland*, Middlesbrough*, Coventry.
Form over last 10 games 1.0pt per game
Whenever Coventry meet misfortune, there will be a faint cheer from Wearside. During their 34 years in the top flight 10 ended with them needing something from the last day of the season to survive and on two of those occasions Sunderland supporters felt cheated.
In 1977, Sunderland, Bristol City and Coventry went into the final match level on points with one of the three due to go down. Coventry and Bristol City were playing each other. The game kicked off late and when news came through that Sunderland had lost at Everton, Jimmy Hill, Coventry's chairman, announced the result over the Tannoy.
Bristol City and Coventry simply stopped playing knowing a draw was enough, five years before the Germans and the Austrians did the same at a World Cup.
Twenty years later, under Gordon Strachan, Coventry arrived at the final afternoon second bottom. Above them on goal difference were Middlesbrough. One place above the relegation zone and two points better off lay Sunderland. All three were away – Sunderland at Wimbledon; Boro at Leeds and Coventry at Tottenham.
Coventry were 9-1 against and Strachan and his lieutenant, Gary McAllister, spent the morning of the game in the team hotel discussing how they would rebuild the club once they were outside the top flight.
Once more Coventry kicked off late; this time by 15 minutes because of the late arrival of some of their fans because of an accident on the M1. By the time the match at White Hart Lane was 39 minutes old, Coventry were two up through Dion Dublin and Paul Williams before Paul McVeigh pulled a goal back just before half-time – although at Selhurst Park and Elland Road, the second half was beginning.
Sunderland lost and Middlesbrough drew – a fact they did not need Jimmy Hill to announce at White Hart Lane. Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who disliked Strachan sometimes intensely, remarked it had been a "disgrace" Coventry had been given an extra 15 minutes. Strachan thought the opposite. His players had been in control of the game until they knew they could stay up if they did not concede a goal.
The Coventry players were suddenly beset by panic and on the final whistle some dissolved into tears. They flowed, too, by the Tees and the Wear.
Position on last day (Division Three) 24th (bottom)
Number of teams in danger of the drop to the Conference: One from two *Scarborough, Carlisle.
Form over last 10 games 0.8pts per game
The greatest escape of them all, although the story tends to focus solely on Jimmy Glass, the on-loan goalkeeper, whose shot deep into stoppage time kept Carlisle in the Football League.
However, it is also the story of Michael Knighton, who 10 years before had almost succeeded in buying Manchester United. Had he done so, he would now have been at the helm of a club driving towards the Treble. Instead, he was now in very serious danger of being lynched by fans whom he had promised Premier League football.
Having fired Mervyn Day as manager two years before, Carlisle's chairman had thought that the best man for the job was his good self, quipping: "You need a JCB to move all the bullshit that's talked about coaching." Eventually, with the abyss looming, Knighton was persuaded to appoint Nigel Pearson as first-team coach but what undid them both was that an apparently doomed Scarborough had won their last two matches to overtake them with one game remaining.
Because Scarborough were well ahead on goals scored, the only realistic result that would keep them up was if Carlisle beat Plymouth and Scarborough failed to win at home against Peterborough.
As it became increasingly apparent this would not happen, the mood at Brunton Park became violent. Knighton had many failings but a lack of courage was not one of them and as the crowd turned on him, he remained in the front row of the directors' box. Two rather elderly stewards, who had been designated to protect him, began moving away. They would not be laying down their lives for their chairman.
Both matches were level at 1-1. In the press box, Carlisle's one-time England international, Ivor Broadis, kept up a mantra of: "All we need is a goal."
At Scarborough, the final whistle had been greeted by a pitch invasion and the Tannoys were playing All Right Now by Free when Pearson urged Glass to come up for a final corner. It was met by Scott Dobie's head, palmed away and driven in by the red-shirted figure of Glass, who was only at Carlisle because he couldn't stand his manager at Swindon, Jimmy Quinn.
Pandemonium followed. Knighton gave what can only be described as a stream-of-consciousness interview, confirming his belief in alien life. Pearson was sacked shortly afterwards and Quinn never played for Carlisle again, finishing an unfulfilled career as a Dorset taxi driver.
West Bromwich Albion 2005
Position on last day 20th (bottom)
Number of teams in danger of the drop: Three from four Norwich*, Southampton*, Crystal Palace*, West Bromwich Albion.
Form over last 10 games 1.3pts per game.
As a manager, Bryan Robson is too easily classed a failure. His three cup finals with Middlesbrough and the way he led West Bromwich Albion to safety argue to the contrary. At the start of the 2004-05 season, Robson described himself as: "An invisible man with a silent phone".
His last job had been in the backwaters of Bradford and it had not ended well. He had applied for every job he could think of and even plucked up the courage to ask Sir Alex Ferguson if he required an assistant at Old Trafford to be gently refused. "You are nobody's number two," Ferguson said.
In November 2004, after one row too many with the Albion chairman, Jeremy Peace, Gary Megson was fired, leaving the club one place above the relegation places.
Robson was a brave choice. He was greeted with scepticism and hurt by stories of too much drink and too few coaching skills. Results began spiralling downwards. And yet like Roberto Martinez with Wigan, Robson was passionately convinced that if Albion were to survive, it would be through high-quality passing football.
They are still the only Premier League club to survive after being bottom at Christmas. A present Robson did receive from his family was a small jade Buddha he kept in his pocket for luck. Gradually, as the passing game gelled, they lost just three of their last dozen games but Albion were coming from an awful long way back.
Like his one-time team-mate Gordon Strachan in 1997, Robson spent the morning of the match wondering what the club would be like after relegation. If any of the three teams above them won, Albion were down, even if they did manage to beat Portsmouth at the Hawthorns.
Southampton, perhaps the greatest serial escapologists of them all, were at home to Manchester United. However, they would pay the price for abandoning the confines of The Dell that had so often saved them, for the wider spaces of St Mary's. Norwich were thrashed 6-0 by Fulham.
That left Crystal Palace at Charlton, a club inclined to do them few favours. With five minutes remaining Palace were winning 2-1, which Robson knew, if only by the way Kieran Richardson's second goal for Albion drew such muted applause. A Jonathan Fortune header at the Valley changed everything and suddenly Robson had champagne being tipped over his head from all angles.
West Ham United 2007
Position on last day 17th (fourth bottom)
Number of teams in danger of the drop: One from three Sheffield United*, West Ham, Wigan.
Form over last 10 games 1.8pts per game
In the minds of Neil Warnock and many others this is one of football's great conspiracies: West Ham sign Carlos Tevez but conceal the fact that his registration is not owned by them but by a third party, his agent, Kia Joorabchian; Tevez's goals save West Ham from relegation and on the final day when they require a point at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson fields a deliberately weakened team against his old friend, Alan Curbishley; West Ham win 1-0, through a Tevez goal, and the victims are poor, honest Sheffield United.
The fact that West Ham are the only team to have paid compensation to a club they have sent down tends to support the theory, at least as far as Tevez's registration is concerned. However, the picture is deeper than that.
West Ham's escape was a long, brilliant sprint that took them from a hopeless position – bottom and 10 points adrift in March to starting the final day outside the relegation zone. They took 21 points from their final 11 fixtures. They won their last four matches and although Ferguson, preparing for an FA Cup final, rested Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand and Vidic, Manchester United still aimed 25 shots at Robert Green's goal. West Ham would only have been relegated if they lost and Wigan won at Bramall Lane.
In the row between Sheffield United and West Ham, Wigan appear entirely forgotten. They were the ones in the relegation zone, their form had collapsed and their manager, Paul Jewell, was being torn apart by stress in both his public and private life. He, like Warnock, would resign immediately afterwards.
They had taken three points from their last eight games. They were the only one of the three that had to win. They had Lee McCulloch sent off. They were a mess. All Sheffield United had to do to survive was to avoid defeat on their own ground against 10 men.
In the driving rain, in Warnock's final match in charge of his boyhood team, their fate was in their own hands and, in keeping with so much of Yorkshire football, they somehow managed to toss it away. Wigan won 2-1, saving themselves in the last ditch. It would become a habit.
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