Ask any Leeds fan and they will all tell you about the agony of seeing their team bottle it at the 11th hour. They, and indeed many teams, know all too well of the despair of being in the promotion race right up until the last few games of the season, to be so close to the big time right until the death. You can only imagine how fans of such teams feel come the end of the season having seemed to have had success in the bag for so long.
But what about the other end of the spectrum, those teams that manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Over the years there have been many sides that were in the good old-fashioned dogfight right up until the back end of the season and yet somehow they managed to survive. That’s our focus in this piece, teams that avoided relegation in dramatic style, at the last moment.
Whilst for the neutral fan it is great to watch all the drama unfold, for the fans of those teams involved, however, it must feel very much like eight months of agony followed by one moment of unadulterated bliss and relief. A whole season of misery and defeats can be salvaged on the last day when the players seem to do just enough to get them over the finish line. Here’s a look at five of the best (or worst depending on your point of view) relegation battles, where the unexpected happened and seemingly doomed outfits escaped the dreaded drop.
Before we get into the meat of this piece we’ll take a look at a couple of honourable mentions. The examples that follow aren’t perhaps notable so much for what happened on the pitch, but more so for what happened off it.
Manchester United and Chelsea 1915/16
This is more than a century ago now but this was a season struck by controversy when Manchester United played their final game of the season against arch rivals Liverpool. United ended up winning the game by two goals to nil, consigning Chelsea to the drop, but it soon came to light that players from both Liverpool and Manchester United had placed large sums of money on that exact result.
It rapidly became evident what had occurred when his Liverpool teammates openly chastised forward Fred Pagnam for trying too hard and getting far too close to scoring when he hit the crossbar. Pagnam was fully against the idea of fixing the match and had actually threatened he was going to try his best to score so as to spoil the result.
In the subsequent investigation by the FA, it was decided that it was only the players that were involved, and not the clubs themselves, and therefore the clubs went unpunished and the results stood.
Then, due to the outbreak of the world war, The FA decided to postpone football for the following season, and when it finally resumed again in 1919 it was decided to increase the number of teams in the old first division by two, and Chelsea were (rightfully in our humble opinion) reinstated into the top division. The relegation battle that never was in many ways.
Another, far more recent, relegation tale that is more notable for what happened off the pitch and also after relegation was avoided, is the story of Crotone football club.
Hailing from the southern tip of Italy, Crotone football club is one of the smallest sides ever to take part in the top flight of Italian football. However, it wasn’t until there were only nine games left to go that FC Crotone decided that they were going to start actually playing football, but by this time they were eight points behind with a mountain to climb if they were to avoid the drop.
At this time, their then manager Davide Nicola made the bold declaration that if his team managed to beat the drop he would cycle from Crotone to Napoli, some 1,300km. The players obviously wanted to see him suffer and on the last day of the season beat Napoli to move out of the drop zone for only the second time that season and ensure top flight survival.
Oh, and by the way, Nicola stuck to his word and cycled to Napoli after the end of the season.
Top 5 Successful Relegation Battles
Ok, now we’ve seen a couple of examples where off the field incidents played as much of a part as the events on the pitch, now let’s have a look at our top five great escapes, where teams rescued their season against the odds and by the skins of their teeth!
Number 5 – Leicester City 2014/15
Remarkably, the Foxes had only won four Premier League games going into April, relegation form indeed! Their fans must have surely expected the worst. Not many teams can hope to survive when their form has been so dismal during the first three quarters of the season.
Very few, therefore, would have predicted when they kicked off against West Ham United on the 4th April that they were about to stage an amazing relegation survival act. They were plum bottom of the table at kick-off (see below) and were drawing 1-1 going into the last five minutes. They would go on to grab an 86th minute winner courtesy of substitute Andy King and this goal would kick start a run of six wins out of their remaining eight games that proved enough for them to stay in the top flight.
|Position on 2nd April 2015||Team||Points|
|16||Queens Park Rangers||22|
Even with this amazing upturn in form they still didn’t secure top flight status until the second to last game of the season, when a 0-0 draw with fellow strugglers Sunderland assured safety. Of course, as we now know, this amazing relegation escape act would prove the catalyst for an even more amazing Premier League title success 12 months on. In the end the Foxes finished some 11 points clear of bottom and six clear of the drop in 14th place.
Number 4 – West Brom 2004/05
Having been promoted to the Premiership in the 2003/04 season, West Bromwich Albion fans were on a high, or they were at least until they saw how badly equipped the team were to survive the rigours of the Premier league the following season.
The first few games of the new season weren’t too bad for Baggies supporters and three draws in their opening three games wasn’t exactly catastrophic. However, worse was soon to follow as the team proceeded to pick up only seven points from the next 17 games, leaving them stranded at the foot of the table going into the New Year.
No team previously had ever survived relegation having been bottom of the table at Christmas and this led pundits and bookmakers alike to come to the conclusion that The Baggies were doomed. Even the introduction of a new manager in November had failed to improve performances and they were pretty much dead in the water going into the final stretch. No side had ever broken the Christmas curse and the West Midlanders certainly didn’t look like they could become the first.
They did improve though, with Bryan Robson guiding his troops into a position where survival began to look possible. Coming to the final game of the season, West Brom knew that only a win, and also results elsewhere, could keep them alive following a dismal campaign. Fortunately, they were playing fellow strugglers Portsmouth, who sat one place above them in the table, but had nothing resting on the result since they were mathematically safe. Moreover, a West Brom win would go some way to seeing Pompey’s rivals Southampton relegated, so there is no doubt the cards had fallen kindly for Robson and co.
The game was all square going into half time, with Baggies fans knowing that this wasn’t enough to keep their top flight dreams alive, but then up popped substitute Geoff Horsfield to give them the lead. They weren’t out of the woods yet though. In the 70th minute Crystal Palace took the lead against Charlton Athletic meaning West Broms’ survival was no longer in their hands. It took an 82nd minute equaliser from Charlton for the West Brom fans to finally feel that their club had done just enough.
And indeed they had, ending the season a point and a place above the drop and making Premier League history in the process. Palace, Norwich and Southampton were relegated and the Christmas curse was no more (with Sunderland and Leicester both having beaten it since West Brom did).
Number 3 – West Ham United 2006/07
The next inclusion on this list is mired in controversy and one that Sheffield United fans are unlikely to ever forgive or forget. This all due to the fact that West Ham United had signed a player by the name of Carlos Tevez – a player who knows a thing or two about controversy having moved from Man United to City!
The Argentine was signed the previous summer alongside his compatriot Javier Mascherano, however, at the time of signing and for the season in question, both Tevez and Mascherano were also partly owned by a third party, meaning that by league rules they both were ineligible to play in the Premier League.
West Ham spent the majority of the season in the relegation zone, and in early March were a whopping 10 points behind Manchester City in 17th place (oh how times have changed!) and things weren’t looking good at all. They battled on though and their feisty third party forward was something of a talisman.
They went into the final game against champions in waiting Manchester United having clawed back the points deficit in the preceding games thanks to some key Tevez goals, and they only needed a draw to keep them up. They ended up winning the match, with none other than Tevez scoring the decisive goal.
They ended the season three points clear of 18th place Sheffield United who later filed a lawsuit against them for lost earnings due to being relegated. In 2009 they reached an out of court settlement thought to be worth £10m at the time. It transpired to be worth just over £18m but the saga would drag on until 2013 before being settled.
Of course, the financial difference between survival and relegation is much more than £18m and that’s even leaving aside the issue of prestige. What really incensed Blades fans and the club hierarchy was that a PL investigation had found the Hammers guilty during the season. A points deduction seemed possible or at the very least that Tevez would not be able to feature any more. However the authorities simply fined the Hammers, clearing the forward to play, and score, in the final three decisive clashes of the campaign. Best not mention the issue in the Red half of the Steel City.
Number 2 – Everton 1993/94
The 93/94 season will be one remembered by Everton fans as the time they nearly lost their long unbroken run of 40 years (then) in the top flight of English football.
They started the season off reasonably well, and certainly didn’t look in any danger of going down, however things soon took a turn for the worse when they decided to part ways with manager Howard Kendall, even though they were thirteenth in the table and ten points clear of the drop zone.
The losing streak started straight after the dismissal and things went slowly downhill from there with a series of straight defeats.
Arguments could be made that Everton would have been unlucky to go down as they didn’t drop into the bottom three until the second to last game of the season, however, they were very fortunate to turn things around on the last day of the season, coming from two goals behind to end up winning three goals to two, first with an absolute peach of a goal from Barry Horne, and then with an 80th minute winner by Graham Stuart.
The final result however would later be overshadowed, after allegations of matchfixing were levelled at the Wimbledon goalkeeper Hans Segers. It was alleged that Segers had large sums of money paid into his bank account by a gambling syndicate (its worth noting that these allegations had nothing to do with Everton FC if I may add) shortly after the game. These allegations were never proven in court however, and the goalkeeper suffered no consequences.
Number 1 – Oldham Athletic 1992/93
The heartbreak of being so close and yet so far, that’s how the Crystal Palace fans must have felt at the end of this season when they were relegated by the smallest of margins. In contrast, Latics fans, long-suffering in truth and now followers of a struggling fourth-tier side (at the time of writing), were in raptures.
On the final day of the 92/93 season Oldham Athletic went into their final game knowing that they had to win at home against Southampton and hope that Arsenal beat Palace in order avoid playing in Division One (as the second tier was then called) the following season.
They didn’t make it easy watching for their fans, all 14,597 of them, either, peppering the Southampton goal before taking the lead in the 29th minute, only to concede the equaliser at the other end just four minutes later.
After the break though it was a different story altogether, the Latics soon hit the gas and took a commanding three-goal lead. They looked very well set to secure their end of the deal but Matt le Tissier tried his best to get Southampton back into the game with his second and third goals of the game after the restart.
At 4-3 the home fans must have feared the worst but in the end Le Tissier’s heroics were not enough. Oldham held on for the win and Arsenal beat Crystal Palace convincingly to give Joe Royle’s men the right to stay in the Premier League by the very narrowest of margins.
In order to narrowly escape relegation the Lancashire outfit had won their final three games. That included the aforementioned 4-3 win plus a narrow away win at Villa and a home success over Liverpool. Given Villa ended the season as runners-up, whilst the Reds finished second, it really was some achievement. Those nine points and three-goal improvement in goal difference meant they finished level on points with Palace and survived only thanks to a goal difference that was two better than the Eagles’. Some escape!