They say that anyone can benefit from a bit of Christmas cheer, and this is especially true for anyone who supports the team sat rock bottom of the English top-flight on 25th December. Being in last place is not much of a problem a few weeks into the season, or for the optimistic, even a couple of months in, but Christmas is certainly when fans and players justifiably get more than just a little bit nervous about what lies ahead.
You may think that with over half the season to play (in a normal campaign, teams have usually played 17 or 18 games out of 38 by Christmas Day), there is no need to push the panic button. But history tells us that being last at Christmas is a very grim omen indeed. It is not impossible to turn things around, as a select group of teams have showed us in the past. However, far more often than not, the worst-ranked team in the league at Christmas fails to avoid the pain of relegation.
Just How Bad Is Being Bottom at Christmas?
Our search looks at every Premier League season right up until the end of the last full campaign, which at the time of writing, is 2021/22. This means there have been 30 seasons and subsequently, 30 teams that have found themselves rock bottom of the table at Christmas time. Only on a mere three occasions have this team been able to turn things around and finish outside the drop-zone come the end of the campaign. With a survival rate of just 10%, you are right to be very worried if it is your team that is propping up the rest of the table over the festive period.
The below table lists all the teams that were rock bottom of the Christmas-Day standings, and where they ended up finishing the season. Note that only the first three Premier League seasons featured 22 teams with the more recent editions featuring 20.
In 27 of 30 seasons, the worst team in the league have not been able to improve, or they have not improved by a sufficient amount. More often than not, the worst ranked team as we all tuck into out turkeys have ended up finishing the season in the exact same unwanted spot, with this happening in 17 instances (54.8%), albeit only three times in the last 11 years. When the bottom side are able to drag themselves from the foot of the table, progress is usually limited to either 18th or 19th, this being little consolation when the outcome is still relegation.
It took over a decade for a team to successfully break the curse of being bottom at Christmas, this being West Brom in 2004/05. There was a similarly long wait for the next post-Christmas fightback, this coming in 2013/14 as Sunderland managed to avoid the drop following a late-season patch of form. Much like with buses, after a long wait, two end up coming at once as the year after Sunderland’s escape, Leicester managed the same feat in even more impressive style by climbing six places up the table. So, how did these three exceptions manage to turn their fortunes around? Let us take a closer look.
West Brom – 2004/05
As with many comeback stories, this one involves a change in manager. Gary Megson sat in the West Brom dugout at the start of the season but a dismal run of results, including just one win, saw him replaced by Bryan Robson in late October. There was no noticeable improvement initially under Robson but come the new year things began to click. In the 18 matches played from January onwards, the Baggies lost just five of them. This gave them a fighting chance of survival and their unlikely escape was confirmed on the final day of the season as they beat Portsmouth 2-0. This dramatic result put them one point higher than the relegated Crystal Palace and Norwich.
Sunderland – 2013/14
The Black Cats had a very busy transfer window ahead of this season, with 14 fresh faces coming to the North East in deals totalling around £30m. It was hoped this new-look squad would hit the ground running but this proved not to be the case. After securing just one point from their opening five league games, the blame was placed on Paolo Di Canio who was swiftly given the boot. Gus Poyet, a similarly mercurial and emotional character, was named his permanent successor and although he was battered 4-0 on his club debut, things did quickly improve under the Uruguayan. A late dip, featuring five consecutive losses starting in March, did put Sunderland firmly back in relegation contention but four straight wins shortly after ensured there would be no final-day drama.
As the man that had gotten Leicester promoted the previous season, Nigel Pearson enjoyed a little more patience from the board than most managers would receive. Despite being bottom at Christmas, with a very meagre tally of just 10 points from 17 games, the Leicester board kept faith in their man. What a call it proved to be as well as Pearson steered the Foxes to a truly remarkable escape. With nine games to go the newly promoted side were seven points adrift but they came out fighting and went on to collect 22 of an available 27 points, practically title-winning form. Virtually nobody guessed at the time they would continue this elite form into the following season, when they did, somehow, actually achieve the 5,000/1 (impossible if you prefer) feat of winning the Premier League! This was perhaps even more amazing given they had sacked the man who masterminded the turnaround, with Pearson dismissed during the summer.
Relegation Zone at Christmas
We know now that being rock bottom at Christmas bodes very badly indeed but what about occupying the other two places in the relegation zone? Well, this is much less concerning as teams have regularly dragged themselves out of the bottom trio to secure their survival, sometimes quite emphatically. The below table includes any team who were in the relegation zone at Christmas who went on to survive, excluding the three teams discussed above.
|Season||Team||Christmas Position||Final Position|
In this time frame, there have been 91 teams relegated from the Premier League and, of course, this means 91 teams in the relegation zone at Christmas. A total of 34 have managed to survive however, producing a respectable survival rate of 37.4%. If you were to take the very lowest team in the table out of the equation though, and only focus on the other two teams (three in the 1994/95 season), the rate increases significantly. Here you have 31 teams surviving out of 61 in total, resulting in a 50.8% survival rate. If your team is in 18th or 19th over Christmas, there is no need to despair, as it is almost a coin flip as to whether they stay up or not. Think we’d still rather be first though, or second, or even in midtable!
Perhaps interestingly, it does not even seem to make any real difference if the team is 18th or 19th either. Slightly surprisingly, second from bottom has a very slightly better survival rate, managing to escape relegation 16 times compared to 15 times for the team that was third from bottom.
Bottom at Christmas Betting
‘To be Bottom of the Premier League at Christmas’ is a market you will find at many bookies each season. It can be a little more appealing than a standard relegation bet because you do not have to wait so long for a potential payout. Additionally, your bet cannot be scuppered by a couple of good signings made in the January transfer window, with this being something you can never really fully take into account.
In addition, the odds for the “bottom at Christmas” market does generally offer the same prices as for a side finishing bottom come the end of the season. There is rarely any reason to think a team will only struggle badly in the first half of the campaign. Many bets in this market are placed pre-season but other punters choose to dip in after a few weeks, having seen how teams are performing early on. As we have seen in many seasons, pre-season predictions can often be some way off, to say the least. Even as recently as the 2022/23 season, one of the most popular selections to be bottom at Christmas was the newly promoted Bournemouth. What actually happened was it was Wolves who ended up securing bottom place over the festive period, something very few people would have predicted in early August. The Cherries were flying high in 14th, fully six points clear of last place.
Skip forward to Christmas time itself and history tells us that it is a real gamble to back the team in last place to survive. With only three previous examples as of the end of the 2021/22 season, it is clearly, statistically speaking at least, a very risky bet, so you will need some very good odds in order to consider it. A more sensible bet would probably be for the team in bottom to go down, but the trouble is that the odds for this are not likely to be great. You can get much better value, however, in backing the team to finish the season bottom. This is still a common occurrence but one that pays out considerably more given you are specifying a specific finish (20th) rather than covering three (20th – 18th).