A selection of seasons that went just about as badly as they could have gone
1. Sporting Gijón, 1997-98 (13 points)
“I have not failed,” Thomas Edison once said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Given the disastrous nature of their 1997-98 season, Sporting Gijón clearly felt the American inventor had given up too early in his exploration of cul-de-sacs.
Hardly anything went right for the Rojiblancos, who were participating in the top tier of Spanish football for the 21st consecutive campaign. Sporting had been flirting with demotion for several years, surviving a relegation play-off in 1994-95 before finishing four and six points clear of the drop zone in the two terms that followed, but few envisaged such a season of struggle when their opening-day meeting with Compostela got under way on a sticky August evening in Galicia.
That encounter ended in a 2-0 defeat and Miguel Montes’s men went on to lose each of their next five assignments in La Liga. Such a poor start led to the replacement of Montes with the former Real Madrid centre-back Antonio Maceda, and Sporting’s luck seemed to be changing when Igor Lediakhov’s penalty gave them the lead in the 77th minute against Real Valladolid. Yet the Asturians couldn’t quite hold out, letting in a late leveller to extend their winless start to seven games.
And on it went. Sporting lost another five in a row, edged out by a single goal on each occasion, before a 1-1 draw at Espanyol provided brief respite. The tide refused to turn, however, and a 2-1 loss to Atlético Madrid in December spelled the end for Maceda, who was succeeded by José Manuel Díaz Novoa. The club legend’s first match at the helm saw Sporting draw 1-1 with Salamanca, but normal service was resumed with seven successive defeats thereafter.
The Rojiblancos weren’t getting outplayed every week – slender losses were much more common than one-sided thrashings – but their fate had essentially been sealed by Christmas. The long wait for a victory was finally ended at the 24th time of asking, as Racing Santander were put to the sword in front of a success-starved crowd at El Molinón, while draws with Athletic, Mérida and Real Zaragoza were important in terms of pride, if not points.
A goal from Dmitri Cheryshev – with six strikes, the Russian was Sporting’s top scorer in 1997-98 – brought the season’s second win against Espanyol in early April, by which time their relegation had been confirmed. José Antonio Redondo had become their fourth manager of the campaign a few days before that triumph, which proved to be a false dawn: Sporting proceeded to lose four of their next five, before signing off with a 3-0 reverse at home to a Deportivo La Coruña side who played a third of the match with 10 men. That rather summed up their season.
2. Derby County, 2007-08 (11 points)
When Billy Davies was appointed Derby manager in the summer of 2006, he was tasked with achieving promotion to the Premier League within three years. The Scot needed only a single season to guide the club into the top flight, but that didn’t quite earn him the level of adoration from the terraces you might expect.
“There were mixed views about Davies amongst Rams fans,” wrote Edgar Smith in Bad Worse Worst: The Story of Derby County's Record Breaking 2007-08 Season. “He never stopped reminding us how amazing his achievements were.”
Davies certainly deserved the accolades he received for leading Derby, who had been battling relegation the previous year, to play-off glory. The squad contained few stars, but Davies succeeded in fashioning a collective stronger than the sum of its parts, with the group’s character and resilience evidenced by the fact that 19 of their 25 victories were by a single-goal margin.
A 2-0 loss to Crystal Palace in their penultimate game ended the East Midlanders’ chances of automatic promotion, but the Rams rallied to edge out Southampton on penalties in the play-off semi-finals and then beat Tony Mowbray’s West Brom in the Wembley showpiece. After a six-year absence, Derby were back in the big time.
Yet promotion wasn’t exactly accomplished by a united club whose various components were pulling in the same direction. Davies frequently aired his frustration at the Derby hierarchy for their failure to secure the employment of David Kelly, his former Preston assistant who had been placed on gardening leave at Deepdale, and he even used a post-play-off final interview to call out supporters for their apparent impatience earlier in the season. Placid he was not.
The discord continued into the following campaign, as Davies railed against critical fans in early September – just days before a well-known bookmaker began paying out on his team’s relegation.
“It doesn't matter to me what the supporters say or think,” he told the Guardian. “I couldn't care, to be honest with you, because it will not change what I'm doing one bit. It was the same last season in the Championship. The players were a 'waste of money'. The team was 'poor'. The club were 'going nowhere.' We're playing against opposition that has spent 40, 50 or 60 million. We've spent a fraction of that. So if anybody is surprised about us being in the bottom four, considering what's been spent and where we've come from, I would call them a fool. I'm good but I'm not that good.”
In fairness to Davies, County’s summer recruitment hadn’t exactly set the pulses racing, and none of Tyrone Mears, Rob Earnshaw, Kenny Miller, Andy Todd, Claude Davis, Andy Griffin, Lewis Price, Eddie Lewis or Benny Feilhaber were able to help the newcomers avoid four defeats in their first five matches. A 1-0 victory over Newcastle in Derby’s sixth outing offered hope, but no one inside Pride Park that Monday night could have imagined that would be the side’s solitary success that season.
Six losses in eight soon brought Rams fans back down to earth and Davies his P45. Adam Pearson had replaced Peter Gadsby as chairman in October but tensions remained between dugout and boardroom, and both parties agreed a parting of the ways was necessary. Paul Jewell was installed as Davies’s replacement and defiantly insisted he wouldn’t “wave the white flag”, yet the magnitude of the task was made abundantly clear by consecutive losses to Sunderland, Manchester United and Middlesbrough, the latter of which prompted a Sky Sports match report to bemoan Derby’s “inability to often play a ball in a straight line to a teammate.”
It was that painfully apparent gulf in quality which did for Derby. As time went on and the defeats piled up, it became increasingly clear that the likes of Davis, Matt Oakley, Steve Howard, Darren Moore and Stephen Pearson were out of their depth at the highest level. The January transfer window brought the arrival of eight new players, including the experienced quartet of Danny Mills, Alan Stubbs, Laurent Robert and Robbie Savage, but the misery continued. While Newcastle, Manchester City, Birmingham, Sunderland and Fulham were all held to draws, Derby lost 16 of their final 21 Premier League encounters and were officially relegated on 29 March, so abnormally early that the Fat Lady had yet to warm up her vocal chords.
Their final tally of 11 points is the lowest in English top-flight history with the exception of Stoke in 1889-90, who amassed just one fewer despite playing only 22 games and being awarded only two points per victory. No team in the Premier League era has finished a campaign with fewer wins, fewer home wins, fewer away wins, fewer away goals, more defeats or more away defeats, while the 24-point gap between them and second-bottom Birmingham remains an all-time high. In the seasons since 2007-08, several sides – Blackpool in 2010-11, Crystal Palace in 2013-14, Aston Villa in 2015-16 – have been tipped to challenge Derby’s points record, yet no one has hitherto come close.
“Martin O’Neill said to me, ‘Well he’s never done that before,’” Jewell told FourFourTwo in 2017, referring to a wonder goal scored by Stiliyan Petrov in Aston Villa’s 6-0 win at Pride Park. “Managers used to say that a lot during the season. If anything could go wrong, it did.”
3. RBC, 2005-06 (9 points)
RBC were among the favourites for the drop when they embarked on only their second ever season as an Eredivisie outfit in 2002-03. Their first, two years previously, had brought just four wins and 14 points, as the side from Noord Brabant in the south of the Netherlands were outclassed at the top table.
That experience served them well in the long run, though, with RBC much better equipped to tackle the Eredivisie when they returned at the first attempt. A 13th-place finish in 2002-03 was a fine achievement for a club lacking in top-flight pedigree and RBC went one better by ending the following campaign in 12th. Things were a little dicier in 2004-05, when Dolf Roks’s side – the former Sparta Rotterdam head coach replaced Jan van Dijk in April – survived the relegation play-offs, but RBC generally looked on track in their bid to become part of the first division furniture.
The winger Ebrima Ebou Sillah, the centre-back Arjan Ebbinge, the forward Nyron Wau, the goalkeeper Marc Volders and the veteran centre-forward Henk Vos were all signed on free transfers in the summer, while the Feyenoord midfielder Jorge Acuña was one of four loanees. There was no outbreak of panic after August defeats by Groningen and Ajax – it would take more than back-to-back losses in the Eredivisie to spark a crisis at RBC – and a 1-1 draw with Willem II at least ensured a positive end to the month.
September got off to the worst possible start with a 7-0 thrashing by Co Adriaanse’s AZ, a result which proved to be the first nail in the coffin. A 1-1 draw with Sparta Rotterdam preceded five straight losses; that run was broken with another 1-1 stalemate, this time against RKC Waalwijk, but RBC were then beaten in six of their next seven. Their attitude wasn’t so much never-say-die as at-least-make-it-quick.
Christmas and the New Year came and went and RBC were still searching for their first victory. The board showed great restraint under the circumstances, sticking with Roks until the winter break, but it soon became apparent that replacement Robert Maaskant – returning for his third spell in charge – hadn’t packed a magic wand in his suitcase. RBC held RKC Waalwijk to another draw, before going down to Heracles, Heerenveen, Willem II, AZ, Groningen and Ajax.
A winless season was avoided thanks to a 2-0 triumph over NEC in February, but that was the only time they emerged victorious in 2005-06. RBC ended the campaign having lost 27 of their 34 league encounters, and their return of nine points set an unwanted Eredivisie record which may never be broken.
Even that wasn’t the nadir, though. After five seasons in the Eerste Divisie, in which they pushed for promotion, then embraced mid-table mediocrity and then fought relegation, RBC were declared bankrupt in 2011 and forced to start over in the ninth tier of Dutch football.
4. DC United, 2013 (16 points)
The proposed introduction of promotion and relegation in the United States has its advocates, but it’s safe to say few in the country’s capital were preaching the plus points in 2013.
Hopes were high at the start of the year, with DC United hoping to go one better after losing in the final of the Eastern Conference play-offs the previous season. Ben Olsen’s charges won one, drew one and lost one of their opening three fixtures, but seven consecutive losses quickly dampened spirits around the RFK Stadium.
United had to wait until their 16th match for another success, and they then managed just a single victory in the second half of the campaign. Although New York/New Jersey MetroStars finished with a marginally worse points-per-game ratio in 1999, no team in MLS history has posted fewer wins than United’s three.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, with the Black-and-Red saving their best form for the US Open Cup. Triumphs over Richmond Kickers, Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution and Chicago Fire set up a final against Real Salt Lake, which was settled in United’s favour by a goal from Lewis Neal, the Leicester-born midfielder formerly of Preston, Carlisle and Shrewsbury. The trophy was theirs – but so too was last place in the Eastern Conference after 24 defeats in 34.
5. Tasmania Berlin, 1965-66 (8 points)
On a cold January afternoon in 1966, 827 hardy souls made their way to the 100,000-capacity Olympiastadion to watch Tasmania Berlin’s Bundesliga clash with Borussia Mönchengladbach. It remains the German top flight’s lowest ever attendance and was a drop of 80,673 spectators from the club’s campaign curtain-raiser in August, when the sun was shining and the glass was half full. A 2-0 victory over Karlsruhe that afternoon served only to heighten enthusiasm at the start of the West Berliners’ first division debut; five months later and the mood in this part of the divided city was very different indeed.
Tasmania didn’t earn their place in the Bundesliga in the conventional way. Instead, they were awarded it. Hertha Berlin had lost their top-tier status in summer 1965 after being found guilty of making illegal payments to players, but the politically-minded German football authorities quickly decided the enclaved former capital required representation in the division. The league was therefore expanded to 18 teams to accommodate Tasmania, but only after Tennis Borussia Berlin were excluded from the running and Spandauer SV had rejected an offer to join the elite.
Such to-ing and fro-ing meant that by the time Tasmania had officially accepted a spot in the Bundesliga there were only two weeks until their first game. Heribert Finken, Heinz Rohloff and West Germany international Horst Szymaniak were among those hastily added to the ranks, but given that Tasmania had only finished third in the 10-team Berlin Regionalliga the previous season, few envisioned anything more than a prolonged battle against the drop.
As it happened, even that was optimistic. That opening-day defeat of Karlsruhe, secured thanks to a brace from Wulf-Ingo Usbeck, was the falsest of dawns, propelling Franz Linken’s side into second spot in the standings. Borussia Mönchengladbach rained on their parade the following week, easing to a 5-0 triumph, before further losses to Borussia Dortmund (0-2), Hamburg (1-5), Bayern Munich (0-2), Nürnberg (2-7) and Hannover (1-5) left Tasmania rooted to the foot of the table.
It was a position they grew accustomed to, and seven games without a win or a goal left them staring demotion in the face even before the Christmas decorations had gone up. Goalkeeper Rohloff later admitted the players had turned to drink by this point, routinely consuming two glasses of port before training and another couple after. Unsurprisingly, the imbibing of fortified wine didn’t induce much of an improvement: Tasmania drew with Gladbach, Köln, Kaiserslautern and Werder Bremen and even beat Borussia Neunkirchen, but ended the season with 28 defeats and just eight points, having scored 15 goals and let in 108.
The 100th of those concessions, a penalty coolly converted by Frankfurt’s Jürgen Grabowski, came in a 3-0 home reverse in April. The majority of people who began the campaign following Tasmania had deserted the team by this stage, and those who remained loyal had long since mastered the art of self-deprecation. When the ball hit the net, a group of supporters commemorated the landmark by laying a wreath decorated with a gold ‘100’ behind Rohloff’s goal, proving masochism and mirth aren’t mutually exclusive.
6. Gretna 2007-08 (13 points)
A caveat to begin: Gretna actually amassed 23 points in the Scottish Premier League in 2007-08, but 10 of those were taken away when the club entered administration in March. It’s perhaps a little unfair to include the Black and Whites on this list given the various mitigating circumstances at play that season, but few have endured a campaign as catastrophic as this.
Gretna's fall was even quicker than their rise – which is saying something given the speed of their ascent through the divisions. Originally founded in 1946 by a group of returning Second World War servicemen who wanted to create an amateur team for the local populace, Gretna were catapulted into Scottish football’s wider consciousness when Sunderland-born businessman Brooks Mileson assumed control at Raydale Park in 2003, shortly after the club were admitted to the Scottish Third Division, having previously spent decades in the English non-league system.
Gretna finished sixth in the 10-team fourth tier in 2002-03, before narrowly missing out on promotion the following season. It was a case of third-time lucky for Rowan Alexander’s charges in 2004-05, as 32 wins in 36 games brought them the title. From that point on they were unstoppable, winning the Second Division and reaching the Scottish Cup final in 2005-06 – Gretna earned a Uefa Cup berth despite losing on penalties to Hearts at Hampden Park – before pipping St Johnstone to top spot in the First Division 12 months later.
Their European adventure may have ended with a 7-3 aggregate defeat by Derry City in the third qualification round, but Gretna’s domestic climb from fourth flight to first in the space of three years was unprecedented. Even so, there were a few worrying signs ahead of their SPL debut in 2007-08, with Mileson – who had invested £8m to see the former Dumfries and District Junior League outfit rub shoulders with Celtic and Rangers – seeming to lose interest in the project.
According to some sources, including the head of youth development Danny Lennon, trouble began to brew as early as the cup final loss. The first real cause of concern, however, came when Atkinson was replaced by his former assistant, Davie Irons, towards the end of the 2006-07 campaign. A “stress-related illness” was the official line for the long-serving manager’s departure, yet eyebrows were raised when Atkinson was refused entry at Gretna’s first ever top-tier game in August 2007 before he was eventually sacked two months later.
The Black and Whites had limped over the line under Irons, with several high-earners – including David Bingham, James Grady and Chris Innes, players who had dropped down the divisions to join Gretna – having departed before the club reached the promised land. Their survival chances were further damaged by the enforced relocation to Motherwell’s Fir Park – a 150-mile round trip – with Gretna’s 2200-capacity Raydale Park falling well short of SPL standards.
Nevertheless, there was a quiet confidence among Gretna fans that the team would overcome their latest challenge, at least until a 4-0 loss to Falkirk on the opening weekend. By mid-September Irons’s men had lost five of their six league outings; a battling 3-2 triumph over Dundee United represented a welcome let-up, but six successive defeats saw Gretna sink back to the foot of the table soon after.
Things went from bad to worse in early 2008, when ill health forced Mileson to pull the plug on his financial support. This left Gretna in disarray; the club was completely reliant on a single individual for cash, with their rapid rise up the pyramid denying them the time and opportunity to wean themselves off Mileson’s backing. When they were essentially forced to become self-sufficient overnight, it was immediately clear that gate receipts weren’t sufficient to cover the cost of the wage bill.
The inevitable was confirmed in March, when the Black and Whites entered administration. Gretna occasionally rallied in the second half of the campaign, beating Falkirk and Kilmarnock at home, but defeats were far more common and their task was made even tougher when some players – Sheffield United loanee Kyle Naughton wasn’t one of them – refused to turn out in a 3-0 loss to Aberdeen. They finished strongly, drawing four of five matches before ending the season with a defiant 1-0 victory over Hearts in front of 1,090 supporters at Fir Park. A few months later, though, Gretna FC were extinct.
The Team that Dared to Dream, a book by Jon Tait which charts the club’s journey from Division Three to the Uefa Cup, ends on an understandably optimistic note midway through the 2006-07 promotion season.
“By the New Year Gretna were 12 points clear at the top of the table and looked to be heading for the SPL and ready to write another chapter in the story of this amazing little club from the small border town famous for runaway marriages.”
Unfortunately for unsuspecting Gretna fans, Mileson’s divorce was just around the corner.
7. Brescia, 1994-95 (12 points)
In May 1995, Andrea Pirlo made his professional debut for Brescia at the age of 16. The midfielder became the youngest player to represent the club in Serie A when Adelio Moro’s men locked horns with Reggiana, a game which ended in familiar fashion: a Brescia defeat.
Moro was one of three men to hold the reins at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti in 1994-95. Mircea Lucescu began the season at the helm having just masterminded the dual feat of earning promotion from Serie B and winning the Anglo-Italian Cup, which was secured thanks to a 1-0 victory over Notts County in front of 17,185 fans at Wembley.
Lucescu had been at the club for three years by that point, but even he didn’t have enough credit in the bank to prevent pressure building in the first half of the 1994-95 campaign. Brescia actually started reasonably well, holding both Juventus and Inter to draws either side of a 3-1 reverse against Foggia, but those notes of optimism evaporated after six successive defeats left the northerners at the bottom of the standings.
Brescia struggled for goals, scoring just three times in their opening seven matches; when they did muster enough of an attacking threat to strike twice against Claudio Ranieri’s Fiorentina, they shipped four at other end. Three draws in five encounters preceded Brescia’s first victory of the season, a 1-0 triumph over Reggiana in week 15, but Lucescu was sacked a few weeks later, with another 1-0 win – this time against Foggia – not enough to save him.
Luigi Maifredi was chosen as the Romanian’s replacement, but his tenure encompassed just six games in which Brescia were brushed aside by Cagliari (2-3), Milan (0-5), Genoa (0-1), Torino (1-4), Fiorentina (0-4) and Padova (1-3). Relegation was inevitable at that stage, so the club turned to Moro, Lucescu’s former assistant, for the final eight matches of the campaign. They lost all of them.
Brescia ended the season with just 12 points to their name, the lowest total in Serie A history. Even the introduction of a teenage Pirlo after 80 minutes of their antepenultimate fixture against Reggiana couldn’t inspire an improvement: seconds later the ball was in Brescia’s net, those two near-inseparable bedfellows reunited once more.
8. Argentino de Quilmes, 1939 (4 points)
It's safe to say the Argentino de Quilmes side of 1939 were subscribers to the belief that if you're going to bother doing something, you may as well do it properly. Not content with sinking back to the second tier without anything even resembling a fight, the Buenos Aires-based outfit found new depths to plumb and, almost 80 years on, remain perhaps the worst team in the history of top-flight football.
Argentino’s first taste of life in the Primera División came in 1912, a decade after they began competing in the Argentinian system. Their maiden stay in the top tier lasted six years and there would be no immediate return, but by 1939 they were ready to give it another go after pipping their rivals Quilmes Atlético Club to the title the previous campaign.
Or at least that’s what they thought. As it turned out, the Mate were woefully out of their depth alongside the likes of Boca Juniors, River Plate and Independiente, losing 30, drawing four and winning zero of their 34 fixtures. A tally of 35 goals scored was comfortably the lowest in the division and their backline was breached 148 times, abysmal records which sent Argentino plummeting through the Primera División trapdoor. They haven’t been back since.