A selection of eight memorably awful Premier League relegation campaigns
Nottingham Forest 1992-93
English football did not begin with the foundation of the Premier League but it changed irrevocably at that point. The first relegation from the new division remains perhaps the most shocking; it signalled a fundamental break from the past. If it now looks symbolic that Sir Alex Ferguson, who never won the old Division 1, became the first Premier League champion, there is something sadly symbolic about the manager at the opposite end of the table.
“It is inconceivable that another Brian Clough could emerge from the swamp of banknotes that is modern football,” wrote Duncan Hamilton in Provided You Don’t Kiss Me. There is a case for anointing Clough the finest manager in the history of the Football League; he is the only one to take two lower-division clubs – and provincial clubs in Derby and Nottingham Forest at that – and make them both champions. In the Premier League, however, he has the same record as Aidy Boothroyd, Nigel Worthington and Egil Olsen: one season, one relegation. His win percentage – 24 – puts him level with Brian Kidd and Ian Holloway, one adrift of Felix Magath. It was an ignominious end for the former verbal sparring partner of Muhammad Ali, the greatest and the greatest.
There is a temptation to see Clough’s career as one of decline after the retention of the European Cup in 1980 and the break-up of his partnership with Peter Taylor. If there is an element of truth to that, he was still an achiever as a solo artist. When the Premier League began, Forest had recorded 10 consecutive top nine finishes. They had finished third in 1988 and 1989, winning back-to-back League Cups in 1989 and 1990 and reaching the 1991 FA Cup final and the 1992 League Cup final. “Nobody believed Brian Clough’s side could be relegated,” wrote Roy Keane in his autobiography. “We were, in theory, too good to go down.”
There seemed few reasons to tip them for the drop, especially when they won the first televised game of the brave new world. Liverpool were beaten 1-0 but six consecutive defeats followed to send Forest to the foot of the table and Teddy Sheringham’s goal was to be his last for them; he wanted a move back to London for family reasons and Clough sold him to Tottenham for £2.1 million.
For half of the season Forest were without three of those who had been their best five players; the other two were selected out of position at times. Sampdoria had exercised a clause allowing a foreign club to sign Des Walker for £1.5 million, while Stuart Pearce missed some of the campaign with injury. The captain’s role was subject to claim and counter-claim; “Stuart Pearce’s heart no longer seemed to be in the club,” Clough wrote in his first autobiography, saying Archie Gemmill agreed. Yet the unsentimental Keane said he felt especially sorry for Pearce after relegation; “his commitment to Forest ran deep,” the Irishman wrote, pointing out Pearce rejected a move to Manchester United the previous year and the left-back stayed to help Clark’s side win promotion the following year.
But when he was missing, it left only Nigel Clough and Keane, both of whom spent some of the season trying to fill the Walker-shaped hole in the middle of the defence, of the previous season’s premier quintet.
“I should have bought a centre-half and a centre-forward,” admitted Clough in his autobiography. He did, in fact, get one of each, though not the right one. The search for a replacement for Walker and his underpaid understudy, Darren Wassall, who joined Derby to get a raise on his £250-a-week salary, encompassed Craig Short, Colin Foster and Laurent Blanc. Clough ended up with Carl Tiler, a £1.5 million buy from Barnsley who was a disaster. “If I hadn’t been boozing to excess already, Carl Tiler might have driven me to it,” Clough admitted in Walking On Water.
In attack, meanwhile, he deemed Southend’s demand for £2 million for Stan Collymore, a player his successor Frank Clark eventually signed, excessive, declined to move for Dean Saunders and brought in Robert Rosario; Clough’s final buy scored a solitary goal for him. If Taylor had been the transfer-market alchemist of the pair, Clough’s record in recruitment in his final years is better than is often acknowledged and Keane, a £47,000 buy, went on to be sold for £3.75 million. Yet, in his valedictory season Clough’s touch deserted him. Gary Bannister got an underwhelming eight goals, the midfielder Ray McKinnon was anonymous and the returning Neil Webb was often injured.
Clough blamed his assistants Alan Hill and Ronnie Fenton for persuading him to sign Tiler, but himself for ignoring Hill’s advice to pick the emerging Steve Stone instead of the loyalist Gary Crosby on the right wing. Minus Taylor, he lacked a coaching staff capable of standing up to him. His own decision-making was ever more erratic.
Clough’s decline was induced by drink. “Everybody recognised it but never mentioned it openly,” the right-back Brian Laws recalled. “The alcohol was starting to show. Decisions were a bit strange, team selections were a bit strange, his whole mannerism was a bit strange.” As Hamilton put it, “Clough could no longer perform the basic tasks of management.”
By 2002, when Clough wrote Walking On Water, he accepted, “I’m sure the drink clouded my judgement during that final, fateful season in management. If I had not been drinking, if I had been fully alert and clear-headed throughout, I’m convinced Forest would not have been relegated.”
That is probably right, but a moderniser had become an anachronism. Clough only turned 58 a few weeks before the season’s end, but he was an old 58; it feels like his peers included Don Revie more than Ferguson, even if the Scot was actually closer to Clough in age.
But the times had changed: not only the division’s structure, but the game’s laws. The backpass law was altered in 1992, denying defenders the chance to get a breather by giving the ball to the goalkeeper to hold. “We couldn’t slow the game down anymore,” noted Laws. “In the last 15 minutes of games we were knackered and very average teams were starting to put us under pressure.” Clough eventually brought in fitness coaches, whom he hated, but only after it was too late.
There were still flickers of Forest’s capabilities. They thrashed the champions Leeds 4-1 at Elland Road, while they had a winter run of 10 points from four games, but they only took one from the following four. Keane was magnificent, voted a member of the PFA Team of the Year but Forest, Clough said in November 1992, were “in the shit”. Clough had made a V-sign at the Forest fans after a defeat to Ipswich and called Hamilton a “bloody idiot” when the journalist raised the spectre of relegation in his Nottingham Evening Post report of one game.
Hamilton was more prescient that Clough. As relegation became a reality, the Forest board announced Clough’s retirement with a statement that the usually quiet Barbara Clough denounced. The end, though, was nigh. In the penultimate game of the season, and Clough’s last at the City Ground, Sheffield United were the visitors, the travelling Blades joining in the serenades to the departing great. It was a celebration of an era, and the end of one.
Clough did not emerge until five to three, wearing a sheepskin coat and a pair of wellington boots, carrying a shovel and whistling, Keane remembered. His innate unpredictability did his side no favours. They lost 2-0. Relegation was ratified. “Can I have a word from you, Brian?” a television interviewer asked Clough. “Of course,” he replied. “Goodbye.”
Manchester City 1995-96
It was, Steve Lomas later ruefully remarked, the fastest he had ever seen Niall Quinn move. The gangly Irish striker was not in his City kit but beige trousers and a yellow shirt, haring down the touchline towards Lomas. It was the final day of the season, City were drawing 2-2 with Liverpool and the midfielder had been keeping the ball by the corner flag, on the orders of his manager. Alan Ball had heard that Southampton were losing to Wimbledon. A draw would keep City up. Except it wouldn’t. Southampton were grinding out a stalemate, the substituted Quinn belatedly realised Ball had given Lomas duff information and set off to alert his teammate.
It was perhaps the most quintessentially City relegation of all, tragedy and farce in one package. The final game was the microcosm of what Quinn, in his autobiography, called “one long shambles” of a season. City started disastrously, going 2-0 down to Liverpool – the fact the luckless Lomas scored an own goal reflecting the way their problems felt self- inflicted – before game the spirited but doomed recovery. And, at the end, the damaging demotion.
It was a ruinous year for two greats of their generation, Ball and the City chairman Francis Lee. Long before oil billionaires, City were under the auspices of a toilet-paper millionaire. In a parody song, “The Ballad of Franny Lee”, the City-supporting DJs Mark Radcliffe and Lard sang (in falsettos while pretending to be Ball): “Deeply ironic it is, from that profitable caper wholesaling bog paper, you’ve landed us deep in the shit.”
Before the chants about Ball, to the tune of Oasis’s Wonderwall, became mocking, the former England teammates had been reunited at Maine Road after Brian Horton was sacked in 1995 – although Ball was not Lee’s first choice. In his seminal account of City in the 1990s, Caught Beneath The Landslide, Tim Rich recounted that Lee targeted Alan Hansen, Ron Atkinson and Brian Kidd. Rumours in Manchester suggested Franz Beckenbauer was arriving. Instead, Lee found one who outshone the Kaiser in the 1966 World Cup final. “When we found out it was Alan, I wouldn’t say it was a let-down, but it was different,” Quinn told David Tossell in his biography of Ball. “Alan was the wrong man at the wrong time.” In his autobiography, the Irishman described Ball as, “A man with a World Cup winner’s medal spending his middle years wading through the misery that was our club.”
There is perception now that Ball’s managerial career amounted to a string of failures, but he had just piloted Southampton to 10th after an 18-month spell when Matt Le Tissier produced the finest form of his career to score 45 goals in 64 games.
And yet there was the question of Ball’s credentials. Some felt he mentioned 1966 rather too often, an accusation Tossell said was not levelled at him at any of his other clubs. Nicky Summerbee, in Colin Shindler’s Fathers, Sons and Football, said Ball made other references to the past. “He was always talking about the old Brazilian teams,” the winger recalled. The players also found the manager’s wife’s presence at training off-putting. At one stage she apparently told Keith Curle, “You should have been tighter at the back.”
In her defence, Lesley Ball might have had a point, especially when City conceded 10 goals to Liverpool in the space of four days. The 6-0 top-flight thrashing completed what remains the second worst start to a Premier League campaign over 11 games: City had just two points and had only scored three goals.
That drought came despite a financial incontinence. City had a bloated squad and an inflated wage bill. It was compounded by Ball’s business. Martin Phillips arrived with Ball predicting he would be the first British £10 million pound player and eventually left for £100,000. Summerbee was unimpressed by the new goalkeeper. “Eike Immel had slightly cross eyes,” he noted. “Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the defence.” Ball would subsequently deem bringing in the striker Gerry Creaney as “a bad blooper”. Nigel Clough only scored twice after his mid-season arrival for £1.5 million.
“Manchester City’s transfers were dreadful,” wrote Rich. And that in a year when they signed one of the club’s most beloved players: Georgi Kinkladze. Perhaps the great entertainer was a reason why City were the division’s lowest scorers. He produced stunning solo goals against Middlesbrough and Southampton that season; however, he only found the net two other times. Another issue was tactical. “The problem with Georgi was you couldn’t play 4-4- 2,” said Summerbee. To a man, City’s wingers and strikers suited 4-4-2.
Meanwhile, the squad seemed to get weaker. “Good players left or got pushed out – Terry Phelan, Garry Flitcroft, Tony Coton,” Quinn said in his autobiography. Flitcroft’s departure, seven games from the end of the season, with City three points above the drop zone, backfired. Yet it was a sign of their financial problems that, rather than taking a structured deal that amounted to £3.5 million from Blackburn, they accepted an up-front payment of £2.8 million. They could not wait. The danger was that the banks foreclosed. “The only time I felt let down by Francis,” Ball subsequently said.
And yet, by then, City were closing in on safety. They had rallied. “From November onwards, we have picked up 36 points, which is a fantastic haul,” reflected Ball, although in the wake of relegation it felt rather less consequential, much like his manager- of-the-month award for November.
Perhaps that revival came in part because of players Ball alienated. If his man-management of Le Tissier was magnificent, City’s star players found him rather less inspirational. “Alan and I never made it on to each other’s Christmas card lists,” wrote Quinn. Uwe Rösler was to finish as the top scorer for a second successive year but, after finding the net in a Manchester derby, told Match of the Day: “There is a massive problem between the manager and me.”
That display of dissent did not prevent Ball from retaining Rösler in his side. The German scored the only goal in their 36th league game as Sheffield Wednesday were beaten. Lomas, seeking to compensate for the absence of his former partner Flitcroft, got the winner the following week against Aston Villa. And so to Liverpool, to a day that posed the question if City were hapless or useless, if the problem was Ball or their own innate City-ness.
“Nothing quite summed up like Manchester City in the 1990s like their final game in the Premier League,” wrote Rich. It was an afternoon that, long before City’s trophy cabinet was bulging, justified one of Lee’s most famous comments. “If cups were awarded for cock-ups,” he said. “Then you would not be able to move in City’s boardroom.”
Long before accepted wisdom was that 38 points were required to stay up, 40 was the traditional marker for safety. Middlesbrough got 41 in 1996-97. They nevertheless ended on 39. It was a rare feat, the result of a league table to which an asterisk has to be attached, a game that got them minus two points and a season where they went down by the same margin.
The bare facts are that Boro were due to play away at Blackburn in December. They eventually drew 0-0 at Ewood Park in May. The original fixture was postponed, not because of the Lancashire winter weather, but because Middlesbrough did not turn up. Boro argued they were without 23 ill, injured or suspended players; even the manager Bryan Robson and his assistant Viv Anderson were on the casualty list.
Tony Parkes, then in the third of six spells as Blackburn’s caretaker-manager, first heard that the game could be called off from one of his players, who had been watching Sky Sports. He was aggrieved Robson did not contact him. “Middlesbrough’s excuse just wasn’t right, it was feeble to be honest,” Parkes later wrote in the Guardian.
The authorities had more sympathy with Blackburn than Boro. Middlesbrough were fined £50,000 and, crucially, deducted three points. “The Premier League were a joke,” Robson told the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette in 2017. “[Our chief executive] Keith Lamb tried to get in touch with them. From our messages they were all out and there was nobody who could make a decision.” Yet, when the punishment was applied, the Gazette journalist Eric Paylor wrote, “They were naive in believing they could call off a Premier League match without first asking for permission.”
Perhaps their naivety was not confined to the rulebook. Middlesbrough had a strange squad, forged in the mid-nineties era of Premier League expansionism, bolting exotic imports and the least glamorous of worthy professionals together. There was Juninho and Robbie Mustoe, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Nigel Pearson, Emerson and Steve Vickers, Branco and Phil Stamp. Half the squad used to play for Barnsley, would play for Barnsley or felt like they probably had played for Barnsley. Four of them were the Teesside Galácticos.
It did not feel rooted in realism but it could have been a winning blend. If ambition got the better of Boro, it almost yielded glory. “The Cups got us relegated,” said Robson. Middlesbrough pulled off an unprecedented hat-trick, losing both finals and getting demoted in the same season. Their every effort was ultimately, cruelly, in vain. They were beaten deep into extra-time of the League Cup final by Steve Claridge’s ungainly volley for Leicester and in the first minute of the FA Cup final, courtesy of Roberto Di Matteo’s thunderbolt for Chelsea.
Their season ended in sadness. It even began remarkably. Ravanelli’s previous club game was the Champions League final. He scored in that. He scored three more on his Boro debut, securing a 3-3 draw with Liverpool. Juventus had made the surprise decision to sell their top scorer. Middlesbrough were the still more unexpected buyers.
“I always say, in a manager’s career you are judged a lot by the players that you bring in because if they are rubbish then you are going to have a rubbish team, if they are good you are going to have a good team,” recalled Robson
Perhaps Boro confounded that rule, though. They were somehow both good and rubbish. Their signings were both successful and unsuccessful. Ravanelli scored 31 goals that season, even if only 16 came in the league. Emerson’s ability was obvious, even if his whereabouts were not always as his chaotic lifestyle posed problems. Juninho’s commitment and quality were both undoubted.
They had an incongruous quartet of scorers against West Ham – Emerson and Ravanelli, Mustoe and Stamp – and Robson’s blend of the wondrous and the workmanlike was succeeding. After six games, Middlesbrough were sixth.
Which was as good as it got. “When we finally got to the last few games, we realised we were in big trouble,” Juninho later told FourFourTwo. That should have been apparent earlier, though.
“I loved everything about my season with Boro,” Ravanelli told Planet Football in 2018; it felt a rewriting of history. In January 1997, he had told an Italian newspaper: “I reckon we will be relegated. I’m almost certain of it.” At that point, they had won only once in 16 league games and had only scored twice in eight away matches.
“That was a crazy season, 1996-97,” Mustoe told the Middlesbrough Gazette in 2015. “It was so erratic. From the sublime to the ridiculous. We were brilliant in spells and awful in others. It was all surreal.” The results supported Mustoe’s analysis. Whether or not Boro were inspired by Ravanelli’s defeatist predictions, they only lost four of their last 16 matches.
Robson picked up March’s manager-of- the-month award after four successive victories. But the fixture backlog caused by their Cup exploits and the Blackburn postponement then took effect. April featured seven games, two of them lasting 120 minutes, in 19 days; a damaging defeat to relegation rivals Sunderland came only three days after the extra-time loss to Leicester. The final week of the league season brought four games in eight days. Boro lost none, beating Aston Villa, adding a 3-3 draw with Manchester United and then holding Blackburn. It left them, minus the injured Ravanelli, almost certainly needing to win at Elland Road on the final day.
They went behind as the future Boro striker Brian Deane scored just Leeds’s 28th goal of their tedious season. The increasingly heroic Juninho soon equalised. It was not enough. They drew. Boro went down. Juninho looked distraught. “That was the only time I cried because of sadness,” he told FourFourTwo. His efforts were unstinting and reflected in the way he was named the Premier League Player of the Year; he remains the only footballer to win it in a season that ended outside the top seven, let alone in the relegation zone.
And yet, in some ways, Middlesbrough were not a bottom-three team. They scored 51 goals, more than fifth-placed Aston Villa, had a goal difference of just minus nine, better than 11th-place Leeds, lost only 16 league games, fewer than 10th-place Tottenham, and none in the second half of the season by more than two goals. But had they turned up at Ewood Park in December with kids and reserves and lost 7-0, they would have survived.
Coventry City 2000-01
Coventry were the great continuity club. By the time the 21st century began, only Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool had remained in the top flight for longer than a club promoted in 1967. Admittedly, that rather more decorated trio tended to be in different parts of the division. The Sky Blues had only finished above 10th twice in three decades, but life’s great certainties comprised death, taxes and Coventry surviving.
Until they didn’t. 5 May 2001 altered the landscape of the Premier League irrevocably. If Coventry’s past suggested they would always somehow stay up, it was their past that sent them down. Relegation was sealed amid lashings of schadenfreude from the stands by an Aston Villa side featuring Dion Dublin and George Boateng, even if the fatal blows were struck by Darius Vassell, Juan Pablo Ángel and Paul Merson.
Coventry had never recovered from the wounds inflicted the previous week by one of their own. Gary McAllister had opened the scoring in Liverpool’s 4-1 autumn win over City; in the April rematch, McAllister took the corner for Sami Hyypiä’s late opener. He completed victory with an inch-perfect free kick. Ever a class act, the Scot barely celebrated, but the damage was done. “Two late swings of his right boot left Gordon Strachan so deep in the mire that only a few tufts of ginger hair are still visible,” wrote Jon Brodkin in the Guardian. The Coventry fans clapped McAllister off, lamenting what they had lost and, in Premier League football, what they would lose.
Departures were blamed for Coventry exiting the division. A line could be traced from their trading to their troubles. In the summer of 2000, an out-of-contract McAllister doubled his money by joining Liverpool; 11 days after Coventry were demoted he was named man of the match in the Uefa Cup final. Robbie Keane decamped for Inter 18 days before the start of the season, though he had returned to England in time to score a spectacular winner for Leeds against Coventry in January.
Their two top scorers were gone. No one else had mustered more than six league goals in 1999-2000 and no one would in 2000-01. It supported one of Strachan’s theories: that they were over-reliant on a couple of players. “Coventry’s inability to hold on to their best strikers was possibly the biggest factor in [relegation],” he wrote in his autobiography. He described his 1997-98 side as “an ordinary team at the back and in midfield but an excellent one up front.” Dublin and Darren Huckerby, those forwards, were sold. In Keane and McAllister, a midfielder who outscored many strikers, he had a second duo of match-winners.
Shorn of both, a typically blunt Craig Bellamy admitted in Goodfella: “We were not a good side. Defensively, we lacked pace and offensively, we lacked creativity. And we had players who simply weren’t playing well. I was one of them.”
Bellamy was Keane’s replacement. David Thompson was brought in from Liverpool to replace McAllister. “Excellent players,” mused Strachan. “But whether they were right for Coventry at that point is another matter.” Thompson was sent off on his debut. In contrast, Bellamy scored two goals in his first three games as Coventry, who had gone 17 months without an away win, got two in a week.
The problems instead lay at home. Highfield Road was a place of more vitriol than victories. Coventry had been terrific on their own turf in 1999-2000. They were terrible the following year. Their output went down by around two- thirds: 12 wins to four, 38 goals to a mere 14. The home fans turned on Strachan.
“I felt as if I was viewed almost as the anti-Christ in the city,” the manager wrote. He was advised to park his car in a less prominent place at Highfield Road to ward off potential vandals; with dark humour, he joked he should travel in an ice-cream van.
January brought the nadir. An injury-hit Everton went 3-0 up in 31 minutes. Mo Konjić was hauled off after 25 minutes. Fans tried to attack Strachan. The board tried to foist Stuart Pearce on him as his assistant. Strachan kept faith with Garry Pendrey, but had another change in mind.
Strachan admitted he signed Bellamy too soon; the striker had not fully recovered from a knee injury. He felt he signed John Hartson too late; the target man got six goals after his February arrival from Wimbledon and struck in all three of Coventry’s subsequent wins. After trying a multitude of forward partnerships, he finally had a fine duo.
But by the time they started winning it felt too late. They were seven points from safety with eight games to go, a challenge even for practised escapologists. Theirs was not a happy camp. Bellamy felt Strachan’s long-serving loyalists like Paul Williams, Paul Telfer and Steve Froggatt disliked him. “They behaved as though they held me responsible for Coventry’s plight,” he added.
In truth, perhaps virtually everyone was, with the exception of Froggatt, who missed the whole season through career- ending injury. Strachan always liked a cadre of senior professionals and the declining Colin Hendry and Carlton Palmer started the season in the team but ended it exiled to lower-league clubs. Maybe the rot even set in while Keane and McAllister were camouflaging problems: Coventry lost 10 of their last 14 games in 1999-2000.
Their 30th defeat in 51 matches showcased their self-destructive side and sealed their fate. Perhaps only Coventry could relegate Coventry and, like many a relegated side, they had a habit of losing leads. Mustapha Hadji put them 2-0 up against Villa, helping him follow Dublin and Boateng in earning a move across the Midlands, but the Moroccan’s goals that season tended to come in losing causes and the visitors prevailed 3-2. A 34-year stay in the top flight from a club who had survived in the years when Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Villa and Nottingham Forest were relegated, was over. A Coventry fan held a banner that said: “We’ll be back.” They weren’t. 18 years later, they have a solitary top-six finish – and that came in League Two.
The great escapologist was in the commentary box when the end happened. Matt Le Tissier had fashioned late drama in many a season. Now he was describing it. He got very excited when John O’Shea, with an own goal, put Southampton ahead, realised he was supposed to be neutral and tried to fake the same enthusiasm when Darren Fletcher and Ruud van Nistelrooy struck for Manchester United.
Le Tissier was never relegated. Three years after his retirement, Southampton’s 27-year stay in the top flight was ended; not with one last act of defiance, but with a whimper. “We went down tamely without a fight,” Le Tissier wrote in his autobiography. “That would never have happened with the likes of Francis Benali, Jason Dodd, Tommy Widdrington and Neil Maddison. It was scandalous.”
If Southampton and Coventry were twinned in the public imagination, forever in relegation battles and forever winning them, eras ended in 2001 and 2005. If Gordon Strachan was a common denominator, he was blameless in Southampton’s demise. He resigned in February 2004, nine months after taking Saints to eighth place and the FA Cup final. He had taken them as far as he could; perhaps, had the chairman Rupert Lowe granted him the £11 million to sign Louis Saha and Steed Malbranque, they could have progressed further. Instead, Southampton got an ageing Kevin Phillips, an ineffectual Neil McCann and a disgruntled Strachan. When the Scot left, Lowe wanted to reappoint Glenn Hoddle but, fearing a backlash from supporters still annoyed the former England manager had left for Spurs, “bottled it” in the words of the defender Danny Higginbotham. Instead, he turned to another catalyst for Scotland’s New Firm in the 1980s: Paul Sturrock.
A revelation at Plymouth, he struggled at Southampton. “I think he just couldn’t handle the pressure,” Higginbotham wrote in Rise of the Underdog. Sturrock was sacked two games into the fateful 2004-05 campaign, despite winning his last match; it proved Saints’ last league win until November. Clive Woodward had already been spotted at St Mary’s and Lowe considered bringing in England’s rugby World Cup-winning coach; he eventually did, a year later.
Instead, Steve Wigley, a widely admired coach whose only managerial experience was with Aldershot, was promoted. Like Sturrock, he seemed out of his depth. Southampton were both sleepwalking into trouble and panicking. Wigley got a solitary league win: against Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth. “He should not feel too comfortable,” wrote Ian Ridley in the Observer, noting Hoddle and Gérard Houllier where linked with his post. “Southampton remain a stuttering, unconvincing outfit.”
Wigley was sacked in December with a six per cent win rate; no one else has managed as many Premier League games and won as few. His replacement was Redknapp, who had just left Pompey. “As far as I was concerned, I had done nothing wrong,” he wrote in Harry. “The level of anger and abuse that greeted my decision shocked me.” Redknapp phoned Strachan to ask him to go for the Portsmouth job and take the heat off him; the Scot wisely declined.
“My opinion was that he didn’t really want to be there,” said Higginbotham, who noted the proximity of the January transfer window to the appointment. If Southampton had a well-constructed squad in Strachan’s only full season, by 2004-05, it was a bloated group, with a raft of poor signings and a lack of continuity. Redknapp took his usual approach, by trading further.
Thirty-four players were used in the 38 league games, though only three made more than 26 starts. Sometimes they were defined by who was not there: the quietly influential Matt Oakley scarcely featured. Marians Pahars did not play at all. Crucially, neither did Michael Svensson. Southampton lost three players with the indispensable Swede. “Claus Lundekvam struggled without him,” said Le Tissier. So did Antti Niemi, a goalkeeper who was a brilliant shot- stopper but who required a centre-back who could head everything away.
Redknapp’s revamp did not include that dominant centre-half. He raised funds by selling James Beattie, the scorer of 41 goals in his last two full seasons at the club. He reinvested it in Nigel Quashie, who started to acquire an unwanted reputation as a relegation specialist, Olivier Bernard, Henri Camara, Calum Davenport and Jamie Redknapp. Redknapp junior’s problems were such that he “could barely walk properly”, according to Higginbotham, who remembered him with ice always applied to his knee. But he exerted an influence and effected an improvement. He and Quashie formed a fine partnership. Peter Crouch became more prolific to compensate for Beattie’s departure. Crouch terrorised Liverpool, convincing Rafa Benítez eventually to sign him, and scored an FA Cup winner against Portsmouth.
But it was a rare highlight. David Prutton had been an energetic presence on the right but his season came to a premature end with a 10-match ban for pushing the referee Alan Wiley. A 4-0 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United was, Higginbotham thought, “an absolute embarrassment”. He told the dressing room Camara and Bernard “don’t look like [they] give a fuck.”
Redknapp did when it came to return to Fratton Park. The timing was inauspicious. Saints had lost a two-goal lead in his first game, to draw with Middlesbrough. Eight days before the reunion with Portsmouth, they turned a 2-0 advantage into a 3-2 deficit to Aston Villa. It wasn’t just Redknapp who had to get his tactics right on 24 April 2005. “We had six SAS men travelling with us in case we were ambushed en route,” he recalled in Harry. They could do nothing to protect him on the pitch as, while he was barracked as “Judas”, his team shipped four goals in the first 27 minutes. Niemi had a nightmare; the failure to replace Svensson was laid bare. “No one seems equipped to save Southampton from terrible harm,” wrote Kevin McCarra in the Guardian. It may have been unfair on the SAS, but it was otherwise true. As McCarra concluded, “This is a club ripe for relegation.”
Somehow, Southampton rallied to beat relegation rivals Norwich the next week, the mercurial Camara with a late decider. Then they went to Crystal Palace, also embroiled in the scrap. Crouch had scored his 13th goal of the calendar year before he was sent off for elbowing Gonzalo Sorondo. Higginbotham turned to the Palace striker Andy Johnson and remarked: “That’s us fucked.” He did his best to disprove his own prediction by scoring a 90th-minute equaliser, but it was only a temporary reprieve.
Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Le Saux’s careers ended with that anticlimactic defeat to United the following week; the midfielder was the only retiring Redknapp. The manager claimed if he left then, it would mean the end of his time in management. Instead, he lingered on for another seven months and subsequently took another five posts, starting with a happier return to Portsmouth. Meanwhile, chants of “Rupert out” were directed at Lowe as Southampton went down. Yet while Le Tissier reflected on his lifetime of service being undone, one of the greatest escapes in Premier League history was being completed: by West Bromwich Albion, who stayed up at Southampton, Palace and Norwich’s expense.
Relegation was an inevitability rather than a formality when Hull City’s captain started to reflect on where it had gone wrong. He alighted on one of the most iconic moments in their history. Eleven months earlier, Phil Brown had celebrated staying up by singing on the pitch, the Beach Boys’ anthem “Sloop John B” reinterpreted by Phil B.
“Did you ever see Alex Ferguson do that?” George Boateng asked. “That’s all you have to ask yourself.” A surreal sequel to an already strange tale had a less happy ending. If it felt a feat when Hull survived in 2009, Boateng bluntly declared: “We were saved by luck.” A brilliant start and Newcastle’s haplessness helped, but Hull retained their top-flight status despite taking 15 points from their last 30 games.
The warning signs were there. If they went unheeded when Brown talked about his wish to take Hull into Europe, the Championship beckoned instead in 2010. That gap between ambition and realism was exposed; at times brutally, at times comically.
While Hull’s best player, the defender Michael Turner, left in the summer of 2009, Brown targeted the strikers Álvaro Negredo, Edinson Cavani and Michael Owen, who was leaving Newcastle. Owen’s agents had sent a brochure to prospective employers, a list that did not include Hull. Brown did not take the hint, pursued him anyway and saw Owen join Manchester United.
Instead of a big name, Hull got a long one: Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, the joint longest in Premier League history. The immobile Dutchman only mustered three league goals, which was still two more than another striking signing, Jozy Altidore. The on-loan American was dropped from the Portsmouth game after turning up too late, compounding his problems by apologising on Twitter when Brown had intended to keep his absence quiet. His season ended amid suspension for head-butting Sunderland’s Alan Hutton. He was impotence and farce in one package.
So, perhaps, were Hull. Only Wolves scored fewer goals and only Burnley conceded more. After losing five of their first seven games, they were constants in the relegation battle. They were reliably hopeless away from home, failing to win, but, in keeping with the general air of illogicality, they alternated thrashings by the best with a series of results against them: victories over Manchester City and Everton, draws with City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea.
Hull eschewed the obvious as Brown’s decisions got ever more erratic. The No 10 Geovanni was used as a holding midfielder; so was defender Kamil Zayatte in a game in which the midfielder Kevin Kilbane played centre-back. The teenager Liam Cooper was pitched in for a debut at Anfield to mark Fernando Torres, who promptly scored a hat-trick. Only Stephen Hunt was consistently excellent, but he missed the final three months of the campaign. After joining Wolves, he drew a damning comparison: “The desire level to do well here is bigger. The training is more intense.”
But Hull felt a better soap opera. Events on the pitch tended to be overshadowed, either by the odd exploits of Brown and his colourful cast of characters or because of the increasing pressure on his position. The chairman Paul Duffen was such a close ally that they had holidayed together. When Hull had four wins in 39 league games, Duffen declared that Brown was doing a better job than Rafa Benítez. But with Hull’s wage bill balloonings Duffen left, to be replaced by the returning Adam Pearson. Vennegoor of Hesselink may have saved Brown’s job with a November winner against Stoke. It was set up by Jimmy Bullard, who had only played 69 minutes’ football in his first 10 months after joining for a club record £5 million, but who instigated a mini-revival upon his belated return to fitness and until he was injured again.
A focus on the football was required. Pearson ordered Brown to keep a lower profile. He ditched his trademark headset, delegated some press conferences to his assistant Brian Horton and abruptly cancelled an interview with the Daily Mail when he realised he wasn’t speaking to the Hull Daily Mail.
And yet his past was inescapable. Boateng traced Hull’s decline to his infamous half-time team talk on the pitch at the Etihad Stadium the previous season. His side were 4-0 down at the time, but Brown’s rather public rebuke caused his players to lose confidence in him, his captain argued. Hull claimed a point on their return visit, made notable for Bullard mimicking Brown with a celebration that consisted of a finger- wagging team talk. “Great comedy is about timing,” reflected Brown. “It was a bit of banter,” said Bullard. And, more than most clubs, Hull really did seem to be about banter.
In September, Brown took his team from a walk across the Humber Bridge and said he stopped a suicidal woman from jumping off it. No one else seemed able to corroborate a claim treated with increasing scepticism. In January, he reacted to a draw with Wolves by saying, as Kilbane later told Off the Ball: “You lads go out and perform like that in front of me, the next England manager.”
In March, the Hull branch of the Women’s Institute witnessed Bullard and Nick Barmby trading punches. A few days later, Brown reacted to defeat to Arsenal with a soundbite. “I apologised to the Women’s Institute,” he said. “I don’t apologise for the fighting spirit we showed today.” But Hull’s 10 men conceded an injury-time winner. They had only one victory in16 games and he was put on gardening leave. He never returned. A couple of weeks later, Pearson came out with a damning appraisal. “We seem to have had no consistency in selection, no established pairings in defence, midfield or attack, and no continuity on team shape or formation,” he said. 31 players made Premier League appearances, but only the left-back Andy Dawson started more than 26 games and only midfielders Hunt and Bullard got more than three goals.
In their search for a successor, Hull approached Terry Venables and Mark Hughes. They got Iain Dowie instead. “Iain is a down-to-earth manager,” said Pearson; the contrast with Brown was unsaid but obvious. The newcomer arrived with plenty of positivity but an inauspicious record.
“I am not a gamble,” said Dowie. In one respect, he was correct. Albeit in difficult circumstances, he was a guarantee: of relegation. His promoted Crystal Palace went down in 2005. He started the 2006-07 season at Charlton and was sacked long before their demotion was ratified. He joined Newcastle as Alan Shearer’s assistant for an eight-game spell that ended in the drop in 2009. He could not save Hull either.
Dowie won his second game in charge, 2-0 against Fulham, but none of the other eight. He has not managed since; not a football club, anyway. He did become Regional Sales Manager of GOTO Surveys, which undertakes homebuyers reports for those moving house.
Neither Boateng nor Pearson blamed him for Hull’s demise, all but confirmed after a 1-0 defeat to Sunderland, when Bullard missed a penalty and Altidore was dismissed. Pearson outlined a bleak financial position. “We have players on long contracts, high wages and with no transfer value.” It amounted to a bleak picture to follow the summer images of Dean Windass’s Wembley winner and Brown’s impromptu karaoke.
Blackburn Rovers 2011-12
If the gulf between the haves and the have nots has swelled in the Premier League era, it is nonetheless true that three of the select band of its champions have also played in the third tier. If Blackburn Rovers long appeared the anomaly – the only provincial winners for two decades until Leicester joined them in disrupting the dominance of the big-city clubs – they are exceptions in other respects. Manchester City and Leicester won the Premier League after dipping into League One. Blackburn did it the other way around.
Yet, long after they were accused of buying success in 1994-95, they represented examples of overachievement. When the Indian poultry firm Venky’s paid £23 million for a 99 per cent share in Blackburn in 2010, they acquired a club who had posted six top-10 finishes in a decade, reaching six semi-finals and winning the 2002 League Cup. Some 18 months later, the symbol of Blackburn’s relegation was a chicken wrapped in a Rovers flag, let loose on the Ewood Park pitch as Wigan condemned them to the lower leagues.
Venky’s had aimed for the Champions League and ended up in the Championship, talking of the top four and making a swift descent into the bottom three. The gap between rhetoric and reality is rarely as stark. A rumour persisted that Venky’s did not know relegation existed. It is thought to be untrue, but a masterclass in how not to run a football club meant they had to confront such charges.
No sooner had Venky’s taken over than Blackburn launched audacious – or ludicrous – bids for David Beckham and Ronaldinho. Neither joined, but the prosaic manager they inherited was sacrificed on the altar of excitement. The surprise came in the identity of Sam Allardyce’s successor: Steve Kean. Chris Coleman’s former lieutenant had never been a manager in his own right. He had not even been Allardyce’s principal assistant.
“Are you having a laugh?” Allardyce claimed he responded. “Kean was a good coach but he wasn’t management material, far from it,” Allardyce wrote in Big Sam. “He did, however, have a rather influential agent – Jerome Anderson!” Anderson’s company SEM advised Venky’s. Others’ advice was not heeded. Chairman John Williams, managing director Tom Finn and finance director Martin Goodman were among a host of departures.
Blackburn nevertheless stayed up in 2011, a final-day win at Wolves halting a slide. The following season began badly, on and off the pitch. Rovers lost their first three games. Kean was banned for drink-driving; he had been stopped by police three months earlier after celebrating a draw with the newly-crowned champions Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson. The judge found Kean’s explanation “not convincing”. It was a regular verdict on his words. Some of his comments scarcely stood up to scrutiny. Others felt demonstrably wrong.
They could be costly. Allardyce took legal action against his successor after comments the Scot made were captured on a camera-phone. They settled out of court, with Allardyce reportedly pocketing £200,000. He had already been aggrieved when Kean claimed the credit for discovering Phil Jones, a player given his debut by Allardyce.
Jones joined Ferguson and United in 2011. No matter. Lacking Beckham and Ronaldinho, Blackburn had a host of signings who seemed to remind Kean of footballing luminaries. David Goodwillie was like “a young Wayne Rooney” and Myles Anderson “could become something of a Chris Smalling”; it was purely coincidental that he was the son of Jerome and that, when he left Rovers, he joined Exeter. Then there was Bruno Ribeiro – “the boys call him Denis after Denis Irwin” – and Mauro Formica. “He’s been likened to a young [Gabriel] Batistuta,” noted Kean. Quite why is another matter: Formica wasn’t even a striker, but a No. 10; perhaps even Kean stopped short of comparing the Argentinian to his most famous compatriots who operated as No 10s.
Formica at least scored four league goals in 2011-12, which was twice as many as Goodwillie. Ribeiro, the Irwin of East Lancashire, didn’t get on the pitch. Neither did the new Smalling, Anderson, as neither could get in a defence breached 78 times and which did not keep a clean sheet until March. It was, though, an achievement Kean celebrated. “We’ve had monumental results this season, including back-to-back clean sheets,” he noted. One of those famous shutouts came against Wolves, in a run of seven straight defeats and the only team to finish below Blackburn.
That defence had been a strong point but the loss of stalwarts, mainly from Mark Hughes’s band of bargains, felt like votes of no confidence in the new regime. Brett Emerton returned to Australia. In January, Ryan Nelsen joined Tottenham, with Kean suggesting the New Zealander would be out for the season four days before he made his Spurs debut. Christopher Samba headed for Anzhi Makhachkala after Kean said he was going nowhere. Jason Roberts and Michel Salgado were frozen out. The younger Nikola Kalinić, later of Fiorentina, AC Milan and Atlético Madrid, fell out of favour with Kean and was sold. But the anonymous Simon Vukčević and the painfully slow Radosav Petrović had come in. The summer signing Scott Dann rivalled his old sidekick Roger Johnson for hapless defending in relegation campaigns and ruptured a testicle; only at Blackburn would that not be the most painful part of the season.
Yet there was a glimpse of hope. Yakubu was signed from Everton after Rovers lost to David Moyes’s side when both Junior Hoilett and Formica missed penalties. The Nigerian was officially only 29 and barely moved. He still struck 17 times in one of the most impressive seasons ever mustered in such a futile cause. Yakubu marked his debut by scoring twice in a 4-3 win over Arsenal. Later he scored all four when Blackburn beat Swansea 4-2. He got two more when Rovers ruined Ferguson’s 70th birthday with a 3-2 win at Old Trafford; the veteran rather hindered his cause by fielding Ji-sung Park and Rafael da Silva in the centre of midfield, to the annoyance of a young Paul Pogba. If there was something utterly illogical about his selection, there was about the result. Kean used beating United as a call for unity.
“Now I’d like to think there could be truce between me and the fans,” Kean said. “I’ve had nothing but positive messages from fans all over the world.” Which, to say the least, was a selective interpretation of their communication with him.
By September, the supporters were protesting. “The most important thing is that 99 per cent of fans did not demonstrate,” said Kean, though he seemed to have overestimated the numbers not involved in the mutiny. By November, they paid for a plane to fly over Ewood Park for much of the first half of defeat to Chelsea, trailing a banner reading: “Steve Kean Out”. “I didn’t see the plane and I don’t know what it said,” Kean claimed, rather unconvincingly; television pictures appeared to capture him looking at it.
Those supporters’ wishes were ignored. Venky’s had once described Kean as “unsackable”. He worked his way through assistants – first John Jensen, then Paul Clement, then Eric Black – but appeared immovable. Rovers rewarded him for failure with a new deal in November, three days after Kean said it would be “an inappropriate time to conclude contract negotiations.” It felt more inappropriate as Rovers were bottom. That same month, he bullishly insisted: “We won’t get relegated. Absolutely no chance.” By December, with Rovers ensconced in the bottom three, he was targeting a top-10 finish.
It did not materialise. Rovers briefly got out of the relegation zone after those monumental successive shutouts. They then lost eight of their last nine games. With three matches to go, they went to Tottenham. They did not have a shot on or off target. “Unusual,” noted the victorious manager Harry Redknapp. He was being tipped to take the national job. The Rovers fans had an alternative suggestion. “Kean for England,” they chorused.
The penultimate game was Wigan, local rivals in a similar plight but in wildly different form. Antolín Alcaraz scored to keep Athletic up. Rovers went down with a whimper, their solid, experienced side broken up and replaced by a shambles. “Blackburn never needed Ronaldinho anyway,” wrote Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. “Ronnie Corbett would have been able to get into this team.”
The comedy came instead from the feathered pitch invader. The chicken was eventually scooped up by Yakubu but, while not feeding the Yak, lent itself to a bunch of headlines about foul play as the poultry company got a paltry return. Demotion did not make Kean sound any less delusional. “I’m a great believer in my ability,” he declared. Sadly for Rovers, so were Venky’s.
Wigan Athletic 2012-13
As someone knocked the kind of table more often found in a school classroom, the FA Cup rattled. It was six days after winning the first major trophy of their history, three since relegation was confirmed, two before what may prove Wigan’s final top-flight game. It was also the last of Roberto Martínez’s reign.
“A rollercoaster,” said Martínez, resorting to cliché to describe Wigan’s week. One of his favourite words – “unique” – would have been more appropriate. No one else has done the Martínez double of relegation and FA Cup win in a season, let alone within the space of 75 hours. Within the DW Stadium, conducting his final pre-match press conference, he couldn't bring himself to admit he was leaving.
But then a suspension of disbelief had felt an integral part of Martínez’s management. Athletic had been in the bottom three for seven successive game weeks. They needed to beat Arsenal and Aston Villa in their final two games to stay up but, after a 4-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium condemned Wigan to the Championship, their manager said: “I never, ever expected us to get relegated.” And not merely that season. Martínez had the sunny disposition of a man who had never seen the league table. He brought a happy-clappy air, a dreamer in a dogfight, and succeeded with a smile, not a snarl. Wigan were bottom with six games to go in 2010-11 and stayed up with Hugo Rodallega’s final-day winner at Stoke. They looked doomed when they took a mere 21 points from the first 29 games of the 2011-12 campaign. Then they claimed 22 from the last nine, beating Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal en route to safety.
Martínez was the amiable escapologist. He defied logic and the odds alike. He brought passing principles to Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis territory. Others had a tried-and-trusted formula. He experimented. Five years before Antonio Conte’s 3-4-2-1 formation felt revolutionary, Martínez won a relegation battle courtesy of a switch to that shape.
His Wigan sides tended to have poor home records and, Rodallega apart, non- scoring strikers. One of life’s optimists still secured happy endings with creative use of small budgets. “You’ve got to work like you’re going to be in charge of a club for 100 years, not just three,” he rationalised in November 2012. Liverpool were impressed enough to interview him six months earlier. Martínez eventually went to Merseyside a year later, having ended David Moyes’ final attempt to win a trophy with an FA Cup quarter-final evisceration of Everton.
But by that stage, Wigan had not won a home league game since November. Yet Martínez had appeared to address failings: unlike previous striking signings such as Jason Scotland, Mauro Boselli and Franco di Santo, Arouna Koné was a forward with an eye for goal; Iván Ramis looked an accomplished defender.
But his season ended in January. Wigan ended their campaign with the joint worst defensive record and, surely, the most defensive injuries. Ramis, Antolín Alcaraz and Gary Caldwell missed much of the campaign, Maynor Figueroa and wing-backs Jean Beausejour and Ronnie Stam the end. Martínez’s defences appeared ever more makeshift. Against a QPR team who made the longest winless start in Premier League history, Wigan’s defence comprised a right-back, a reserve and a midfielder. They drew 2-2. By the time they visited West Bromwich Albion in May, Martínez had come up with an unconventional solution. Wigan only played two defenders, using a 2-3-2-3 formation that owed something to the 1920s. Fittingly, they won 3-2. Indeed, they had as many 3-2 wins as 1-0 victories that season.
If 3-2 felt the trademark Martínez scoreline, it could come at a cost. Athletic’s 36th league game, sandwiched by the West Brom win and the FA Cup final, came against Swansea. Martínez’s decision to leave Wales for Wigan in 2009 meant unforgiving Swans fans had unveiled a banner branding him “Judas” on an earlier reunion. This was less happy. “We defended like lemmings,” said one Wigan supporter on his way out. The semi-fit Caldwell produced a performance of valiant haplessness. Roger Espinoza, deputising for the sidelined Beausejour, played a part in three goals, only one of them scored by Wigan. Àngel Rangel, the £10,000 buy who was perhaps Martínez’s greatest Swansea signing, was among the visitors’ scorers. “We shot ourselves in the foot,” Martínez admitted.
Four days later, Ben Watson, making only his third appearance since a seemingly season-ending leg break, headed his way into FA Cup final folklore. Manchester City were beaten, Roberto Mancini sacked before Martínez’s side were demoted. That least pragmatic of managers had delighted the traditionalists, his employer included. Wigan’s owner Dave Whelan had broken his leg playing in the 1960 FA Cup final but, as he had never mentioned it, no one was aware of it. This was a shock plucked from the past, with a cast of the unlikely. Martínez fielded James McArthur out of position at right wing-back. His bench included Román Golobart and Fraser Fyvie. But with Callum McManaman, whose full Premier League debut had only come two months earlier, running City ragged, his £12 million team beat a £200 million side.
But Wigan could not beat conventional wisdom forever. Though Shaun Maloney drew them level at half-time, they could not beat Arsenal either. The team that got perhaps the two most significant results in Wigan’s history only started two games together: those two, Wembley and the Emirates, City and Arsenal, delight and despair, immortality and a footballing death.
“The club is in the best shape it’s ever been in,” Martínez said three days later. His legacy was shining on a nondescript table, but not on the pitch the following year. “Nobody is going to leave on the cheap,” he pledged. In reality, James McCarthy, Joel Robles, Alcaraz and Koné followed Martínez to Everton. The out-of-contract Figueroa got a swift return to the Premier League. Paul Scharner retired. By the start of the 2015-16 season, none of the Cup final 18 were still at the club and Wigan were in League One.