Crystal Palace (1992-93)

There are record-breaking relegations. Derby’s historic low of an 11-point season may never be beaten. Nor, at the other end of the extreme, could Crystal Palace’s feat of going down with 49 points. They are now an established top-flight club whose joint record Premier League points total, at the time of writing, came in a season when they were demoted.

Palace went down with as few defeats as sixth-place Liverpool, after beating the defending champions Leeds and after doing a lap of honour following their final league game. They had beaten Ipswich 3-1 and were eight points clear of the relegation zone. A young Gareth Southgate celebrated by going to watch Steve Waugh make a half-century and his brother Mark take five wickets the next day as Australia beat the Duchess of Norfolk’s XI at Arundel.

Meanwhile their relegation rivals Oldham were beating the title-contenders Aston Villa. Three days later, while Palace drew away at Maine Road – “we thought that would be enough,” Southgate later recalled – Oldham added Liverpool to their list of scalps. It came down to two games on the last day, to Palace’s past and present and to two managers, Steve Coppell and Oldham’s Joe Royle, who had both attended Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool; neither was its most famous pupil, a mantle that rested with John Lennon.

It was also about two escapologists. Once an unsentimental Ian Wright had put Arsenal ahead as he made it four goals in as many games against his former club that season, Palace’s defeat felt likely. At Boundary Park, Royle’s Oldham surged into a 4-1 lead against out-of-form Southampton. Then Matt Le Tissier completed a hat-trick. Oldham had to survive a nervy final six minutes, but they stayed up. Palace, to their surprise, went down. “What hurt most about relegation was that we weren't really prepared for it,” captain Geoff Thomas later told the Guardian. “It seemed to sneak up on us.”

Which, in a way, is unsurprising. The best team in Palace’s history may be most famous outside Selhurst Park for reaching the FA Cup final in 1990, but they peaked the following season, sustaining a title challenge for much of the campaign and coming third. But the upstarts suffered for their success.

Covetous glances were cast, bids submitted. Palace lost Wright in 1991 and Mark Bright, the following season’s 22-goal top scorer, in 1992. Andy Gray (the English midfielder) went, too, while Wright’s replacement Marco Gabbiadini had come and gone in four months. More pertinently, a hugely talented if untried alternative was also exiled. A young Stan Collymore’s few appearances had mainly come as a winger before he was sold to Southend; judging by his autobiography, Collymore objected to Wright, Bright, Thomas, Southgate and Coppell in different ways, so while history suggests discarding him was a mistake, perhaps it was an understandable one.

But Palace’s succession planning went awry and when injury curtailed John Salako’s 1992-93 season, their squad became imbalanced. Palace became flooded with centre-backs. Coppell had an odd squad where virtually everyone seemed to be, or would become, a centre-back. Southgate was used more as a box-to-box midfielder then but that still left Eric Young, Andy Thorn, Richard Shaw and Chris Coleman, who was sometimes deployed as an emergency striker. Meanwhile, Coppell converted the winger Eddie McGoldrick back into a sweeper. It was not unknown for all six to start. Perhaps it was unsurprising that no one in the bottom six conceded fewer goals. Yet only Nottingham Forest and Arsenal, despite Wright’s presence, scored fewer. Palace were reliant on Chris Armstrong, whose return of 15 league goals was excellent and whose pace generated comparisons with Wright, but he and McGoldrick scored half their 48 goals and much of Palace’s creativity came from the latter’s set-pieces.

They failed to score in four of their last five games but problems emerged earlier. Coppell felt individual errors accounted for their slow start. “If anyone made a mistake, the ball ended up in the back of the net,” he rued. That was certainly the case when Nigel Martyn erred in the run-in.

Palace drew their first four games, lost the next three and only won one of the first 17. But then they reeled off five straight victories. Safety beckoned, but if a subsequent run of four defeats was costly, draws were their eventual undoing. Palace went on a six-game unbeaten sequence that produced just eight points. They were too evenly matched for their own good. In the Premier League’s inaugural season, the gap between rich and poor was smaller, producing a concertina effect in the middle of the division. Only 10 points separated Palace from Liverpool, 20th from sixth.  

No one drew more than Palace, a team who seemed to come from behind and lose leads in equal measure, but poor form at Selhurst Park was a factor in their demise. A 4-0 defeat to their tenants Wimbledon, albeit as the away side, damaged their goal difference and ultimately allowed Oldham to leapfrog them.

A month later, Palace were down. Coppell resigned a few days later, with his assistant Alan Smith taking over. Yet this was a club where history would repeat itself. Coppell was to replace Smith in his second spell in charge. The third of his four spells ended when Smith took over for him for a second time. Palace were to go down again in 1995, fashioning a further hard-luck tale, and 1998. Instability became entrenched, yet with Coppell a near constant. There was only one calendar year – 1994 – between 1984 and 2000 when he didn’t manage Palace.


Bradford City (2000-01)

By 2002, the year Bradford City went into administration and the year before he was declared bankrupt, Geoffrey Richmond had already had plenty of time to repent for a brief, costly spending spree; perhaps the worst spending spree in English football history. “I will never forgive myself for spending the money we did,” he told the Telegraph and Argus. “It was six weeks of madness.” Six weeks that ultimately defined a decade that Bradford began in the Premier League and ended in League Two.

Relegated from the top flight in 1922, Bradford belatedly came back up in 1999 and still more surprisingly stayed up in 2000, courtesy of David Wetherall’s last-day winner against Liverpool. Then ambition trumped realism. Few had more delusions of grandeur than Bradford. Paul Jewell, the manager who had got them up and kept them up, decamped for Sheffield Wednesday, his relationship with Richmond strained when the chairman told him that, were his contract up, he would not recommend the directors give him another. “Why can’t we be like Manchester United?” he once asked his manager. Perhaps Jewell had been given too much of the credit for his employer’s liking. “Geoffrey Richmond always wanted to be the centre of attention,” wrote Dean Windass in his autobiography. “If he was a piece of chocolate, he would have ate himself.” Years later, Richmond reflected that beating the drop in 2000 “was the worst thing that could have happened to the club… had we gone down, I would still be a hero in Bradford; they’d have put up a statue to me.”

Instead, back in 2000, Richmond promoted Jewell’s assistant, Chris Hutchings, who had never managed a club; he also took the decision to enter the Intertoto Cup. “It was one of the reasons I left,” Jewell said. “I knew I would still be on holidays for the first leg.” As Hutchings led his team to Lithuania, the Netherlands and Russia, Richmond set about raising Bradford’s profile in other ways. An ageing, industrious but unpretentious squad got an injection of glamour when first Dan Petrescu and then Benito Carbone arrived. The Italian was a free transfer, but the term was deceptive. He was on £42,000 a week, plus a £750,000 luxury house in Leeds, and Petrescu £22,0000. “Geoffrey couldn’t get enough of these famous names,” wrote Windass. “He used to say that Bradford wasn’t sexy enough compared to somewhere like Leeds and he thought he could change that by bringing in these top players.” City were the antidote to stereotypes of Yorkshire parsimoniousness. Ashley Ward came in on £18,000 a week, followed by Stan Collymore on £13,000 while David Hopkin was a £2.5million club record signing. As Bradford’s average home attendance was only 18,511, it was evident they needed Premier League revenues to stand any chance of making it pay.

Briefly, their gamble threatened to work. Hutchings’s first home league game was a 2-0 victory over Chelsea; symbolically, the blend of the prosaic and the exotic, Windass and Carbone scored. But it was to be Hutchings’s only league win. There were only three more goals in his reign, the last a spectacular debut volley from Collymore against Leeds. Richmond called Hutchings’s arrival “an enormous but legitimate gamble”. More immediately, the loquacious Richmond had told the manager he would be sacked if results did not get better. “Richmond was true to his word,” Collymore noted in his autobiography. “Hutchings got the bullet.” The captain Stuart McCall had the strange experience of being sent off in one game and caretaker-manager in the next. Richmond had a reputation for interfering in selection; Windass thought that one example of the chairman trying to pick the team was enough to deter McCall from pursuing the position on a permanent basis.

Enter, instead, Jim Jefferies, who had excelled at Hearts but who did not at Bradford. Collymore said an agent had told him the Scot was trying to offload some of his squad. The cost-cutting began in January with Petrescu and Collymore gone, the latter after three months, two goals and one CD of whale music on his car stereo that bemused Windass. Bradford were trying to limit their losses before their fate was sealed: the top scorer Windass and Hopkin, the record buy who never scored, were both sold in March for less than they cost, along with the prized asset Andy O’Brien.

But after taking five points in three games early in Jefferies’s reign, Bradford only took six from the following 14. Their destiny was sealed in ignominious fashion, relegation ratified by a 2-1 defeat to Everton where both Robbie Blake and Carbone missed penalties. There was still time for McCall and Andy Myers to trade punches on the pitch in a 6-1 defeat to Leeds before Bradford’s Premier League stint ended with a 0-0 draw at relegated Coventry. After 77 years away from the top flight, they had come and gone in 76 games. The collapse of ITV Digital and football transfer fees, plus the breakdown of Carbone’s move to Middlesbrough, furthered their financial problems. They collapsed into administration with debts of £36 million. “Richmond mismanaged that club badly,” concluded Collymore. “They’re fucked now and he’s fucked, too.”


Sunderland (2002-03)

Some are fated to be trapped on the wrong side of history. Howard Wilkinson remains the last English manager to win the title and was the final one to secure it before the Premier League and, if 1992 represents an artificial divide, it is a symbolically accurate one in his case. He never finished in the top four of the new division and a man who ended the old era top of the pile concluded his Premier League career when sacked with Sunderland in last place.

Wilkinson is younger than Sir Alex Ferguson but he represented a different era even during his ill-fated spell at Sunderland. Even his younger predecessor, Peter Reid, perhaps did. But another manager whose highest finish – fifth with Manchester City – came before football was rebranded had been a catalyst for the revival of Sunderland. Two promotions, back-to-back seventh-place finishes and a European Golden Boot for Kevin Phillips represented a feat of alchemy. The formula was starting to feel old-fashioned – kick and rush, team bonding and team spirit, long balls and British players – and Sunderland collapsed to what was then a historic low. 

Their class of 2002-03 took just 19 points. It was a Premier League record until they contrived to muster a mere 15 three years later. Indeed, the last of those 19 came on January 11; their final 15 games brought 15 defeats. It was a spectacular display of ineptitude but the seeds of decline had been sown earlier. Perhaps Sunderland never recovered from Don Hutchison’s departure in 2001. Certainly Niall Quinn’s age – he was to turn 36 in 2002 – represented a ticking time bomb. Reid was aware of the need to find a new foil to Phillips, but his attempts were unsuccessful. So, too, his ventures into modernity.

Reid struggled in the foreign transfer market: Lilian Laslandes, 2001’s attempt to find Quinn’s successor, never scored a league goal, Tyson Núñez never started a league game and Nicolas Medina never played a minute of league football. “It was easy to get your fingers burned,” Reid wrote in his autobiography. His were singed by foreign failings.

Sunderland survived in 2001-02, but dismally. They only scored 29 goals and won just three times in the second half of the season. The warning signs were there. Reid looked for upgrades. He tried to sign Robbie Keane. He went to Amsterdam to submit a bid for an unsettled young forward. Ajax were adamant Zlatan Ibrahimović was not for sale. It was hard to escape the sense, though, that those with any alternative did not want to join Sunderland; the brand of football certainly felt a deterrent. 

But Reid did sign Marcus Stewart, who had just been relegated with Ipswich, and Matt Piper, who had just been relegated with Leicester. Each would make it an unwanted double. He got Tore André Flo, who came for a club record fee and was given a free transfer a year later after failing to gel with Phillips. Quinn, it seemed, was irreplaceable. Flo’s first goal came in a draw with Manchester United largely remembered for Roy Keane elbowing Jason McAteer. McAteer had got a winner the previous week against Leeds. Briefly, Sunderland were in mid-table. But then the slide began and Reid knew a defeat to Arsenal spelt the end for him.

The chairman Bob Murray sacked him in the Marriott Hotel in Manchester and asked about potential successors. “I put Mick McCarthy’s name forward because he would have been ideal,” said Reid. “He obviously took my advice because he went and got Howard Wilkinson, with whom he’d shared a box at York Races the previous summer.” In fairness, Murray did eventually appoint McCarthy. But only in March.

David O’Leary and George Graham were linked with the job. Instead Sunderland sent for the FA’s technical director, a man who had not managed a club for six years. There was immediate scepticism about their initial choice. “His style of football and humour goes over players’ heads,” wrote Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph. The fans’ reaction to Wilkinson and his assistant Steve Cotterill was almost universally negative. “They might as well have appointed Daffy Duck and Donald Duck,” one told the Northern Echo.

In fairness, Sunderland only lost one of their first five games under Wilkinson. A 2-0 win over Tottenham was a sentimental farewell to Quinn, who retired. “I’m an old dog,” he wrote in his autobiography. “New tricks don’t come easily to me. Nor to Howard, it seemed. Sunderland struggled under him. Predictably, in my opinion. In the years since he had last been in top-flight management, the game had changed faster than perhaps at any period in history. Square-bashing doesn’t work with the modern player.”

He was not alone in harbouring reservations about Wilkinson’s methods. Phil Babb recalled training sessions with imaginary footballs or rugby balls. On another occasion, Wilkinson told his team they would watch a DVD of the best team ever. “I was thinking: ‘We’ll watch a bit of AC Milan in the 80s,’” Babb recalled. “Instead he presses play and it fades out from the black screen to a wedge of geese migrating down south and he said, ‘Right, lads, that’s the best formation and the best team you’ll ever see.’”

Phillips recalled a time when Wilkinson walked in with a carrier bag. “Who is going to grasp the nettle?” he asked his team, reaching into the bag and grabbing a bunch of stinging nettles. He offered them around. Sunderland were a dreadful team, but that did not make their players masochistic or stupid. They declined and Phillips spent the rest of the team talk staring at his manager’s hand. “He stung the hell out of his arm,” he told Roker Report.

It was not the only self-inflicted pain. The highlight of Wilkinson’s reign was a 2-1 win over Liverpool, secured by Michael Proctor, but the young striker was also the protagonist in the symbolic low. Sunderland lost 3-1 to Charlton after scoring three own goals in eight minutes, two courtesy of Proctor himself. “It was unbelievable. I've never been involved in a game, or watched a game, where there were three own goals,” said Wilkinson, as luckless as he was hapless. He was “numb, shocked, shattered and very disappointed” when sacked in March after 20 league games and only two wins. Murray belatedly sent for McCarthy but Sunderland were relegated the following month. “Sunderland was the worst [mistake] I ever made,” Wilkinson told the Daily Mail. He never managed in England again.


Sheffield United (2006-07)

Carlos Tévez is mentioned on the first page of Neil Warnock’s autobiography. And the second. He isn’t just mentioned, of course. Warnock, with his gift for conjuring a memorable phrase and capacity for overreaction, branded the Argentinian “football’s equivalent of a murderer out on bail”. It was not a comment made in the heat of the moment. Bitterness lingered. Tévez had been registered to West Ham, the third-party ownership initially concealed and the punishment only a fine, in a season that concluded with him scoring a winner at Old Trafford to keep one United up and send another, Warnock’s beloved Sheffield, down.

Warnock dealt with it with typical equanimity. He was “numb” about Sir Alex Ferguson fielding what he deemed a weakened Manchester United team against the Tévez-inspired West Ham and still remembered the Scot presenting Alan Curbishley, who had since taken over at Upton Park, with plane tickets to New Zealand at the previous year’s LMA dinner. He noted Middlesbrough had left out three key players against his relegation rivals Manchester City a few weeks earlier. “I knew [Gareth] Southgate was a friend of [Stuart] Pearce but I thought that was taking it a bit far,” he said. He spotted an offside Tévez had surreptitiously applied the final touch to a Bobby Zamora winner against Everton in April. He was annoyed his own (weakened) team were denied a penalty in defeat at Old Trafford by the referee Rob Styles. “He bottled it,” recorded an unforgiving Warnock. He was even less sympathetic to Liverpool who, with thoughts turning to the Champions League final, left out nine players at Fulham. “I never thought [Rafa] Benítez would stoop that low,” he said. “I hadn’t heard of two of the players he picked. That showed total contempt for us. I felt cheated.”

But it might not have mattered. “With the points we accumulated, if you look at the next five or six seasons, it would have been plenty to keep us up,” Phil Jagielka recalled in 2019. “With the Tévez and [Javier] Mascherano scandal, everything seemed to go against us.” United had brought up the symbolic 38 points with two games to go. Then, crucially, they contrived to damage their goal difference by losing 3-0 to Aston Villa on the penultimate weekend. Still, avoid defeat at home against a Wigan team with two points from their previous seven games and the result at Old Trafford was irrelevant. Wigan lost their best defender, the injured Arjan de Zeeuw, in the first half. Lee McCulloch was then sent off in the second. Sheffield United had home advantage, a one-man advantage and the better recent form. They lost.

The decisive penalty was conceded by their player of the year, Jagielka, and scored by their former player, David Unsworth, who had missed a vital spot kick for United against Blackburn before joining Wigan in January. “He’s a great lad, David,” wrote Warnock. For once, he wasn’t bitter. Sean Bean was. “It’s your fucking husband that has got us relegated,” the Sharpe actor and Blades director told Sharon Warnock. “He’s a fucking wanker.”

Which, Warnock’s anagram of a nickname notwithstanding, felt harsh. He had joined a club threatened with relegation to the third tier in 1999. A promotion specialist took seven seasons to get them up and fashioned a quintessential Warnock squad, packed with competitiveness and fine Championship players, lacking much obvious Premier League quality. Every point had to be forged by industry and most of them came in the Steel City. Jagielka, the one destined for better things, delivered the first top-flight win with a 35-yard thunderbolt in injury time at Middlesbrough. He secured their most famous scalp, keeping a clean sheet as a makeshift goalkeeper when Paddy Kenny went off injured against Arsenal. It wasn’t the only time Kenny required medical attention – he had an eyebrow bitten off in a curry-house brawl in Halifax. “Is Paddy all right mentally?” asked Warnock. “Not really but we have known about that since the day he joined us.” Meanwhile, Alan Quinn was convicted of affray and United had to deny reports Claude Davis threatened Ade Akinbiyi with a razor. “The players who cause these problems are thick and they are not going to get their brains back,” said Warnock, ever the diplomat. 

At least he could count on the ever-present, ever adaptable Jagielka, who was goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, penalty taker and second top-scorer. Which was an issue. In inimitable fashion, Warnock used eight senior strikers, most far better suited to the second tier. The exception was Rob Hulse, who had the season of his life, a Championship player valiantly over-performing on a weekly basis. Until his season was ended by injury at Chelsea in March. “One of those awful accidents,” said Warnock. So when Tévez was leading the line for West Ham on the final day, Warnock had Christian Nadé and Jon Stead. In his defence, the latter scored, but the 2006-07 relegation battle was not defined by Stead.   

Warnock, who was sacked two days after relegation was confirmed, long felt West Ham should have suffered a points deduction. Instead, the Hammers ended up reaching a £20 million out-of-court settlement with Sheffield United in 2009. Two years later, the Blades were headed for League One. And even in 2019, when they belatedly met, a few West Ham fans turned up in Tévez masks. 


Derby County (2007-08)

The paradox of the Premier League’s worst team is that, as the greatest losers’ fate was sealed, they avoided defeat. A 2-2 draw with Fulham made Derby the first club to be mathematically relegated in March. “Going down,” the Derby fans chorused. “So are we,” replied their visitors, whose players went on to render that pessimism unnecessary.

Derby’s players may have known their destiny rather sooner. “We were defeated before we’d even started,” the goalkeeper Stephen Bywater later told the Daily Mail. They were defeated 29 actual times thereafter. Like many elements of a spectacularly unsuccessful season, it was a record. They became the first side to emulate Loughborough who, 108 years earlier, had completed a league season with a solitary win. They went 32 Premier League games without tasting victory. They mustered a mere 20 goals. The points difference between 20th and 19th was an unprecedented 24. Their goal difference was minus 69. If Derby did not have more records than points, it was a close-run thing.

They became a warning to Championship clubs: they had overreached by overachieving. Their reward was humiliation. When Billy Davies was appointed in 2006, they had come 20th in the second tier. Ambitious, tactically clever but with a capacity to make and see enemies, Davies was the difference-maker as Derby secured a series of narrow wins. They were priced at 66/1 for promotion. Davies’s mantra was that they had a three-year plan. They accomplished it in one. “In hindsight, too early,” he subsequently reflected.

He had heard during the 2007 Championship play-off that his job was in danger if a takeover happened and gave a distinctly strange press conference after promotion was secured at Wembley. Pessimism was contagious. Before the season even started, the captain Matt Oakley admitted, “Players aren’t going to leave clubs and sign for one they think is going to go down.” Derby kept Championship stalwarts, to the surprise of second-tier clubs who had assumed Darren Moore would be surplus to requirements at a higher level; instead no one made more Premier League appearances.

Derby missed out on their major targets such as Matthew Etherington and Carlton Cole. They spent £3.5 million on Robert Earnshaw, who scored one league goal. They got Claude Davis, who had just been relegated with Sheffield United and who went on to be voted Derby’s worst ever player, and Andy Todd, who was not in the Blackburn team. “Was Davis a Premiership player? No. Was Todd a Premiership player? No,” Bywater said. Meanwhile, Adam Pearson, one of three chairmen that season, turned his thoughts to a US midfielder Derby recruited. “The Benny Feilhaber deal has been a disaster,” he said.

One of the arrivals, Kenny Miller, secured their only win with a screamer against Newcastle. He was to be top scorer, too, but with only four goals. Davies departed after 14 games and six points, a haul that made him their more successful manager of the season; some felt he tried to jump off a sinking ship when he reacted to defeat to Chelsea with a rant. “This team is not good enough for the Premier League, they know that,” Davies said. Then he turned his attention to the new arrival in the boardroom, Pearson. “I haven’t spoken to the new chairman in three weeks,” he added. “It would be nice to speak before Christmas.” They did and duly parted company.

Derby’s next appointment appeared a coup. Paul Jewell had been responsible for two great escapes, with Bradford in 2000 and Wigan seven years later. He ignored the advice of David Moyes, who had told him Derby were the worst team he had ever seen, and took the job.

Jewell claimed Todd later told him: “Mourinho and Ferguson could have come in as a double act and it would not have ended any differently.” Perhaps José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson would have mustered more than five points from 24 games. Perhaps they would have been less defeatist, but Jewell concluded Derby lacked the “guts and determination” of his previous survivors. “Totally out of its depth as a team,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “Any manager is only as good as his players. I am sure Lewis Hamilton is a better driver than me, but stick him in a Reliant Robin and me in his Formula 1 car and see who finishes first.”

Jewell had revamped his squad in January, ripping the heart out of it. Oakley and the previous season’s top scorer Steve Howard decamped to Leicester, contriving to end the campaign relegated to League One, while Jewell brought in eight others. “None of the signings worked,” he later reflected. “Signing those players was my biggest mistake.” Danny Mills got injured in his second appearance and never played again. Laurent Robert came and went after just four games. The new captain Robbie Savage, meanwhile, displayed his tact by turning up with a new £160,000 Mercedes part way through the worst season ever.

It was not the only case of unwanted publicity. Bywater’s brush with infamy came when he spelt out “cunt” on Goals on Sunday; Sky Sports did not appreciate it. Jewell ended up on the front page of a tabloid for a historic home sex tape. “That time at Derby damaged me,” he later reflected, even if he was not talking about his private life; his final ever Premier League win was the victory at Bramall Lane that kept Wigan up in 2007. Meanwhile, Davies argued that had he got his preferred targets in the summer and then in January, Derby might have stayed up.

It feels unlikely. But Derby got worse without him. That point against Fulham was their 11th and last. They contrived to concede 14 goals in their last three home games and 89 in the season. While the question of the greatest ever Premier League team remains a subject for debate, the title of the worst was sewn up.


Fulham (2013-14)

Google “Brede Hangeland” and the next word that appears does not relate to his 91 caps for Norway, nor his presence at the heart of the Fulham defence as they reached the 2010 Uefa Cup final. It is, rather inevitably, “cheese”.

It feels rather unfair but highlights how Fulham’s 13-year stay in the Premier League, which began with the ambition of Mohamed Al-Fayed to make them the Manchester United of the south and the progressive football of Jean Tigana, ended surrounded by a sense of farce. Felix Magath, their third manager of a dreadful season, had instructed his injured defender to rub cheese on his leg. A bemused Danny Murphy, captain of the 2010 team that was Fulham’s greatest ever, texted his former teammate to ask if it was true. Hangeland added the detail: Magath, he said, had ordered him to soak the cheese in alcohol and phone his mother. 

"I merely suggested it could be worth trying the old wives' tale of applying quark cheese to the injured area,” said Magath after his sacking, as though that made it a valid theory. “It’s not true I got him to call his mum.” That interview came before Hangeland claimed he got his players to run laps at 1am after returning from an away game. Time, it transpired, was not a healer. Hangeland, unhappy to discover he had been released via email after Fulham’s relegation, told the Norwegian football podcast Heia Fotball in 2017: “I always try to see the good in people but Magath was an awful human being.”

Others may have concurred. “Felix Magath is without doubt the worst manager I have ever had,” wrote John Arne Riise in Running Man. What was indisputable was that Fulham had an awful season and the rot set in long before Magath’s arrival. Since Roy Hodgson orchestrated a remarkable escape in 2008, they had not really been involved in a relegation struggle. They felt unprepared for it.

Over the course of the season, they fielded two World Cup finalists, a European Championship winner, a Champions League winner and a Champions League runner-up. They scored arguably the best goal of the season, with Pajtim Kasami’s spectacular volley against Crystal Palace, but they conceded the most. When their fate was sealed by a 4-1 defeat to a Stoke side under their former manager Mark Hughes (and with Magath fielding an outclassed Dan Burn at right-back for the first time in his career), Steve Sidwell described them as “defenceless”.

It was unwittingly accurate. Fulham let in 85 goals, the most anyone had for six seasons. They did not draw 0-0 at all or lose 1-0 after August. They tended to concede more than that. The high numbers were not confined to the goals against column. Some 39 players made Premier League appearances; if Fulham had got a point per player they would have been fine. The revolving door included managers, their sidekicks (Alan Curbishley had a two-month spell as technical director and Ray Wilkins a still shorter stint as assistant manager), and power brokers. Al-Fayed sold the club to Shahid Khan in 2013; a reported price of £200 million was rather more than Fulham’s value 12 months later.

And yet his reign began reasonably well. Fulham won three of their first eight games. Martin Jol had accumulated some technically good footballers in an experienced squad and bolstered the midfield with Scott Parker who, along with the top scorer Sidwell, was one of the few to emerge with reputation intact. 

Then the slide began. Fulham lost their next six games and the first of their managers. René Meulensteen had been brought in as head coach under Jol and soon succeeded his compatriot. He had just completed a 16-day stint as manager of Anzhi Makhachkala. Compared to that, his time at Fulham was a relative age. He lasted 75 days in a reign with more than twice as many signings (seven) as wins (three). “They have hit the panic button on emotion and fear,” Meulensteen told the BBC. Initially he wasn’t sacked as much as displaced; Fulham simply confirmed the appointment of Magath as manager.

The nadir was a 6-0 defeat at promoted Hull. “I didn’t see this coming,” said Meulensteen. Nor did anyone else. As Hull only scored 32 goals in their other 37 league games, it was a feat of spectacular ineptitude for Fulham to concede six in 35 minutes. Meulensteen responded by reshaping the squad. He loaned out Bryan Ruiz and released Dimitar Berbatov, diagnosing that Fulham needed more fight by removing some of their class.

He made the familiar mistake among Manchester United alumni by assuming Old Trafford old boys were automatically equipped to flourish elsewhere. Larnell Cole and Ryan Tunnicliffe, two of his January buys, were promptly loaned out by Magath – to League One MK Dons, in Cole’s case – made a total of three Fulham appearances and never played in the Premier League again. Meulensteen broke the club transfer record to sign Kostas Mitroglou. Injuries meant he only started one game and failed to score. He was one of several ostracised by Magath.

Meulensteen’s final game came at Old Trafford, against the manager who opted not to keep him on after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United drew 2-2 as Burn headed away dozens of the 81 crosses David Moyes’ team put in. But then came Valentine’s Day and Fulham appointed Magath. Love scarcely blossomed between the eccentric disciplinarian and his squad and Fulham’s relationship with the Premier League was over. 

 

Stoke City (2017-18)

Three days after Crystal Palace ended Stoke’s decade-long stay in the Premier League, Southampton beat Swansea to keep the Saints up. Their new manager, Mark Hughes, had once played two games in the same day. He avoided emulating Billy McNeill by relegating two clubs in one season. And yet while Stoke’s fate was sealed four months after his sacking, Hughes had to change his mantra. “I don’t do relegation,” he had repeated earlier in the season, ignoring his part in QPR’s demotion in 2012-13. Five years on, it was undeniable: he did. 

He had mustered three consecutive ninth-place finishes; sadly for Stoke, 999 acquired another meaning in a season that felt criminal, not least to some of their own players. For three years, Hughes’s Stoke had bucked the usual post-Pulis pattern. They had added some attacking flair while preserving a defensive structure. They had false nines and players from Barcelona and Bayern Munich but they still had Ryan Shawcross. It was evolution, not revolution: Stoke could have an aesthetic element and still be awkward to play against. But it had started to unravel in the last 10 games of the 2016-17 season. Warnings were not heeded. “You sleepwalk into situations,” said Paul Lambert, who ended up taking Stoke down after Hughes’s January dismissal. Stoke sleepwalked into the Championship.

A promising start proved deceptive. Stoke beat Arsenal with a goal from one signing, Jesé; they drew with Manchester United with a brace from another, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The formula seemed fine, the exotic additions offering further evidence Stoke could compete with the elite.

Until they couldn’t. They conceded 41 goals in Hughes’ last 18 league games. Suddenly, they were shambolic. A byword for difficult opponents became easy to play against. They let in four and then five to Chelsea, five to Tottenham, seven to Manchester City. Hughes rested players in a 5-0 defeat to Chelsea to prepare for Newcastle. Stoke lost that as well. Hughes was sacked after defeat to Coventry, Stoke’s first FA Cup exit as a top-flight team to a fourth-division opponent since they were beaten by Bradford Park Avenue in 1938. They had already gone out of the League Cup to Bristol City. In a tale of two cities, they could not even win when the other came from lower divisions.

They targeted Gary Rowett, Quique Sanchez Flores and Martin O’Neill in their search for a successor. They were rejected by all. They ended up with Lambert. “I never thought I would get the chance to get back to this level,” said the Scot, in an unintentionally revealing comment; he had been sacked by Wolves when 15th in the Championship. “Whether I was 50th or first choice, it never mattered to me. 

It mattered in the final reckoning. Lambert spent most interviews saying he thought his players had played really well after they failed to win. He won his first game, at home to Huddersfield and his last, away at Swansea. The problem was that he didn’t win any in between. In Stoke’s history, only caretakers and Chris Kamara have a lower win percentage than Lambert’s 13.33.

He failed, but in an environment that some of his players felt had gone rotten. “Unacceptable, what was going on. Massively unacceptable,” said Lambert. “My god, I’ve not seen anything like that.” He wasn’t naming names but Ibrahim Afellay, Jesé, Kevin Wimmer and Saido Berahino were nowhere to be seen in the run-in.

When Stoke’s fate was sealed, Jack Butland arrowed in on failures in recruitment. “Too many of the recent investments are completely unused and that’s unacceptable. That’s got to be looked at because it is farcical.” A £50million trio stood out. One club record signing, Berahino, did not score that season. Another, Giannelli Imbula, was loaned out all year. A third, Wimmer, did not feature after January. Thus far, Stoke have still not recouped a penny in transfer fees for any of them.

Glen Johnson subsequently revealed Imbula substituted himself in a pre-season friendly because Charlie Adam didn’t pass him the ball; though, given the Scot’s famously erratic distribution, if he tried, it is no guarantee the ball would have reached the Frenchman. But, with demotion confirmed, Adam turned his fire on some of his teammates. “I think some players have been getting away with murder for a long time,” he told the BBC. “It’s not just one or two, I think there are four or five.” Adam seemed to class himself in the “seven or eight who try their hardest” and the top scorer and leading creator Xherdan Shaqiri among the guilty men. “Oh, definitely.” 

If the Scot’s comments showed a lack of self-awareness about his own culpability, Shaqiri identified the flaws in Adam’s argument, pointing out that Adam was sent off half an hour into a crucial home defeat to Everton for a ridiculous lunge at Wayne Rooney and missed a late spot kick in a draw against Brighton that Jesé wanted to take. Shaqiri ended the following season a Champions League winner; Adam failed to register a goal or an assist for Stoke. 

But Adam’s essential critique was supported by Johnson. “We had a core of about eight lads that were genuine good lads who would put things straight and police everything,” he told Talksport in 2019. The critical mass of solid citizens became the frustrated minority. The loss of some of the most dependable characters, Glenn Whelan and Jonathan Walters in particular, came at a cost, while others, like Johnson and Peter Crouch, were in the autumn of their careers. “They took it away from the genuine lads to try to sign superstars and got it horribly wrong,” Johnson added. “You are watching these players and they are bang average but think they are superstars. It made me hate football.”

If Stoke were the team others hated playing against, they became the side who hated football.


Huddersfield (2018-19)

It ended where it began. Fittingly, perhaps; tamely, definitely. Huddersfield’s Premier League life started at Selhurst Park with a 3-0 win. After a 45-year exile in the lower leagues, it only took one afternoon to put them top of the top flight, albeit briefly. 19 months later when they lost 2-0 to Crystal Palace, the inevitable became a mathematical certainty.

Huddersfield were down in March, before the clocks went forward and with six games to go. They had equalled Derby’s record for the earliest relegation. By drawing their last two games, they limped past Sunderland’s tally of 15, the second-lowest points total in the division’s history. They still finished 82 behind Manchester City. The gap between the best and worst had never been bigger.

The tactics they had used to help negate a competitive disadvantage – organisation, energy, spirit and inspired management – ultimately stopped working. A side who were promoted with a negative goal difference and then stayed up having scored just 28 goals could not carry on making the most of limited resources. A manager powered by his optimism appeared depressed and downtrodden by the time he left, David Wagner departing after a 0-0 draw with Cardiff that was notable for Huddersfield being awarded a penalty and then the decision being reversed. “Decisions like this make seasons and tables,” said Wagner.

Two days later, he was gone, an exhausted man citing the need for a break. Wagner was a charismatic, galvanising force who seized the club’s nickname, the Terriers, and turned it into a motto for a game plan based on relentless running. He was compared to Herbert Chapman by his chairman, Dean Hoyle, and then he was replaced by Martin from Wakefield.

He wasn’t, of course. Yet his replacement, Jan Siewert, was sufficiently anonymous that, during the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City, their intrepid reporter approached a man in the crowd, thinking he had found the next Huddersfield manager watching on. “I’m Martin from Wakefield,” came the reply. Martin from Wakefield still only has one fewer victories as Town manager than Siewert, whose reign gave him a 5.3% win rate. In Siewert’s defence, he accepted a hospital pass, taking on a team with 11 points from 22 games.

Siewert failed trial by Wikipedia – he had the briefest of entries – and soon found himself derided as a PE teacher by the club’s own fans. He was actually manager of Borussia Dortmund II, as Wagner had been before, but while Huddersfield had been tracking him since his days at Bochum, his appointment, like their long-standing admiration of Daniel Farke, suggested a recruitment policy that consisted simply of copying their past.

But recruitment was an issue. Lacking the budget or the pulling power to sign first-team Premier League players, they had to take the greater risk of looking elsewhere. They were propelled to the Premier League by loans and signings from the German second flight. After staying up, Wagner looked to wingers to add attacking thrust. They signed three: Isaac Mbenza, Adama Diakhaby and Ramadan Sobhi. Between them, they scored one goal in the season. Even that came in May.

In defence of those players, Huddersfield didn’t really play with wingers for much of the season. They had been stripped of some of their identity, using pressing to cancel out others’ greater budgets and talent, until they had pressed Tottenham in October 2017 and been caught on the break as they went 3-0 down after 23 minutes. One strategy needed to be amended to include some low blocks.

Another was rendered difficult. Fuelled by Wagner’s pre-season work, they tended to begin campaigns with great intensity. Until they were paired with Chelsea and Man City in their first two games. They lost to them by an aggregate score of 9-1 and didn’t win until November. It was little wonder. Their impotent wingers were not the only issue. No striker scored for them until January.

Huddersfield relied on an own goal to beat Fulham and defeated Wolves home and away but if victory at Molineux offered to give momentum, they then took one point from a possible 42; Wagner’s valedictory draw at Cardiff. They mastered the art of bad timing, saving their worst moments for their most promising positions. They had three red cards in winnable home games; Jonathan Hogg for a headbutt with half an hour remaining in the stalemate with Cardiff, Steve Mounié contentiously after 32 minutes with his side leading against Newcastle and Christopher Schindler bizarrely in the first half against Burnley. The defender was unaware he had already been booked when he fouled Dwight McNeil and was thus surprised a yellow card was followed by a red. A potential seven or even nine points from those three games became one.

Relegation became inevitable but Huddersfield hampered themselves. Siewert alienated players after criticising them. He left his three Danes out of the 18 at times, though Jonas Lössl was much the best goalkeeper, and his deputy Ben Hamer was culpable for goals, and Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jørgensen was both a first-choice defender and top scorer for much of the season. Huddersfield’s squad elected the midfielder Philip Billing as their player of the year while Siewert, whom he later described as “arrogant”, refused to pick him. Not since the Schleswig-Holstein question had German-Danish relations been so frayed. Never in Huddersfield’s history had they as few points or wins, or as many defeats. 

It was a season of unusual ignominies: Juninho Bacuna scored a debut own goal from 45 yards in the League Cup defeat to Stoke. Only Steve Mounié and Chris Lowe got more assists than goalkeeper Lössl. The January signing Karlan Grant overhauled Jørgensen to become top scorer, but on just four. By January, Manchester City had scored 100 more goals in all competitions than Huddersfield; 113-13. And when the season finished, Harry Kane was still the joint top scorer at the John Smith’s Stadium.