It’s getting to that stage of the season where managers of struggling teams are working out what points they need to stay up. Since 3 points for a win was introduced during the 1981/82 season, there have been a couple of different points totals for bottom half teams to aim for. In a 38 game season, the magical 40-point mark mostly means survival, but it isn’t always guaranteed. Back in the 1980s and early 90s when the First Division had 42 matches in a campaign, the points you needed to stay up was actually closer to 50.
Here I look at six clubs from the last 40 years who were relegated despite collecting the usual number of points to survive. Each of these sides averaged at least 1.1 point per game, which in most years would have kept them up. So, in chronological order…
MANCHESTER CITY (1982/83)
Total points (Games Played): 47 (42)
Average points per game: 1.11
A world away from these days at the Etihad Stadium, in 1982 Manchester City were in big financial trouble, as a new £1m roof on the Main Stand of Maine Road had severely dented the club’s finances. The sale of Trevor Francis to Sampdoria for £900,000 and a 400k sponsorship deal with Saab had eased their worries a little, but money was so tight that there was talk of telephones being removed throughout the ground, reusing adhesive bandages in the treatment room and visiting players having to pay for their own drinks after matches.
The first half of the season was a mixed bag for City, but certainly no need for panic. However, in February 1983, manager John Bond resigned following a 4-0 defeat to Brighton in the FA Cup. His assistant, John Benson, took over with the legendary Tony Book coming in as his number two. Relegation was not even on the cards at that stage, with City a good 15 points from the drop, but Benson didn’t win in any of his first nine matches in charge and they were now caught in a downward spiral. During this period, players were still leaving in an attempt to balance the books, including top scorer David Cross and goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, who left after 17 years with the club.
It all came down to a deciding game on the last day of the season between Man City and Luton Town for who would beat the drop. City were fourth from bottom and one point above Luton, which meant a draw would keep them up. A tight match was still goalless with 7 minutes remaining, until a deflected shot by Raddy Antic gave the Hatters a 1-0 win, to break the hearts of the City faithful. At full time Luton manager, David Pleat, famously danced a jig of joy across the Maine Road pitch that chokes up any City fan to this day – the clip of which is still played whenever top flight relegation is mentioned.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (1983/84)
Total Points (Games Played): 48 (42)
Average Points Per Game: 1.14
Following manager Ron Saunders’ controversial move across Birmingham in 1982, the blue side of the city struggled to stay in the top tier in his first two seasons, surviving by two and three points respectively. However, the 1983/84 campaign ended with a whimper and Birmingham went tumbling into Division Two.
Their season seemed to come down to an FA Cup quarter-final against Watford. Birmingham had gone 12 matches unbeaten before that tie, sitting 10 points above the relegation zone and giving very little indication of the collapse that was about to come. But this was their biggest game in nearly a decade, giving them a chance of a first FA Cup semi-final for nine years. The problem was the players knew it too, giving a nervy display and they were duly picked apart by high-flying Watford, influenced heavily by a young John Barnes.
The 3-1 defeat in their own back yard was devastating for the club and their season never recovered. Following the defeat, Birmingham won only one of their final 12 matches – a fiery affair against neighbours Aston Villa – hurtling them straight towards the relegation trapdoor. The Blues bounced back immediately the following season, but were then relegated for a second time in 1986, in a campaign that included a humiliating FA Cup loss at home to non-league Altrincham, prompting the resignation of Ron Saunders. Birmingham didn’t return to the top flight again until 2002.
NORWICH CITY (1984/85)
Total Points (Games Played): 49 (42)
Average Points Per Game: 1.16
Norwich City‘s 1984/85 campaign was an absolute rollercoaster. In March they were celebrating winning only their second ever major trophy and gaining UEFA Cup qualification, but by May they were planning for Division Two football.
It had all started so promisingly too, drawing 3-3 with champions Liverpool in one of the most entertaining opening matches you’re ever likely to see. The Canaries plodded along in mid-table most of the season, with a Milk Cup final against Sunderland becoming their main priority. Indeed, they beat Sunderland 1-0 at Wembley and won their next league match as well, to put them in a very healthy 13th position in the table. Eight defeats from the next nine had Norwich now looking over their shoulders and by the time they had finished their league programme, Coventry City still had 3 matches left to play. Can you imagine that happening now?
The mathematics was simple, Coventry had to win all 3 games to stay up and in turn send Norwich down. Late goals and penalty misses went in favour of the Sky Blues, as they defeated Stoke and Luton to set up their final match of the season against the already-crowned champions Everton at Highfield Road – 12 days after Norwich had played their final game. There was never a better time to play the best team in the country, who had clearly been celebrating a magnificent campaign. Then Coventry left-back Stuart Pearce claims that they could smell booze on the Everton players’ breath. The result was a 4-1 victory to the home side and the Canaries were down with 49 points, the highest total ever accumulated by a relegated team
To add insult to injury, a few days later was the Heysel tragedy. A ban from European competition for English clubs followed, so poor Norwich City also had the UEFA Cup qualification taken away. No doubt they would have gladly swapped that League Cup trophy for survival.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (1989/90)
Total Points (Games Played): 43 (38)
Average Points Per Game: 1.13
Following promotion in 1984, Sheffield Wednesday had five fairly successful years in Division One until 1989/90. It was an especially difficult season at Hillsborough, as the club had to come to terms with the tragedy at the stadium in the FA Cup semi-final a few months before. This also was Ron Atkinson‘s first full campaign at the helm, and the drama from it would continue well into the summer.
Wednesday struggled most of the season, barely staying above the bottom three, although an early season highlight was a 2-0 home win over soon-to-be-champions Liverpool. The Owls won four out of five in February/March to seemingly turn the corner, only to lose four matches on the bounce and stare relegation in the face once again. Despite this, their fate was in their own hands, and a draw at home to Nottingham Forest on the final day would have secured Wednesday’s safety. Unfortunately they were drubbed 3-0 and with the news that relegation rivals Luton had won at Derby, they were down. Their 43 points is the highest points total by a relegated club in a 38-game season
A reprieve looked hopeful a month later, as Second Division play-off winners Swindon Town were denied promotion after being found guilty of financial irregularities by the FA. As the team which finished 18th, there was talk of Sheffield Wednesday being reinstated to the First Division. Newcastle Utd (3rd place in the Second Division) and Sunderland (play-off final losers) were also making a case to take the place of Swindon in the top flight. Six days on from the guilty verdict, the powers that be awarded Sunderland the promotion. Ron Atkinson and Wednesday were fuming with the decision, but went straight back up the following year and won the League Cup to boot. The beginning of the 90s provided an eventful couple of seasons for the Owls to say the least.
CRYSTAL PALACE (1992/93)
Total Points (Games Played): 49 (42)
Average Points Per Game: 1.16
The 1992/93 season was the start of a new era of Premier League football, shown for the first time by Sky, and it didn’t disappoint with a last day relegation dogfight. The writing was unfortunately on the wall for Crystal Palace by September, as they sold star striker Mark Bright to Sheffield Wednesday, following his old strike-partner Ian Wright’s move to Arsenal halfway through the previous campaign.
Palace took nine matches to notch their first victory of the season, however, after 5 wins on the spin in December, they went into the New Year in a season-high 15th place and things were looking up. But too many draws saw the south Londoners flirt with the relegation zone at the wrong time. This was a far cry from the Crystal Palace side that finished in 3rd place just two years earlier. They had to get a result on the last day of the season away to Arsenal to be sure of survival, but that afternoon at Highbury they were certainly not ‘Glad All Over.’
It must be said that the odds were still heavily in Palace’s favour with three matches to go, but Oldham Athletic produced two sensational results to beat a title-chasing Aston Villa away and Liverpool 3-2 in a thriller at Boundary Park. Palace lost their match to Arsenal 3-0, with Ian Wright opening the scoring against his former club. This meant they were relying on Southampton to get something at Oldham. The Latics looked to have secured their safety after leading 4-1, but a Matt Le Tissier hat-trick gave them a fright, before they eventually held on for a 4-3 victory. Oldham’s incredible three-game winning run had sent Palace down with the biggest points total in Premier League history. The relegation forced manager Steve Coppell to tender his resignation after nine years in charge. He was replaced by one of his staff, Alan Smith, who steered the Eagles to an immediate return.
Palace have finally established themselves in the Premier League over the last six years, after years of being the perfect example of a yo-yo club.
WEST HAM UNITED (2002/03)
Total Points (Games Played): 42 (38)
Average Points Per Game: 1.1
It’s hard to argue with anyone who says that the West Ham squad of 2002/03 was the best to be relegated in top flight history. In their ranks they had names like David James, Jermaine Defoe, Michael Carrick, Paolo Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Frederic Kanoute; the list goes on.
The Hammers started the season poorly, winning just 3 of their first 24 games. In fact it wasn’t until the end of January before they actually won their first match at home. But a decent run of only one defeat in eight gave West Ham a fighting chance towards the end of the campaign, before the side were dealt a bitter blow. After their win over Middlesbrough on the 17th April, manager Glenn Roeder collapsed with a brain tumour, which needed to be operated on immediately. Roeder had no choice but to step down for the final three matches of the campaign, with club legend Trevor Brooking asked to take the reigns, despite no previous managerial experience. Brooking carried on the good form by beating Man City and Chelsea, leaving just Birmingham away on the calendar.
The scenario for West Ham was simple; better Bolton Wanderers result on the final day to stay up. Bolton hosted Middlesbrough in a tense climax to the season and Sam Allardyce’s side went into an early 2-0 lead, leaving West Ham’s result looking futile. However, when Michael Ricketts pulled one back for ‘Boro, nerves were kicking in at the Reebok Stadium. Anton Ferdinand then put West Ham in front and for 13 mins, the survival dream was alive. Unfortunately goals from Geoff Horsfield and Stern John sealed the Hammers’ fate, even though Di Canio levelled the scores just before full time. Allardyce and Jay-Jay Okocha famously danced on the pitch at Bolton, while West Ham fans shed tears in the West Midlands.
West Ham’s 2003 relegation was the last time that a club has been relegated from the top tier with 40 or more points. However, 1997 and 1998, both Sunderland and Bolton were demoted from the Premier League, proof that getting to forty points doesn’t always guarantee safety. If you also take into account Sheffield Wednesday’s 1990 relegation with 43 points, the total to aim for in a 38 game season is surely 44. Managers take note, you could regret your target later on.
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