1. Oldham, Premier League, 1992-93
It's one thing to overturn an eight-point gap to avoid relegation; quite another to do so in the final week of the season. Joe Royle's Oldham had to win three games in seven days and hope either Crystal Palace or Sheffield United made a horlicks of their last two fixtures. The problem was that the first of those three games was away to Aston Villa, who had to win to keep their title challenge alive. On the face of it they had no chance, but Oldham handled the end-of-season pressure/need equation better than Villa and a goal from Nick Henry (no relation) put the cat among the pigeons. The problem was that, because Henry's goal gave Manchester United their first title for 26 years, its real significance was lost, like an insight during an orgasm. Indeed, Palace's Geoff Thomas would later tell this rag that the relegation battle crept up on them from nowhere.
When a resurgent Sheffield United did the necessary at Everton on the Tuesday, the survival battle was down to two. A day later Oldham beat a feeble Liverpool 3-2 at Boundary Park, while Palace drew 0-0 at Manchester City - ostensibly a decent result, but one which left Palace, who four days earlier had done a lap of honour after their last home game on the assumption of safety, horribly exposed to a final-day sting. If Oldham won and Palace lost, Oldham were safe and Palace were down. On the final day Palace, away at Arsenal, were never in the game and lost 3-0, but Oldham's home match against Southampton oscillated wildly: despite a Matthew Le Tissier hat-trick, Oldham squeaked home 4-3. They could not cheat gravity forever, and were relegated a year later, but this was something nobody associated with the club would forget.
2. Eintracht Frankfurt, Bundesliga, 1998-99
An escape to make that of Jimmy Glass and Carlisle in the same season seem probable. With four games to go, a deficit of four points seemingly made Frankfurt, er, dead meat, but three wins in a row gave them hope. Not much, mind: to have any chance of survival on the final day they needed to beat Kaiserslautern, who themselves needed a point to qualify for the Champions League, and if results went against them they might have to win by as many as five goals. Either way, with the score at 1-1 with 20 minutes to go, Frankfurt were struggling. At that stage, their best hope was to overtake Nurnberg. Because they were losing 2-0 at home to Freiburg, Frankfurt would stay up with a 4-1 win. Amazingly they got three goals in 12 minutes – but then, in the 86th minute, Nurnberg pulled one back in their game, which meant Frankfurt were now going down on goal difference. No matter: straight away, Jan Aage Fjortoft (yeah, him) scored to make it 5-1. Frankfurt stayed up, not on goal difference but goals scored, and Nurnberg – who started the day four places off relegation, and who with 15 minutes to go knew they would definitely stay up unless Frankfurt and Hansa Rostock both scored at least twice – were down. At least a goalkeeper didn't send them down. But then death by Fjortoft was probably even worse.
3. Everton, Premier League, 1993-94
Seeing one of the then Big Five (Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton) so close to relegation was so unthinkable, like killing off Vic Mackey or Veronica Mars mid-series, that it made for a simply astonishing atmosphere on the final day of the season at Goodison Park. Everything had been thrown into the punch: need, hope, fear, Peter Fear, primordial desire, muddy water (the permutations were not entirely straightforward), Gary Ablett. There was barely a dry nail in the house. A win over sixth-placed Wimbledon would keep Mike Walker's Everton up barring away wins for Southampton, Ipswich and Sheffield United, but a draw would send them down unless Ipswich lost at Blackburn. The unique circumstances made for a game so slapstick that it should have been soundtracked by a mash-up of the themes to Benny Hill and Curb Your Enthusiasm. When five goals are scored and the most normal, the most logical, is a 30-yard howitzer from Barry Horne, you know there's a problem.
Wimbledon – who had nothing to play for except the thing they most loved playing for: the opportunity to give the aristocracy some serious gyp – were 2-0 up early on thanks to two laughable goals: the first, Dean Holdsworth's penalty, came after an inexplicable handball from Anders Limpar, and then Ablett scored a desperate, slow-motion own goal. Limpar's simulation earned a penalty, and then Graham Stuart simulated nervelessness with a splendid penalty to make it 1-2 at half-time. But even after Horne's scorching equaliser Everton were going down (Ipswich drew 0-0) until, with nine minutes to go, Stuart squeezed a shot through an attempt at a save from Hans Segers so pitiful that it would later come under significant scrutiny when Segers was accused of match-fixing. (He was eventually cleared). Most settled for the conclusion that this was football at its most gloriously perverse, and that not even the proverbial scriptwriter would have had the nerve to write it quite like this.
4. Birmingham, Division One, 1982-83
This relegation scrap is best remembered for the massive drama of Man City v Luton: Raddy Antic's late goal, City laying down a flawless template for subsequent tragicomedy and, most of all, David Pleat's suit jacket flapping in the breeze as he skipped around Maine Road like a jester being chased by the fuzz. Yet the real Houdini act came not from Luton but from Birmingham City, managed by Ron Saunders. When they were beaten 3-1 at Luton on April 12, they were bottom of the table – where they had been almost all season – and six points from safety with six games to go. They were giving showers a good name.
But if you're in a relegation fight, it helps to have one of the hardest teams in football history, and a Birmingham squad that included the granite-jawed and frankly chilling group of Pat Van Den Hauwe, Martin Kuhl, Noel Blake and Mick Harford got on with the job of scrapping for their lives. They did it, and at a canter too: Birmingham won five of their last six, including three straight away wins (after none all season) and home wins over Everton and Tottenham. Unlike Junior Soprano, Harford and co showed that real men never go down.
5. Sheffield United, Division One, 1990-91
There's one born every year: a team that comes up to the top flight, looks horribly out of their depth and skulks away with their tail between their legs and their points total somewhere between 10 and 20. In 1990, Dave Bassett's newly promoted United were that side, and then some. They did not win in their first 16 games, drawing four and losing 12, and their most accomplished technician was arguably Vinny Jones, a state of affairs that might have been construed as a problem in some cultures. Their first victory finally came three days before Christmas, a 3-2 humdinger against Nottingham Forest, but they were still eight points adrift of safety.
This was not a predicament that could not be resolved overnight, but for a side managed by Bassett it has never a problem to focus on the long game: United worked away at the deficit, so much so that they had muscled their way out of the relegation zone by March. In the second half of the season they claimed 36 points from 19 games; six more than second-placed Liverpool, and at one stage won seven in a row. They ended up nestled snugly in 13th; for half a season, it seemed unlikely they would even make 13 points.
6. Cagliari, Serie A, 1990-91
After seven years in the lower reaches of Italian football, Cagliari breezed into Serie A after back-to-back promotions with an ingenuous, sightseer's enthusiasm. They had a smile for everyone, and cheerfully showed off their spangly status symbols: the newly signed Uruguayan duo of Daniel Fonseca and Enzo Francescoli. Yet in their new, gnarled environment, they were received as warmly as the American tourist in the film Trainspotting. For six months Cagliari, managed by a a young Claudio Ranieri, failed to get out of relegation zone and after a 4-1 mauling at Fiorentina on March 24 they were two points adrift of safety, having won only three games all season.
But they beat Parma 2-1 in their next game, came back to draw 2-2 at champions-elect Sampdoria a week later, and would not lose again all season. They won only three of the final eight games, but in the age of only two points for a win that was not so important, and their five draws would bring them valuable points. Five, to be exact. Ranieri may have been unable to beat the death penalty at Chelsea, but it was a much worthier achievement to do so with Cagliari.Topics
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