Toppo’s Top Tens – Great Escapes

After another dramatic final day to the Premier League season we now know the teams who will remain in the top flight and those who are facing Championship football next season.

Five teams were in the mix to occupy the final two relegation spots alongside West Ham United and after 90 minutes of twists and turns, what seemed like 300 different league tables posted and frayed nerves of fans all over the country, it was Blackpool and Birmingham City who finished in the bottom three, while Blackburn Rovers, Wolves and especially Wigan Athletic pulled off great escapes of their own.

The sheer drama of final day relegation battles encapsulate what it means for fans, coaches and players to stay in the league. The financial rewards are a modern day benefit of remaining a top flight club but also the chance to retain a place amongst the best 20 sides in the country is a reward in itself.

This week I take a look at 10 of football’s greatest Houdini acts. Teams written off as relegation fodder who save themselves with runs of form and nerves of steel on dramatic final days of the season – proof that sometimes one team’s pain is another team’s pleasure.

10: Sheffield United 1991

After securing promotion to Division One in the summer of 1990, Dave Bassett’s Sheffield United were not given much of a chance of staying up and after a dreadful start to the campaign that belief seemed justified. Their first win came seventeen games in during December but by March they’d clawed themselves out of the drop zone. In the second half of the season they claimed 36 points from 19 games, including winning seven in a row to finish 13th. Had their first half of the season been better they may have secured European football at Bramall Lane.

9: Birmingham City 1983

Ron Saunders left Aston Villa as manager in 1982 and surprisingly turned up at arch-rivals Birmingham City soon after. In his first full season at St. Andrews his side became embroiled in a relegation battle and with six games left of the season they were six points adrift of safety, looking odds-on to drop into the Second Division. However City, featuring players such as Mick Harford, Pat Van Den Hauwe and Noel Blake won five of those last six games, including three away victories and defeats over Everton and Tottenham Hotspur to eventually finish three places ahead of the bottom three.

8: Bradford City 2000

Paul Jewell guided Bradford City into the Premier League for the first time in their history in 1999 but were quickly written off and tipped for an immediate return to the Football League. On the final day of the season Bradford were level on points with Wimbledon but found themselves in the relegation zone on goal difference. Wimbledon were away to Southampton while the Bantams hosted Champions League chasing Liverpool. David Wetherall’s header saw Bradford win 1-0 while Wimbledon lost 2-0 and Bradford survived.

7: Coventry City 1997

During a 34-year stint in the top flight, Coventry City became specialists at dramatic relegation escapes but few could’ve been as close as the one in 1997. Going into the final day of the season Coventry were in the bottom three two points away from safety and their last game would be a tough away trip to Tottenham Hotspur. Dion Dublin gave them the perfect start after 12 minutes, heading home Gary McAllister’s cross. Paul Williams made it two before half-time but Spurs pulled a goal back after the break from Paul McVeigh.

As Coventry battled away in the second half goalscorer Dublin moved back into defence and veteran goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic pulled off some superb saves to preserve the Sky Blues’ lead. There was great joy for the travelling faithful as their 2-1 win, coupled with defeats for Middlesbrough and Sunderland, meant Gordon Strachan’s side stayed up by a point.

6: West Ham United & Wigan Athletic 2007

In the summer of 2006 West Ham United shocked the football world by announcing the signings of Argentinian pair Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez and it would be the latter who would have a big say in the Hammers’ season. Manager Alan Pardew left the club, Alan Curbishley took over but they were firmly rooted in the bottom three with nine games to go. A daunting run of fixtures lay ahead but they won seven of their last nine, including defeating Arsenal away.

On the final day of the season West Ham were away to Champions Manchester United while Wigan Athletic were away to Sheffield United, also fighting to stay in the Premier League but with two games to go were five points clear of the drop. Carlos Tevez scored at Old Trafford to give West Ham the lead while at Bramall Lane Paul Scharner put Wigan in front. Jon Stead levelled matters on 38 minutes but a frantic second half lay in store.

As West Ham continued to lead, Wigan went down to ten men after Lee McCulloch was sent off but the Latics went in front from the penalty spot. David Unsworth, the defender who Neil Warnock ironically transferred to their opponents, stepped up and fired the ball past Paddy Kenny to give Wigan a priceless lead. The Blades tried to get an equaliser that would keep them in the Premier League with Danny Webber and Keith Gillespie going close but it was not to be, they lost 2-1 and combined with West Ham’s victory at Old Trafford they would be going down.The Hammers were safe as were Wigan to the delight of Paul Jewell and his coaching staff.

The events were overshadowed by a row about the eligibility of Tevez’s transfer to West Ham which led to an out-of-court settlement where the Hammers paid several million pounds in compensation to Sheffield United despite Neil Warnock demanding points be deducted that would relegate West Ham.

5: Oldham Athletic 1993

The first ever Premier League season in 1992-93 offered up a truly great escape by Oldham Athletic. Joe Royle’s side were eight points adrift of safety going into the final month of the season and no one gave them a chance. They needed to win their last three games and hope relegation rivals Crystal Palace or Sheffield United slipped up in theirs. Oldham began the week by beating title-chasing Aston Villa, the victory gifting Manchester United the crown, then beat Liverpool 3-2 at Boundary Park as Palace drew 0-0 at Manchester City to set up a tense final day of the campaign.

If Oldham won and Palace lost on the last matchday, the Latics would be safe, sending Palace down. The Eagles did lose heavily, 3-0 at Arsenal while Oldham were playing out a thriller as they hosted Southampton. Despite Matt Le Tissier’s hat-trick, the hosts won 4-3 to preserve their Premier League status on goal difference.

4: Fulham 2008

The season after this one Fulham finished seventh in the Premier League to qualify for Europe then reached the Europa League final the year after, but things could have been very different.

As Fulham struggled to remain a Premier League club in 2008 they appointed Optajoke favourite Roy Hodgson as manager. Even he struggled to halt the slide until the Cottagers beat fellow strugglers Reading away from home (their first away win in 18 months) with five games to go. In their next game they were 2-0 down at half-time away to Manchester City, a result which would’ve sent them down had results not gone their way. However a stirring second-half performance saw them turn the match around with Diomansy Kamara striking a last-minute winner.

Victory over another struggling side in Birmingham City left Fulham’s future in their own hands going into the final day. Birmingham were in front in their game while Reading were battering Derby County 4-0 but still Fulham were being held at Portsmouth – then Danny Murphy nodded home Jimmy Bullard’s free kick for 1-0. That’s how it stayed and the Londoners survived on goal difference.


3: Everton 1994

Nowadays Everton rarely finish outside of the top 10 under the stewardship of David Moyes, but back in the ’90’s they flirted with relegation on several occasions and were a hair’s breadth away from dropping into the second tier. In 1994 it was a real possibility for a club who’d been a top flight team for nearly 50 years and Champions seven seasons before.

Mike Walker left Norwich City in January 1994 to take over from Howard Kendall at Goodison Park but poor form meant that come the final day of the season Everton needed to beat sixth placed Wimbledon at home and hope Southampton, Ipswich and Sheffield United failed to win. A draw would not be enough unless Ipswich were defeated at Blackburn.

Everton got off to the worst possible start as they went 2-0 down in the first half but brought it back to 2-1 before half-time. In the 67th minute Welsh middfielder Barry Horne controlled a bouncing ball and from 25 yards hit a long-range volley which cannoned in off the post to send Goodison into raptures.

As the match entered the final ten minutes Everton still needed a win to climb out of the drop zone and they went in front as Graham Stuart’s shot from the edge of the area bobbled past Hans Segers and into the bottom corner as the fans went mad. Toffee’s supporters in the stands had portable radios glued to their ears as Sheffield United fell behind at Chelsea – the scores remained the same and Everton survived at the expense of the Blades. Here’s Barry Horne’s strike….

2: Luton Town 1983

Luton Town travelled to Maine Road in 1983 needing a win to remain a First Division club. Hosts Manchester City would be relegated if they lost but a draw would be enough to keep them up. In the second half Luton went in front through Serbian midfielder Raddy Antic. His excellent volley on the edge of the area beat desperate City defenders’ attempted blocks to find the back of the net.

City tried to get the goal that would keep them in the top flight but it eluded them and the Hatters got their win. Manager David Pleat galloped onto the pitch celebrating whilst wearing an ill-fitting beige suit and cream shoes, a ridiculous image etched into the memory of football fans everywhere!

1: West Bromwich Albion 2005

In the 2004-05 season West Bromwich Albion made history as they became the first club in the Premier League to stay up having been bottom at Christmas. Baggies legend Bryan Robson was appointed manager in November 2004 with the team 17th in the table, 11 games and no wins later his stint as boss got off to the worst possible start. Gradually they turned things around and a draw against manchester United at Old Trafford on the penultimate matchday of the season saw them prop up the table going into the final day but with a mathematical chance of survival.

In fact no team had been relegated come the final day – West Brom, Norwich, Crystal Palace and Southampton all could have gone down. Southampton hosted Manchester United while Norwich and Palace were in the Capital facing Fulham and Charlton respectively and West Brom hosted 16th placed Portsmouth at the Hawthorns on a nerve-jangling afternoon.

Norwich ended up going out of the Premier League with a whimper as they were hammered 6-0 and Southampton followed with a 2-1 defeat. At the Valley Dougie Freedman and Andy Johnson’s penalty put Palace 2-1 up having fell behind in the first half, whilst in the West Midlands Albion went 2-0 ahead thanks to Geoff Horsfield and Kieron Richardson. Then in the 82nd minute Jonathan Fortune nodded home a set-piece to equalise for Charlton which sent Crystal Palace into the relegation zone and lifted Albion into 17th place. The final whistle went at The Hawthorns but Palace were still playing, searching for a winning goal. Albion fans and players were desperately listening to radios and mobile phones to monitor events in London and the final whistle there was greeted with wild celebrations from Baggies followers. Fans spilled onto the pitch as their side pulled off an incredible escape.

And finally….

No rundown of great escapes would be complete without mentioning the events that took place at Brunton Park on May 8th 1999. Carlisle United were staring at relegation to the Conference on the last day of the season, a point behind 23rd placed Scarborough.

Scarborough’s game ended 1-1 and their fans believed they were safe, however Carlisle had one final sting in the tail. With their game also at 1-1 they were going down but had a corner in injury time. Jimmy Glass, the goalkeeper on loan from Swindon Town, went up for it and after the ball fell to him six yards out, he slammed it into the back of net. Mobbed by his team-mates and jubilant Carlisle fans streaming onto the pitch, Glass kept them up with the last kick of the season.

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One Response to Toppo’s Top Tens – Great Escapes

  1. As a Torquay fan, I’ve seen quite a few great escapes, including the famous match on the last day 10 years ago where we played relegation rivals Barnet, winner taking all (which thankfully was us). But nothing comes close to one before my time, from 1986-87. I don’t know if you’ve heard it as it’s one of those famous stories from club folklore but I have no idea how much it was publicised at the time.

    As it stood before the game, we were second from bottom, a point ahead of Burnley and a point behind Lincoln. We were at home to Crewe and 2-0 down by half time. Jim McNichol pulled one back but as it stood we were going down as Burnley were winning. But 7 minutes from time – and I’m not making this up – a police dog called Bryn bit McNicol’s thigh, as it thought he was attacking its handler. This led to 4 minutes of stoppage time, during which time we scored through Paul Dobson, and with Lincoln losing, it was enough to keep us up and send them down (which is quite topical at the moment).

    So how about a Toppo’s Top 10 animals in football? Pickles, Billie the white horse, Cyril the Swan…OK, you’d probably have to make it a Top 5

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