Bramall Lane was surrounded by snow as West Brom traveled to Sheffield United earlier this month to face relegation. Two roads into Sheffield were closed due to wintry conditions and a third road could only be used with extreme caution. On a night when the last two teams in the Premier League were struggling to survive, the sense of isolation and adrift was bleak.
Sheffield United could have secured their third win in 22 games this season with a 2-1 victory, but Chris Wilder’s team remains one point behind Sam Allardyce at the bottom of the table. Both teams lose their next games to Chelsea and Tottenham respectively and travel to West Ham and West Brom this weekend, hosting Manchester United on 12 and 11 points respectively.
Both teams were largely eliminated and sidelined as they had no chance of avoiding relegation. In fact, Sheffield United had the worst start in Premier League history, a record that dates back to the very first season of the competition in 1888. But while the last two teams in the Premier League clearly failed to get out of the relegation zone, history shows that all is not lost, as several teams before them somehow found their way out of the relegation zone.
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If you look at the Premier League’s great landscapes, you’ll hardly find credible survival stories from teams like Oldham Athletic (1992-93), West Brom (2004-05), Leicester City (2014-15) and Sunderland (2015-16). When Oldham survived in 1993, the deal with PL TV was worth a total of £304 million over five seasons, so relegation was not the financial blow it is today.
In 2020, the lowly Norwich club earned £94.5 million via a transfer deal and will still receive parachute payments – 55%, 45% and 20% of Premier League revenues – over the next three years, but the loss of revenue is huge and potentially catastrophic. Many clubs such as Oldham, Barnsley, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth never regained their status after leaving the Premier League.
If Sheffield United survive, it would be the most remarkable escape ever. After finishing ninth in the Premier League last season, they began the 2020-21 campaign with just two draws and 15 defeats, before finally recording a Ligue 1 victory over Newcastle on January 12. Since then, they have won at Old Trafford and beaten West Brom, fueling the belief that they can do it.
“It’s been a tough season for us,” said Director Wilder. “Overall, it’s a very disappointing situation for us, but in the last few weeks I’ve seen us change a little bit. We’re kind of reclaiming our identity.
For West Brom’s boss, Allardyce, this is not his first rodeo. Allardyce has never been relegated from the Premier League and has managed to keep Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Everton in the league in recent years, having been hired in mid-season each time to get the clubs out of crisis. But despite occasional good results, such as away games at Man City and Liverpool in December and an away win at Wolves in mid-January, he may have met his opponents at Hawthorns.
“If I’m still in the race with three games to go, I’ll be absolutely delighted,” Allardyce said. “Because, believe me, it’s going to take all that time to catch up with us.”
“To secure Sunderland, I’ve only lost one of the last 11. It wasn’t so good at the Palace, but we got some big wins. We grabbed three points where nobody expected it and that made the difference. That’s what we need to do now.
Error. Movie not specified.Robson helped keep West Brom in the Premier League. He eased the pressure on his team with a trip to Disney World and a popular sports movie. Lawrence Griffiths/Getty Images
Brian Robson is widely regarded as the mastermind of the biggest defeat in the Premier League. The former Manchester United and England captain joined West Brom in November 2004, when the club had recorded just one win in 12 games. On Christmas Day, they were five points behind in the league table.
None of the Premier League teams escaped the relegation battle on Christmas Day, so West Brom seemed doomed, but a combination of injury luck, a trip to Disney World and an assist from Al Pacino on the final day of play helped Robson’s team survive.
“Before this season there was a tendency for the bottom team to be relegated by Christmas, but we’ve broken that,” Robson told ESPN. “There were a lot of factors in our survival – I was able to get Kevin Campbell and Kieran Richardson in January and they were very influential, while we haven’t had any injuries since February, so we were able to work as a group and work consistently on the training ground.
“But the turning point for me was the 1-1 draw at Man City at the end of December. We didn’t get a kick that day and we should have lost, but Richard Dunne scored an own goal five minutes before time to end a run of five defeats in a row. It was a great moment for morale.
It was a trip to Orlando in February, but Robson credited the team with forging bonds that got them to safety.
“Team camaraderie is an important thing for any team, especially when you’re fighting relegation, and I wanted the guys to relax, encourage each other and build their camaraderie,” Robson said. “But instead of doing the usual things, like taking them to Spain or Portugal, we went to Disney. We trained hard in the morning and in the afternoon the players were able to go to amusement parks. They did all the roller coasters and came back in the evening.
“You could see the atmosphere building during dinner as the players laughed at the guys yelling at the rides. It was a great ride for us and we came back with 17 points from the last 12 games and are still standing.
Despite new promotion, West Brom started the final day of the season at the bottom of the league table without having beaten the three teams that preceded them. On Christmas Day and on the final day, a 2-0 win over Portsmouth sealed their survival – with a little inspiration from Al Pacino.
“I asked my assistant Nigel Pearson and fitness trainer Richard Hawkins to come up with something to motivate the players before the game,” Robson said. “So they made a montage of clips from the best moments of the season, accompanied by music and Al Pacino’s “Inch by Inch” speech in “Any Given Sunday.” They did it brilliantly. It was perfect because it kept the players focused and motivated just before they were going to win.
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Motivational speeches and team-building exercises are often used by managers during the difficult times of the season, but former Sheffield United midfielder Jamie Hoyland remembers manager Dave “Harry” Bassett’s trick to avoid a relegation battle before the ball has even been kicked.
“It was three days before the start of the first season of the Premier League, 1992-93, and Harry called all the players to Bramall Lane with our wives and girlfriends because we were having a Christmas party,” Hoyland told ESPN.
“It was August and it was absolutely boiling hot, but we went to Christmas dinner – turkey, Christmas pudding, drinks, all that – and we ended up singing Christmas carols and wrestling with the food. Bassett] decided that because we had such a bad start last season and we had problems before Christmas – it was day two, early December – we needed to pretend it was Christmas and not the beginning of the season.
“It was a bit crazy, but you can’t say it didn’t work out. We beat Man United on the first day of play and we finished 14th, so I think there was a method to his madness.
Of course, there is no other way to win games. But those involved in successful outings point to two essential elements in achieving this: a reliable manager and a unified team.
When Leicester City escaped relegation in 2015 – the year before their remarkable win for the title – they collected 22 points from a possible 27 and remained seven points clear of the top in nine games, before manager Nigel Pearson respected his players.
“Nigel Pearson has built a very close-knit dressing room,” said former Leicester defender Danny Simpson. “What Nigel and his team built behind the scenes played a big part in the club’s Premier League victory a year later.
The defining image of the battle for Leicester’s survival was Pearson’s accusation at the post-match press conference that he was an “ostrich with his head in the sand,” but in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2017, Pearson admitted that he was only concerned with protecting his players from outside criticism.
“I’ve had some commitments in my time,” Mr. Pearson said. “A lot of them are mine, because I feel like I have to protect the people I work with, the players. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I don’t have to worry about it. And if that’s how people remember me, then I guess I haven’t done much in the game, have I?
Misunderstanding. specified.Oldham unfortunately escaped in 1993 with three wins at the end of the season under manager Joe Royle (center). Paul Marriott/EMPICS via Getty Images
Andy Ritchie, who helped Oldham win their final three games of the 1992-93 season to avoid relegation, recalls how manager Joe Royle protected his players from the pressure of relegation to keep morale high.
“Joe made sure we kept the same routine, that we didn’t do anything different and that we maintained a sense of normalcy so we didn’t feel too much pressure,” Ritchie said. “We had a very tight group of players and he told us it was in our hands and we could do it, and we really came out feeling very little pressure.”
Oldham’s escape was amazing considering they were seeded at the end of the season. In the space of six days, they won over Aston Villa (Oldham won 1-0 and the result confirmed Sir Alex Ferguson’s Ligue 1 title for Manchester United), Liverpool and then Southampton, while hoping for defeat at Crystal Palace.
“The manager and the communication between [the team] were the only ones who could stay on top. After a year we lost two or three players, I was injured for eight months and we were relegated because the ingredients we had 12 months ago were not the same.
Hoyland, who played four seasons in the Premier League with Sheffield United before it was relegated in 1994, also believes that community and player responsibility is important.
“We were a real group of brothers then and that spirit kept us in League 1,” he said. “In those days most of the players lived in Sheffield, they got on with each other and we were accessible to the fans. We had lunch at the Bramall Lane Social Club, which was open to the public, so the fans ate with us too. When we came back from training, they were playing billiards, telling us that if we lost, we were “in… ——” It doesn’t seem like the greatest thing in the world, and it isn’t, but a band like that helps connect the whole thing and helps players remember who they’re playing for and why it’s important.”
Wrong!!! Film not specified.Wilder, left, and Allardyce, right, who are still optimistic that Sheffield United and West Brom will stay in the Premier League, thought their window would close soon. Alex Livesey of Denhouse/Getty Images.
Despite their dangerous positions, Sheffield United and West Brom can still avoid relegation. United have 45 possible points on their account, West Brom can still get 42. Sheffield United’s fate can be decided in their last two games, at Newcastle and at home against Burnley, while West Brom face a crucial hat-trick against Burnley (a), Brighton (h) and Newcastle (h) immediately after Sunday’s clash with United.
Sheffield United have also started the FA Cup well, reaching the quarter-finals on Wednesday with a 1-0 win over Bristol City, although that was not necessarily a positive. Wigan (2012-13) and Middlesbrough (1996-97) relegated after reaching the final – Wigan beat Man City in the final that year – while Oldham relegated in 1994 after reaching the semi-finals. More games can mean more injuries and fatigue in the legs and head.
Recent wins over Brighton, Newcastle and Burnley – the three teams closest to the relegation zone – have also made things a lot harder for Wilder and Allardyce, but they remain hopeful.
“The game we had against three top teams in the Man United, Man City and Chelsea competition, we were very competitive in all three games,” Wilder said. “It’s inexcusable in this league, but we’re happy to go against Chelsea and we can now work with our team of top players.
“There is a feeling that players in this league can win games because of their attitude,” he said. “Right now we have to focus on the next 15 games and I think from what I’ve seen in the last three or four weeks we can win games. We can take something out of these games that makes them interesting and competitive.
Allardyce, who replaced Slaven Bilic as coach of West Brom in December, has yet to make a name for himself, leading his new team to just one win in 10 league games. But all is not lost in the eyes of the 66-year-old. The formula is simple.
“When players look at the table, they are stupid,” Allardyce said. “It’s 38 points – that’s what we need. You can’t keep asking Newcastle or Brighton or Fulham or Burnley to do it for us, you have to do it yourself. It’s that simple. The fastest team to get 38 points in the last eight will be the fastest team to save.
So the orders are clear: win as often as you can and don’t look down, because there are going to be a lot of twists and turns and a lot of roller coaster churches in the coming weeks.
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