Relegation. The “R” word. Some managers ban its use, but others would rather speak its name so that their players are fully aware of the enormity of dropping a division. For a club sliding out of the Premier League, it can mean a loss of up to £40m in TV revenue, not to mention players defecting and attendances falling. For the fans it brings emotional turmoil: what if we never come back up?
The three teams currently occupying the bottom three spots are Birmingham, Wolves and Wigan from 18th to 20th respectively. So which three teams will be playing in the championship next season?
With more than two-thirds of this season’s Premier League completed, at least half the 20 clubs are involved in the battle for survival. For the majority of the season, West Ham were left holding the other teams up, but after poaching players during the transfer window, and after securing successive back to back home wins, they can only look up.
For three of them it may well end like it did for Crystal Palace in the first season after the reorganisation of the divisions, 1992-93. They left the pitch at Arsenal believing they were safe only to find that Oldham had beaten Southampton 4-3 to squeeze above them.
Others will look to the precedent of West Bromwich Albion’s “great escape” of 2004-05, the only year in the history of the Premier League when no team went into the final day knowing they were already down. Albion clung on with 34 points to spark wild celebrations. A year earlier Leeds went down with 33 amid bitter recriminations. The margins, then, are fine, the penalty for failure, severe.
Starting with the bottom team, the picture looks bleak for Wigan. Defensively they have never recovered from leaking 10 goals in the opening two games and have conceded 30 goals at home, the worst record in the Premier League. They are modestly supported and funded, but it must be said that the passing game which Roberto Martinez has tried to foster, like Owen Coyle at Bolton, has not been conspicuously successful. Steve Bruce had his critics at the club but took them to mid-table and instilled fighting spirit and defensive organization before leaving them with assets such as Charles N’Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa. Blackpool away and West Ham at home offer a glimmer of hope in an arduous run-in, but the damage may have been done already.
What to make of Wolves, who have taken nine points from 36 against sides in the bottom half yet beaten both Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool? Last season, their first back in the Premier League, they pulled clear during the final third of the schedule, and they are capable of repeating the feat. The last two home fixtures, a definitive derby six-pointer against West Bromwich and a final-day tussle with Blackburn, could be decisive, but Mick McCarthy’s team will go into their run-in in better shape as long as Jamie O’Hara remains fit. The on-loan Tottenham midfielder has given them an extra dimension with his creativity and goals from midfield, as well as bringing the best out of the previously underachieving players around him.
The Carling Cup winners are also, intriguingly, the Premier League’s lowest scorers. The redoubtable Alex McLeish steered them to ninth place last season, their highest finish in half a century, but has not been immune to second-season syndrome. Until the midway point in the campaign, his £6m gamble on 6ft 8in striker Nikola Zigic was in danger of being written off as a failure, but as the Serb has found his form, so Blues’ fortunes have improved. The arrival of Obafemi Martins should enhance their goal ratio, even if he is unlikely to be gifted another like Sunday’s Wembley winner, while in Ben Foster, they have arguably England’s best goalkeeper. With a comparatively gentle run-in, particularly at home, even after the defeat to West Brom last Saturday, they should be safe.