The downward spiral
Late March, and if you listen carefully you can – in the parlance of a certain puce-cheeked knight of the realm – hear the sound of bums starting to squeak. So, time to cast an eye over the teams who this May are most likely to be swapping the preening pros, plastic fans and prawn sandwiches of the Premier League for the Bovril, goal celebration music and cheerleaders of the Championship. In descending order…
The Villains are seemingly intent on casting themselves in the role for this year’s Big Club Who Get Sucked Into Trouble. They can’t score goals; they can’t defend (supposedly their hugely unpopular ex-Bluenose manager Alex McLeish’s forte); their best players are either out of form (Gabriel Agbonlahor), on the treatment table (Darren Bent) or out of form and on the treatment table (the man Joe Kinnear christened Charles Insomnia, who’s been sleepwalking through the season); they’ve started going into games as though they already know they’re beaten (see last weekend’s 3-0 thumping at Arsenal).
Still, the eight points currently holding the bottom three at arm’s length means they’ll be fine – more’s the pity, given the relish with which their supporters greeted Newcastle’s relegation three years ago.
Hands up anyone who thought that, with just eight games to go, Steve Kean would still be in charge at Blackburn? Thought as much. Back in the autumn the chances of the Scot clinging onto the Ewood Park hotseat this long looked about as remote as Mark Lawrenson not chortling at one of his own “witticisms”. It’s a remarkable feat of survival – Bear Grylls and that chap who got stuck canyoning and had to hack off his own arm could learn a thing or two from the irrepressible Scot.
That irrepressibility has helped – his apparent refusal to dwell on the negatives, instead striving to find crumbs of comfort even in the bleakest of circumstances. A defence shorn of behemoths Phil Jones and – since January – Chris Samba and Ryan Nelsen is hardly watertight, though clean sheets were recorded in recent back-to-back wins over Wolves and Sunderland, but it’s their formidable (by basement club standards) attack that is likely to keep them afloat. Everton reject Yakubu’s return of 14 league goals is staggering in a struggling side, while Junior Hoilett has suddenly started to find the net too and the Olsson twins – note: Olsson, not Olsen – have been linking up nicely on the left flank.
Venky’s may have shown themselves to be clueless (and ham-fisted) when it comes to football, but whatever vision they have is hardly likely to include bankrolling a Championship side. Relegation might mean that the fans get their way – the Indian owners washing their hands of the whole business – but at what potential cost? One thing’s for certain: Hoilett will be leaving regardless of the club’s fate.
Not so very long ago, Bolton were the prime target for anyone (often sat in a glasshouse) wanting to throw stones at thuggish route-one football. These days, Stoke are the Premier League’s most obvious perpetrators of the unbeautiful game, while, in the wake of Fabrice Muamba’s mid-match collapse at White Hart Lane, the Trotters find themselves actually wished well by what pundits are apparently duty-bound to call the “football family“. As distressing as it undoubtedly was, the Muamba incident has nevertheless served to unify the whole squad at a time when others are fragmenting (see below), and it was on a wave of emotion that they were able to surf to a vital victory over Blackburn at the weekend.
Like their Lancashire rivals, Bolton were powerless to watch as their defensive lynchpin escaped through the January transfer window, Gary Cahill so desperate to flee the Reebok that calling John Terry and Ashley Cole team-mates seemed like an appealing prospect. Cahill had done his best for the cause but hadn’t been able to reverse a dramatic slump in the team’s fortunes compared to last season; long-term injuries to midfield dynamos Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-yong, the waning powers of Kevin Davies (for years, arguably the division’s most underrated striker) and the wrongheaded attempt to replace the departed Johan Elmander with David Ngog (the worst forward to wear the Liverpool shirt?) hardly helped.
If the Trotters are to survive, the attacking instincts of midfielders Mark Davies, Martin Petrov and Arsenal loanee Ryo Miyaichi will be critical. If they don’t, though, they should have the fanbase and stable financial foundation to make a decent fist of an instant return.
In an uncanny parallel of the Championship’s basement club Doncaster, QPR have pinned their hopes of survival upon the stewardship of a former Wales international striker and a policy of signing big-name players on big-name-players wages. And, as at the Keepmoat, the strategy is currently proving equally as effective. All the more galling, then, that Norwich and Swansea – the Hoops’ inferiors in last season’s Championship – are cruising to safety without breaking the bank.
Sure, Djibril Cisse has scored a few since arriving, but the fauxhawked Frenchman has also collected a pair of stupid red cards – and the public criticism he received from manager Mark Hughes is only the most recent instance of internal friction. Needless to say, Joey Barton has been at the centre of things: he repaid Neil Warnock, the man who brought him to the club, by helping to engineer his ousting, and then put the boot in when Warnock had the temerity to suggest he may have been involved; he’s now horribly out of form, booed by his own fans and hauled off for an embarrassing display against Liverpool. QPR eventually won that game, somehow reversing a 2-0 deficit, but it’s a measure of their plight that they couldn’t capitalise, slumping to a 3-1 defeat at the Stadium of Light in their next match. Their daunting run-in includes fixtures against all of the top five.
And what of the players who helped the club to promotion? Lanterne Rouge’s verdict that Moroccan bag of tricks Adel Taarabt would come unstuck against Premier League defences may have been contentious last February, but today my fellow blogger can wear a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Told you so” with pride. Jamie Mackie and Heidar Helguson are among the hard-working pros who’ve found themselves sidelined by the expensive imports – though, unlike Man Utd loanee Federico Macheda, they haven’t taken to Twitter to express their disgruntlement (or to air homophobic views, for that matter).
Recently screened fly-on-the-wall documentary QPR: The Four Year Plan followed the fortunes of the club as it lurched from crisis to crisis in the second tier before Warnock finally propelled them to the promised land to fulfil then-owner Flavio Briatore’s prophesy. So how would instant relegation sit with that “plan“? Not well at all, especially if we believe rumours that they’ve negotiated contracts worth thousands of pounds a week but neglected to include relegation release clauses. A hugely risky gamble or just plain arrogance? Either way, demotion could well precipitate financial meltdown in west London.
And now for something completely different: a team without stars cobbled together on a shoestring – though one slowly facing up to an equally grim future.
The romantic in you – you know, the bit that makes you hope a bunch of roofers and postmen give the big boys an FA Cup bloody nose – might hail Wigan’s continued survival as a minor miracle, a heartwarming tale of David among the Goliaths. On the other hand, the cynic (or realist, if you prefer) would argue that the fact they’ve clung on to their Premier League status since promotion in 2005 says more about the desperately poor quality of the division (perhaps someone should tell Sky?).
If the Latics are to remain the correct answer to the quiz question “Which is the only side never to be relegated from the English top flight?“, then they’re going to need to overcome one crippling deficiency in particular: a forward line that would struggle to strike fear into the hearts of League 1 defenders. Franco Di Santo seems to be able to score only with the aid of a deflection, Irishman Conor Sammon has just one goal to his name and former get-out-of-jail-free card Hugo Rodallega has been frozen out for wanting away. To compound matters, Charles N’Zogbia is no longer on hand to step into the breach and save the day from midfield. In Wigan’s defence, they do at least possess team spirit, something which came to the fore when they beat Liverpool on Saturday – though everyone’s doing that these days.
Unlike QPR, Wigan may not have spent lavishly beyond their immediate means in a bid to stay up, but the fact remains that an astonishing 88 per cent of their revenue (which is the smallest in the division) comes from TV money, so relegation would hit them very hard indeed. Attendances, already paltry in what is first and foremost a rugby town, would no doubt drop, exacerbating their problems further. Their one real asset – Spanish magician Roberto Martinez – doesn’t have any significant sale value, either, though I’m sure there would be plenty of interest in one of the English game’s most likeable, positive and forward-thinking young managers.
Wolves, eh? You know the score: indefatigable, spirited, all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude, prepared to fight to the death. But not this season, it seems. When even Mick McCarthy is left dazed and near-speechless, as he was after his final game in charge (the humiliating home thrashing by Black Country neighbours West Brom), then you know something’s wrong.
McCarthy’s sacking was followed by a managerial hunt even more undignified and acutely embarrassing than the derby result, candidate after candidate spurning the club’s advances until they were forced into promoting Terry Connor and pretending it wasn’t out of desperation. At first there was promise in the form of a – yes – spirited recovery from two goals down at St James’ Park, but four successive defeats (including two 5-0 routs) have followed and they now sit bottom of the table, four points from safety.
Connor urgently needs to coax the best out of potentially potent strikers Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher (and key members of their supply line, wingers Matt Jarvis and Stephen Hunt), and quell any dressing-room mutinies (even if these are sparked by idle tweets from unhappy players’ wives). If he can’t, then perhaps Chris Hughton would make an excellent role model: a former number two initially out of his depth in the Premier League but who blossomed when charged with carrying out a rebuilding job in the Championship. As dire a situation as it would be for Wolves, I suspect they’d be sufficiently robust to withstand the impact of relegation better than some of their rivals.
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A post-script. It may not have felt like it at the time, that treacherously sunny day in May 2009, but relegation to the Championship was actually the best thing that could have happened to Newcastle. Had my club stayed up, cracks would have been papered over, debts would have continued to mount up, and we’d have stumbled blindly on into another joyless season. Relegation, however, meant that truths had to be faced head-on. It was the wake-up call we needed to get our house in order, the year zero that has ultimately led to our extraordinary renaissance back in the top flight. It also meant a welcome return to winning ways on a regular basis, and proof that there was indeed life beyond the Premier League, no matter what Sky would have you believe.
Not that our predicament wasn’t precarious, of course. We spent the summer shipping out as many high-earning mercenaries as we could, but – as QPR are rumoured to have been – we had been too arrogant and complacent about our place among the elite to have bothered with such fripperies as relegation release clauses. That meant we were saddled with a dangerously unsustainable wages-to-turnover ratio of 91 per cent – and yet we still invested in the playing squad that January. Mercifully the gamble paid off – if it hadn’t, who knows what state we’d now be in?
Perhaps we’ll find out soon enough. West Ham are currently trying to emulate us, having spent exuberant sums on all manner of players since their demotion, but Tuesday night’s win over Peterborough was their first for six games (Southampton and Reading having moved to secure the automatic promotion positions) and Sam Allardyce is being lambasted for the team’s playing style by the club’s own fans. Quite literally (and I mean that literally, rather than in the Jamie Redknapp sense of metaphorically), this could be a case of promotion or bust for the Hammers.