Which is football’s greatest escape?

12 May

Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce


Sam Allardyce has kept Sunderland up after being appointed in October

Sunderland have done it again.

A season of struggle ultimately ending in relief, and another year of Premier League football to look forward to.

When Sam Allardyce was hired as manager in October, made some shrewd January signings and saw 15-goal striker Jermain Defoe find his shooting boots, there was almost an air of inevitability about the Black Cats staying up.

So, despite consigning rivals Newcastle to the Championship, Sunderland’s 2016 survival story is unlikely to go down in footballing legend.

That got us thinking – what is the greatest achievement when it comes to staying up?

There are plenty of contenders. This season alone, Neil Warnock’s Rotherham United revival stands out as an impressive feat – an 11-match unbeaten run guiding the club from the Championship relegation zone to nine points clear of danger. There are comparable tales almost every season, too.

And incomparable tales – a police dog called Bryn helped Torquay United to stay up 1987; Aberdeen avoided relegation from the Scottish Premier League in 2000 because Falkirk’s ground was not considered good enough to see them promoted; and Jimmy Glass – the goalkeeper’s last-minute winner keeping Carlisle in League Two in 1999.

But pouring over 127 years of records was quite a daunting task, so we kept to the recent past and looked at the top flight, where the prize for staying up is the most lucrative.

We considered the run-in for each club by taking the last 10 games of the season into account, looking at their results – and worked out a score based on who they played too.

Of course, it’s not an exact science, but here are our top contenders:

Bradford City 1999-00

Bradford City<!–

The Bantams were bouncing after a memorable final-day escape act

Run in: P10 W3 D1 L6 Pts 10

Position with 10 games left: 18th, two points from safety

Final position: 17th – they stayed up by three points

Average position of teams faced: 11th, including eventual champions Manchester United

The Bantams’ end to the season doesn’t look anything special at first – their last 10 games saw five successive defeats to Coventry, Manchester United, Newcastle United, Southampton and Everton, leaving them six points from safety with five to go.

Their 10 points came in their last five games – including a final day win against Liverpool at Valley Parade. Cue celebrations.

West Bromwich Albion 2004-05

West Brom<!–

Bryan Robson’s men somehow remained in the top flight despite terrible form in the run-in

Run in: P10 W3 D2 L3 Pts 11

Position with 10 games left: 19th, five points from safety

Final position: 17th – they stayed up by one point

Average position of teams faced: 8th, including all the top four

The first team in Premier League history to survive after being bottom at Christmas. Bryan Robson’s team were supposedly doomed but managed to stay up despite a final-day win over Portsmouth being their only victory in their last seven games.

They managed a win and a draw against two of the eventual top four (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton) they played in the run-in as well. Portsmouth fans at the Hawthorns also celebrated at the end of the game as the Baggies’ win meant their south-coast rivals Southampton dropped out of the division.

Fulham 2007-08

Fulham<!–

Fulham’s Jimmy Bullard embraces Danny Murphy, whose headed winner against Portsmouth ensured the club’s Premier League status

Run in: P10 W5 D2 L3 Pts 17

Position with 10 games left: 19th – six points from safety

Final position: 17th – stayed up by +3 goal difference over Reading

Average position of teams faced: 12th – they lost to Liverpool, the only top-four side faced in the run-in.

Fulham’s tale is similar to Bradford’s survival story – in that they were still six points from safety with five games to go. Roy Hodgson, who had replaced Lawrie Sanchez in December, inspired his side to three wins in their final three games – including a dramatic 3-2 victory at Manchester City. A final day win at Portsmouth secured their status, but only on goal difference.

Oldham 1992-93

Oldham Athletic<!–

Oldham survived by the skin of their teeth in May 1993

Run in: P10 W5 D3 L2 Pts 18

Position with 10 games left: 22nd (bottom, and three points from safety)

Final position: 19th – stayed up on goal difference (+2 better than Crystal Palace, who lost 3-0 at Arsenal)

Average position of teams faced: 10th

Paul Scholes’ favourite club stayed up by the skin of their teeth in the Premier League’s inaugural season, largely thanks to three wins in their last three matches. That included a victory at title-chasing Aston Villa, as well as beating sixth-placed Liverpool in the penultimate game of the campaign.

Only champions Manchester United and a fourth-placed Blackburn Rovers side with Alan Shearer up front scored more goals than Oldham that season.

Southampton 1996-97

Graeme Souness<!–

Graeme Souness kept the Saints in the top despite the calamitous mistake over Ali Dia

Run in: P10 W4 D3 L3 Pts 18

Position with 10 games left: 19th (three points from safety)

Final position: 16th – stayed up by two points

Average position of teams faced: 12th

Facing six sides in the bottom half of the table certainly helped the Graeme Souness-led Saints to survive in those final 10 games. The signing of Ali Dia did not.

After losing to top-six sides Arsenal and Chelsea, Southampton went on a seven-match unbeaten run that ensured they only needed a draw in their last game to stay up. They lost, but stayed up all the same as other results went their way.

Portsmouth 2005-06

Harry Redknapp and the Portsmouth team<!–

Harry Redknapp (left) worked his magic with the Pompey team

Run in: P10 W6 D2 L2 Pts 20

Position with 10 games left: 19th (eight points from safety)

Final position: 17th – stayed up by four points

Average position of teams faced: 11th

When Alain Perrin was sacked mid-season, Portsmouth enticed ex-boss Harry Redknapp back to the club from neighbours Southampton. It looked like a poisoned chalice, with the struggling side firmly in the relegation zone.

But end-of-season Champions League form saw Pompey turn an eight-point gap into a healthy four-point cushion over 10 games, with survival confirmed before a final-day loss at home to third-placed Liverpool.

West Ham United 2006-07

West Ham<!–

Carlos Tevez – during his brief stay at West Ham – scored the crucial winner at Old Trafford

Run in: P10 W7 D0 L3 Pts 21

Position with 10 games left: 20th (10 points from safety)

Final position: 15th – stayed up with a three-point gap

Average position of teams faced: 8th

If you thought Portsmouth’s late run was impressive, the Hammers overcame an even bigger gap with seven wins from their last 10 games. They even played five of the top six in that run.

But the should they have stayed up? Carlos Tevez scored the only goal in the final-day win at title-winners Manchester United which confirmed survival, but the Argentina international nearly saw the club sent packing to the Championship in one of the Premier League’s most controversial episodes.

The signings of both Tevez and compatriot Javier Mascherano had breached third-party ownership rules, leading to the threat of a points deduction as punishment. As it was, the Premier League stopped short of this measure, fining the club £5.5m.

The other relegated clubs were less than pleased, though. Sheffield United took the matter to a tribunal which resulted in the London club paying £20m in compensation to the Blades.

Wigan Athletic 2011-12

Wigan Athletic<!–

Franco di Santo scored in the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle

Run in: P10 W7 D1 L2 Pts 22

Position with 10 games left: 20th – one point from safety

Final position: 15th- stayed up by seven points

Average position of teams faced: 10th

Wigan’s remarkable run-in included wins at Arsenal and at home to title-chasing Manchester United, a 4-0 hammering of a Newcastle United side that had hoped to secure Champions League football and only a last-minute winner stopped them getting a point at Chelsea.

Had they not faced the bottom two clubs in their last two games – by which point they were already safe – the average position of the teams faced in their run in would have been seventh. It was all in stark contrast to a side that had conceded three or more goals 10 times up to that point.

Leicester City 2014-15

Nigel Pearson<!–

The Foxes boss Nigel Pearson embraces one of his trusted lieutenants Robert Huth

Run in: P10 W7 D1 L2 Pts 22

Position with 10 games left: 20th – seven points off safety

Final position: 14th – six points from the relegation zone

Average position of teams faced: 12th

After spending four and a half months propping up the Premier League table, struggling Leicester were dead and buried as far as most pundits were concerned. True, they had played well for much of the season but lacked the real quality to turn performances into points, it was said.

Seven wins from their last nine turned that theory on its head, as the supposedly doomed club landed practically in mid-table.

They were, though, helped by the fact most games were against other clubs in the bottom half of the table.

Maybe that’s why they remained most people’s tip for relegation the following year…

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