10 of football’s cruellest relegations ever: five-team play-offs, court cases... and a German Shepherd

Sheffield United relegated 2006/07

As the 2017/18 season draws to a close, Jon O’Brien looks back at the times when suffering the drop was even more painful than usual

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David James once said that relegation was “the single most traumatic experience you can have in a football career” (and that’s coming from a bloke who’s been managed by Alan Pardew).

We jest, of course. Some teams get used to the idea of going down – hopeless Derby were famously consigned to the drop in 2008 just 48 hours short of April Fool’s Day, while Joleon Lescott described confirmation of Aston Villa’s 2016 relegation as a “weight off the shoulders”. Naturally, that went down gloriously.

Others, meanwhile, are plunged into the pits of despair at a moment’s notice. It’s the hope that gets you...

10. Millwall (1995/96)

Few teams have slipped into a post-Christmas freefall as dramatically as First Division Millwall in 1995/96.

The Lions were sitting pretty at the top of the table in December before boss Mick McCarthy left to take the Republic of Ireland job. But replacement Jimmy Nicholl could only steer the club to four more victories, and by the final day they were needing a fifth just to avoid relegation.

Sadly for the Lions, they could only manage a goalless draw at home to Ipswich and sunk into the bottom three for the first time that season. Remarkably, they almost repeated their trick the following year when they nosedived from top in December to an eventual 14th.

9. Manchester City (1995/96)

Running down the clock is an age-old tactic – but generally not so popular for those desperately needing a winner to avoid relegation. Yet thanks to one almighty communication breakdown, that’s what Manchester City ended up doing to themselves in the 1995/96 Premier League season’s final throes.

Having clawed back a two-goal deficit against Liverpool, 18th-placed City (just behind Southampton and Coventry on goal difference) must have fancied their chances of survival – even more so when boss Alan Ball apparently heard his former side were losing.

Ball instructed City to waste time in the closing minutes, only for a substituted Niall Quinn to learn that the Saints were, in fact, still on level terms. Cue a half-dressed race down the tunnel to inform his team-mates that they needed a winner. They didn’t get it.

8. York City (1998/99)

York spent just seven minutes in the relegation zone during their 1998/99 Division Two campaign. Unfortunately for them, it just happened to be the last seven minutes of the season.

Despite hovering above the drop zone going into the final day, Neil Thompson’s men must have still felt relatively confident that they wouldn’t fall in. Both Wycombe and Oldham needed wins to leapfrog them, and a victory against play-off-bound Manchester City would have guaranteed survival regardless.

Instead, the nightmare scenario: York got battered 4-0, Oldham beat Reading 2-0 and Wycombe scored an 83rd-minute winner against Lincoln. The Minstermen went down – and haven’t returned to that level since.  

7. Bristol Rovers (2013/14)

Rovers not only had to suffer the agony of relegation from the Football League for the first time ever in 2014 – they were also beaten by a club sporting their very own strip.

A kit mishap meant that visitors Mansfield Town were forced to wear Rovers’ away shirt during their vital encounter at the Memorial Stadium. Going in, the Gas were two places and three points above the drop zone – meaning only a defeat for them plus wins for both Northampton and Wycombe would send them down.

But Mansfield were in no mood to return any generosity. After Colin Daniel scored a first-half volley, a desperate Rovers hit the woodwork three times but couldn’t find the equaliser. Sure enough, both Wycombe and Northampton won.  

An army of angry Gasheads invaded the pitch at full-time, having watched their club sink to its lowest point in over 90 years – at the hands of players wearing their own colours.

6. Birmingham City (2010/11)

Five teams battled it out on 2011’s Premier League Survival Sunday to avoid the final two relegation spots (bottom-placed West Ham’s fate was already sealed).

Inevitably, there were more twists and turns than inside Donald Trump’s head, as Wolves, Wigan, Blackburn, Blackpool and Birmingham continually swapped places in the table. With just three minutes to go, the Blues – League Cup winners only months earlier – looked to be heading for survival.

With just under 20 minutes remaining, all was rosy: Wolves were 3-0 down to Blackburn; Wigan level at Stoke; while Blackpool were en route to defeat at Old Trafford.

And then it all turned sour. Wigan grabbed a 78th-minute lead, sandwiching two Wolves goals which put Alex McLeish’s side in the bottom three on goals scored. Birmingham’s misery was compounded when they conceded a stoppage-time winner from Spurs’ Roman Pavlyuchenko, confirming their relegation with Blackpool.