The 11 most miraculous relegation escapes in English football
"It's my most calamitous day at Manchester City," admitted ex-Sky Blues player Dennis Tueart, after seeing his team relegated to Division Two on the final day of the 1982/83 season following a 1-0 home defeat to Luton Town. "Maine Road was like a mausoleum, and the players were silent afterwards."
City's loss was newly promoted Luton's gain. Before their dramatic showdown, the mathematics were simple: win or draw, and favourites City were safe.
Lose to the visitors, and they'd go down while David Pleat's team would survive. A tense and nervous encounter, City were unsure whether to grind out a point or kill off the Hatters. They did neither. With five minutes remaining, Luton's Yugoslav substitute Raddy Antic drove the ball home through a crowd of City players, and John Benson’s team were sunk. "I think we're going down," admitted comedian Eddie Large, sat in the City dugout. He was right, and bemused Match of the Day viewers watched David Pleat's celebratory jig across the Maine Road turf in his natty early ‘80s beige suit.
During their 32-year residency in the top flight, Coventry had close shaves with relegation in both 1977 and 1997, but arguably their greatest escapology act came in 1985: the Sky Blues needed to win their final three games to stay up at the expense of Milk Cup winners Norwich, who had wrapped up their season with victory against Chelsea and sat eight points ahead.
Single-goal wins against long-since-relegated Stoke and another at mid-table Luton brought them to within two points of the Canaries, but surely City's luck would end at Highfield Road against champions Everton. Remarkably, goals by Micky Adams, Terry Gibson and a double from Cyrille Regis steered City to a 4-1 win in front of a delirious Highfield Road crowd against the over-relaxed Toffees. Norwich, who sank like a stone after their Wembley victory, went down. Coventry survived by a point.
Trailing 2-1 to Crewe with only minutes remaining of their final game, Torquay were heading out of the Football League and – according to their chairman – into “financial oblivion”.
At that point, fate intervened in the most unexpected of ways, when a police dog named Bryn ripped a chunk of flesh out of Jim McNichol’s thigh – for which the Torquay defender required 17 stitches.
The game was held up for four minutes, “but it gave my team-mates time to regroup and reorganise themselves,” explained McNichol. With the referee about to blow his whistle, Torquay equalised – in the fourth minute of injury time – and saved themselves. McNichol missed the post-match party “because I was having tetanus checks,” but he was later reunited with Bryn for some nauseating press pics.
On the final day of the 1993/94 campaign, the last relegation place was between Everton, Ipswich, Sheffield United and Oldham. For 81 minutes Everton, who’d trailed visitors Wimbledon 2-0 at Goodison Park at one stage, were down and out. “We couldn’t move due to our nerves for most of the game,” admitted the Toffees’ Barry Horne, whose equaliser gave Everton hope late in the second half.
But as soon as the Toffees drew level, Sheffield United - leading Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge - got jittery. A draw would have kept the Blades up, but instead they pushed forward for a winner their bench (wrongly) informed the players they needed. Mark Stein scored a Chelsea winner late in injury time and at Goodison Park, Graeme Stuart made it 3-2 to the hosts in one of the most bizarre games ever played. Everton survived. The Blades paid the ultimate penalty.