Most painful relegations
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 man who’s been coached by Alan Pardew.
Some teams get used to the idea of going down – in 2008, hopeless Derby were consigned to the drop 48 hours before April Fool’s Day, and eight years later Joleon Lescott described confirmation of Aston Villa’s relegation as a “weight off the shoulders”. Naturally, that went down well around Villa Park.
In this slideshow, we pick out 10 of football’s cruellest ever relegations.
10. Millwall (1995-96)
The Lions had been sitting pretty atop the second-tier table in December 1995, but were already sliding by the time boss Mick McCarthy took the Republic of Ireland job in February. Replacement Jimmy Nicholl couldn't stop the rot: after Armistice Day the Lions only managed four wins, and by the final day they needed a fifth to ensure their safety.
Sadly for Millwall, they could only manage a goalless draw at home to Ipswich and duly sank into the bottom three for the first time that season. Remarkably, they almost repeated the trick the following campaign when they nosedived from top in December to an eventual 14th.
9. Manchester City (1995-96)
It's the sort of tragicomic tall tale that used to make people say "Only at City..." Thanks to one almighty communication breakdown, Alan Ball's team purposefully wasted time when they needed a goal to avoid relegation from the top flight.
On the last day, City were only below the dots on goal difference from Coventry and Southampton. Having clawed back a two-goal deficit against Liverpool, 18th-placed City must have fancied their chances of survival – even more so when Ball apparently heard Saints were losing at home to Wimbledon.
Ball instructed City to run down the clock, only for a substituted Niall Quinn to learn that Saints were, in fact, still level. Cue a half-dressed race down the tunnel to inform his teammates they needed a winner. They didn’t get it.
8. York City (1998-99)
York spent just seven minutes in the bottom three during their 1998-99 third-tier campaign. Unfortunately for them, it happened to be the final seven minutes of the season.
Despite hovering above the drop zone going into the final day, Neil Thompson’s side must have still been relatively confident they wouldn’t fall through the trapdoor. Both Wycombe and Oldham needed victories to leapfrog them, and York could guarantee survival anyway by beating Manchester City, who were locked into the play-offs.
Instead, the nightmare scenario unfolded in front of their eyes: York got battered 4-0, Oldham beat Reading 2-0 and Wycombe grabbed a 83rd-minute winner against Lincoln.
7. Bristol Rovers (2013-14)
Bristol 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 visitors Mansfield 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 loss for them plus victories for Northampton and Wycombe would send them down.
But Mansfield were in no mood to return any generosity. After Colin Daniel put the Stags ahead in the first half, a desperate Rovers hit the woodwork three times but couldn’t find the equaliser. Sure enough, both Wycombe and Northampton won.
6. Birmingham (2010-11)
With the title and top four sorted out, the Premier League spotlight turned to Survival Sunday as five sides vied to avoid the two remaining drop-spots. Wolves, Wigan, Blackburn, Blackpool and Birmingham continually swapped places in the table, but at 5.45pm, the Blues were safe.
But then Wolves pulled a goal back at home to Blackburn; they were still losing 3-2, but that result would keep both teams up unless Birmingham, nervously defending a 1-1 scoreline at Spurs, could suddenly bag a winner. It took a while for Alex McLeish to tell his players they suddenly needed a goal - and as they poured forward Roman Pavlyuchenko scored an injury-time winner, thus confirming their relegation with Blackpool.
5. Lincoln (1986-87)
A future World Cup hero, an unwanted historic milestone and a toothy German Shepherd all played an integral part in this bonkers final-day Division Four drama in 1986-87.
Lincoln looked to have avoided the ignominy of becoming the first team ever to be automatically demoted to the Conference when rivals Torquay went 2-0 down at home to a Crewe outfit starring David Platt. But they didn’t bank on the tenacity of Jim McNichol.
After grabbing one back for Gillingham, McNichol raced upfield in search of a second, only to be attacked by a police dog who left him requiring 17 stitches. It was in the resulting five minutes of stoppage time that Torquay managed to draw level and push Lincoln into the record books.
4. Doncaster (2013-14)
Seventeenth-placed Doncaster must have felt reasonably positive about their Championship status with 16 minutes of the 2013-14 campaign left to play. Rovers were drawing with league champions Leicester, while the team directly below them, Birmingham, were trailing Bolton 1-0 – thus requiring a three-goal swing in just over quarter of an hour.
Despite the Foxes converting a penalty soon after, another Bolton goal soon extinguished any panic. Or at least it should have: Birmingham pulled one back with 12 minutes to go, then struck a 93rd-minute winner to save their own skin and consign poor Doncaster to the third division.
3. Peterborough (2012-13)
Peterborough had spent most of their 2012-13 Championship season staring demotion in the face, but five victories from their last 12 games meant they went into the final day above the drop zone on goal difference. Leading play-off-bound Crystal Palace 2-1 with just nine minutes left, Posh looked set to climb above Millwall (losing at Derby) and Huddersfield (trailing to Barnsley) into a 19th-place finish.
But then everything went wrong. Huddersfield and Palace both scored equalisers in quick succession, leaving Peterborough in the precarious position of 21st. Darren Ferguson’s side then leaked an 89th-minute Mile Jedinak header at Selhurst Park and slipped below the dreaded dotted line. They were relegated on 54 points, just 14 fewer than play-off qualifiers Leicester.
2. Sheffield United (2006-07)
Neil Warnock’s charges only needed a point from their drop-dodging battle with fellow strugglers Wigan, who lay three points beneath them. But even a loss wouldn’t be the end of the world, considering a Blades relegation would also require West Ham to win at Old Trafford.
However, having already lifted their ninth Premier League title, a relaxed Manchester United allowed the Carlos Tevez-inspired Hammers victory. Many believed the fiery Argentinian shouldn’t have been on the pitch following the rule-breaching transfer scandal that earned West Ham a hefty fine but, ultimately, no points deduction. A furious Sheffield United appealed, but after an agonising two-month wait their relegation was confirmed. They haven't been back in the top flight since.
1. Real Betis (2008-09)
On La Liga's own Survival Sunday in 2009, five clubs battled to avoid the final relegation place. By the day’s end, Sporting Gijon, Osasuna, Real Valladolid, Getafe and Real Betis were separated by a single point – but it was the latter who’d been sent down to the Segunda by just one goal.
Nearly every team entered the drop zone throughout the evening, so when Betis – who were drawing against Valladolid – did so just after the hour mark, they could have assumed it wouldn’t be for long.
Just a goal in their favour in any of the four relevant games would have lifted them out of trouble. But the remaining 24 minutes came and went without any scoreline changes, and Betis were relegated with a goal difference of -7, just inferior to Getafe’s -6. Ouch.
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