Even England’s footballing giants have found themselves at the wrong end of the table
English football has many venerable institutions, clubs that sit atop the heap, only shifting enough to slightly jostle each other around. For fans of a certain generation, the idea that these modern day football powerhouses, clubs firmly rooted on foundations of cash, could ever be battling relegation—let alone actually be relegated—is beyond the realm of fantasy.
But football is a fickle mistress, and there was a time, before the billions in foreign investment and global marketing plans, when, instead of mid-table mediocrity or a season in the Europa League, fears of relegation were real. With the Premier League hitting the business end of the season, we look back at the last time the big boys were unceremoniously shown the door from the top flight.
The early ’70s saw the breakup of the United Trinity with Bobby Charlton retiring in 1972, George Best joining him in 1973, and Denis Law leaving on a free transfer to crosstown rivals Manchester City before the ’73-74 season began.
Law’s move would come back to haunt United’s new manager, and fellow scotsman, Tommy Docherty, who assumed power in 1972. Docherty had arrived to save the club from relegation at the end of in 1973, but he and the the Red Devils would not be so lucky the next year. A mixed start to the campaign snowballed into a rotten run of form culminating in the penultimate game of the season, a Manchester derby that saw Law’s first return to Old Trafford since joining the Citizens.
And what a return it was. An infamous back heeled goal. No celebration. Denis Law, in City blue, scored the lone goal that heralded Manchester United’s doom. Supporters launched a pitch invasion in the hope of getting the match called off, and thus requiring a replay, but the FA let the result stand. The decision sealed United’s Second Division status. Law maintains to this day he regrets the goal.
Since 2003, Chelsea have been painted as the pantomime villains of the Premier League: A Roman Abramovich-funded monster with a Terminator-esque determination to win. And for good reason: Chelsea’s elite squad has scooped up copious amounts of silverware, their supporters crowing as history is made before them.
The 1980s were a decidedly less exciting time for the Blues. The early part of the decade saw a failed attempt to redevelop Stamford Bridge, relegation to the Second Division, a further drop to the Third Division, and the sale of the club for $1. But Chelsea made it back to the top flight in 1984 and managed a few mid-table finishes before the 1987-88 season began.
An inconsistent start to the season reached catastrophic levels on October 31 after a 2-1 win against Oxford United. How could a win be the start of a catastrophe? It would begin a run of games where Chelsea failed to win a league match until April 9. In opposition to today’s Chelsea, the ’87-88 squad could not grind out games. Of that wretched run of form, there were 14 draws, including a 3-3 draw against Coventry City and a 4-4 draw against Oxford United. There were four more games from April 9 to the end of the season and one more win would have seen Chelsea to safety. They drew three games and lost 1-4 away to West Ham on the penultimate day of the season—but their fate was still not certain.
From 1986 to 1988, the FA altered the playoff format for the Second Division. In those seasons, the three playoff teams would be joined by the 18th placed team from the First Division. Chelsea beat Blackburn Rovers in the first round of playoffs but were beaten over two legs by Middlesbrough and were consigned again to the Second Division.
More than any other newly-monied club, Manchester City seems to have the most trouble shaking the mentality and patterns that plagued the club in its pre-Etihad era. These days, labels like “mercenaries” and “prima donnas” are thrown at a highly talented squad that regularly cannot lift itself to even minor occasions. For most of the club’s history, the opposite problem was true: The Citizens tried valiantly to do their best and fell short through some combination of ineptitude, bad information, or simply bad luck. Or, as the sky blue faithful put it, “Typical City.”
The mid-’90s were a dark time for City. Squad turnover and the proverbial manager merry-go-round saw instability reign. Near the end of the decade, the Citizens eventually sunk into Division Two. The beginning of this decline was the 95-96 season, and, much like any other club in transition, there were old players being shipped out to make room for promising youngsters. The team sheet included ’90s nostalgia hits like Uwe Rosler, Nigel Clough, and Niall Quinn. New manager Alan Ball proclaimed that his position was the “envy of millions,” and was excited by the challenge of reforming the City squad—but the terraces of Maine Road would soon be full of a different emotion.
The season was bleak from the start, an opening day draw followed by eight straight losses. It was early November before they claimed a win. Eight more wins sprinkled throughout the season kept a faint hope alive that City might avoid relegation. All they needed to do on the final day was to better the results of either Southampton or Coventry City, the three all being level on points, and City were safe.
At home to Liverpool, City went down two goals before battling back to level through a Rosler penalty and a goal from Kit Symons. At this point, someone informed Alan Ball that Coventry City were losing their match and his order from the touchline was to hold onto the draw and run the clock. The players complied, dutifully taking the ball into the corner, dawdling over throw ins, and performing the usual time-wasting theatrics. Things were looking great until Niall Quinn, who had been substituted, raced out from dressing room where he had checked the scores of other games, he was screaming that Ball had the wrong information and in fact both Southampton and Coventry City were drawing 0-0. City launched a last-minute scramble for a goal, but it was too late. Thanks to inferior goal difference—and information—the Citizens were going down.
Arsenal fans love to say that their club has never been relegated. But that’s simply not true. It happened only once, over a century ago (102 years ago to be precise), but it did still happen. Arsenal were relegated to the second division after managing only three wins and a paltry 24 goals for the season.
The Gunners’ time in the Second Division proved to be one of the most significant periods in the club’s history, as Sir Henry Norris took over and decided that his new club might find better fortunes in North London rather than their South London stomping grounds. The move was completed in 1915 but football was put on hold for the duration of World War I. After the end of the war, Norris used his considerable means (some allegedly unsavory) to ensure that Arsenal was elected to the post-war First Division, taking the place of their new neighbors Tottenham Hotspur.