When Sam Allardyce finally lost his oft-quoted record of never being relegated from the Premier League there were quite a few people revelling in a spot of Schadenfreude. The memory of his grubby dethronement as England boss allied with his uncompromising and prickly persona combined to make him one of the least likeable managers. Earlier in his career when in charge of Bolton he often rubbed Arsene Wenger up the wrong way so there was an element of poetic justice when his West Brom side lost to Arsenal on Sunday to confirm their return to the Championship. The biter well and truly bit.
Allardyce’s failure, after taking over from Slaven Bilic in December, was one of the few surprises at the bottom of the table. Sheffield United have been destined for the drop since setting the record for the most games without a win from the start of the season. The Blades were winless in their first seventeen matches before beating Newcastle in January by which time they were already doomed. And despite the odd good result and smattering of half-decent form both West Brom and Fulham have been favourites to join the Blades since the turn of the year. When Fulham lost to Burnley on Monday night all the relegation issues had been resolved with three games still remaining – the earliest in Premier League history.
Considering one of the main issues with the dreaded European Super League was that there was no room for relegation it is ironic that the tension of the scrap for survival is absent this year. With that sense of jeopardy missing, this season’s conclusion will be a little lifeless and flat. Some of the most captivating and exciting season finales have involved clubs scrambling to avoid the drop as clubs perform great escapes while others get dragged into the mire when least expected.
Perhaps the most well-known ending involved West Brom back in 2004/05. Bryan Robson took over as manager in November but his side were written off after being bottom of the table at Christmas. No club had survived being at the foot of the Premier League table at that juncture and a 5-0 loss at home to Liverpool on Boxing Day seemed to confirm that the Baggies’ descent was only a matter of time.
Despite still occupying 20th position as the last day of the season approached there was a semblance of hope for West Brom as three other clubs – Palace, Norwich and Southampton – were also battling for survival. Norwich held the upper hand as they started the day outside the relegation zone and knew that if they won their match at Fulham they were safe. The Canaries threw away this advantage and having been 2-0 down at half-time, they collapsed to a 6-0 defeat that left the door very much ajar for the other three.
Southampton took the initiative by taking the lead at home to Manchester United early on but that did not last long as United equalised soon afterwards; the Saints were still in pole position at half-time as Palace were losing at Charlton and West Brom were drawing at home to Portsmouth. Matters changed around the hour mark as both Palace and West Brom scored just before United took the lead, which meant that West Brom were now safe in seventeenth place. That position of security did not last long with Andy Johnson’s 21st goal of the season nudging Palace ahead of the pack so despite West Brom doubling their lead they were relying on Palace slipping up.
Assuming Southampton were not going to turn it around against United, entering the last ten minutes of the season it was down to a straight dog fight between Palace and West Brom. In the 82nd minute Charlton’s equaliser landed the killer blow and against all expectations it was West Brom who made it. The Hawthorns celebrated with giddy gusto and Robson was understandably exultant in the aftermath of their escape – “This is the best ever. It is a fantastic feeling.” Meanwhile Palace fans had to endure the taunts of their south London rivals who took great pleasure in their relegation. It was christened ‘Survival Sunday’ and undoubtedly lived up to its name.
There will be nothing approaching that this season and apart from last season, when Villa’s draw at West Ham on the final day ensured they finished just one point ahead of Bournemouth and Watford, relegation has not gone down to the wire since 2012/13. By contrast, in the first twenty Premier League seasons there were sixteen occasions when there was still something riding on the final game as far as relegation was concerned.
The loss of jeopardy at both ends of the table, with Man City’s inevitable title finally handed to them by United’s loss to Leicester, leaves the battle for Champions League or Europa League places as the only remotely meaningful competitive element. While that is important to the few clubs involved it does not exactly set neutrals’ pulses racing, which means that this strangest of seasons will fizzle out rather than reach a thrilling climax. Allardyce will not be the only one regretting the lack of a dramatic denouement.