Bramall Lane was surrounded by snow when West Brom arrived for their relegation battle against Sheffield United earlier this month. Two roads into Sheffield were closed because of the wintry conditions, with a third passable only with extreme care. On a night when the Premier League‘s bottom two teams were battling for survival, the sense of being isolated and cut adrift felt gloomily appropriate.
Sheffield United would win 2-1 to claim only their third league victory of the season in 22 games, but Chris Wilder’s team remained anchored to the foot of the table, one point behind Sam Allardyce’s side. Both would lose their next game, against Chelsea and Tottenham, respectively, and they go into this weekend’s fixtures — United travel to West Ham and West Brom host Manchester United — 12 and 11 points, respectively, from safety.
Both teams have been largely written off and dismissed as no-hopers in the battle to avoid relegation: Sheffield United even recorded the worst start in top-flight history, a mark that dated to the first-ever league season in 1888. But while the Premier League’s bottom two are clearly running out of time to escape the drop zone, history shows that all is not lost as several teams before them have somehow found their way out of trouble.
Search out “Premier League Great Escapes” and you will find barely believable stories of survival by the likes of Oldham Athletic (1992-93), West Brom (2004-05), Leicester City (2014-15) and Sunderland (2015-16). When Oldham survived in 1993, the PL TV deal was worth a collective £304 million over five seasons, so relegation wasn’t the financial blow it is today.
In 2020, bottom club Norwich earned £94.5m from the broadcast deal, and they will still bank parachute payments for the next three years — worth 55%, 45% and 20% of their Premier League earnings — but the loss of revenue is huge and potentially disastrous. Many clubs, like Oldham, Barnsley, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth, have never regained their Premier League status after relegation.
If Sheffield United survive, it will perhaps be the most remarkable escape act of all. After finishing ninth in the Premier League last season, they opened 2020-21 with just two draws and 15 defeats, finally getting their first league win against Newcastle on Jan. 12. Since then, they have won at Old Trafford and beaten West Brom, fueling belief that they can pull this off.
“It’s been a stop-start season for us,” manager Wilder said. “From a points total, it’s a situation we are really disappointed about, but I have seen over the last two or three weeks a little bit of a change in us. We are getting our identity back a little.”
As for West Brom boss Allardyce, this is not his first rodeo. Allardyce has never been relegated from the Premier League, and successfully kept Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Everton in the division in recent years having been hired mid-season to get each club out of trouble. But he may have met his match at The Hawthorns despite the occasional good result — like away draws at Man City and Liverpool in December, and an away win at Wolves in mid-January.
“If I’m still in the race with three games to go, I’ll be absolutely delighted,” Allardyce said. “Because believe me, that’s how long it’ll take us to catch up.
“To get safe at Sunderland, I only lost one of the last 11. At Palace, it was not quite as good as that, but we had some massive wins along the way. We were getting three points where no one expected us to get anything and that made the difference. That’s what we have to do now.”
Bryan Robson is credited by many as having masterminded the Premier League’s greatest “Great Escape.” The former Manchester United and England captain arrived at West Brom in November 2004, with the club having won just once in 12 games. On Christmas Day, they were bottom of the table, five points adrift of safety.
No Premier League team had ever avoided relegation having been bottom at Christmas, so West Brom looked to be doomed, but a combination of good fortune with injuries, a trip to Disney World and some final-day help from Al Pacino helped Robson’s team survive.
“Until that season, the trend was for the bottom team at Christmas to be relegated, but we broke that,” Robson told ESPN. “Lots of factors were behind our survival — I was able to bring in [striker] Kevin Campbell and [winger] Kieran Richardson in January and they were hugely influential, while we didn’t pick up any injuries from February onwards, so it allowed us to work as a group consistently on the training pitch.
“But for me, the turning point was a 1-1 draw at Man City at the end of December. We didn’t get a kick that day and should have lost, but Richard Dunne scored an own goal with five minutes to go and it meant we ended a run of five straight defeats. It was a big moment for morale.”
It was a February trip to Orlando, however, that Robson credits with forging the bond within the squad that propelled them to safety.
“Team bonding is a big thing for every squad, especially when you’re fighting relegation, and I wanted the lads to have a break, get some sun and build their camaraderie,” Robson said. “But rather than do the usual thing of taking them to Spain or Portugal, we went to Disney. We trained hard in the morning and then allowed the players to go to the theme parks in the afternoon. They would go on all the roller-coasters and then come back in the evening.
“Over dinner, you could see the spirit building with players laughing about the lads who were screaming on the rides. It was a great trip for us and we came back, won 17 points from our final 12 games and stayed up.”
Despite their resurgence, West Brom went into the final day of the season at the bottom of the table, needing all three teams above them to fail to win. Bottom at Christmas and bottom on the final day, their 2-0 win against Portsmouth sealed survival, with a little inspiration from Al Pacino.
“I told my assistant, Nigel Pearson, and fitness coach, Richard Hawkins, to put something together to motivate the players before the game,” Robson said. “So they produced a montage of clips of the highlights of the season accompanied by music and the ‘Inch by Inch’ speech by Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday.’ They did a brilliant job with it. It was perfect because it focused the minds of the players and motivated them just before they went out and got the win.”
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Motivational speeches and team-bonding exercises are often used by managers during difficult stages of the season, but former Sheffield United midfielder Jamie Hoyland recalls a stunt by manager Dave “Harry” Bassett, before a ball had been kicked, which was designed to stave off a relegation battle before it even began.
“It was three days before the start of the first Premier League season, in 1992-93, and Harry called all the players down to Bramall Lane with our wives and girlfriends because we were having a Christmas party,” Hoyland told ESPN.
“It was August and it was absolutely boiling, but we turned up for a Christmas meal — turkey, Christmas pudding, alcohol, the lot — and ended up singing Christmas carols and having food fights. [Bassett] had decided that because we’d started the previous season so badly and struggled until Christmas — we were second bottom at the start of December — we should pretend it was Christmas rather than the start of the season.
“It was all a bit crazy, but you can’t say it didn’t work. We beat Man United on the opening day and finished 14th, so I suppose there was a method in his madness!”
Of course, there is no shortcut to staying up other than winning games. But those involved in successful relegation scraps point to two crucial elements in terms of getting those results: a trusted manager and a unified squad.
When Leicester City avoided relegation in 2015 — a year before they remarkably won the title — they collected 22 points from a possible 27 to stay up, having been seven points adrift with nine games to play, and it was down to manager Nigel Pearson having the respect of his players.
“Nigel Pearson had built a very close dressing room,” former Leicester defender Danny Simpson said. “What Nigel and his staff had built up behind the scenes played a big part in the club winning the Premier League a year later.”
The defining image of Leicester’s survival campaign was when Pearson accused a journalist of being “an ostrich with your head in the sand” during a postmatch news conference. But speaking to the Daily Telegraph in 2017, Pearson admitted that it was all about protecting his players from outside criticism.
“I’ve been in a few tangles in my time, for sure,” Pearson said. “A lot of them have been of my own making because of how I feel I need to protect the people I’m working with — that’s the players. I can’t do anything about that [the ostrich exchange], so there’s no point in me worrying about it. And if that is how people remember me, then I’ve probably not done very much in the game, have I?”
Andy Ritchie, who helped Oldham win their final three games of the 1992-93 season to avoid the drop, recalls manager Joe Royle shielding his players from relegation pressure to keep the mood light within the squad.
“Joe made sure we kept the same routine, did nothing differently and maintained a sense of normality to keep the pressure off,” Ritchie said. “We had a really tight-knit group of players. He told us it was in our own hands and that we could do it and we actually went through it all with very little feeling of being under pressure.”
Oldham’s escape was astonishing considering their fixtures at the end of that season. In the space of six days, they had to win at title-chasing Aston Villa (Oldham won 1-0 and the result confirmed Sir Alex Ferguson’s first league title at Manchester United), at home to Liverpool and then against Southampton at the same time as hoping for a Crystal Palace defeat.
“Staying up was down to the manager and the bond among the [squad]. A year later, we lost two or three players, I was injured for eight months and we were relegated, because the ingredients we had 12 months earlier weren’t quite the same.”
Hoyland, who spent four seasons in the Premier League with Sheffield United before relegation in 1994, believes that player togetherness as well as accountability are crucial.
“We were a real band of brothers at the time and that spirit kept us in the top division,” he said. “Back then, most of the players lived in Sheffield, socialised together and we were accessible to the fans. We would have our lunch at the social club at Bramall Lane and it was open to the public, so the fans would eat with us too. We’d get back from training and they would be there, playing pool and telling us we were ‘f—— s—‘ after a defeat. It doesn’t sound the nicest thing in the world, and it wasn’t, but that kind of connection helps knit you all together and makes players remember who they are playing for and why it matters.”
Despite their perilous positions, Sheffield United and West Brom can still escape relegation. United have 45 possible points to play for, West Brom can still amass another 42. Sheffield United’s fate could be decided in their final two games, at Newcastle and at home to Burnley, while West Brom face a crucial three-game run, against Burnley (away), Brighton (home) and Newcastle (home) immediately after their clash against United this Sunday.
Sheffield United are also making a deep run in the FA Cup, reaching the quarterfinals with a 1-0 win over Bristol City on Wednesday, though it may not be a positive. Wigan (2012-13) and Middlesbrough (1996-97) were relegated after reaching the final — Wigan famously beat Man City in the final that year — while Oldham were relegated in 1994 after making it to the semis. More games can mean more injuries and tired legs and minds.
Recent wins by Brighton, Newcastle and Burnley — the three teams closest to the drop zone — have also made the task much harder for Wilder and Allardyce, but they remain hopeful.
“The run we have had, against the three form teams in the division, Man United, Man City and Chelsea, we have been very competitive in all three games,” Wilder said. “It’s unforgiving in this division, but we are glad to see the back of the likes of Chelsea and get to grips with our fixture list from here on in.
“There’s a feeling that the players can win games in this division, in terms of their attitude towards it. Now we have to concentrate on the next 15 games, and I do believe we can win games from what I’ve seen over the last three or four weeks. We can get something out of those games that will make it interesting and competitive.”
Allardyce has yet to inspire a revival since succeeding Slaven Bilic as West Brom manager in December, guiding his new team to just one win in 10 league games. But all is not lost in the eyes of the 66-year-old. The formula is simple.
“If the players look at the table then they’re silly,” Allardyce said. “It’s 38 points — that’s what we need. You can’t keep asking Newcastle or Brighton or Fulham or Burnley to do it for us, you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s that simple. The quickest team to 38 points in the bottom eight will be the quickest team to be saved.”
So the road map is clear: win as often as possible and don’t look down, because the relegation roller-coaster still has plenty of twists, turns and lurches to come in the weeks ahead.