Down at the bottom of the Premier League, things are getting tense. Six points is all that separates Cardiff City in 20th from Hull City in 10th. Ordinarily, a side in 20th would be languishing, beyond all hope, while 10th would be a position of relative comfort, two-thirds through the season. As mid-table as it gets. But not when there are only six points in it.
Six is an important number of points. It's two wins. And two wins is the work of a single and solitary week, if fortune be kind and the fixture list allow it. So what we've got isn't just your standard relegation battle, with four or five candidates. We've something bigger. Something better. Something far more entertaining.
We've got a mess.
In the spirit of investigation, therefore, let's look back at the history books. Let's look at other messes that the English top flight has enjoyed and see what, if anything, they can tell us about this season. Then, at the end, we'll work out who will go down, head to the bookies, and make a killing. Deal? Deal.
Some notes on method: We're only looking at seasons where three points have been awarded for a win, for obvious reasons. Additionally, not every season progresses as neatly as this one, and tables where all of the teams down the bottom have played exactly 22 games are quite rare. So there's a bit of approximation involved, for which apologies; this isn't science. Finally, the English top-flight contained 22 teams for a while. So bear that in mind.
1986/87: Six points, 13th-22nd, 28 December 1986
Eventually relegated: Leicester City (20th, 42 points), Manchester City (21st, 39), Aston Villa (22nd, 36). 19th place Charlton Athletic stayed up after beating two second-division teams, first Oldham Athletic, then Leeds United over three legs, in a play-off system that was swiftly abandoned.
Chelsea! Manchester City! Manchester United! In relegation trouble! Man, things were weird back then. This was actually something of a seismic season for English football. Everton won their last title, and the eventual top four were drawn exclusively from Liverpool and north London. Manchester United, seen here in fifteenth, had been as low as twenty-first, a slump that precipitated the replacement of Ron Atkinson with Alex Ferguson. They finished eleventh. You know the rest.
But we're here for the relegation fun. Let's start with Newcastle, who spent more time on the bottom of the table than any other side, yet finished a full five points out of automatic bother.
Their survival was ensured by a remarkable run of results through April and May: of eleven games, they won seven and lost just once, away at the eventual champions. Having a team built around Peter Beardsley and a pre-lapsarian Paul Gascoigne helped, no doubt. Chelsea began their rally even earlier, winning nine of the 13 games immediately following Christmas, though their season was marked with clashes between manager John Hollins and prominent first-team members.
By contrast, the Cities of Leicester and Manchester were fatally flawed. As befits the kind of tight scrap we're talking about, both spent time threatening to escape, but neither could quite get their form together. Manchester City's problems came up front: no other team scored so few goals as their 36 for the season. Leicester, by contrast, outscored everybody in the bottom eight; sadly for them, they also out-conceded the entire league.
Except Aston Villa, that is. Five years past, they had lifted the European Cup; five years in the future they would finish second in the new, exciting, and shiny Premier League. But this season -- the trough between those two modern peaks -- began with six losses from seven games, as the remnants of that Europe-conquering team failed to gel with the emerging young players. The replacement of manager Graham Turner with Billy McNeill inspired only the briefest of bounces, and the table above is the last time they were out of the relegation places. Interestingly, McNeill had begun the season at Manchester City, and so achieved the rare distinction of managing two relegated clubs in the same season.
Lessons: Try to score goals. Try not to concede goals. Try not to have a squad composed of slightly-ageing good players and over-raw youngsters.
1996/97: Six points, 14th to 20th, 20 January 1997
* Middlesbrough docked three points after failing to fulfil a fixture.
Eventually relegated: Sunderland (18th, 40 pts), Middlesbrough (19th, 39 pts), Nottingham Forest (20th, 34 pts)
The first thing that careful observers will note is that one of the relegated sides, Sunderland, aren't in the table above. At this stage of the season, in fact, Sunderland were sitting in a relatively comfortable 12th place, as many points from Wimbledon in 5th as they were Middlesbrough in 20th. Then: collapse. Six points from twelve games saw them drop from 12th to 18th, a plummet that was helpfully captured in the BBC documentary series Premier Passions. It's all on Youtube, but in essence, the club couldn't find a striker -- they scored only 35 goals all season -- and Peter Reid did an awful lot of swearing.
Going the other way -- out of trouble to safety -- were West Ham and Southampton, both of whom found just enough form to escape. The east Londoners won a couple of memorable derby games against Tottenham (4-3) and Chelsea (3-2) before ensuring safety by walloping Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 in early May. Southampton, meanwhile, dropped to 20th at the end of March, then didn't lose a game until the last day of the season, by which time safety was ensured.
This season's always going-down-side were Nottingham Forest, who are in truth slightly flattered by the table above. They won their first game of the season; they didn't win again until the eighteenth, by which time manager and club legend Frank Clark had gone, Stuart Pearce had been installed as player manager, and a bitter ownership battle was in full swing. Three wins at the turn of the year offered hope, but a ruinous sequence of draws eventually condemned them to last place. Unbeaten runs are overrated.
Which leaves only Middlesbrough, a flu epidemic, a failure to fulfil a fixture against Blackburn Rovers, and a three-point deduction that still rankles. According to Viv Anderson, then-assistant to Bryan Robson, the impression among the coaching staff was that the Premier League had indicated that the punishment would at worst amount to a fine, and that had they known points would be deducted they'd have found somebody to stand around in the shirts. But Tony Parkes, then coaching at Blackburn, recalled later that he'd phoned the Premier League and they'd been just as surprised as he was.
Extensive legal challenges followed, and failed, and the deduction stood. Assuming all else had remained equal -- a big assumption, yes -- those three points were the difference between 15th place and safety, and 19th place and relegation. That difference might also been overcome had they managed to win any of their last three games, which included the rearranged fixture. Though in some ways it's a shame that Blackburn didn't get the win; the world was denied its first genuine relegation six-pointer. Boro, who obviously couldn't get enough excitement this season, also lost both domestic cup finals.
Lessons: Try not to be horrendously destabilised by backroom shenanigans. Try to have a striker. And for God's sake try -- whatever the circumstances, whatever the assurances, whatever the problems -- to turn up to all your games.
1997/98: Six points, 14th to 20th, 11 January 1998
Eventually relegated: Bolton Wanderers (18th, 40 pts, below Everton on goal difference), Barnsley (19th, 35pts), Crystal Palace (20th, 33 pts)
Oh, Tottenham. This was the season of Christian Gross, who in short order succeeded Gerry Francis in November with Spurs just above the relegation zone, gave a disastrously hilarious press conference involving a Tube ticket, got relentlessly mocked as a misfit thereafter, actually got Tottenham up to 14th by the end of the season, albeit thanks in large part to the return of Jurgen Klinsmann, then found himself out of a job three games into the next. Alan Sugar, then-chairman, blamed the media for destroying the man; Ian Walker, then-goalkeeper, described him as the worst coach he had at the club. Spurs gonna Spurs.
Still, big team struggles a bit, changes manager, and then escapes isn't the most interesting of relegation plots, and in truth this season wasn't quite as intriguing as the tightness of the table above might suggest. Under-powered Barnsley were in the relegation zone after eight games and never escaped, while Crystal Palace are seen above at the beginning of a truly dreadful sequence second-half of the season: 19 games, 12 points. This included an eight-game losing streak that saw them slump to the bottom, and stay there.
Excitement came thanks to Bolton Wanderers. Having spent most of the winter looking thoroughly doomed, they bloomed like crocuses as soon as the sun came out. Seven wins in their last ten games meant that going into the last day they were in 17th, and safe. Howard Kendall's Everton occupied the final relegation position, having slowly drifted downwards thanks to too many draws. All Bolton needed to was match the Merseysiders' result; unfortunately for them, Everton were at home to mid-table Coventry City, while Bolton were away at top-four Chelsea. Where Everton drew, Bolton lost, and down they went on goal difference.
Lessons: Should anybody big (or biggish) be floundering about, they're more than likely to be able to pull themselves clear. Don't be Barnsley. Crocuses often die when an early spring is cut short by another cold snap.
2008/09: Six points, 9th to 20th, 19 January 2009
Eventually relegated: Newcastle (18th, 34 pts), Middlesbrough (19th, 32 pts), WBA (20th, 32 pts)
What a mess. Never mind a six point gap: five teams on 21 points, and another three on 23. That's a relegation battle that demands trumpets. Explosions. Possibly Wagner.
What it got instead was Newcastle, who went through three managers -- first Kevin Keegan; then Chris Hughton; then Joe Kinnear; then Hughton, briefly, again -- before finally apologising their way out of the league under the guidance of Alan Shearer. Traditionally, instability and managerial chop n' changing follows poor form; here, by contrast, the two permanent appointees left for reasons of corporate interference (Keegan) and ill health (Kinnear). There are books that could be written on the mistakes Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley made across the course of this season, and we'll let the man himself explain exactly what happened:
It has been catastrophic for everybody. I've lost my money and I've made terrible decisions.
Newcastle's immolation, though, meant that other clubs in trouble were able to escape. This was a particular godsend for Phil Brown's Hull City, whose own spectacular collapse -- they won 7 of their first 16 games, then just one of the remaining 22 -- went unpunished.
Middlesbrough weren't so lucky. Though they spent early November in the top half of the table, a draw against Everton midway through the month signalled the beginning of a dreadful winless run in the league that wouldn't end until the last day of February. Chairman Steve Gibson stuck loyally by his manager, Gareth Southgate, but he failed to coax enough goals from a motley crew of strikers: Mido, Jeremie Aliadiere, Marlon King and Afonso Alves; all outscored by Sanli Tuncay.
West Brom, on the other hand, were bottom by mid-November and stayed there more-or-less all season. In truth they were thoroughly undercooked for the Premier League, and were yet to shake off their boing boing-nature, though Tony Mowbray stuck to his principles and lost game after game in an appealing and pleasant manner. This won him plaudits from opposition fans -- all of whom were delighted -- and the Celtic gig, which didn't go particularly well.
Finally, a word for Stoke, who climbed from 19th at this stage to finish in a comfortable 12th. This was largely predicated on victories over six other members of the bottom half, which seems a thoroughly sensible way to go about things. Well done Tony Pulis.
Lessons: Don't make terrible decisions. They may go catastrophically wrong and you may lose all your money. That said, loyalty is rarely beneficial in and of itself; if you're going to stick with a manager, make damn sure he's good enough. Like, say, Tony Pulis.
2010/11: six points, 12th to 20th, 16 January 2011
Eventually relegated: Birmingham City (18th, 39 pts), Blackpool (19th, 39 pts), West Ham United (20th, 33 points)
Another season, another biggish club too good to go down, another biggish club going down. West Ham were bottom by the third game of the season, and while a brief flurry of competence over the festive period saw them rise to the giddy heights of fifteenth, by the time of the table above they were back in the mire. There was talent in the squad; there were also holes. And there was Avram Grant on the bench.
By rights they should have been accompanied downwards by Wolves, who spent a similar proportion of the season kicking around the bottom. However, they were saved by a happy and intuitive understanding of the way modern football works: draws, offering as they do a mere and measly point, are rubbish. Wolves lost 20 games, more than any other side in the division, and fully five more than the side that finished 18th. But they only drew seven, and won the other eleven; that's the same number of wins as Fulham who finished in eighth. Unbeaten runs, you'll recall, are overrated.
Instead, West Ham were joined by Birmingham City, who as a neat counterpoint to the above won only eight times all season. Alex McLeish, ladies and gentlemen. Though we should also acknowledge a number of important victories in the League Cup, particularly the final against Arsenal, which brought joy to a nation struggling with economic hardship and a newly-minted Conservative government. Thanks, Big Eck. Would you like the Aston Villa job?
They were also joined by Blackpool, who as you'll have noticed do not feature in the table above. In essence, like Hull and Sunderland before them, Blackpool managed to arrange a fundamentally disappointing season in such a way as to achieve the illusion of security prior to the reality of not being quite good enough for the league. Doing really well at the beginning, then really badly towards the end, is hugely more exciting than just being average all season. Perhaps the problem here is that Blackpool's refreshing style of football was a shock to teams the first time they met, but didn't stand up to the stiffer examinations it inevitably got when everybody had had a chance to think about it a bit.
Lessons: Don't appoint Avram Grant. Don't settle for draws, they're rubbish. If you've got a slightly unusual way of playing football, it may not be as effective the second time through the fixture list.
So, what can the past tell us about the present? What do the teams embroiled in such a tight relegation battler need to be doing? And what should they not, under any circumstances, think about doing. Well, let's have a look ...
There are a couple of lessons that don't apply this season. Unlike Sunderland in 1996/97 and Bolton in 1997/98, none of the current bottom eleven teams are playing in a new stadium; additionally, as far as we know the BBC aren't embedded anywhere. Joe Kinnear is still in work, but he's been taken out of the public eye somewhat, and hasn't sworn at anybody for ages. As far as we know. It's no coincidence that Newcastle are going to be okay. But what do we know?
Well, we know from Aston Villa's relegation in 1986/87 that it's not a great plan to go into the season with a squad composed almost exclusively of decent players slightly past their best and young players not yet ready. So that's Fulham stuffed.
We know from Nottingham Forest in 1996/97 and Newcastle in 2008/09 that backroom instability is often problematic and occasionally catastrophic. This may not necessarily be bad news for the obvious candidates -- Cardiff City, Hull City, West Ham -- since being run by silly people isn't necessarily destabilising, but it's something to bear in mind. Silly people do silly things, after all.
We know from Sunderland in 1996/97 and Manchester City in 1986/87 that it's bad not to have a striker scoring goals. We must hope, for West Ham's sake, that between them Carlton Cole, Modibo Maiga and Marco Borriello add up to a striker that can score goals. But we remain unconvinced. See also, with appropriate name changes: Norwich; Crystal Palace; Cardiff City.
We know from Villa in 1986/87 that sacking a manager early doesn't always work, which might bode ill for Sunderland. On the other hand, we know from Tottenham in 1997/98 that appointing an unorthodox, abrasive, slightly peculiar manager can make all the difference, which bodes well for Sunderland. Loyalty is bad -- Middlesbrough, West Brom -- except where it's good -- Stoke, Southampton. Tony Pulis, however, is inarguably good.
We know that it's really, really, really important to turn up to every game.
Finally, we know even when seasons are as tight as this one, at least one of the bottom three after 22 matches has always gone down. Usually two. So the teams at the top of the bottom -- if that makes any sense -- are probably doing the right thing by not panicking. Unless they're about to collapse, in which case they definitely should have panicked some time ago, and it's far too late now.
So it is with some confidence that we can predict that relegated teams this season, based on sound historical precedent, will be Cardiff City, West Ham United, and Fulham. Or maybe Norwich. No, actually, Sunderland. Not Swansea, though, unless they've been worked out. Villa, perhaps? No, no, not Villa. Unless ...