Sport Soccer

Monday 23 April 2018

Life and death on the precipice

Calmness is essential in a relegation scrap but good fortune is what is needed most, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

T hey are desperate men. The managers who face into today's Premier League games are aware it could be their last game in the Premier League, their last day in their job.

"You're looking for something more than the old 'everyone's against us' speech," Kenny Cunningham says.

Cunningham has the scars from relegation battles. "I'm your man," he says, when I explain why I'm calling him. He was relegated with Wimbledon in 2000 and Birmingham in 2006.

There were different circumstances but each time he remembers the belief draining away as the club looked for wins and couldn't find them. Cunningham's experience tells him that these afternoons aren't one-off games, that the damage is already done. For that reason he fears for his old club Birmingham, but it is hard to find any pattern or even see the significance of momentum in a relegation battle.

In 2007, Wigan had lost their previous three games before they went to Bramall Lane on the final day of the season and won. They stayed up, West Ham won at Old Trafford and the world soon wished they hadn't as Neil Warnock had a grievance. His Sheffield United side had been relegated and West Ham, thanks to the Tevez Affair, were believed to have stayed up unfairly.

Two years ago, Hull stayed up despite winning only one of their last 22 league matches. On the final day, they played a Manchester United side thinking of a European Cup final against Barcelona. United played a weakened side but won. Kevin Kilbane played for Wigan in 2007 and Hull in 2009. He observed the managers trying to find solutions to problems they may have been powerless to solve.

Kilbane remembers the sense of elation when the United team including Federico Macheda, Lee Martin and Ritchie de Laet was handed in. Hull had their cup final opportunity but Kilbane remembers everything being flat after that. Yet in Birmingham, Newcastle United were even flatter as they lost at Aston Villa. Once again, the world wondered if justice had been served when Hull survived and Phil Brown sang on the pitch at the end.

Of the managers under pressure today, Ian Holloway is the one capable of bursting into song. "I hope not," Kilbane says, but he believes Blackpool can get a point at Old Trafford, even if they could stay up by losing too. Wolves have the advantage of Mick McCarthy's management but Kilbane thinks playing at home can add to the pressure.

Cunningham says the work has been done, that the way a club went about its business in the last few months will have a greater impact than any talk in the last few days about cup finals.

Kilbane is less sure. He remembers the final few weeks of Wigan's season in 2007. They hadn't won since the beginning of March and with three defeats in a row, most crucially to West Ham, they slipped into the bottom three for the final game of the season. "The writing was on the wall for us," Kilbane remembers. Another defeat at home to Middlesbrough led to the feeling in the Wigan dressing-room that they had blown their chance of survival.

At Bramall Lane on the final Sunday, Wigan and Sheffield United fans joined in a chant of 'Stand Up If You Hate West Ham'. West Ham had already been fined over the Tevez affair but spared a points deduction which would have relegated them. They could still have been relegated if they lost at Manchester United, where Alex Ferguson was fielding a weakened team, but they were the enemy no matter what. When they went on to beat United with Tevez scoring the only goal, Neil Warnock had his villain.

At Bramall Lane, Sheffield United still had the opportunity to relegate Wigan instead. In the search for a formula to avoid relegation, Wigan's manager Paul Jewell found something.

"The whole week Paul Jewell was so relaxed, it transmitted to the players," Kilbane says. "We felt so confident going into that game, I don't know if we were a bit naive."

Cunningham's experience of a final-day battle is different. In 2000, Wimbledon had won one game in 15 and had sacked manager Egil Olsen following a 3-0 defeat at Bradford in the third-last game of the season. Naivety was not an option.

Cunningham failed a fitness test before Wimbledon's final game at the Dell -- "My groin was hanging off" -- yet Wimbledon should have been hopeful. Bradford, despite that victory, were below Wimbledon on goal difference and had to play a Liverpool side chasing a Champions League spot on the final day.

"Liverpool had to do us a favour but we had it in our own hands. People say it's a one-off game. I don't buy into that.

"There's usually a good indication in how the teams are going." Which is why Cunningham fears for his old club Birmingham. "In terms of how the team is performing and the dynamic around the club, they're really on the slide."

Cunningham thinks Blackpool's form -- unbeaten in four -- makes a difference. "It's easier for the players to buy into what the manager's saying when you're on a run like that."

Cunningham remembers the chaos at Wimbledon with a manager sacked two weeks from the end of the season and says it has an impact, although maybe not as you'd imagine. "It doesn't help, but it gives some players an excuse, 'Oh, it's a shambles up top'. Essentially, Wimbledon was a well-run club but the fact was we got ourselves into a really bad run and it was difficult to arrest it."

Bradford ended up beating Liverpool while Wimbledon lost at Southampton. Wimbledon were relegated, the club fractured when Wimbledon's owners moved to Milton Keynes and ultimately became the MK Dons while AFC Wimbledon was formed to take the place in the local community.

All the clubs last week will have observed a level of denial. "Nobody was talking about what got us into this mess in the first place," Cunningham says. "Everyone was positive. But it manifests itself on the pitch. Confidence is that fragile that even if you take a lead early on, you're frightened to keep going. It is important to have people who play with clear heads on a day like this."

For that reason, Cunningham is less impressed than some with the idea of a stirring team-talk.

"This is when managers really step up. Not just in terms of what is said but how he carries himself. If his chin is on the floor, if he's pointing the finger, then that doesn't help. When he speaks, players will buy into it rather than having someone who just talks the talk. If your manager starts losing control on the side of the pitch, that doesn't inspire me as a player on it."

Cunningham thinks Roberto Martinez has stayed calm and that could aid Wigan. Kevin Kilbane remembers the week prior to Wigan's game at Bramall Lane as one of Jewell's finest moments as a manager.

Once the game began, there were other problems. Wigan took an early lead when Kilbane crossed and Paul Scharner headed in. When Sheffield United -- who only needed a point -- equalised, Wigan should have lost self-belief. "Considering the pressure was on, we played really well. We were on fire. It was pouring down with rain and everyone was passing the ball well."

Just before half-time, Kilbane took a free kick on the right. As it glided across the heads in the box, Phil Jagielka handled and Wigan had a penalty. Dave Unsworth was Wigan's penalty-taker. Until January, he had been Sheffield United's penalty taker. The previous September, he had missed a penalty against Blackburn, one of three saved in an astonishing scoreless draw. Unsworth didn't miss this time and all Wigan had to do was to hold the lead for the second-half.

Kilbane is still not sure how they did it. He lets out a sigh as he recalls the long half which got longer when Lee McCulloch was sent off 16 minutes from the end. He still wonders how Danny Webber missed a chance that rolled along the Wigan goal-line.

Wigan won and stayed up. Unsworth's reward for the penalty? Wigan released him in the summer.

Sheffield United, despite being paid compensation from West Ham, were relegated to League One this season.

Hull's survival was even more remarkable and not just because Phil Brown was in charge. After a home defeat at Stoke, Brown took the side to the Lake District for a few days before a game against Bolton. They went hill-walking and built a raft to get across a river as part of a team-building exercise. At Bolton the following Saturday, Hull got a draw, their first point in six games. Ultimately it would be the point that saved them.

The United game passed in a blur of nerves. Hull couldn't lift themselves, but Newcastle had frozen against Aston Villa. "We didn't really put up a fight but luckily we stayed up." A year later, Hull's luck ran out.

But Hull and Brown celebrated with Brown singing on the pitch and his break in the Lake District were seen as the key. The managers who survive today will point to some other turning point as they retrospectively make sense of it and try to suggest they were in control all along.

Kilbane recalls what happened to the raft they built to demonstrate their ability to work as a team during their week in the Lake District. "It sank."

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport