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No point second-guessing as relegation candidates line up for last dance

Jason Burt


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‘There is no point second-guessing what might happen on Survival Sunday. For the trio facing demotion, two of them will go.’ Photo: PA

‘There is no point second-guessing what might happen on Survival Sunday. For the trio facing demotion, two of them will go.’ Photo: PA

‘There is no point second-guessing what might happen on Survival Sunday. For the trio facing demotion, two of them will go.’ Photo: PA

The statistics are damning and yet where there is history, there is hope. Aston Villa, Watford and Bournemouth go into the final day of the Premier League season knowing the chances are that at any point, and possibly more than once, between 4.0pm and the final whistle, they will have survived or been relegated.

The denouement of the Championship on Wednesday evening showed, again, the enduring power and drama and glorious unpredictability of football. The fans may not have been present - and just think what it would have been like at the Hawthorns, Griffin Park, Elland Road, the Madejski Stadium, the City Ground, Kenilworth Road and the DW Stadium had they been full to the rafters - but the drama and raw emotion survived.

As did Barnsley. They had been in the relegation zone since September 15 - and only moved out of it in the 91st minute of their dramatic 2-1 win against Brentford, who were going for automatic promotion. Charlton Athletic were down there for just one week all season - albeit also covering football stopping in March to the resumption in June - and were relegated.

It means there is, frankly, no point second-guessing what might happen in the Premier League on Survival Sunday. For the trio facing demotion, who are all away from home, the only thing we know for certain is that two of them will go.

But, as they prepare for their fate and how they can shape it, all three can draw on what they and their managers have done in the past and hope that makes a crucial difference.

Two of the three clubs, of course, have coaches with such a close affinity to them in charge. Dean Smith is the fan whose father, who passed away recently, was a steward at Villa Park and who swept the steps of the Holte End as a boy.

Eddie Howe is the former Bournemouth player whose career was cut short by injury and who was first asked to take over in 2009 when they were heading out of the Football League, with a 17-point deduction, and saved them, again on the final day of the season, even as they struggled to pay their electricity bill. He then took them all the way to the Premier League.

And then there is the rookie Hayden Mullins, who has taken over at Watford with just two games to go, for the second time this chaotic season, and has been more used to looking after the under 23s as he tries to forge his own coaching career.

But the former midfielder also has experience in this stressful scenario.

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The 41-year-old was there in 2007, in West Ham colours, as they completed their "great escape" under Alan Curbishley when they so improbably won away to Manchester United on the final day having been 10 points from safety with nine games to go. Mullins replaced match-winner Carlos Tevez with eight nerve-racking minutes to go at Old Trafford.

All three will therefore believe they have a history of defying the odds although there is a sense, surely, that the momentum is with Villa, who lifted themselves out of the bottom three for the first time since February 28, by beating Arsenal in midweek immediately after Watford's capitulation to Manchester City.

Two wins and a draw in their past three games and an away fixture against West Ham, relieved at securing their own safety, would suggest they are best placed and Smith has made a late run before: not least in securing promotion last season when Derby County and Bristol City failed to win matches in hand and Villa went on a 10-game unbeaten sequence to go up through the play-offs.

And, like the other two managers, the 49-year-old knows what it is like to survive having taken over at Walsall in January 2011 and then clawed back a nine-point deficit to save them from relegation from League One.

For Howe, it may be one fight too many as Bournemouth travel to Everton - the club he supported as a child and where chairman Bill Kenwright long coveted him as a manager - as improved performances have been rewarded with fewer points than he will feel they deserve. But who knows what to expect against this Everton side as the permanently raised eyebrow (or so it seems) of manager Carlo Ancelotti attests.

There is a connection with Watford, also, given both clubs were promoted together from the Championship in the same season - 2014-15 - and ironically, given it could be the three who go down this year, with Norwich City who also went up that season.

Of course, while Bournemouth have stuck with Howe (and he has stuck with them), Watford have had seven different managers since promotion to the Premier League - a list that does not include the one who took them up in the first place, Slavisa Jokanovic, who could not agree a deal and quit.

An unusual extra edge is added by the fact that Watford and Bournemouth have developed into an unlikely rivalry in recent years, going back to those Championship days when they were vying for first place and bad blood was stirred, and each would delight in staying up at the other's expense.

And yet it is so tight there is a real prospect it could be settled by goal difference, and even that is extremely close. Villa are on minus 26, a single goal better than Watford and Bournemouth. If they still cannot be separated then goals scored comes into the equation with Villa ahead having netted 40, Bournemouth 37 and Watford 34.

Finally, the fight has come late. Very late. Of the 75 points available from the 25 matches the three clubs have played between them since the season's restart there have been just five wins and five draws - equating to 0.8 points per game, which is undeniably relegation form. In saying that, not one win came in the first 15 of those games and there were just four draws, which means that the resistance has been found at the end (five of the past 10 games). It begs the question: in what was effectively a mini, post-lockdown tournament, how ready were they to resume?

Watford and Bournemouth may also look at that first game back when the world seemed so strange and goal-line technology failed for the first time in 9,000 matches - 9,000! - and Villa gained such a potentially precious point at home to Sheffield United. Even now that seems so bizarre.

Oddly, Villa have not won their final league match in any of their past eight seasons; Watford have not won a top-flight game on the last day in their past six attempts and Bournemouth have lost nine in a row away from home.

But such statistics need to be ignored.

Which one will it be? "The key thing is while there's still hope we have to believe, until such time as it is mathematically impossible," said Howe , whose Bournemouth were seventh in November, remember, and the sentiment will be shared by his rivals, as will his subsequent comment: "You never know in football, crazy things happen."

For two of the three the last dance is about to begin.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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