It was the final day of the 1997/1998 Premiership season and as the sun shone down on the Stamford Bridge pitch, tension was sweeping the stands. Bolton Wanderers were in the final stages of a season-long relegation scrap, knowing they must at least equal Everton’s results in order to seal survival. With eyes fixed on the pitch, ears were attached to Merseyside, a collection of pocket radios delivering the news that Howard Kendall’s Toffees were drawing with Coventry. 1-0 down with time running out, Bolton needed a goal.
As the clock ticked and desperation dawned, Alan Thompson strode through midfield looking to inspire salvation. A loose touch betrayed his purpose and Eddie Newton intercepted. Suddenly, Chelsea were closing in on the Bolton penalty area. As boos rained down from the stands and Jody Morris advanced towards goal, Trevor Francis, co-commentator in the Sky gantry, summarised the unfolding situation: “It’s all over. It’s going to be all over”. And it was. Bolton Wanderers were down.
Cue dejection. As the curtain fell on the campaign, so too did the tears, the prospect of an immediate return to Division One weighing heavy on the hearts of the away contingent in south west London. It is a familiar scene. Many went before Bolton and even more have suffered a similar fate since, but what is the reality of relegation from the bright lights and dizzying heights of England’s leading league? As the accounts of three clubs testify, you never really know.
The wounds are still raw at the John Smith’s Stadium but Freddie Cocker, a life-long Huddersfield fan and co-founder of Talk of the Town, has the clarity of mind to pinpoint where it all went wrong. “We had a run of games around December: Brighton, Newcastle, Southampton and Fulham and we lost all of them. Personally, that’s when I started to think we would go down”.
And yet it could have been so different. Hold a magnifying glass to the period and a more detailed examination reveals a lesson in momentum of which any physics professor would be proud. It is a warning to future newcomers of the volatility that awaits in England’s top division. “We’d just beaten Wolves and Fulham and were on a high. Then we took a first-minute lead against Brighton. Just as things seemed to be coming together, Steve Mounie got sent off and after that Brighton scored twice. A week later, Aaron Mooy, one of our most impactful players, suffered a serious injury against Arsenal and he only returned to full fitness after relegation seemed certain”. The pendulum had swung away from the Terriers, propelling them on a downward trajectory to the foot of the table.
It didn’t stop there. By the end of January, Huddersfield had lost manager David Wagner, a man who’d ascended to demi-god status in West Yorkshire for his role in guiding the club to promotion and a 16th placed finished in their first season in the league. Jan Siebert, his replacement, fared little better and the club finished bottom with a meagre 16 points.
Cocker wears the blue and white with pride, a diehard fan whose passion is checked by the realism of a supporter who knows his club inside and out. Retracing the steps of a disappointing campaign, he paints a picture of a club caught in transition, who made the most of an unexpected ascent up the leagues before reality finally caught up.
“It was a dream to get promoted but really, we had a mid-table Championship squad which had punched way above their weight to get where they were. They were hungry though and wanted to prove themselves and David Wagner got the best out of them. The feeling among fans when we got into the Premier League was ‘we’ll be happy with one season, just give us that’ then we got off to such a good start and suddenly talk turned to staying up and it was unbelievable when we managed it”.
Bubbling under the surface, however, were a host of off-field uncertainties which eventually took their toll.
“In March 2017 Stuart Weber, our Football Operations Director, left to join Norwich. Soon after he left, he said we had the infrastructure of a League One club which was very harsh but probably contained a bit of truth given how prepared we were for the Premier League. His departure basically meant we had no Director of Football from March until June until David Moss came from Celtic. It was a welcome move as he’d signed the likes of Virgil van Dijk for them but he left after five months, with rumours that he wasn’t happy about the decision to restructure the academy. Olaf Rebbe came next in May 2018 and it seemed to provoke a change in our summer transfer strategy. We needed to get rid of some dead wood and sign 3/4 top-class players in order to build on staying in the Premier League, but instead we spent significant money on players like Ramadan Sobhi, Adama Diakhaby and Isaac Mbenza who failed to impress. They didn’t really hit the ground running as we’d hoped. Ultimately it made the difference as we had no match-winners in our team, unlike a lot of our rivals around us”.
So attention turns to the Championship. Are Huddersfield fans approaching the challenge with renewed optimism or apprehension, aware of the possibility of an extended slide down the football league ladder?
“A lot will depend on the club getting itself together. We need a Director of Football desperately, not least to manage the massive squad exodus that is to come. Siebert has been set up to fail a bit, so if he stays, the transfer window and first six games will be crucial. The Championship is difficult and if we don’t start well, I think it could turn toxic very quickly again. In other ways though I’m looking forward to it. It’s nice when you do well in the Championship so if we can compete again, I’d be happy with that. I also found the fan experience in the Championship to be better than the Premier League. There’s a lot of elitism in the Premier League and it felt like people were turning their noses up at Huddersfield being in the league. I won’t miss that”.
A long road lies ahead for Huddersfield and the Championship offers no guarantees of an easy journey. The division is ruthless and counts a number of famous teams among it’s victims. From Southampton to Leicester City, a host of clubs have been unable to stem the rising tide, soon finding themselves fully submerged in League One.
James Davies witnessed one such downfall first hand. As Head of Ticketing for his boyhood club Wolverhampton Wanderers, he had prime position to watch the story unfold between 2011 and 2013.
“In the final season in the Premier League we had obvious problems. We were conceding a lot of goals and a team that does that is always going to struggle. I’d say the writing was on the wall from about February onwards”.
Looking to quell discontent, changes came in the dugout and on the pitch, bringing hope to a restless fanbase. “Despite the relegation there was positivity towards the new manager, Stale Solbakken, and a collection of players from overseas who brought a mysterious excitement with them. We actually started the season well and appeared to be on the right track… then, things spiraled spectacularly out of control”.
After six wins in their first ten league games, the club suffered a remarkable turn in form, defying an expectant fanbase by winning only three of their next 25 fixtures.
“Dean Saunders was appointed manager in January but he couldn’t stop the slide. The way results went, internally, that step from the Championship to League One was devastating. You know how it goes – there starts to be talk of redundancies and you begin to lose colleagues and friendships that you’d built over the years. Externally, fans were furious at the players and the board. We’d spent considerable money on recruitment but it just didn’t work out”.
With relegation confirmed, Davies sought distraction and on 12th May 2013 it came in the form of Watford vs Leicester City in the Championship semi-final. The ending to the game, a frankly ridiculous passage of play that transitioned from Anthony Knockaert missing a penalty at one end to Troy Deeney striking the winner at the other, provided a profound moment of realisation. “That game to me just really epitomised how quickly football can change. It made me realise that although we were in a bit of a mess, football clubs can put things right just as quickly as they’ve gone wrong”. After a summer of more managerial upheaval, the progress that Davies desperately craved started to come.
Having worked wonders on a small budget at Millwall, Kenny Jackett joined the club and made his mark. Wolves won the league, amassing a club record 103 points, re-engaging a disillusioned fanbase in the process. “Getting relegated to League One slashed the season ticket holder base. Once we’d regrouped however, by Autumn things were starting to click again. Once people started to buy back into things, we were back up to very reasonable attendance levels, particularly in terms of away games. Our away support didn’t dwindle at all.”
Wolves had stopped the rut and weren’t keen to return to League One any time soon. After Kenny Jackett consolidated their position in the Championship, he departed in 2016 and was eventually replaced by Nuno Espirito Santo. The rising Portuguese manager was welcomed by new owners, Fosun Interational, providing the squad a blend of tactical intelligence and financial backing that allowed them to legitimately look upwards.
“Away from the pitch we’d always considered ourselves a Premier League level club but it was on the pitch where we lacked consistency. It’s about the manager at the end of the day and we were very lucky to get Nuno, along with the ownership. Together they served as the catalyst.
The club finally found their way back into the top division in 2018, calling time on a six-year absence. Football moves fast and Davies sees differences from the league he left in 2012. “It’s fantastic being back. I was really struck at the first game (a Saturday evening kick-off against Everton). It was live on BT Sport and on television in America. The whole event felt so much bigger in comparison with 2012, as if the eyes of the world were on the game. The hype around Premier League games has grown massively”.
So, too, has the hype around Wolves. After an impressive first season in the top-flight, the question as to whether the team can crack the top six has been raised. “The problems some of the top teams are having aren’t going to be fixed overnight, so there’s really a chance for us. You never know”.
Wolves are undoubtedly on the rise, a perfect harmony between boardroom and pitch providing a trusted formula for success. When these foundations aren’t in place, however, things can prove to be a lot more difficult…
According to Steve Nicholson, chief football writer for the Derby Telegraph, there are certain ways to be relegated from the Premier League. The Rams’ approach in 2007/2008 was certainly not it.
“Promotion in 2007 was so unexpected, first of all. At the start of that season we only had one striker, Paul Peschisolido, so there was a massive turn around for the club. The task is always difficult after getting promoted and from August when the team were 3-0 down after half an hour against Spurs, I worried relegation was on the cards”.
That miserable afternoon at White Hart Lane served as a prelude of what was to come. Derby would become the league’s whipping boys, winning just once in the entire season. “It was just too much for the team”.
Having sustained serious damage, a quick return was unlikely, despite a wave of new signings in 2008 under new manager Paul Jewell. “There was always a sense of hope on return to the Championship. You know the games won’t be as tough. But when you looked at it closely and analysed the state of the club, you realised the problems ran deeper. We had a squad who were on big contracts but confidence was on the floor from the previous season. It was always going to be a long slog and I thought it would take at least three years to seriously challenge for promotion again”.
The reality of the task at hand quickly dawned. Paul Jewell has been shown the door by December and the team labored to an 18th placed finish under his successor, Nigel Clough. Despite the lowly finish, Nicholson identifies overlooked achievement in Clough’s early work. “If you don’t think you can push for promotion straight after relegation then you’ve got to put the handbrake on and consolidate. Nigel Clough came in and cut the wage bill, all while trying to still be competitive in the division. When he came in, the team were third from bottom. One of the best things he did was keep the club out of League One. He never got the credit he deserved for that. Who knows where Derby County would be if that had happened”.
After mingling with play-off contenders for the past few years, Derby County stood on the verge of promotion once more, guided by Premier League legend Frank Lampard. Despite falling just short, losing 2-1 to Aston Villa in the Play-Off Final, Nicholson enthuses of the impact the former Chelsea midfielder has had in his inaugural season of management. “I’ve worked with a lot of managers and different teams but Lampard has created a renewed togetherness between the players and fans. He’s been a breath of fresh air, rejuvenating an ageing squad and bringing in exciting loan players. It didn’t prove to be enough, but despite the loss, it was a really good season.”
As the sun shone down on Wembley, tension swept the stands. The final whistle blew and Aston Villa celebrated their return to the Premier League. Derby, meanwhile, were left to consider what might have been, consigned to another more year vying for a return to the promised land.