The Premier League Relegation Zone: Who To Choose?

by | Apr 14, 2017

Each April, I take a view on the Premier League (EPL) relegation struggle, based on more than just football (this year my focus is partly to swerve my own team Kingstonian’s involvement in an ultra-tight battle to avoid the cultural wasteland of Ryman League Division One South.

I watched Crystal Palace v Arsenal on Monday through the unlikely prism of “moral dilemma.” One which I solved in true Trevor-Brooking-on-Match-of-the-Day-in-the-1980s style…plumping for a draw.

Having watched frankly too much football at Spurs from 1973 to 1992 (Screensport Super Cup, anybody?), a natural “Arsenal-to-lose” instinct remains. But Sam Allardyce… The man who promised but failed to sue the BBC after its 2006 Panorama: Football’s Dirty Secrets programme outright said he accepted illegal payments from agents. And then said in 2010: “It wouldn’t be a problem for me to manage Inter or Real Madrid because I would win the double or the league every time.” “Fat crook,” I thought.

There was therefore no joy to be had from Arsenal’s pathetic performance. No eager anticipation of manager Arsene Wenger’s post-match mitigation for said performance (especially as he is currently a more reasoned post-match interviewee than his irritating “I didn’t see it,” “they defended well,” “I felt we controlled the game” days of blaming everyone but Arsenal for Arsenal defeats).

The concept of the “un-fan” is not new, of course. But I reserve most of my “un-fandom” for the EPL relegation-threatened.

Leicester City and Bournemouth have been “neutrals’ favourites” and “football fairytales” in recent seasons for well-documented reasons. And aspects of Bournemouth’s rise remain admirable. Eddie Howe, for instance. And a Kingstonian-supporting friend recently moved there. So, she and her young son are Dean Court…sorry…Vitality Stadium regulars (she was caught on Match of the Day cameras during a recent game).

But there was little fairytale in the Russian money which helped Bournemouth climb the pyramid. Or in the Thai millions which bankrolled Leicester’s Football League exit (that someone as famously oblivious to football’s charm as Private Eye magazine editor Ian Hislop had to note this, on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You, was rather dismal). And no fairytale whatsoever in the Financial Fair Play regulations breaches purportedly involved.

I even became a Spurs “un-fan” when Harry Redknapp became manager, for various Panorama-based reasons. And, while I am pleased that Spurs are resembling genuine title contenders more each season, they are no longer “we” for me (that I haven’t been to White Hart Lane since 1992 plays a more logical, yet smaller, part in this).

But even I’m not sure why I solely focus on the EPL’s scramble for safety. I note Blackburn Rovers’ continuing travails under the Rao family’s ownership (or “the Venkys” as lazy journalists everywhere continuously and erroneously calling them) as a gathering of evidence against the EPL’s “fit and proper persons’ test,” my hopes for their relegation tempered only by the considerable number of Rovers fans who have campaigned admirably against the Raos.

I wish League One football on Cardiff City for similar reasons, while my personal jury is still out on Birmingham after the increasingly inappropriately-named Trillion Trophy Asia’s replacement of quite-successful manager Gary Rowett with serially-unsuccessful manager Gianfranco Zola. Yet I only check the Championship table on my way down the English club football pyramid to Milton Keynes Dons FC, the most obvious target of “un-fandom” in English club football. And the EPL drop zone is soon in my sights once more.

This fascination goes back some years. And there has rarely been a year where I haven’t actively wanted at least one club to drop. For example, Blackpool in 2011 because of “Ollie,” the obnoxious public persona of manager Ian Holloway. And, for years, Fulham because of obnoxious owner Mohamed Fayed (the “Al” often prefixed to his name was an affectation of an aristocratic heritage he simply did not have).

This season has been a little different for a couple of reasons. I have been entirely INdifferent to Middlesbrough’s fate, perhaps in tune with the vacuity of much of their football. Their survival would only stir emotions based on the team at whose expense they survive. I always wanted Sunderland to survive, bar last season obviously (Allardyce). And this season was no different, until manager David Moyes’ recent post-match interview gormlessness. Hell mend them now (and thank fcuk Celtic chose Brendan Rodgers as manager instead).

So now there is only one relegation place concerning me, the only one really up for grabs unless Alvaro Negredo and Rudy Gestede VERY quickly morph into a modern-day Shearer-and-Sheringham/Sutton (or Keegan-and-Toshack, for football children of the 1970s such as myself…or Chivers-and-Gilzean for Spurs football children of the 1970s such as myself…).

The now-safe Watford and Leicester City were major targets of my scorn. Watford manager Walter Mazzarri seems as transient as the team under the Pozzo family’s unorthodox ownership. His dismissal would be as undeserved as that of Quique Sanchez Flores last season. However, it looks increasingly likely. Just as Mazzarri has learned enough English to conduct at least part of his post-match interviews in it, too.

Leicester City’s players, meanwhile, proved my relegation forecast spectacularly wrong. However, I bear no grudge against them for that. I’m spectacularly wrong too often for such things to be a judge of anything. More disgraceful is the fact that they clearly deliberately played below their best so as to cost someone ELSE their job.

And Leicester midfielder Danny Simpson’s Twitter “exchange” with SKY TV pundit Jamie Carragher was unwise at best. “I won the league, you haven’t” may have been true. But it rather made Carragher’s point about their shameful under-achievement this season. After all, Carragher was never involved in a relegation battle, Simpson was. I hope his team is again. And that they are down by this time next year.

Sadly, West Ham and Crystal Palace are nearly safe after last weekend’s results. My first-ever 200% article, back in about 1957, was a hyper-critical look at Birmingham City’s classy ownership Davids, Gold and Sullivan, now West Ham’s coproprietors. Subsequent Blues’ ownerships may shine a kinder light on the duo’s St Andrews tenure. But not being Carson Yeung or Peter Pannu is a worthwhile recommendation for very little.

Also, West Ham obtained a 60,000-capacity ground on, cough, “favourable” terms. “They” say that “money goes to money.” And surely transferring the Olympic Stadium to a worthier or more local cause such as Leyton Orient would have established a less nauseous legacy.

Allardyce is the only thing I have against Palace. So, it is perhaps unfair, and deserving of an apology to Palace fans, that I should so want them to be a division lower than Brighton and Hove Albion next season. However, as I said above, “but Sam Allardyce.”

In January 2014, Allardyce’s West Ham job was sufficiently under threat to require a “vote of confidence” from Gold and Sullivan, as his managerial and coaching limitations were exposed by expectations higher than winning relegation battles. Yet pundits dribbled that Allardyce would be West Ham’s main target if he wasn’t himself being replaced. And now he is working his “magic” again, the pundits are dribbling again.

Asked to explain his tactical outclassing of Wenger, he spoke of “utilising space behind the full-backs” and how he’d analysed Arsenal’s weakness in “leaving the centre-backs exposed.” Pundits were awestruck. Those of us thinking Palace’s tactics were “hoof it to Christian Benteke and Wilfred Zaha and hope for the best” were exposed as the tactical ignoramuses we clearly are.

I hope Allardyce gets his West Ham job back for next season and they are relegated by March. Because it is surely too much to hope that Arsenal officials at Palace would be disturbed enough by what they saw to consider “Big” Sam as Wenger’s replacement. Isn’t it?

(Incidentally, my new pound coin’s worth on “Wenger must go?” My residual Spurs’ affections bring “Wenger must stay” to mind. But Arsenal are so much his club that if they haven’t already set out a replacement strategy for next season, they should wait until 2018/19. I’m sure Wenger would like a crack at the Europa League too).

I guess Leicester, West Ham and Crystal Palace would have been my “three for the drop” until recent on-field and post-match interview events. Now, however, it seems as if Middlesbrough and Sunderland are leaving the EPL with a whimper with the EPL’s 18th place a straight fight between Hull City and Swansea City. And here again, the proverbial goalposts have moved since the end of last season.

Hull City are still owned/overshadowed by “Egyptian/British businessman Assem Allam, the man with the “Hull City Tigers” plan. And it would remain fascinating to see him try and market THAT from English club football’s second tier. However, current Hull boss Marco Silva has fashioned such a turnaround in playing fortunes and style, during home games anyway, that wishing relegation on him seems churlish in the extreme. And their recent win over a West Ham side containing ex-Hull midfielder Robert Snodgrass felt like justice being served on more than one level.

Swansea, meanwhile, have moved from “model” club to boardroom shambles since their Supporters’ Trust, owners of 21% of the club, was grubbily side-lined while major investors cashed in on the interest of American duo Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein last July, by selling them 68% of the club.

The reputation of “American duos” in the EPL was forged by Liverpool’s Tom Hicks and George Gillett (Tom and Jerry could scarcely have done a worse job). It hasn’t been significantly improved by the investment company chief and basketball club vice-president (Kaplan) and the “managing general partner” of Major League Soccer franchise club DC United (Levein).

On arrival, Kaplan spoke of what “drew them” to Swansea, including “the relationship between the club and the fans,” the “style of play” and the club’s “sustainable model.” Had they set out to systematically dismantle the lot, they could scarcely have done a better job. An article on the Football 365 website, entitled The sad story of Swansea and a broken Trust, details the off-field problems. Relegation, it seems, might give Kaplan and Levein a much-needed dose of humility and reality.

I’m already planning next season’s bout of churlish anti-fandom. The probable reappearance of Newcastle United’s dismal Mike Ashley among EPL owners quashes any pleasure at seeing Rafa Benitez back alongside him. And Leeds United’s occupation of a play-off spot threatens the EPL debut of one Massimo Cellino, whose Elland Road tenure to date has nearly got people thinking that “Ken Bates wasn’t so bad, after all.” I…DID…SAY…”NEARLY.”

Meanwhile, Kingstonian are in the Ryman Premier drop zone with three games left, none of them easy. It might reassure some fans of the clubs I’ve so gracelessly featured above that karma may yet be a bitch.