The race from the bottom

While the bulk of attention has been on the fight for the Premier League title and qualification for Europe next season, we can’t overlook what is shaping up to be the most exciting relegation battle in a long time, with every team in the bottom half still vulnerable and their respective boardrooms dreading the financial implications of playing in the Championship next season.

The race from the bottom

Normally the three teams that get promoted from the Championship are the bookies’ favourites to get relegated, as it’s very hard to adjust to the standards of playing week in and week out in the Premier League. As it happens, I rarely back the bookies’ pessimistic views but this season I felt they could be right as I didn’t think that Hull City, Cardiff City or Crystal Palace were sufficiently equipped to survive in the top flight.

However, while Hull manager Steve Bruce made some very shrewd signings in the likes of Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Curtis Davies during the summer window, it was the dual signing of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long in January which will be the key to them staying up this season, as they have given Hull another dimension when they attack and have already come up with some crucial goals.

Both Cardiff and Crystal Palace decided to change manager during the season, rolling the dice to see if their fortunes would change. The truth is that, while there is normally a reaction when a new boss comes in, the effect rarely lasts longer than a few games. Nevertheless, as the league stands this morning, the bottom six clubs have all changed their managers this season and, in Fulham’s case, more than once.

Palace were fortunate to get promoted last season and weren’t really ready for it. They subsequently tried to buy a lot of players under Ian Holloway but the quality of the signings was simply not good enough. If Tony Pulis hadn’t taken the reins and got them back to basics then they would already be down by now but he has done a very good job at Selhurst Park — and if he keeps them up he deserves a medal. I believe teams like Fulham, West Brom, Swansea and Norwich do well to achieve Premier League survival year in and year out since, in terms of their finances, they have to punch well above their weight. What happens quite often is that once a team has had a few seasons in the Premier League the fans’ expectation levels inevitably rise. They are no longer happy with just survival and start looking for a European adventure or calling for a better style of football.

West Ham would be a good example of this. Sam Allardyce’s face has never really fitted with the Upton Park faithful as they naively think they should be still playing the same football they did in the club’s golden era with the likes of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. A couple of months ago, when other chairmen and owners were chopping and changing managers, I was glad to see Gold, Sullivan and Co sticking by their man. It was a wise decision because I simply knew that Sam would keep them in the league, Working under him for a couple of seasons at Blackburn, I thoroughly enjoyed his management style, one which created a superb team spirit and invariably brought the best out of players. He was obsessed with getting points off the teams that were around and below us in the league as he knew that getting points off the top four would be very difficult.

I know he has had some criticism from Hammers fans but my view is that he has done a great job at Upton Park. The supporters need to be very careful what they wish for as, if you asked any Blackburn fans for their opinion on the club since Allardyce left, I don’t think you would hear too many positives.

When you see West Brom and Fulham struggling, it tells you everything about what a superb job Roy Hodgson did at those clubs. In my opinion, both have been in decline since he left. Fulham, in truth, have become a little bit of a laughing stock, with more managerial and coaching changes in the last few months than Manchester United has seen in the last quarter of a century. Their latest gamble in appointing Felix Magath hasn’t worked, as his reported dictatorial style of management hasn’t endeared himself to the players. Frankly, Fulham look doomed.

West Brom’s appointment of Pepe Mel really baffled me because, although they were struggling at the time, to appoint a manager with no experience of English football and who can speak very little of the language, was naive to say the least. Far worse though was selling Shane Long to Hull City to assist their rivals in the fight to stay up. Likewise, Swansea’s decision to relieve an experienced manager like Michael Laudrup of his job and hand the reins to Gary Monk was a huge gamble. Although he is undoubtedly well- respected, it will be a real test for such an inexperienced manager to help them survive.

By contrast, I think Sunderland had no option but to sack Paolo Di Canio this season as his maverick ways were causing too much controversy. A lot of the players here at Brighton have worked under Gus Poyet and they do rate him highly. They say he is very tactically astute and prepares the team well going into matches. Having had a good cup run, he would have hoped that team would carry that form and confidence into the league. But that hasn’t happened so, not for the first time, the Black Cats are in a scrap to avoid the drop. With enough points still to play for, it’s always hard to predict who will go down but I can’t really see Fulham and Cardiff escaping at this stage. Alongside these two it could be any side from five or six but, as ever, the basics matter most when the chips are down, and the ones that are able to keep it tight at the back and have a genuine goalscorer in their ranks, have the best chance of surviving.

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