One question that’s always raised at the start of every season is who will stay in the Premier League, for more than half of the teams in the league this is the number one priority and has far more sway than who will have success at the other end of the title. Realistically you could argue that there are perhaps only three teams with a genuine shot at winning the title, generously this could perhaps be extended as far as seven if everything happened to go the way of the outsiders. Sure there are plenty of teams in the middle of the table, teams such as Everton who in recent seasons have been pushing for a European place that shouldn’t really be in any danger of relegation, but with their budget problems and mounting debt, you can be sure that David Moyes first target will be reaching the elusive forty point mark where you can be almost certain of survival.
The last club to go down with forty points or more were West Ham United in the 2002/2003 season, where forty-two wasn’t enough to keep them in the league. In 97/98 Bolton went down with forty points on goal difference in one of the closest relegations in Premier League history. The season prior to that in 96/97 Coventry went down with forty-one points on goal difference in what was probably the most closely contest Premier League campaign with only a forty-one point margin between the top and bottom team. Norwich City have been victims of the drop with over forty points, when they suffered relegation in the 94/95 season with forty-three points and even more unfortunately Crystal Palace went down with forty-five points and finishing fourth from bottom, but this was a result of the league restructuring to twenty teams .
So forty points should be enough to see you safe and if it’s not then you can count yourself unlucky. There are certainly numerous hard luck stories in football, especially regarding relegation where even the smallest factor can have a massive impact on the future of a club. So how do you make sure you avoid the drop, how do you navigate your way to safety and build a future for your football club at the top table, let’s take a look at a few success stories and see how they’ve done it.
In the 2008/2009 season Stoke City were promoted to the Premier League for the first time. Three years later and they have established themselves in the league, made the final of the F.A cup and this season venture into European football in the form of the Europa League. Tony Pulis’ team has never been the most aesthetically pleasing, but such criticisms pale into insignificance when you look at the scale of their success. They have gone from Championship also-rans to being solid in the Premier league in a very short space of time and with every year they seem to have evolved and improved. So how have they done it?
- Physicality – Stoke are one of if not the most physically strong and committed teams in the league, but this alone is not enough. What everyone has come to realise is that Stoke use it well. They intimidate teams; they make teams change their own style in order to accommodate them. In past years that was something only done when facing a top side, but now everyone in the league has to plan how they will deal with the Stoke test.
- Water tight defence – Stoke kept nine clean sheets at home in their first season, they are a side who are set up not to leak goals and they contest everything. This may seem like an obvious point, but the promoted sides who play open attractive football fair far worse in the long run than those who can keep the opposition out more often than not, especially at home.
- Home advantage – It’s a massive factor in Premier League survival and Stoke are a great example of this. In their first season they only picked up eight points away from home making it vital to get results at the Britannia Stadium. The narrow pitch allowed them to make the most of their system and they quickly became infamous for the long-throw set pieces of Rory Delap. Add to this the fact that statistically Stoke is the loudest ground in the country and that they are one of the most physically threatening teams and you’ve got a great platform from which to build a survival bid. When you compare their record with someone like Hull City, who also escaped relegation in their first season in the league, Hull only managed three home wins the lowest of any team and only kept six clean sheets again the lowest in the division and were relegated the following season.
- Key Players – Thomas Sorensen, the keeper was vital in Stoke’s impressive defensive record and had the enviable habit of saving penalties. Rory Delap– Everyone knows about the long throws, but what isn’t talked about nearly as much is that Delap is one of the fittest players in the Premier League. His ability to cover ground and close down space is still essential to Stoke’s game plan today of stopping other teams playing. Ricardo Fuller – Every team needs a goal scorer and Fuller was Stoke’s, contributing time and again with important winning goals, often created entirely off his own back.
The story of Bolton’s rise to become one of the Premier Leagues stalwarts is not unlike that of Stoke’s in some ways, but if you were looking for one defining reason for Bolton’s success it’s hard to look further than Sam Allardyce. Much like Tony Pulis’ Stoke team Allardyce wasn’t interested in making friends in the top division by playing pretty football and right from the outset he sent his team out to play in a style that he thought would get results. Bolton sit fifthteenth in the all-time Premier League table, ahead of Fulham and Sunderland. They are very much one of this country’s top clubs and this is thanks to the ground work by Allardyce in partnership with Chairman Phil Gartside. So what was the plan?
- It’s all in the blend – Allardyce’s first Bolton Premier League squad had a good mix of youth and experience. He was able to get the best out of experienced players, such as Gudni Bergsson and Colin Hendry but also bring through emerging English players like Kevin Nolan and Michael Ricketts who both contributed goals. However, he also recognised the need for extra quality and when his team were struggling in the second half of the season he got the backing of his chairman and signed Youri Djorkaeff who had an immediate impact and perhaps made the difference in that first season.
- Long ball – It’s a classic Allardyce put down but one that certainly has some merit, in so much as it’s true. Bolton were direct. The basic premise was: get the ball as far away from our goal as we can and keep it there. Where Allardyce really comes into his own however is preparation on set pieces. Corners, free-kicks, long-throws, any chance his team had to put the ball into the box and put their opponents under pressure would be taken and this could create a relentless pressure that teams’ often failed to deal with. Even now long after Big Sam has moved on the club still enjoy long balls aimed at the talismanic Kevin Davies.
- Club Harmony – Everyone at Bolton football club was pushing in the same direction. The manager had a plan, a plan supported by the chairman and the board and by the fans. The fans didn’t care about the style of football; they were lapping up the Premier League product and being showered with gifts in the form of players like Djorkaeff and later Jay-Jay Okocha. These were the kinds of players Bolton fans would never have believed the club were capable of getting before Allardyce and a large part of why he was able to persuade them to come was because he had the complete backing of everyone at the club, no disharmony off the pitch helps success on the pitch, you only have to look at the stories of Leeds, Portsmouth and to a certain extent Liverpool to see how much of an impact boardroom unrest and financial mismanagement can have on a football club. It’s rare however, for credit to be given when everything off the pitch is handled well and in this regard Phil Gartside deserves a pat on the back.
So if you were going to cook up a recipe for Premier League survival it seems the ingredients are pretty clear. First, playing attractive passing attacking football is not the best way to go about staying up. Teams that have tried, most notably West Brom under Tony Mowbray and Blackpool last season have been met with appreciation and commendation from fans but have ultimately been relegated. Being the entertainers seems like a nice label but it’s a poison chalice. Good home form is vital; picking up away wins gets you in the headlines but beating the teams around you at home consistently keeps you up. Fans, management and the board need to be united behind the team, internal problems off the pitch always affect the team on the pitch and the clubs who avoid this are better at maintaining their stability. It helps if you’ve got a blend of youth and experience, with the emphasis on experience, this is a cut-throat league and there is no room for nativity. Having a top class goalkeeper also seems to be a common theme with clubs that beat the drop, as chances are he’s going to be kept quite busy. It also seems that it’s better to try and kick the opposition out of a game than it is to try and outplay them, at least in the first season or two while you’re finding your feet, then it’s about improving the footballing side of the team too help move up the league further. It’s also the case that stability is crucial, in all areas of the club, if everyone is happy and settled there are no unnecessary distractions.
The common misconception is that money is everything in football. This is certainly true to some extent and Manchester City have undoubtedly moved the goalposts when it comes to spending, but it is not the be all and end all and Bolton and Stoke have proved that it’s not how much you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts. Both Stoke and Bolton didn’t spend big to stay in the league at first, they found a system that worked for them on the pitch and they played to it. Having established themselves in the league both teams then progressed and having banked the much converted Premier League money for a season or two started to reinvest in the team. Bolton spent a huge amount on signing the proven quality of Nicholas Anelka on the back of consistent top eight finishes under Allardyce. They even managed to cope when Big Sam left for Newcastle and they hired Gary Megson who doesn’t have the best managerial record. Similarly Stoke have just shelled out on Peter Crouch, so perhaps they will break into the top eight this season in the way that Bolton did.
It’s obvious to me that the board at West Ham are trying to recreate what Big Sam did at Bolton. I don’t think it will be long before a Championship club try and replicate what Stoke have achieved in terms of their approach to getting into and staying in the Premier League. Not every club’s fans want this of course and it’s essential that everyone involved with the club buy into a strategy like that of Stoke, some clubs have always prided themselves on playing open, attacking, passing football and the fact that there is such verity in England is part of what helps make the Premier League so good to watch.
Football is a game of passion, which is why so many people love it the world over, it is the beautiful game; but if you were to take a pragmatic approach, if you were to set aside style and perhaps even the enjoyment of watching good football and simply back your team to do what needed to be done in order to stay up, you can’t fault the plans and approach of either Bolton or Stoke, they are survivors!