A summer of idle talk and hearsay has now been consigned to the past, and the opening
weekend of the 2017/18 season delivered the sort of entertainment that justified the famous tagline used by Sky Sports a quarter of a century ago.
The phrase “a whole new ball game” was used to promote the inaugural Premier League season, and for a number of players, the opening weekend of this season was exactly that. However, far from being daunted, a few of them contributed to what was a hugely entertaining start, with an average of three goals were scored per game. In particular, Alexandre Lacazette, Ahmed Hegazi and Steve Mounie looked more than capable of mixing it in the Premier League, with all three scoring on their respective debuts.
With Beninese striker Mounie plundering two goals for Huddersfield at Selhurst Park in a 3-0 win, his performance perhaps stands as the most prominent of all. Despite being part of a Huddersfield side hotly tipped for immediate relegation, he lead the line with confidence and ruthlessness, to ensure that his club spent twenty-five glorious hours at the top of the Premier League. Curiously, even with fellow newly-promoted sides Brighton and Newcastle both being outclassed 2-0 in home openers, the Terriers remain the high buy/sell in the Sporting Index relegation index. If nothing else, this is a stark reminder that David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town will need to continue operating at that level, if they are to spend a second season in the Premier League.
To maintain such consistency and stay afloat, four key elements – shrewd spending, good home form, dressing room harmony and a high workrate – must be ever-present at the club and within the squad. Four teams throughout the history of the Premier League, all of whom were considered vulnerable against relegation, have embodied each of those elements. Their respective stories of survival (and, in some cases, attainment), against all the odds, cannot fail to inspire those already tipped for the dreaded drop.
Southampton 1992/93 – Manager: Ian Branfoot
Twenty-five years ago, the founding clubs of the Premier League had yet to benefit from the advent of television money from BskyB. Clubs with a relative dearth of resources, and dilapidated stadia that still represented the darker aspects of the pre-Premier League era in English football, had only their wits and in-house resources on which to survive. Southampton F.C in the early 1990s was, without doubt, the poster club in that regard.
Ahead of 1992/93, Southampton were considered doomed long before the opening weekend, having made the ultimate sacrifice of selling Alan Shearer to a cash-rich Blackburn Rovers with stratospheric ambitions. Under the ownership of Guy Askam, Southampton manager Ian Branfoot distributed the £3.6m gained from Shearer’s transfer wisely, without gambling it all on a solitary star.
Arguably the most vital of those signings was Dutch defender Ken Monkou, who was already an experienced defender with knowledge of how to survive, having done so with Chelsea upon the West London club’s return to the top flight in 1989. Although the Saints endured a tough start to 1992/93, the increased squad depth was vital to the club’s survival. So too, obviously, was the form of Matt Le Tissier, but teams apparently primed for relegation will always need a hero.
Dressing room harmony
Everton 1994/95 – Manager: Joe Royle
The 1994/95 season began in farcical fashion for Everton, with Mike Walker failing to sign Brazilian striker Muller despite calling a press conference to announce his arrival. Worse yet, his team amassed just eight points from the first fourteen games, sitting bottom of the league at the beginning of November 1994. A third of the season had elapsed, and no team had ever survived with such a paltry total at that stage. With time running out for the Toffees, Mike Walker was sacked and replaced with former player Joe Royle.
Rejuvenated by a passionate leader in the dressing room, and thriving under a more direct game plan, Everton’s transformation was immediate, with the ‘Dogs of War’ winning the first three games under Royle’s stewardship to propel themselves out of the drop zone – for good. Duncan Ferguson, a loanee from Rangers, had also been transformed from a useless beanpole to a royal blue hero, under the new system. Everton secured survival with a game to spare, and eleven days later, they were parading around Wembley stadium with the F.A Cup.
It doesn’t always take something as drastic as a managerial change, but motivated players that perform like a band of brothers can overcome some unimaginable obstacles. All it takes is the right man.
Stoke City 2008/09 – Manager: Tony Pulis
With newly-promoted teams often struggling to adapt to the pace of the Premier League, playing like Barcelona circa 2008 is simply not an option. As debutants of the Premier League containing an array of decidedly unglamorous players, Stoke City were prime candidates for immediate relegation, but survived comfortably. In playing a direct, uncompromising, aggressive game as a key to survival, Pulis’ men were by no means original, and indeed drew similarities to the Wimbledon sides of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Like the Wimbledon team that lifted the 1988 F.A Cup, the Potters were reliant on strong home form, which was fuelled in no small part by the raucous and intimidating atmosphere that greeted visiting teams. Remarkably, for a newly-promoted side, Stoke lost just three times at home in 2008/09. After a particularly bloodthirsty 2-1 win, over a class-oozing Arsenal side in November 2008, the stadium’s reputation was finally cemented. It has been key to the club’s Premier League survival ever since, with Stoke City F.C now taking on the country’s finest for a tenth straight season.
Leicester 2015/16 – Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Ultimately, none of the above traits could manifest itself within a squad without a strong work rate running throughout the entire team. The equation could not be simpler: if the opposition team cannot get to the ball, defeat – and thus relegation – is impossible. The centre of the park is arguably the most vital element of a good work rate, and the team that backs this philosophy needs no introduction. Through the tireless efforts of unlikely ‘midfield engine’ heroes such as N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, Leicester City’s 5000/1-priced title-winning squad will now be forever remembered as the most precocious and life-affirming example of what a strong work rate can achieve against the odds.
A graduate of Staffordshire University, Tamhas Woods has a wealth of experience in sports writing and creating betting-related content.