Saturday 16 April 2022

Five Massive Clubs Who Were Not Too Big To Go Down

With the possibility of Everton getting relegated from the Premier League this season a real threat despite 67 consecutive seasons of top flight football, it shows that no club is too big to go down. (personally, I think they'll stay up)

Of course, every football fan knows this as we've seen it before - so here are five famous clubs that were not too big to go down.

Manchester United 1973-74

In 1968 Manchester United won the European Cup, six years later they were relegated. 

A year after winning European football’s biggest prize, the late great Sir Matt Busby stood down as manager of Manchester United and retired from the game. In circumstances similar to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson over 40 years later, a guy called Wilf McGuinness was given the unenviable task of taking over from the big man. As with David Moyes who replaced Sir Alex, things did not end well and McGuinness was out the door after a year and a half. Busby came back to steady the ship until the end of the season before Frank O’Farrell took the reigns. O’Farrell lasted 28 months before departing with the club third bottom of the First Division. Although his replacement Tommy Docherty managed to avoid the drop come the end of the season, next time out he would not be so lucky.

A season of mostly losses and draws saw United all but down until a late revival gave them hope. But an unbeaten run of four wins and two draws was in the end not enough to save their skin. Two games later a second defeat in a row saw them officially relegated with just one game remaining. The match in question was a home game against cross town rivals Manchester City in which ex United legend Dennis Law grabbed the winning goal with a stupendous backheel in a 1-0 win for the visitors - a goal which was followed by a pitch invasion that saw the game delayed. A 36 year unbroken run in the top flight had finally come to an end.

Docherty remained in charge for another three years and oversaw an immediate return to First Division football as Division Two champions the following season. United have yet to be relegated since and although a mixed 15+ years or so followed they were eventually back on top to dominate English football throughout much of the 90s and 00s. This saw United become the most successful side in the whole history of English football with a record 20 top flight league titles thanks to adding another 13 in the Premier League era.

Hamburger SV 2017-18

Prior to 2017-18, Hamburg had never been relegated from the Bundesliga. Considering they were the only club to have played in every single one of the league's 54 seasons of existence (Bayern did not join the party until it was a few years old) this was no mean feat. 2017-18 would obviously make it to 55 but unexpectedly they would not reach 56.

In 2001, to celebrate having never missed a Bundesliga season since its 1963 introduction, Hamburg installed at their Volksparkstadion home a digital clock showing the years, weeks, days, and hours they had spent in the division but eventually, the clock would stop. To be fair they did get a good 17 years out of it but I think they had been hoping for an awful lot more.

Hamburg won four and lost two of their last six games in 2017-18 and were only one extra win away from finishing one place higher in the relegation play-off spot but a long way from complete safety. Despite having started the season with two straight wins they won only twice more before those final six matches and at one point went 15 matches without a victory. Because of this, their late flourish was not enough, the damage was already done.

Hamburg, who won the European Cup in 1983, have failed to make it back to the Bundesliga despite a few near misses and, as things stand, this season look set to again miss out on a much coveted return to top flight football. They do still have an outside chance of going up so you never know, but although it’s a case of not quite yet impossible it is looking increasingly unlikely as the season draws to a close.

Club Atlético de Madrid 1999-00

In 1995-96 Atlético Madrid were crowned Spanish La Liga champions for the first time in 19 years, four years later they were relegated. 

Three times league champions in the 1970s and European Cup runners up for good measure, Atleti also had five earlier league triumphs to their name. Basically, despite not having quite had the successes of the country's big two FC Barcelona and Real Madrid they had nonetheless still been more successful than most. They had also been ever present in the top flight for longer than most cared to remember - 66 straight seasons to be precise. Relegation was not something you expected of the capital’s second club.

Atleti won their final game of the 1999-00 season but had been winless in their previous 15 league matches and because of this were already down. The club were relegated to the Segunda División in second from last position having finished thirteenth only a year earlier.

Despite an abysmal league campaign, however, Atleti still managed to reach the Copa del Rey final, where they lost to RCD Espanyol, and the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

A rejuvenated Atlético Madrid side that included a young Fernando Torres just missed out on promotion the following season with a fourth placed finish but went up as league champions at the second attempt and have remained in the top flight ever since. Over this period they have twice won La Liga, won one Cop del Rey, managed three Europa League triumphs and twice finished beaten finalists in the Champions League. All of those successes, bar one Europa League accomplishment, have occurred within the last ten years.

Grasshopper Club Zürich 2018-19

Perhaps the 2018-19 relegation of Grasshoppers from the Swiss Super League (which I wrote about here) was to be expected. After all, having failed to win another league title since their last triumph in 2003 they had seemingly been on a downward spiral for a long while since. This had culminated in dismal finishes of third, then second bottom in the two seasons prior to that fateful campaign. (If the 2018-19 introduction of a relegation play-off for the second bottom club in the ten-team top-flight had have come in a year earlier then their demise potentially might have come sooner)

Nonetheless, come the end of the season when their relegation was finally confirmed it still sent shockwaves around the country. After all, with 27 league titles to their name Grasshoppers were the most successful side in Swiss football history and at 69 years straight they had featured continuously in the top division for just 14 years shy of the nation's average life expectancy and that according to the World Health Organisation was the second highest in the world.

Grasshoppers ended their 2018-19 campaign rock bottom of the table with just four wins to their name and the last of those had come at the end of November with some 21 games still to play! The eight draws that followed across the remainder of the season were not anywhere near enough to keep them up as they finished 12 points behind Neuchâtel Xamax in the play-off spot and some 18 behind FC Sion and complete safety. All those years of top-flight football had come to end with barely a whimper! 

A third placed finish in 2019-20 saw Grasshoppers miss out on an immediate return to the top flight but 2020-21 saw them promoted as champions.

Club Atlético River Plate 2010-11

River Plate are the most successful club in Argentinian football history, just eclipsing arch rivals Boca Juniors, and prior to the 2010-11 season, they had never before been relegated. 

For River, the 2010-11 season was a fairly average one but it was far from terrible and you would certainly have thought they had amassed enough points to avoid relegation. Argentina has a unique relegation system, however, which is based on an average number of points earned over the last three seasons including the one just played (or the number of seasons played since promotion if less than three) and this helped send River down. 

For River, finishing bottom of the Torneo Apertura in the 2008-09 Primera División was partly their undoing. The Torneo Apertura is the opening championship which is followed by the closing championship known as the Torneo Clausura. This means that one champion is crowned midway through the season and potentially a different second champion crowned at the end of the season. 

Regardless of how they crown their champions and how they deal with relegation, however, River Plate came nowhere near winning a title over those three years and come the end of them were in a relegation play-off spot in that averages table.

To save themselves from relegation River would have to beat second tier side Club Atlético Belgrano in a two legged play-off match. This proved beyond RIver Plate, however, when after a 2-0 first leg loss away from home they could only manage a 1-1 draw on their own patch bringing angry scenes both in and outside the stadium.

Still to this day arch rivals Boca Juniors sing about the shame of River getting relegated, something they have never experienced themselves. But River arguably had the last laugh as promoted at the first attempt they later went on to beat their rivals in the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2018. The Libertadores is the South American continent's premier club competition and the story of River’s 2018 triumph over Boca could fill a whole book on its own and that’s just the events off the pitch! We’ll leave that for another day, however.