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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't Look Down

Nobes on why those who love a good relegation battle may be disappointed come the conclusion of the season.

The contrasting emotions for the managers in last term's relegation battle at Hillsborough

Call me sadistic, but there's nothing I love more than a good old relegation battle.

During my own club's inauspicious five years in the Football League, three times we were involved towards the wrong end of the table fighting relegation.

I can honestly say they were the most fun times I had during our League era. Mind you, that could be because we spent the other two years flattering to deceive in mid table with an expensively assembled squad playing dour football.

That sad fact - as well as a warning to all Crawley fans of what's to come - apart though, even challenging for the play offs wouldn't have been as much fun as a dogfight at the bottom.

Sure, winning most weeks and looking upwards and forwards is great. I'm not saying I'd trade our current top five push in the Conference North for anything either.

However, were we to somehow make it back-to-back promotions come the end of the season, a relegation fight next term would have me salivating rather than worrying. Bring on the drama.

In fact, I think it's a football fan thing. After all, nobody really enjoys a dull end to a season, you'd rather have your team fighting for something if only to make life interesting.

It's a unique pressure that differs greatly from competing for promotion. Success is met with relief rather than joy. Every point gained is won, rather than the fear factor of dropping points when you're at the top.

While the achievement may not warrant a trophy or medal, finishing above the drop zone can sometimes generate the greatest outpouring of emotion and celebration.

Would the final round of fixtures in last season's Championship have been quite as dramatic had Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace been competing over promotion, rather than relegation at Hillsborough?

We get that every year with the play off finals. One team wins, one team loses. One celebrates, one commiserates. With relegation one team breathes the biggest sigh of relief while the other despairs. There is no greater contrast in the game.

Which is why those of us who revel in watching close fights to the wire to avoid relegation may be a bit disappointed come the conclusion of this season. Things could soon become very cut and dry in the relegation issues.

Take the bottom of League Two, for instance, where appearances are incredibly deceiving. While Burton may sit in 22nd and just two points above Barnet, the Brewers have four games in hand over the Londoners.

Just a couple of wins from those matches and the Bees, as well as similarly beleaguered Stockport, will suddenly find themselves cut well adrift and in need of top seven form to survive.

Time and games are running out for League Two strugglers Stockport County

Games in hand could also leave things in League One not quite as interesting as they appear to be. Dagenham & Redbridge currently occupy the final position of safety in the third tier, by virtue of a superior goal difference to Walsall.

However, the Daggers hold four games in hand over the Black Country side, and the next closest opponents - Yeovil and Tranmere - also have a couple of games more than the Saddlers.

The same applies to the trio of West Country sides, Plymouth, Swindon, and Bristol Rovers, who are also currently fighting to avoid the drop into the basement division next season.

In the Championship, too, the relegation fight doesn't appear as close as previous season.

Phil Brown has been unable to rescue the carnage left behind by the Darren Ferguson regime at Preston. The Lancashire side lie ten points adrift of safety, and relegation appears a formality.

Just one win in 14 league games under Micky Adams hardly suggests that Sheffield United will manage to lift themselves out of the bottom three between now and the end of the season either.

The Blades are six points adrift of fourth bottom Crystal Palace, with Scunthorpe - four points behind - completing the trio of sides in the relegation zone.

Ian Baraclough's men have shown a fighting spirit of late, collecting 10 points from their last six home matches. However, they've yet to collect a single point from seven away games in 2011.

When you consider too the strength of Palace at home - they've kept clean sheets in eight of their last nine games at Selhurst Park - then the Iron can't rely on their own home form keeping them up.

Instead, interest will turn to the promotion issues in each division, which have been scarcely been tighter than they currently are.

Excluding Queens Park Rangers's relentless march towards the Premier League, there's little to separate the rest of the Championship's promotion chasers.

The likes of Swansea, Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and current occupiers Norwich have all sat in the second automatic promotion spot at some stage this season. It's impossible to know who will hold it come the end of the term though.

They all have taken points off one another too and, to further complicate matters, although Forest remain unbeaten against all their promotion rivals they currently sit below them all.

The weekend's results were a case in point, with Swansea going down to a surprise loss at Derby while Cardiff, Leeds, and Forest were all held at home by mid table sides. Only Norwich recorded a victory.

All five sides have experience of promotion and play offs in recent seasons too. Forest and Cardiff were play off contenders last term, Swansea finished 7th, and Norwich and Leeds won promotion from League One 12 months ago.

Only Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers hasn't any experience of play offs as a manager too, with Simon Grayson at Leeds, Forest's Billy Davies, and Cardiff manager Dave Jones having all won promotion via the end of season lottery in the past.

Will no play experience stop Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers from winning promotion?

Then you can throw three late challengers into the mix. Burnley were promoted via the play offs in 2009 and with a promotion winning manager at Bournemouth in Eddie Howe at the helm.

Twelve months before the Clarets went up, it was Hull who were enjoying Wembley success in the play offs, and their boss Nigel Pearson was in the play offs with Leicester last term.

The Foxes shouldn't be discounted this time around either, with the vastly experienced Sven-Goran Eriksson looking to guide his expensively assembled squad into the top six.

It's a similar story in League One. Gus Poyet's Brighton & Hove Albion look destined to begin life in their new stadium at Falmer next season in the second tier. Who will join them is anyone's guess.

Just five points separate the sides beneath them, with Huddersfield, Peterborough, Southampton, Bournemouth, and Milton Keynes Dons all in the running for promotion.

And waiting in the wings, hoping to use games in hand to their advantage are Leyton Orient. The O's have lost just one of their last 20 league matches, and manager Russell Slade took Yeovil to the 2007 League One play off final.

Of the others, Huddersfield figured in last season's play offs, with the Dons doing the same in 2009. They were knocked out by a Scunthorpe side who won promotion under Nigel Adkins - who is now at the helm at Southampton.

Darren Ferguson is back at Peterborough, whom he took into the Championship a couple of years ago, and Bournemouth's group of players know all about promotion after last season's elevation from League Two.

Speaking of which, with Chesterfield running away with the basement division title, the fight for the other two automatic promotion places is even more intense.

Bury and Wycombe lead the way currently - the two sides finished 4th and 3rd respectively two seasons ago. Rotherham are once more in contention as they seek to bounce back from play off final disappointment last term.

The Millers manager Ronnie Moore took the South Yorkshire side to back-to-back promotions last decade, so has experience of such scenarios. As does Shrewsbury boss Graham Turner, who most recently won promotion with Hereford in 2008.

Gillingham are hoping to bounce back from relegation last season and make it two promotions in three years and Port Vale are managed by Jim Gannon, who led Stockport to play off final glory at Wembley in 2008.

The nearest challenger is a side who enjoyed play off success in the Conference in 2009, Torquay United. The Gulls would relish the chance to extend their season by two or three matches.

A quick glance at the fixture list sees the Devon side travel to Rotherham on the final day, a fixture which could have a lot riding on it.

Indeed, you could be well advised to look up
for your last day drama in 2011. By then, events at the bottom could well be done and dusted. More's the pity.

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