Usually, when a team plummets through the Premier League trapdoor, it is down to a fundamental lack of quality. While there might be various other factors involved – tensions within the squad, managerial instability, financial problems off the pitch – the most common cause of relegation is that the players are simply not up to scratch. Barring a select few genius managers, there is little a coach can do with a squad which lacks the talent and ability to survive in the top flight, and so the simple truth is that relegation comes to those least capable. That said, over the decades, there have been several notable exceptions. In the history of English football, there are a small cabal of teams who shocked the nation by ending up in the drop zone, having been widely deemed too good to go down by fandom and commentariat alike.
The first of these teams was Aston Villa, no doubt the biggest club in England during the emergent years of the Football League. The Villans won the title six times between the league's inaugural season in 1988/89 and 1909/10, while also claiming victory in six FA Cup finals before the twenties were in full swing. They declined somewhat in the inter-war period, even if they were twice runners-up to Arsenal in the early thirties. Having been solidly mid-table over the course of the previous couple of seasons, they stunned fans up and down the country by dropping down to the Second Division at the end of the 1935/36 campaign, at a time when there were only two relegation places. Villa still had club stalwarts like Danny Blair, Ronnie Dix and the legendary Dai Astley in their ranks, and managed to go down alongside Blackburn despite outscoring most of the teams in the league. In hindsight, the frankly enormous 110 goals they conceded might have had something to do with the disastrous outcome of their season, though thankfully their improved defensive showings saw them bounce back as Second Division champions the following year.
The next side to suffer a shock demotion was the Manchester City side of 1937/38, who went down in perhaps the most spectacular fashion of all time. To this day, they remain the only side in history to have won the First Division title and been relegated the season afterwards. Managed by the brilliantly named Wilf Wild, City gained a reputation for playing some of the most expansive football in the country, crowned champions after scoring 107 goals and comprehensively demolishing their nearest rivals. Unfortunately, they became rather too expansive, as evidenced by the fact that they went down the next season with 80 goals and a positive goal difference to their name.
City were at least entertaining that season and, in the aftermath of their relegation, a football correspondent for The Times referred to them as "a fantastically eccentric side." Their fans had witnessed plenty of goalmouth action, even if much of it had been inauspicious and their team had failed to get the requisite results. That's more that could be said of their cross-town rivals during their own shock experience of the drop, which came at the end of the 1973/74 campaign. Manchester United had won the European Cup only five years previously, but eventually ended up mired in the bottom three with a tally of only 32 points. Even worse, they had found the net only 38 times all season, this despite boasting the talents of George Graham, Lou Macari, Sammy McIlroy and George Best, albeit not at his talismanic peak and in an increasingly mutinous mood.
To put into context just how dire United were that term, their goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, was the team's main source of goals for much of the season. Manager Tommy Docherty had decided to give him the responsibility of taking penalties and, having scored one in a loss to Leicester and another in a narrow win over Birmingham City, the man between the sticks found himself top of the scoring charts after 12 games. Remarkably, Stepney would remain the club's top scorer for another 10 matches, all the way up until late December. Come April, United's relegation was topped off with a famous goal from the iconic Denis Law, a man who had made over 400 appearances for the Old Trafford club before switching to Manchester City the season before.
Speaking on The Big Match after the final whistle, a visibly dejected Docherty pulled no punches. He said of United's relegation: "I'm upset for the players… I'm upset for the directors and the supporters, because I feel very ashamed and embarrassed to be in this position." It was a momentous occurrence in English football, and saw one of the biggest clubs in the country tumble gracelessly out of the top tier. Docherty would keep his job regardless – hard to imagine now, given the extreme precariousness of modern football management – and lead United to an immediate promotion, vindicating his directors further when he subsequently won the FA Cup.
There were a few surprises over the course of the eighties, not least the relegation of Leeds United and Aston Villa. Both were huge clubs with recent honours, but had been gripped by a slow-burning sense of decline. Their relegations were less compelling than those of their predecessors, if only because they lacked that same shock factor. Indeed, football fans would have to wait until the heady days of the early nineties for the 'too good to go down' tag to be ostentatiously revived.
The old cliche announced its nineties renaissance by first striking down Nottingham Forest, who finished bottom of the table in the Premier League's maiden campaign. This was a team that included the hardy talents of Scot Gemmill, Stuart Pearce and Roy Keane, all under the stewardship of the club's greatest ever manager, Brian Clough. Despite his legendary status, however, Clough's increasingly erratic behaviour and struggle with alcoholism were problematic. The loss of Teddy Sheringham at the start of the season was terminal for the team, and Forest's fate was ultimately decided by their incurable lethargy going forwards.
While Forest were a strong outfit, they had nothing like the financial backing of the Middlesbrough team which took up the torch of surprise relegation. Ahead of the 1996/97 season, Boro brought a series of exotic imports in the form of Juninho, Emerson, and Fabrizio Ravanelli, altogether at considerable cost. Funded by chairman and benefactor Steve Gibson, Bryan Robson's men were expected to challenge for European football. Instead, they muddled their way into the drop zone, and found that a needless mid-season points deduction was the difference between going down and staying up.
That same season, Boro had to endure the pain of losing in both domestic cup finals, rounding off a thoroughly miserable year for the club. That was a fate which West Ham were thankfully spared during the 2002/03 campaign, though they also ended up falling headlong into the Championship in spite of their abundantly gifted squad. Where Bryan Robson had acted as the hapless managerial foil for Boro, Glenn Roeder played the part for the Hammers. His side, including the likes of David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe, were relegated with a total of 42 points. In fairness, since the introduction of the 38-game season, that remains the most points accrued by a Premier League team who have ended up in the bottom three, not that statistics were much of a comfort when the squad was swiftly cannibalised by other clubs.
Perhaps the last side of the modern era whose relegation flew in the face of the consensus, Leeds United went down in flames at the conclusion of 2003/04. The club was struggling under a huge burden of debt but, nevertheless, could still call upon the services of Alan Smith, James Milner, Nick Barmby and Mark Viduka, to name but a few. Unfortunately, the ominous shadow of the club's creditors loomed increasingly large over proceedings, not helped by a perfect storm of player sales, managerial instability and a general malaise at almost every level. The club ended up six points from safety, and haven't played Premier League football since.
While we like to maintain the facade that the quality of the Premier League increases year on year, the truth is that there have been no real shocks amongst the relegation candidates of the last few years. Whether it be promoted sides painfully low on quality or mismanaged giants like Newcastle and Aston Villa, the teams who make up the bottom three these days are often appallingly poor to watch. Nonetheless, in time, the old cliche will strike again. While quality and talent might decide the matter in the vast majority of cases, the truth is that there is no such thing as a team which is too good to fail.