In English football history, there have been many ‘great escapes’. Those that would instantly spring to mind of fans would be the likes of Luton Town, Hartlepool United, Torquay United, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, Hull City and Coventry City. The list is almost endless. For those whose team have endured these escapes, they live long in the mind as good and bad memories, while neutrals have watched in fascination as the story has unfolded. Here is a look back at just five of football’s greatest escapes.
The Greatest Escapes in English Football History
Burnley – 1987
Almost 34 years ago, Burnley, now an established Premier League club were bottom of the Football League. With crowds on the decline and investment in short supply, relegation to non-league football could have proven to be disastrous for the Clarets existence. The 1986/87 season went down to the very last day. Three teams faced relegation and with Burnley bottom, they were favourites to go down.
Their season began brightly with just one defeat in their first seven games; however, afterwards, it rapidly went downhill. Five defeats in the next six games sent the Clarets plummeting down the table. This run set the tone for the remainder of the season and with attendance struggling to surpass 3,000 for much of the campaign, Burnley Football Club appeared to be doomed. Burnley had been a top-flight team 11 years prior and in 1960 they were crowned champions of England.
But the final week of the 86/87 season was a rollercoaster for all. A surprise victory over promotion-chasing Southend United gave everyone hope. However, this was followed by a defeat against Crewe Alexandra. When the final day of the season arrived, Burnley were bottom and had to win with other results going their way. A crowd of 15,696 turned up at Turf Moor in the hope of survival. The national media were also in attendance to cover the possibility of one of the Football League’s founding members and fallen giants being relegated.
The game was delayed by 15 minutes to allow fans in. These extra 15 minutes proved nail-biting at the end as they would know results from elsewhere and know exactly what they needed to do. Relegation rivals Torquay United drew and Lincoln City lost, meaning a victory for Burnley would ensure survival. Leading 2-0 against Leyton Orient, the Clarets needed to hang on. Orient pulled a goal back and results began to filter through. Burnley must now defend and not concede. They did just that and stayed in the Football League by a single point.
Leicester City – 2015
To say that Leicester struggled during the 2014/15 season would be an understatement. However, what happened would not only go down as one of football’s greatest escapes but also be the launchpad for one of the most successful periods in the club’s history.
One loss in the opening five matches hinted at a comfortable season; however, the Foxes form dropped dramatically. The next 13 games brought just two points. Two wins in the next three games gave false hope to fans as another winless run of eight games followed. City were rock bottom and, following defeat at Tottenham in late March, had won just four league games all season.
The Foxes were not about to give up and embarked on an epic run of form. The last nine games of the season brought seven wins. From the 27 points available, Nigel Pearson’s team picked up 22. It was a remarkable run of form and saw performances that fans didn’t believe were possible. In the end, their epic run took them to 14th in the table, six points away from the relegation places and 11 from the bottom spot they had occupied for much of the season.
Speaking to talkSPORT about the season, captain Wes Morgan said: “Even though we were in relegation trouble, during that season we felt like we were playing good football and we just weren’t getting the rub of the green.
“It got to a point when people were thinking ‘ten games left, it’s all done and dusted, surely they can’t get out of this’. But we pulled off the great escape.”
The Leicester City miracle story does not end there. One year later, they defied all odds and won the Premier League title.
Sunderland – 2014
When the greatest escapes are talked about in football, Sunderland will often feature. The Black Cats have endured many seasons where relegation looked likely but somehow they managed to survive. The 2013/14 season was. no exception and produced arguably Sunderland’s greatest escape.
The Black Cats were seven points from safety with just six games to play. Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United were still to be played away from home, and for many, relegation would be confirmed sooner rather than later. Sunderland needed a miracle.
Paolo Di Canio began the season as manager. The controversial Italian had kept Sunderland in the Premier League the previous season and put his stamp on the squad during the summer. 14 players arrived with 13 departing. Many felt Di Canio was correct in rebuilding the squad; however, the quality of the majority of those who arrived left a lot to be desired. One point from the opening seven games showed that another season of struggle would be witnessed at the Stadium of Light.
Di Canio was sacked and in came Gus Poyet. His first home game gave fans hope as they defeated fierce rivals Newcastle United to record their first win of the season. Form improved a little and progress was being made in the League Cup (they would reach the final) but at the start of the new year, Poyet’s side were bottom of the table despite a run of just one defeat in nine games. The good form came to a grinding halt when just one point was collected in the next eight games. Sunderland were now adrift at the bottom with little to no hope.
Prior to a trip to Manchester City, Poyet changed his team’s formation. Out went the 5-3-2 formation and instead, Poyet began to use a 4-5-1. Sunderland had just six games to save themselves and hope teams above them would drop points. The Black Cats collected a surprise draw at the Eithad. This was then followed by a 2-1 victory at Chelsea before Cardiff City left the Stadium of Light on the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat. Fans were beginning to believe. A 1-0 victory at Old Trafford was followed by another home win, this time against West Brom. 13 points had been won in just five games and was enough to lift Sunderland to a lofty 14th place and complete the greatest of escapes.
Carlisle United – 1999
Carlisle had struggled all season to find consistency on the pitch. It was this lack of form throughout the season that saw the Cumbrians sat at the bottom of the table on the final day. With just three games left, United were given an even bigger uphill battle when their goalkeeper was sold. With no other keeper, a loan signing was allowed.
Needing a win and a result elsewhere to go their way, United were certs to be relegated from the Football League. However, no one would have predicted what would unfold and who the hero would be. Carlisle welcomed Plymouth Argyle knowing that only a victory would give them any chance of survival. Scarborough who were the other team fighting for survival drew with Peterborough United. The Carlisle game was level at 1-1 when the Scarborough result was announced, and just four minutes were remaining.
With just seconds to go, United forced a corner. On-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass, playing only his third game for the club, went forward in the hope of disrupting the Plymouth defence. A header was saved by the Argyle keeper and rebounded to Glass who fired the ball into the goal. Just seconds before pictures of Scarborough fans celebrating were shown on television. Glass’s goal changed everything. It is this goal that he is most remembered for and for a goalkeeper that’s something.
Sheffield United – 1991
Sixteen games had passed when Sheffield United recorded their first win during the 1990/91 season. Following back to back promotions, it appeared that the Blades had got to the top-flight too soon and looked odds on for an instant relegation. On Christmas Day, Dave Bassett’s team had just four points. The Blades needed a miracle.
In this situation a manager would sign more players; however, Bassett decided to invest in off the field personnel. In came a psychologist and a fitness coach. Diets changed, training changed, attitudes changed and soon enough results changed. Their first win was met with a pitch invasion from fans celebrating.
Results kept improving and their superior fitness was winning them points late in games when the opposition began to tire. From a team who didn’t come close to beating teams during the first half of the season where now winning against the best teams in the league. This form took the Blades from bottom to 13th in the table, 12 points clear of the relegation zone.