THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

30 September ~ This pre-season's Premier League predictions had one part that most were convinced of. Blackpool had no way of avoiding relegation. Yet after impressive opening results they seem to have as good a chance of staying up as any of the less-fancied teams. It's common for one of the newly promoted clubs to start off with such good form that if maintained over the season would result in a Europa League spot. Neutrals then patiently wait for that side's form to collapse, and almost inevitably they aren't disappointed.

The effect on small squads of injury and suspension explains the frequency of this kind of slump, along with the wasting away of early-season adrenaline and enthusiasm. Can Blackpool buck the trend, build on their start and stay comfortably away from the relegation zone all season?

Orthodox thought is that winning your home games ensures survival, and that is true in the sense that 14 wins at home gives you 42 points. Clubs with outstanding home form like that tend not to be involved in a relegation battle at all, however. The opposite seems to be true for those genuinely fighting for their lives. These teams, finishing within the group without an appreciable points gap to the bottom three, generally have similar home records with the odd exception here and there. It is away form which ends up being fatal for those consigned to the drop. It is vital, if you're not good enough to win eight or nine at home, to do well against your competitors and pick up points away from home.

Burnley's good form early last season consisted largely of home wins against non-strugglers. Over the season they did poorly against their direct competitors, defeating only Hull and West Ham, and managing only one away win. Then only three wins and a draw after New Year meant they went straight back down. Hull's first season after promotion followed a similar arc, though if anything an even more extreme one. Six wins and only one defeat in their first nine games was Champions League qualification form. The end to their season of 15 defeats from the last 22 games with only a single win after early December meant they were still battling the drop for a large part of it, surviving by a single point. Importantly, those six early wins contained four away from home, two of which were against teams who eventually went down.

So, apart from the first few months, Hull's form was catastrophic, but it didn't matter because although their home record was worse than the teams below them, they ended up with a much better away record, based purely on that start. In addition, of the three relegated sides plus themselves, they were the only one to at least take equal points from head-to-heads with the other three.

Here is where Blackpool find hope. Their early successes have included away wins against teams tipped to be fellow strugglers, Newcastle and Wigan. Already they have a good away record in the making, and at least level pegging in head-to-heads against two competitors. Assuming they eke out the home wins common among strugglers, they are well on the way to getting enough away points to ensure survival. The style and tactical nous displayed in those wins suggests that luck played little part in them, though a worry must be that their away form in their promotion season was nothing special, especially if they are to rely on it.

Statistics and trends of course are only useful pointers while teams continue to follow them. Blackpool could follow the path trod by another recent promoted team, Birmingham, and survive so comfortably that they are never in any danger at all, or they could fail to win another game and be doomed by Christmas. Even so, hints from previous seasons tell us that they may just have to face up to a widely unexpected challenge – the difficult second season. Mark Brophy

Comments (7)
Comment by jameswba 2010-09-30 11:50:09

Yes, but the year Hull stayed up they won at Arsenal and drew at Liverpool so you could equally argue that unexpected points against 'big four' teams saved them. WBA, meanwhile, earned no points at all against the 'big four' and went down. I enjoyed the article but still feel it is open to the accusation that it leaves out those inconvenient facts which don't happen to fit your theory.

Comment by MarkBrophy 2010-09-30 15:46:05

James, you're right, it's just a theory. I could point out that Burnley in their relegation season got more points against the top 4 than Hull did in staying up the year before - reinforcing my point that away form is more important as a factor in determining the relegation places, but I'm sure you could find other examples where the opposite is true. Although the last 2 years were used as examples, the article was meant to convey a general theme rather than concentrate on specific seasons. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that more often than not, away form and head-to-heads will be more important to these teams than other groups of results, though I'll leave a proper statistical analysis to academics.

Glad you enjoyed it, and good luck for the season, maybe you won't need it!

Comment by Janik 2010-10-02 11:23:23

So how do Stoke in 08-09 fit? They, like Hull, were cast iron certainties before the season started (one dipshit bookmaker (you all know who) paid out on Stoke's relegation after an opening day 3-1 defeat at Bolton). Stoke started badly, only having five points from their opening seven games, were well and truly involved in the relegation battle as they where still in the bottom three in February, and didn't win an away game until April. The final away record was a fairly miserable 2-4-13. It was home form that kept Stoke's heads above water in the opening half of the season and a second-half of the season good run that eventually propelled them to 45 points and twelveth place.

There is no set way of gathering enough points to stay up. The only thing that matters is the final total, where and when the points are earned is irrelevant. So take Blackpool's good away start as a positive development for the simple reason that it has earned some points, but don't try and read anything beyond Blackpool being (pleasantly) more competitive than many expected.

You could replace this entire article with this picture:- http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3198/2325920887_b206236832.jpg?v=0

Comment by jameswba 2010-10-02 19:16:38

But one of Stoke's away wins was at WBA. They also beat them at home. Stoke stayed up, Albion went down. So the author might argue that that would support his point about doing well in head-to-heads. And, like Hull, Stoke took unexpected points off 'big four' clubs which supports my belief that you shouldn't write off those games.

Too early to say what's going to happen to Blackpool or WBA this season but you could argue that the reason Albion are already in a better position is their ability to see off middling sides(Sunderland, Birmingham) at home, something Stoke also seem to be good at, compared with Blackpool's one point from the Fulham and Blackburn games.



Comment by Janik 2010-10-04 09:54:11

But for the double against West Brom, you can also note loses at Bolton, Portsmouth, Blackburn, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Yet Stoke finished above all these teams. It wasn't the head-to-heads against direct rivals or the away wins that pushed Stoke clear, it was the home form in beating sides up to and including Arsenal.

Comment by MarkBrophy 2010-10-04 14:09:14

Good point about Stoke, no doubt it felt to them at the time that they were involved in a relegation battle, and yes their home form kept them safe. But that late run meant they finished 12 points clear of the bottom three, and they were well clear with 6 or 7 games to go. In the end they were closer to Fulham in the Europa League spots.

I agree there's no set 'formula' of how to get enough points to survive. You get the same number of points for beating Chelsea as Wigan, home and away. I was trying to challenge the frequently-made statement that home form is all that matters to these teams, pointing out the trend of how real strugglers tend to manage it, and there will always be exceptions to that. It is a lot rarer for teams who have won 4 or 5 away to go down than teams who've won 6 or 7 at home though. By my reckoning only 6 from 45 to go down in the 15 seasons since the Premier League reduced from 22 to 20 teams won 4 or more on their travels. In the same period 22 from 45 relegated won 6 or more at home.

As an aside, I don't support Blackpool and I'm indifferent to their fate, though I think that they have some good players and play decent football.

Comment by MarkBrophy 2010-10-04 14:24:59

Apologies - arithmetic error there that couldn't even be described as 'schoolboy'. Stoke finished 11 points clear of the relegation zone in 08/09, not 12.

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