Bradford, Fulham and West Ham have all performed great escapes that can inspire current relegation strugglers
Six years ago Fulham lost 3-1 at home against Sunderland, leaving the London club second bottom of the Premier League and six points from the relegation cutoff with only five matches remaining and their manager, Roy Hodgson, crestfallen. "The only lifeline is that football is not played on paper," Hodgson said afterwards. "On paper it looks very, very bad for us."
Written off by just about everyone, Hodgson's side went on to take 12 points from a possible 15, including winning at Manchester City despite being two goals down with only 20 minutes remaining, to survive. It is an act of escapology that should serve as a source of inspiration to the current Fulham team and may also provide a glimmer of hope to Gus Poyet and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, both of whom have said that their Sunderland and Cardiff City players need a miracle to stay up after a dreadful run of results.
At Craven Cottage the mood is more upbeat. If Fulham can follow up their 2-1 win at Villa Park with victory over Norwich City on Saturday, Felix Magath's side will move to within two points of a club that have just sacked their manager and have a daunting run of fixtures to come. Fulham, in contrast, still have to play Hull and Crystal Palace at Craven Cottage, fuelling the belief that a repeat of 2008 could be on the cards.
Paul Konchesky, who has just won promotion to the Premier League with Leicester City, was part of the Fulham team that retained their top-flight status under Hodgson after winning 1-0 at Fratton Park on the final day in 2008, although it is that extraordinary afternoon at Manchester City that he will never forget. He remembers how calm Hodgson was throughout, even during his half-time team talk at the Etihad Stadium when all appeared lost.
"We were 2-0 down after about 20 minutes and I think even the players were thinking: 'That's it, we're down now,'" Konchesky says. "We were relegated at half-time, really. But we went back out in the second half, [Diomansy] Kamara scored, Danny Murphy got a penalty with 10 minutes to go, then it was all guns blazing because we had nothing to lose.
"It was the 90th minute when Kamara scored again, and the feeling from that was almost: 'We've done it.' You know you haven't stayed up on the back of one game but it felt like we had. The confidence and the buzz around the place after that one match changed our season."
Twelve months earlier Alan Curbishley's West Ham side had been in a similarly precarious position after a heavy defeat against fellow strugglers Sheffield United left them five points adrift with five games remaining. West Ham lost 4-1 at home against Chelsea the following week but, inspired by Carlos Tevez, Curbishley's side picked up maximum points from their last four matches, culminating in a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on the final day, to finish 15th and condemn Sheffield United to the Championship.
Curbishley cites three key factors in West Ham's survival. "If I look back at it, I would say we got a little bit of luck, which everyone needs, consistent team selection, which I'd never had before – I think we only used 13 players in the run-in – plus we had five clean sheets in the final nine games, so it wasn't all about Tevez," he says.
While Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion have all defied the odds to survive at various times over the past decade, none of them were playing catch up at this stage of the season to the same degree as the bottom three are now. As bleak as it appears for Cardiff and Sunderland, both of whom have been in woeful form, one unexpected win can be the trigger for a run of results completely out of keeping with what has gone before, as Fulham proved in 2008 and Bradford City discovered back in 2000.
Paul Jewell's side had lost six on the spin but a draw with Derby followed by victory at Sunderland, who had lost only twice at home all season, was the catalyst for an unlikely revival in which Bradford collected 10 points from their final five fixtures. They survived at the expense of Wimbledon, who in a desperate but failed attempt to arrest an alarming slump sacked Egil Olsen with three games left.
While Jewell understood Wimbledon's decision at the time – "I definitely think that the players had downed tools for Egil Olsen" – he is amazed that Norwich have dismissed Chris Hughton so late in the campaign. "No disrespect to Neil Adams, who I hope goes on to be a top coach, but how can they expect a youth-team coach to be thrust into the relegation fight? I just don't understand the thinking behind it," Jewell says.
For Jewell, who also kept Wigan up on the final day of the season in 2007, it comes as a relief to be watching relegation battles from afar these days. "I do smile when I see some of the interviews that the managers down there give. If they came out and said the truth, everyone would say: 'We're already down.' Gus Poyet has been slated for saying: 'We need a miracle.' But miracles do happen in football. We beat Liverpool on the last day with Bradford, and West Ham beat Manchester United on the last day in 2007, so while there's life there's hope."