It is at this point of the season, with at least one relegation spot confirmed and at least one up for grabs, that neutrals ask among themselves – “who would you miss?”
A callous thought, no doubt. But with Liverpool finally confirming the league, the Champions League spots much of a muchness and the four previous FA Cup winners making up the semi-finals, the only real thrill to be gained from this domestic season is to watch the scrap of the have-nots.
We laud the relegation dogfight in British football, even if it is a sentiment informed by the impartial observer. For those in the thick of it, there is little joy in seeing the club you love spend an entire campaign teetering on the brink of ruin. Especially when getting back can be such an arduous task.
That’s not to say pride cannot be found here. As Southampton experienced on Sunday with a win that puts them 13 points above the relegation zone in 13th, having served their time second-from-bottom at the end of last year, there can be a deep sense of accomplishment when you rise above it. It can also be a place of calm resignation, something which Norwich City fans have felt since the start of the year, now seven points adrift at the bottom. There will be some good memories from this one-season sojourn to the top-tier with takeaways of how they might stay there longer next time.
The real anguish – thus, the real entertainment – can be found in the four teams split by a point that will eventually have to make up 18th and 19th. And it is with these four that this season’s elaborate game of “shag, marry, relegate, relegate” is being played.
You could class them as four “established” Premier League sides: Watford, West Ham and Bournemouth have been as consistent furniture – there without being in the way – alongside Aston Villa who arrived with a sense of being back where they belong.
Perhaps Villa are the least culpable as newly promoted. Despite being in the worst position of the four – 19th on 27 points having played a game more than Bournemouth and Watford, who have just as many. Spending to compete and bringing those players together successfully was always going to be tough, and there’s no indication Dean Smith is being judged for failing to do so effectively just yet. The same cannot be said of the other three managers, even if they stay up.
Nevertheless, each arrived into the 2019/2020 season without giving a second thought to having to face their own mortalities. But over time Watford have had to come to terms with a distinct lack of identity, West Ham have yet again seen ambitious plans crumble under wonky foundations and Bournemouth are paying the price for treading water for too long.
The reactions to being in this fight are extensions of these traits. Watford are on their third manager of the season. West Ham, on their second, threw money at the problem in just over £19million for Hull City’s Jarrod Bowen who now seems their best hope ahead of more expensive, higher-profile talents. Bournemouth are hoping the status quo, with the return of some familiar faces, will see them through.
Watford’s 1-3 defeat to Southampton meant none of the bottom five teams have won in 13 attempts since the restart and ensured the quartet will move together for the next three rounds at least. Watford themselves could drop down a place by Wednesday night, possibly even two depending on whether West Ham and Bournemouth can get positive results in their games in hand against Chelsea and Newcastle respectively.
Indeed, exchanging of positions will be a theme over the next month with tough games around every corner. No one side has a better run-in, not least because you do tend to play a lot of teams above you when you’re at the bottom.
But with just a point between them all, the paranoia of worrying about what their counterparts have done or what they are going to do will punctuate every waking minute. Players involved in relegation scraps over the years say the best way to emerge safetly from them are to focus on what is within your control. Here, the context of each result depends on what the others are up to.
When it comes to matters “within their control”, West Ham possess the most clarity: they play Norwich away, Watford at home and Aston Villa on the final day of the season. And on face value, you would take their hand over the rest. Villa, with Liverpool, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Everton and Arsenal to come before that final showdown, have unequivocally the worst.
For those on the outside looking in, now is the time to pick your dog in this fight. Whether you’re drawn by central defender Craig Dawson being Watford’s most effective attacker since the restart, Declan Rice’s schoolkid after a week of camping hairdo, the return of David Brooks or Jack Grealish’s calves, this is the opportunity to invest in the relegation battle without any liability.
Again, if that seems poor form, that’s just the nature of the beast right now. A league that was pushed to come back to lift the nation’s spirits is now at the mercy of those who objected to its return to provide the light relief at their expense.