After narrowly avoiding relegation to the Championship last season, it looked as though this season’s relegation battle would be a bridge too far for the Mackems as they occupied the relegation places for much of the season. Paolo Di Canio’s departure as manager just five league games into the season set the tone for a difficult start to the campaign, as they ended 2013 bottom of the league.
Under new boss Gus Poyet, they made a more promising start to 2014, beating Fulham and Stoke before a stunning 3-0 away victory at local rivals Newcastle. But a disappointing nine-game winless run in the league followed the victory on Tyneside, leaving their top flight status in serious doubt.
However, a superb end to the season saw them complete their great escape as they won of their last five games, including away wins at Chelsea and Manchester United. The win at Stamford Bridge was Jose Mourinho’s first ever home defeat in the Premier League in his two spells as Chelsea manager, which only made Sunderland’s feat all the more incredible. Their fans can now look forward to a brighter future under the guidance of Poyet, particularly if the likes of Connor Wickham can continue their impressive end of season form.
Although Birmingham’s escape from relegation to League One may not have been as drawn out as some of the season’s other great escapes, it still summed up the unpredictable nature of the final day of the season and the contrasting emotions it can evoke. After a poor year which saw just two home wins all season, the 2011 League Cup winners looked set to join Barnsley and Yeovil in the third tier come August, particularly after losing five consecutive games going into their crucial final day encounter with Bolton.
Despite a creditable away record – they ended the season with the same number of away wins as play-off contenders Wigan and Brighton – the Blues trailed Dougie Freedman’s side 2-0 with 15 minutes to play. However, Nikola Zigic pulled a goal back before an injury-time header from Paul Caddis completed the comeback for Lee Clark’s side to send the former Huddersfield boss and the travelling fans into raptures.
Birmingham’s gain was Doncaster’s loss as the South Yorkshire side dropped back into League One on goal difference a year after the drama of their final day game at Brentford which saw them secure promotion to the Championship. It also made Birmingham’s win at the Keepmoat Stadium a month earlier all the more vital.
While Doncaster were left disappointed, Ian Holloway’s Millwall were left elated as they secured their Championship status for another season. With just eight games of the season to go, the Lions’ fate remained uncertain as they lay bottom of the table following defeat to relegation rivals Birmingham. However, an impressive run of form in their remaining games saw them emulate Sunderland’s accomplishment by climbing out of the relegation zone to safety.
Holloway’s side picked up a notable 16 points out of a possible 24 from their final eight games, a run of form which included impressive away wins at Nottingham Forest, Wigan and Middlesbrough. A final day win over Bournemouth rounded off their escape as they finished four points clear of the final relegation place in 19th place.
It capped a remarkable turnaround for the club, who parted company with boss Steve Lomas in December after just six months in charge following a disappointing start to the season. It was also a personal triumph for Holloway as it marked a speedy and successful return to football for him following his surprise exit from Crystal Palace earlier in the season.
It looked as though Shaun Derry had taken on the toughest job possible when he was appointed as manager at Meadow Lane back in November – his first managerial role. County were struggling in the relegation zone and had won just three of their opening fifteen league fixtures when Derry was announced as their ninth permanent manager in five years.
The Magpies began to show signs of improvement under the former QPR midfielder, particularly in the new year as they won their opening three games of 2014. However, a disappointing run of just one win in ten games followed – including a 6-0 thrashing away at Rotherham – leaving County’s League One status in serious doubt.
But a superb run of form in their final nine games – where they collected 19 points from a possible 27 – saw Derry lead his hometown team to safety. The relegation battle went right down to the final game, but a 1-1 draw at Oldham completed the great escape, with inspirational captain Alan Sheehan grabbing the all-important equalizer from the penalty spot.
Undoubtedly one of the most incredible escapes from relegation in years occurred at Sixfields, where Northampton retained their Football League status despite spending seven months in the relegation zone. The Cobblers moved out of the bottom two for the first time since September after winning their penultimate game of the season.
An impressive victory over Oxford – the club manager Chris Wilder left in January to take over at Northampton – completed the remarkable comeback at the expense of Bristol Rovers, who were relegated. The triumph justified Wilder’s decision to leave the club he led back to the Football League to take over at Northampton.
It was a brave move given Northampton’s plight and the fact that the U’s were chasing promotion for much of the season but Wilder’s reputation has only been further enhanced since leading Town to safety. Relegation would have been particularly hard to take for Northampton after narrowly missing out on promotion to League One last season following their play-off final defeat to Bradford.