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What are football’s fastest returns from relegation to European glory?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/06/2021 Guardian sport
Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Mauro Tassotti, Giovanni Galli are posing for a picture: Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

“Villarreal were relegated in 2012. Is that the quickest time from relegation to winning a major European trophy?” asks Paul Savage.

There were plenty of replies to this one, and the Yellow Submarines were by no means the quickest to rise from the depths. Stefano Marzaroli points out that “Milan were relegated in 1982 and seven seasons later in 1988-89 they won the European Cup”. And Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassotti, half the fabled Milan back four, went there from the drop to winning the European Cup against Steaua Bucharest at Camp Nou.

Rob P keeps it on the home front. “You don’t have to step out of England to better this. Nottingham Forest are the true European wild cards – relegated 1972, European Cup winners 1979, they won a second European Cup and are unique in winning the trophy more often than winning their national championship. They’re also the only winner to have subsequently dropped to the third tier after winning it.” Brian Clough took over in January 1975, only winning promotion from the Second Division at the end of the 1976-77 season.

a person sitting on a bench: Brian Clough and Peter Taylor: architects of Nottingham Forest’s revival from the drop to European Cup. Photograph: Popperfoto © Provided by The Guardian Brian Clough and Peter Taylor: architects of Nottingham Forest’s revival from the drop to European Cup. Photograph: Popperfoto

“Aston Villa earn a mention as well. They were relegated in 1967 then dropped to the third tier in 1970, so were two promotions from the top flight. They came back up in 1972 and to the top flight in 1975. By 1982 they were European champions, seven years after being a Second Division side and only 10 after being a Third Division side. Spurs won the Uefa Cup in 1984 after being relegated in 1977. Manchester City won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970, having been relegated in 1966. Seven years seems the norm for English clubs,” a fact rammed home by Peter Collins, who adds that “West Ham were promoted in 1958 and won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965”.

Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Marco van Basten, Alessandro Costacurta, Ruud Gullit, Angelo Colombo, Frank Rijkaard, Mauro Tassotti, Giovanni Galli playing a game of football: Milan, from the drop in 1982 to European Cup winners in 1989, with Franco Baresi (bottom left) and Mauro Tassotti (bottom right) there all the way. © Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock Milan, from the drop in 1982 to European Cup winners in 1989, with Franco Baresi (bottom left) and Mauro Tassotti (bottom right) there all the way.

But for some European specialist info on speedy recoveries from relegation, we turn to Dick Maas and a pair of six-year turnarounds. “KV Mechelen were relegated from Belgium’s Eerste Klasse in 1982 and won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988, while Sevilla were relegated from La Liga in 2000 and won the Uefa Cup in 2006.”

The shortest gap between successive red cards

“Yuri Alberto of Internacional was recently sent off in the closing stages of a Copa Libertadores match. Less than two days later, in a domestic match with bitter rivals Grêmio, he was again red-carded after 38 minutes. Has there ever been a shorter gap between one player’s dismissals?” asks Eugene Francis.

We’ve covered this before in a segment about dreadful debuts, but it is worth recalling Nigel Pepper’s impressive feat for Aberdeen back in 1998 shortly after his £300,000 move from Bradford City. Here’s Kirk Burton: “After coming on as a sub on his debut for Aberdeen, Pepper was sent off after six minutes. In Pepper’s first game after suspension he was sent off again after 17 seconds. Aberdeen band Depeche Choad have a song named in tribute to his second brief appearance, the song is just as brief.”

The Elche question

“This season, for the fifth time in their history, Elche avoided relegation on the last day (1969-70, 1973-74, 1975-76, 2013-14 and 2020-21). Can any other team beat this,” wonders Andrea Parapini.

Tim Ward takes us to Wearside. “Sunderland have avoided top-flight relegation on the last day on the following seasons: 1927-28, 1980-81, 1982-83, 1983-84, 2001-02 and 2008-09. They also avoided relegation to the third tier on the last day of the 1985-86 and 1992-93 seasons.”

a group of people playing football on a field: Joy for Steve Ogrizovic and Paul Williams afte staying up with a win at Tottenham on the final day in 1997. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Allsport © Provided by The Guardian Joy for Steve Ogrizovic and Paul Williams afte staying up with a win at Tottenham on the final day in 1997. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Allsport

Birmingham City can beat that without going any further back than the 1970s, mind. Matt Robb writes: “We had last-day survivals in 1973-74, 1981-82, 1986-87, 1992-93, 2013-14, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2019-20 (eight times). We’ve also got relegated on the last day in 1984, 1994, 2008, 2011 (four times). We’ve gone up on the last day in 1972, 1980, 1995, 2009 (four times). Missed out on the play-offs in 1990 and 1998. In 1979, 1986, 1989, 2006 we were already relegated and in 1985, 1992, 2007. And in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2012 we were in the play-offs. So that is 22 times in the last 43 seasons we’ve gone to the last day not knowing which division we’d be in next season and a further six we’d already committed to changing.”

But if you want dramatic survival specialists, look to Coventry City. “We escaped/avoided relegation on the final day in … breathes … 1922, 1968, 1969, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1992, 1996, 1997, 2008, and 2015, in addition to ‘escaping’ deselection from the league in 1920 and 1928. So that’s a lucky 13 (or 15) times. Ten of those times were in the top flight, including a precarious three-season stretch in the mid-80s.”

Knowledge archive

Is it true that Falkirk (or another Scottish side) were once shipwrecked on the way to a game?” wondered Dan Palmer, in September 2012.

It is indeed, Dan, but the side who took a dip in the briny deep came from further down the Firth of Forth. Kirkcaldy’s Raith Rovers can justifiably claim to be pioneers of the Scottish game – they had enjoyed a successful trip to Copenhagen in the summer of 1922 and fancied repeating the trick at the end of the following season, but this time taking in the sunnier climbs of the Canary Islands. So in the summer of 1923 they boarded the Highland Loch, which was calling in at the Canaries en route to Buenos Aires with its cargo of passengers and, apparently, chilled meat.

The Stark’s Park party had reached northern Spain and were off the coast of Galicia, negotiating Cape Finisterre, in violent weather when the ship ran aground. The players and other passengers were roused from their beds, lifeboats were manned and the group was towed to the village of Villagarcia by local fishermen.

The following day a passing liner bound for the Canaries picked up the 20-strong Rovers squad and were, according to Rovers player Tom Jennings, invited to eat at the captain’s table because of their chivalrous behaviour during the rain-swept abandoning of the Highland Loch. A few days later they were safely deposited at their destination – and the traumatic journey did not seem to adversely effect the players. They won all four games on the tour, although history does not report another European adventure in 1924 …

Can you help?

“St Etienne have an English-born keeper called Etienne Green on their books – his name containing both the team name and nickname (Les Verts) of his club. Are there any other strange player name quirks such as this?” asks Adam Facer.

“I think it is quite well known that England are slow starters in major tournaments but for a (supposedly) top-ranked side, their record in the opening game is pretty dismal. Of 24 performances at European Championships and World Cups, they’ve won six, drawn 11, and lost seven. Of countries that have qualified for more than 20 tournaments, who has a worse win percentage than England’s 25%?” wonders Jeremy Orbell.

“Scoring as a goalkeeper is rare, but in the second leg of Bournemouth’s play-off semi against Brentford, Asmir Begovic achieved something arguably more unusual for a keeper – being called offside. Has this happened before in English football?” muses Kieran Murray.

Email your questions and answers to knowledge@theguardian.com or tweet @TheKnowledge_GU.

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