Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest, 1993)
Nottingham Forest’s 1992/93 season was a miserable slump into the abyss, ending in Brian Clough’s retirement under a haze of alcohol addiction. In truth, Cloughie was unable to halt a decline instigated by the sales of Teddy Sheringham and Des Walker; relegation became inevitable. Having beaten Liverpool on the opening weekend (the first ever Sky Sports game and Sheringham’s last for the club), Forest took three points from their next ten games. Gary Bannister and Robert Rosario weren’t as good as Sheringham; who knew?
Stuart Pearce could easily have made this list, 31 at the time of relegation, but it was Keane who was the club’s brightest star. Before becoming the aggressive holding midfielder of his later days, Keane was a box-to-box player capable of chipping in with plenty of goals. His range of passing would remain underrated for his entire career.
After three years at the City Ground (and at the age of just 22), he broke the British transfer record when moving to Manchester United for £3.75m. Cheap at double the price.
Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City, 1996)
Midnight train to Georgi. Rainy night with Georgi. Georgi on my mind. Bringing in the Georgi Mail. Georgi peaches. Georgi rhythm. Georgi it’s on. Pick any song title you like, because they should all bring back memories of Manchester City’s gorgeous Georgian Georgi.
Kinkladze was magical not only because of his skill, but for just so utterly out of place he was in Manchester City’s struggling side of the mid-90s. He was relegated twice, rejecting rumoured interest from Barcelona, Liverpool and Internazionale to stay after the drop in 1996 before ending up in the third tier.
Various managers proved themselves completely incapable of using Kinkladze effectively, but it was Joe Royle who was the most culpable: “To the supporters he was the only positive in all that time. To me, he was a big negative. I am not saying that City’s ills were all down to Kinkladze, but there was too much about the whole Kinkladze cult phenomenon that wasn’t right. Too often since his arrival, the team had under-performed. I couldn’t help deducing that, contrary to popular opinion, he would be my weak link, not my strong one.” Spoilsport.
Juninho (Middlesbrough, 1997)
Every time Martin Samuel writes a column about, say, Jeremain Lens as an example of ‘just another foreign mercenary’, send him photos of Juninho in floods of tears after Middlesbrough’s relegation in 1997. It’s almost like they’re humans with emotions like you and me, Martin.
To an industrial town in north-east England, Juninho was like an angel sent from heaven. For a season in the sun, Middlesbrough had the most exciting talent in England. Christened ‘The Little Fella’ by supporters, Juninho embraced his move emphatically. He’d signing countless autographs, play football with local children and committed himself to Middlesbrough’s (eventually failed) survival bid.
Having lost the League Cup and FA Cup finals amid relegation, the Brazilian left to further his international chances before returning to finally win the club’s first silverware and cry all over again, this time with happiness. What a man.
Paolo Di Canio (West Ham, 2003)
Look up the phrase ‘too good to go down’ in our completely fabricated dictionary of football phrases, and you’ll find a list of West Ham’s first-team squad in 2002/03, along with a picture of Sir Trevor Brooking shedding a single tear. We could have picked any number of WHammers for this list: Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick, Trevor Sinclair, Frederic Kanoute, Joe Cole,
Richard Garcia, David James or Lee Bowyer. But we’ll settle with Di Canio.
Having been the subject of interest from Alex Ferguson and Manchester United in January 2002, 18 months later Di Canio was relegated to the Championship. Having fallen out with Glenn Roeder during 2002/03, Di Canio was dropped from the first-team picture by the manager. However, with West Ham sinking without trace, caretaker manager Brooking recalled Di Canio to try and turn the tide.
West Ham were eventually relegated on the final day, with Di Canio scoring a late equaliser to no avail having scored the winner the previous week. Despite playing only 18 league games all season, the Italian was the club’s top league scorer with nine. He would leave for Charlton that summer.
Mark Viduka (Leeds, 2004)
There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to Leeds United’s collapse into the financial abyss, such was the cataclysmic nature of their clusterf*ck. However, one man who cannot be tarred with any brush is Viduka, who did all he could to halt the decline long after others had jumped ship.
Bought for just £6m from Celtic, Viduka scored exactly 60 goals in his first three seasons in England. As Leeds tumbled down the Premier League, his 20 league goals in 2002/03 effectively saved the club from relegation. A year later he would not be so fortunate.
Viduka scored winners in March and April 2004 as the club battled gamely against the drop, but he was sent off for two bookings on the final day as Leeds went down. Viduka promptly joined Middlesbrough, where he scored 42 times in 101 games. Underrated.