Portsmouth, Hull City and Burnley dropped to the Championship with 19, 30 and 30 points respectively, with this year’s current bottom side Wigan already over that amount on 31. The remaining two sides in peril, West Ham and Wolves, have 32. Even taking into account Pompey’s points reduction for entering administration, each doomed side still trailed Wigan’s tally now by the end of last season, while after roughly the same amount of games as has been played so far (32), Portsmouth were on 13 points (23 without the deduction), Burnley had 24, and Hull had 27 to their name, from 31 games. A swing of five points does not sound a huge amount at first but it is two wins, or a win and two draws, a herculean figure if you find yourself in danger as the season draws to a close.
At this point of the season last year Burnley had just lost at home to Blackburn Rovers, Portsmouth lost away to Tottenham Hotspur and Hull beat Fulham at home. Hull, under Iain Dowie for the first time, drew themselves level with West Ham, Burnley fell three points behind the Tigers and the Hammers, while Portsmouth’s points deduction and looming FA Cup semi-final drifted their attention somewhat away from the league. The nearest side to Hull and West Ham, Wigan, were four points clear. Four points from the third-bottom side this season leaps to 14th in the league – West Ham in 18th to Blackburn on 35. It is exponentially closer up and down the division this season, to the point that a single victory for one of the bottom three and defeat for a handful of teams above them changes the picture enormously.
Ian Holloway said last week that 39 points would be required for survival, one short of the mythical 40-point mark usually quoted. Both this season and this time last season 39 points was the total of the mid-table side, West Bromwich Albion, 10th as it stands now, and Stoke City in 11th, as it stood then. Bolton Wanderers finished 14th on 39 points last season, nine points clear of the relegation zone, suggesting that Holloway’s 39 points is usually a figure for a mid-table side, not a side one place above the drop zone. Indeed, West Ham were the last side to be relegated with more than 39 points, in 2002/03, while a year later Everton finished 17th on 39 points. After that, 39 points would have brought finishes of 16th, 16th, 16th, 15th, and 15th, up to and including the 2008/09 season.
Blackpool are six points off that 39-point target ahead of their game with Arsenal today, and sit in 17th, and without a team cut adrift at the bottom, this year’s relegation fight is shaping up to be the toughest in nearly a decade.