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The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Published: Thursday 10 January 2013, 9.37CET
Sporting Clube de Portugal and AEK Athens FC's domestic struggles this year prove that even the best clubs have bad years. recalls some unlikely relegation campaigns.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Atlético captain Kiko stares relegation in the face in 2000 ©Getty Images features

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Published: Thursday 10 January 2013, 9.37CET

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Sporting Clube de Portugal and AEK Athens FC's domestic struggles this year prove that even the best clubs have bad years. recalls some unlikely relegation campaigns.

Having never finished lower than fifth, Sporting Clube de Portugal are struggling at the wrong end of the Portuguese table, while one of Greece's big clubs may be relegated for the first time, with AEK Athens FC – whose worst previous placing is seventh – losing their footing in the relegation zone. discovers that relegation is an indignity that even the very most successful sides occasionally have to endure.

Germany: 1. FC Nürnberg (1967/68)
Coach Max Merkel used just 15 players as Nürnberg sensationally ended a barren spell in 1968, with his well-drilled squad celebrating their first Bundesliga title – and eighth German crown in total. However, the prospect of European football prompted Merkel to ditch ten of those players before the 1968/69 campaign to disastrous effect: an early exit to AFC Ajax in the European Champion Clubs' Cup heralded a catastrophic season, with Nürnberg finishing 17th and becoming the only reigning Bundesliga champion to be relegated. "It's like a bad dream," said club great Max Morlock, a FIFA World Cup winner in 1954. Team captain Heinz Strehl added: "We will realise what's happened next season when we're playing on bumpy pitches with the supporters poking fun at us with their walking sticks."

England: Manchester United FC (1973/74)
New manager Tommy Docherty righted a sinking ship when saving a listless United from relegation in 1972/73, but a decision to let star striker Denis Law leave for Manchester City FC on a free transfer that summer came back to haunt him in a dire 1973/74 campaign, as a lack of goals sent the Red Devils into a tailspin. A back-heeled strike from the former 'King of Old Trafford' condemned United to a 1-0 home defeat by City in their penultimate match of the season, and while it was results elsewhere that sent them down that day, Law never forgave himself. Substituted in shock after his goal, he later said: ''I was inconsolable. I didn't want it to happen. How long did the feeling last? How long ago was the game? Thirty-odd years. There is your answer."

Russia: FC Spartak Moskva (1976)
Two Soviet seasons were played in 1976: one in the spring and a second in the autumn. The first was miserable for the nation's most popular club – who had lost a number of players following influential sporting director Nikolai Starostin's departure. The second was an outright disaster. Inexperienced coach Anatoli Krutikov took charge for both, and with the then nine-time champions in poor financial shape, his side came 14th in the 16-team spring table before collecting just 13 points in the autumn, going down along with rock-bottom FC Dinamo Minsk. Within a year, soon-to-be-legendary coach Konstantin Beskov won them promotion, and a tenth title followed in 1979. "Had there not been such a shake-up, it is hard to tell whether the club would have got the proper attention," then Spartak player Valeri Gladilin recalls. "But a new boss emerged, the fans woke up, success began to come and Spartak are still riding that wave."

France: Olympique de Marseille (1979/80)
"There is real sadness," said the city's iconic mayor Gaston Defferre as the city of Marseille digested the news of its hallmark club's relegation. "Marseille has suffered a kind of tragedy, because Marseille people love their football club." It was not an outcome that could have been predicted, with coach Jules Zvunka having added a couple more in-form players to his stock of internationals – Didier Six, Marius Trésor, Victor Zvunka, François Bracci, Anders Linderoth and Marc Berdoll – ahead of the season. Tipped to win the championship, Marseille's dreams went south quickly, and while Jean Robin came in for Zvunka, his side ended up 19th in the 20-team table with 24 points. They started from scratch with just young players the following term but would not be promoted back to Ligue 1 until 1983/84.

Italy: AC Milan (1981/82)
Three years after lifting their tenth Scudetto, and with a defensive line featuring future club notables Franco Baresi, Fulvio Collovati – both World Cup winners with Italy the next summer – and Mauro Tassotti, Milan implausibly came third from bottom of Serie A (albeit just four points off seventh spot) and were demoted. Despite the presence of Scottish international Joe Jordan in attack, Milan finished the campaign with only 21 goals from 24 games, with three wins in their last five fixtures not enough to spare them. "We did not start that badly," said midfielder Walter Novellino, a key player in the team crowned champions in 1978/79. "The mental aspect is crucial in these cases. When you start to play with fear, you end up making mistakes. We were almost scared to play, especially when our own fans started to boo us."

Spain: Club Atlético de Madrid (1999/2000)
Four years after Atlético claimed a Liga and Copa del Rey double, the club from the banks of the river Manzanares were consigned to second-division football for the first time since 1933/34. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's penalty miss in the 2-2 draw at Real Oviedo on 7 May spelled the end for the Rojiblancos, though a 13-game winless run until that point – added to indifferent results throughout the campaign under Claudio Ranieri and double-winning coach Radomir Antić – had caused the damage. "Where there would normally be shouts of 'come on, heads up' in the dressing room, there was complete silence," captain Kiko reported after the Oviedo match. "We all knew we would be playing our next game as a second division team." Atlético's misery was complete when they ended the season losing to RCD Espanyol in the Copa del Rey final.

Last updated: 10/01/13 12.36CET