Premier League Relegation Will Destroy One Manager's Career
As far as the bottom of the Premier League table goes, this weekend's final round of fixtures has been dubbed "Survival Sunday."
Whilst those in the upper echelons fight over who wins the title and qualifies for Europe, down in the basement there are two sides still scrapping to retain their top-flight status for another year and avoid going down with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers.
Queens Park Rangers sit in 17th, one place above the relegation zone and two points above Bolton Wanderers. The west London side know that a win will definitely keep them up, a draw will most likely do likewise by virtue of their vastly superior goal difference and even defeat could easily be sufficient if Bolton don't win their final match.
The trouble is: QPR's last game is away to league leaders and title-chasers Manchester City. The team with the Premier League's best home record (just two points dropped all season) hosts the team with the worst away record (only 11 points earned on the road). Things could get ugly at the Etihad.
Not that Bolton's task is any sort of formality.
They travel to face Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, a ground in which a hostile welcome is guaranteed both on the pitch and from the crowd. The Trotters won the reverse fixture in November 5-0, but before that Stoke themselves won by that scoreline in last season's FA Cup semi against Bolton and also beat them 2-0 at the Britannia.
Plus, as Will Tidey points out in his final-day preview for this parish, the difference between winning and losing for Stoke could be as much as an extra £2.4 million in the coffers, depending on their league position. The victory Bolton need to even have a chance of staying up is by no means a given.
Whilst relegation would obviously be a disaster for whichever club suffers it; for their players and staff, it will be a mortal blow for the career of the manager who goes down with them.
Which team will stay up on Sunday?
Both Bolton boss Owen Coyle and QPR coach Mark Hughes have seen their reputations rise and fall in a relatively short space of time, though for rather different reasons.
Coyle won plaudits for bringing up an exciting Burnley team to the Premier League via the playoffs in 2009. That same year he took the Clarets to the semifinals of the Carling Cup via wins over top-flight trio Fulham, Chelsea and Arsenal, only losing out to Tottenham Hotspur in extra time.
After a great start to their campaign winning at Turf Moor against Manchester United and Everton, things went downhill very quickly for Burnley. When Coyle was offered the opportunity to take over at his former club in Bolton, where he was the fan favourite, and replace the universally derided Gary Megson, he jumped at the chance. Coyle moved in January and kept the Trotters up, finishing nine points above the relegated Burnley.
Last season, his first full campaign at the Reebok Stadium, proved to be the crest of the wave. His team reached the semifinals of the FA Cup while playing adventurous football, though perhaps not abandoning the direct principals used by Megson as much as they were credited for. Bolton's campaign nosedived, with the aforementioned semifinal drubbing by Stoke coming amid a run of seven defeats in their final nine games.
Bolton still finished seven points from safety, and Coyle's status as one of the league's most promising young managers remained intact.
However, this season has seen that reputation plummet, as Coyle has presided over a league campaign of just 10 wins to date. Of the sides who have not already been relegated, only Aston Villa have recorded fewer victories than that this term.
No one is doubting Coyle's credentials as a good man—his compassionate yet statesmanlike handling of Fabrice Muamba's shock collapse and subsequent recovery has been exemplary—but his managerial abilities have been very much brought into question. Should Coyle take Bolton down, it is highly likely that he will not manage in the top flight again unless he brings a team up himself.
As for Hughes, it would be a cruel irony if he were to be relegated by the inexorably upwardly mobile club he himself was in charge of just the season before last.
After leading Blackburn Rovers to seventh in the Premier League in 2008, the former Manchester United striker was poached by Manchester City following the dismissal of Sven-Goran Eriksson. No sooner had Hughes arrived, however, then super-rich Sheikh Mansour bought the club from relative pauper Thaksin Shinatwatra and dumped British record-signing Robinho in the Welshman's lap.
Suddenly, the step up Hughes thought he had made required a ladder, and he struggled to meet the newly heightened expectations placed upon him by his billionaire employer. Even after he was given a reprieve for only finishing 10th in his first season, huge investment over the summer did not see an improvement, and a run of eight draws in nine league games preceded a highly symbolic 3-0 defeat at City's main rivals for a Champions League place, Tottenham.
Who do you think is the better manager?
Hughes's days were numbered, and he had to suffer the ignominy of presiding over his final match in charge, a 4-3 win over Sunderland, knowing that successor Roberto Mancini was in the stadium. Such a departure garnered Hughes plenty of sympathy.
However, much of that eroded after he took charge of Fulham the following season. After a year at Craven Cottage garnered 11 wins and 16 draws in the league, Hughes walked out on the club, seemingly confident that he was deserving of bigger and better things. After six months spent doing little apart from waiting for the phone to ring, those bigger things turned out to be a role at turbulent QPR and a brief to keep them in the top flight.
Both Hughes and Coyle find themselves in a situation they have never had to negotiate before as managers. Hughes knows that survival is within touching distance, if only he can find a way to slay the behemoth his former club has become. Coyle, meanwhile, faces the heartbreaking prospect of his team doing all they can to stay up and still see it cruelly snatched from their grasp.
Whichever boss ends up suffering the first relegation of their relatively short career will find it extremely hard to recover from. The difference between being the hero who kept a club up and the chump who took a team down may be as slim as goal difference come Sunday, but it will haunt the man at the wrong end for years to come.
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