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Relegation fears fuel an EPL finale frenzy

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Relegation fears fuel an EPL finale frenzy
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Blackpool head coach Ian Holloway may be one of the only coaches to keep his job even if the club is …

Relegation is the extreme form of democracy in professional sports, and two unfortunate teams will plunge into a future of turmoil and uncertainty Sunday afternoon.

Over the course of 90 minutes, two English Premier League clubs will lose their elite status, while three others will breathe a huge sigh of relief and resolve to avoid such a flirtation with disaster next time around.

For the fans of Wigan, Blackpool, Blackburn, Wolves and Birmingham, the day will bring a heavy dose of nail-biting torture laced with the fervent hope that their fate does not include that dreaded "R" word.

The ramifications of relegation – dropping down a division – represent a form of punishment both punitive and crushing. Estimations of the financial cost of relegation range up to $140 million, and cutbacks for those affected are inevitable. For the personnel involved, there is literally all to play for on the final day of the season.

Of the five endangered teams, only one, Blackpool, would be unlikely to sack their head coach (Ian Holloway) if safety cannot be clinched. Players too can expect major changes – West Ham placed its entire squad on the transfer list a day after being relegated seven years ago.

The reality of an impending overhaul is such that Birmingham boss Alex McLeish fielded more questions about his own job than about his team's critical visit to Tottenham during a media briefing.

Such is the imbalance of English soccer that returning to the EPL after dropping out of it is no easy task. While Newcastle is one example of a club that managed to return after only one season away, there is the parallel case of Charlton Athletic, a long-term EPL stalwart that fell out of the league five years ago and now languishes five divisions below after a fiscal meltdown.

The single table (no playoff) format of the EPL means that the league title is often decided before the last day of the campaign, as was the case this year when Manchester United wrapped things up a week ago.

Yet a tense scrap for survival is, with a few exceptions, an annual ritual that adds a nerve-wracking edge to the season finale. Tensions have been high in the affected camps this week, with no manager wanting to give away any kind of psychological edge.

Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp knows full well what it is like to be embroiled in a fight for his EPL life, having been relegated with Southampton in 2005 when his team could not get a result against Manchester United on the last afternoon. Redknapp has no such worries this time, but he found time to send out a word of empathy to his Sunday opponent, Birmingham's McLeish.

"Alex McLeish is a great guy and so are all the lads down there at the bottom," Redknapp said. "There's not one that I hope goes down. It will be a tense day for all those involved. Relegation is their biggest nightmare and Sunday will be a tough, tough day.

"I wouldn't want to be jumping up and down on the touchline if we score. I've got feelings for Alex McLeish and all those other lads who are involved on Sunday. It will be a tough day for those boys and they've all done great jobs, none have underachieved. They will all be difficult to beat. They've all enjoyed Premier League football and they won't want to drop out without a fight."

Of those on the brink of relegation, Wolves and Blackburn have the advantage of being a point ahead on 40, with Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan locked on 39. If there is a tie, goal differential over the course of the season will be used to determine who stays up and who is doomed.

Blackpool may have the toughest task of all, needing to win at Manchester United to have a realistic chance of survival – although the champions are expected to field a weakened team ahead of the Champions League final next week.

Wigan likes its chances of winning at Stoke, which focused all its energy late in the season on the FA Cup, losing in the final to Manchester City. Roberto Martinez's Wigan gave itself a fighting chance with a dramatic late winner at West Ham last week and will be bidding to complete a miraculous escape.

Birmingham's chances of securing anything from its visit to Tottenham may hinge of the mindset of Redknapp and his team. A win for Tottenham would give it a place in next season's Europa League, although it is unclear about whether the club and manager wants that kind of distraction.

Wolves and Blackburn face each other in a match where the winner would be guaranteed safety, while a draw might also be enough for both to survive.

If history is anything to go by, the afternoon will be full of ebbs and flows and dramatic twists. During the remarkable final-day battle of 2005, all four threatened teams were in a position to secure safety at some point before West Brom eventually prevailed.

Nerves will be frayed, the pressure on the players will be immense, and by the end two clubs will be the victim of soccer's cruelest day.

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