Is Fulham A 'Must Win' Game?

Ben Hoskins

Reading skipper Jobi McAnuff has rubbished claims that Saturday's game with Fulham is a must win game saying it's ludicrous to attach such significance to the eighth game of the season. While mathematically he's obviously correct, how have other Premier League teams fared after going winless in their first eight?

Since the Premier League switched to 20 teams in 1995 (and denied Reading a promotion place...) there have been eight teams to have gone winless in their first eight games.

TEAM YEAR GAMES WON DRAWN LOST POINTS SURVIVED?
TOTTENHAM 2008/09 8 0 2 6 2 YES
WATFORD 2006/07 8 0 4 4 4 NO
NORWICH 2004/05 8 0 5 3 5 NO
DERBY 2000/01 8 0 5 3 5 YES
SHEFF WEDS 1999/00 8 0 1 7 1 NO
SOUTHAMPTON 1998/99 8 0 1 7 1 YES
BLACKBURN 1996/97 8 0 3 5 3 YES
MAN CITY 1995/96 8 0 1 7 1 NO

On the surface Jobi's right because of the eight to start winless in eight, only half have actually gone on to be relegated.

However there's a few factors that have made a big difference for some of those teams, options that either we can't use now, or would represent a dramatic change of direction for the football club.

A Change Of Manager?

Of the four survivors, two sacked their manager after those poor starts. In Tottenham's case, Juande Ramos was replaced by Harry Redknapp and the club immediately began to shoot up the table. In Blackburn's case, Ray Harford resigned at the end of October, leaving caretaker Tony Parkes to guide the team to safety.

Southampton kept faith with Dave Jones and survived despite winning just TWO of their first 17 games in the 1998/99 season. That year the Saints would go on to earn 41 points, five clear of the relegation places. Jim Smith also kept Derby up despite one win in the first 15 games of the 2000/01 season.

In the case of the four teams that did drop out of the top division, three kept faith with their manager throughout the season. Two of them kept their jobs after leading their teams up the previous season. Nigel Worthington kept his job after leading Norwich to the title the previous season, as did Aidy Boothroyd who had led his side up through the play-offs in Reading's championship winning season of 2006.

Manchester City boss Alan Ball kept his job at City in 1996 but couldn't save them, while Sheffield Wednesday sacked Danny Wilson and installed Ron Atkinson with just weeks left in the season and went down anyway.

Again there's no clear pattern. Three sackings yielded two survivals, though interestingly both 'positive' sackings occurred early on in the season. Of the remaining five to keep faith throughout a season, three were rewarded with survival but the two to stick and go down were both newly promoted clubs... not such a good sign for Brian McDermott.

The Transfer Window

Of those four that have stayed up, just one has managed it since the transfer window system was implemented back in the 2003/04 season and that team was a Tottenham outfit containing the likes of Bale, Modric, Lennon, Bent, Woodgate etc, so I think it's safe to say they had a far stronger squad than Reading posses right now.

The two to go down were both newly promoted sides in Norwich and Watford, again something that's slightly concerning.

Before 2003/04, teams could constantly reinforce their sides, something that we just can't do until at least January, limited our flexibility and placing a greater emphasis on our in-house options right now.

However we can strengthen in January and that window has given plenty of teams the survival boosts they've needed. Look back to our last relegation when Roy Hodgson strengthened with players that got key goals, or the boost Bolton got that same year by adding Matty Taylor and Gary Cahill. The following season Stoke also made a big improvement by adding James Beattie and Mathew Etherington. Further back and Harry Redknapp masterminded a run to safety for Pompey by adding the likes of Pedro Mendes and Benjani. So January could play a very important role.

At What Point Does It Become Too Late?

As mentioned we won't cross the point of no return for a long, long while yet. As we've seen, both Southampton and Derby survived despite horrendous starts to the season. In Southampton's case they had just one win from their first 13 games and managed to accumulate 41 points to survive. In Fact Southampton had earned just 3 wins in 22 matches and still stayed up.

Likewise Derby endured a miserable start in the 2000/01 season, not winning any of their first THIRTEEN games and still staying up with 42 points.

On the doom front, Watford had to wait until game 11 and were relegated, as were Norwich who went winless until game 14. Manchester City were doomed with no wins from 11 as were Sheffield Wednesday despite winning their 10th.

So am I panicking or not?!

I'd say the evidence suggests you can hold off on the panic front for a little while but the omens certainly aren't overly promising either. No newly promoted side has ever survived after going winless from their first eight games but similarly weak sides such as Southampton and Derby have both proven it's possible to recover from a far worse start.

Sacking the manager won't ensure survival but if you do decide to part with the man in charge, you certainly have more success when you do it early.

To be honest, our chances of survival are going to depend on how we do in games such as Saturday, and then the following games with QPR and Fulham. As analysed in the survival road map, it's how you do against teams in your own mini league that matter more than any one sequence of games.

So while a failure to win on Saturday would be another dent in our survival prospects, it's far from fatal.

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