x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Playing for their livelihoods

Our columnist Andrew Cole says no player, nor manager, wants a relegation on their CV, but only those that keep their nerve will survive.

The only proper relegation fight of my career was in 2004 with Blackburn Rovers. It is often the best players who are at fault when a side is involved in a battle to stay up and I was the £8 million (Dh48,043) record signing. Big things were expected of me.

I was fine with the pressure, yet I could see confidence dropping. Good footballers tense up like anxious boxers, unable to relax and be in the zone where you play at your best. They were not in a good place mentally, which did not help. Then they would see rival teams pick up points and get even worse.

Our home form was dreadful - the joint worst in the league. We won just five at home all season and the expectations of our own fans got to the team.

We were more relaxed away and won more games than Liverpool, who finished fourth. We finally finished 15th to stay up, but we had nervy moments.

The mood changed throughout the season. Pre-season optimism was replaced by the fear of relegation and players worried about their reputation. Nobody wants relegation on their CV.

The relegation fight didn't bother me. There is more pressure to win at the top than the bottom, and I'd been through a treble run in. You might think that's tough. It's not.

Sir Alex Ferguson prevented us from seeing the bigger picture and made us concentrate on each game as it came. The mood before the Champions League final in 1999 was almost like the preparation for a third-round League Cup tie against a Division Three club.

We didn't do anything special: a rest on the afternoon then listening to the gaffer's pre-match talk.

My attitude was that if something didn't kill you then it made you stronger. I'd come through countless setbacks as a kid. I'd had people doubting me all my life and used their negativity to spur me on.

Even at Old Trafford, people said I didn't score in the biggest games. So I used that criticism to try and prove people wrong and scored a goal against Tottenham Hotspur which won the league as part of the treble.

Five years later I was in that relegation dogfight at Blackburn. The manager was worried - he particularly feared relegation, partly because it is more damaging for a manager than any player.

Luckily, we had a great captain in Gary Flitcroft who rallied the troops. He wasn't the best player technically, but he gave more than anyone in training and played every game like his life depended on it. He was an inspiration and when the relegation trapdoor seemed to be opening ever wider, watching Flitcroft jolted the more nervous players back into their senses.

Flitcroft left no stone unturned. He let no arguments fester and included every player in social activities off the field. He was a major reason why Blackburn stayed up and I never played in a side which went down. He was rewarded for his efforts by having the captaincy taken away from him. Football can be a horrible, cruel business.

Money wasn't really an issue for us. Our contracts wouldn't have changed if we went down, though the appearance money and bonuses would have been far smaller. It's different now. A lot of players have split contracts - one salary for the Premier League and another following relegation.

Directors became wiser after big clubs such as Leeds United and Newcastle United took a massive financial hit when they unexpectedly went down. They were then saddled with players on Premier League contracts.

Blackpool's players will see their wages halved if they go down. And I fear they will. DJ Campbell, their top paid player, is on £11,000 (Dh66,000) a week, but most of the others receive around £6,000 a week - the average Premier League wage is eight times that.

That will drop to £3,000 in the championship. Take out taxes and it is around £2,000. I know that's still a lot to the man in the street, but you're not talking about vast amounts of money compared to other footballers.

These lads are playing for their livelihoods. Given the financial restrictions at Blackpool they've done brilliantly as it was always a big ask for them to stay up. Maybe they will pick up a few results and stay in the top flight. I hope so and tensing up seems the least of their worries because they've not got any really big name players.

I think Wigan Athletic - who play Blackpool tomorrow - and Wolverhampton Wanderers will also go down, while West Ham United will probably have enough quality to stay up. That's the theory, but if those top players are tensing up and they don't have an inspirational captain or manager, they could go the way of Leeds and Newcastle.