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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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10 of the best... Great escapes

1.Newcastle United, Champions League 2002-03

It's been a strange past ten years for Newcastle. At home, they have caroused amidst the heights and flirted with the depths of the division like some sort of footballing yo-yo. In Europe, their forays in to the Champions League have exhibited a similar schizophrenia.

Their first ever game in the Champions League proper was a right corker as they stormed in to a 3-0 lead against the mighty Barcelona in 1997. The Newcastle team of 2002/2003, however, were less concerned with getting off to a good start in Europe's premier club competition. They had a cunning plan.

They decided to lose their first three games without scoring a single goal and trick the other teams in their group in to thinking they were rubbish. They looked to be on the ropes, down and out even. But what's this? Bosh! - take that Juve, 1-0. Bam! - you an' all Dynamo Kiev, 2-1.

Finally, they faced Feyenoord in Rotterdam. Newcastle had to win to qualify and hope Kiev did not against a second-string Juve side. With the score at 2-2 in the dying seconds of the game up popped that favourite adopted son of Tyneside, Mr Craig Bellamy, who fired the winner from a tight angle. (Juve had won their game 2-1).

Having spent most of the previous month helping close buddy Alan Shearer grout tiles in his house till the wee small hours, it was a wonder young Craig still had the legs to keep going this late on. Sadly, Newcastle were not to display similar endurance and went out at the next group phase.

They remain the only team in the history of the competition to have lost their first three games and qualified from their group. Which is nearly as good as winning a trophy… in a way.

2 Everton, Premiership 1997-98

Loveable old Howard Kendall had dutifully heeded Chairman Peter Johnson's call to take charge at Goodison Park following Joe Royle's departure in March 1997. Johnson had already failed to lure Bobby Robson from Barcelona and the somewhat unlikely scenario of TV commentator Andy Gray taking over at his old club was swiftly expunged as Sky rewarded their 'voice of football' with a huge pay rise.

The new season was fast approaching. 'Oh what the hell,' an exasperated Johnson could almost be heard to sigh, 'let's give Howard a call.' Thus was Kendall's third spell in charge at Everton born.

An opening day defeat at home to newly-promoted Crystal Palace set the tone for what was to follow. By November, the good ship Kendall III was lilting badly and lay marooned at the bottom of the table. A first away win in over a year sparked a mini-revival after Christmas which saw them rise to thirteenth but that familiar sinking feeling soon returned and Everton's final two games saw them requiring four points from Arsenal and Coventry to ensure safety. Arsenal thrashed them 4-0. So, if Bolton (playing away to Chelsea) matched Everton's result on the final day the Trotters would end Everton's 44-year association with top-flight football.

An early strike from Gareth Farrelly and the news that Bolton were a goal behind calmed Evertonian nerves, but in the last five minutes a Nick Barmby missed penalty and a Coventry equaliser from one-time Toffees target Dion Dublin meant if Bolton scored Everton were down. To the relief of the blue half of Merseyside Jody Morris scored a second goal for Chelsea to relegate Bolton and spark wild celebrations at Goodison.

'So long as I'm manager we'll never go through this again,' vowed Kendall. How right he was. Everton forced him out the following month.

3.Brighton, Division Three, 1996-97

'Maybe tomorrow I'll wanna settle down, until tomorrow I'll just keep' etc etc. Quite a touching one this, as those most hobo of littlest hobo's Brighton we-don't-do-mid-table and Hove Albion secured their Football League status.

In terms of attempted last day escapology Brighton are tunnel kings. The greatest tunnel of the lot was built in season 1996/1997.

The sale of Brighton's Goldstone ground by chairman Bill Archer that season had prompted a 'Fans United' day when Brighton's followers invited supporters from all over the country to attend their next match against Hartlepool as a show of solidarity (their anger at their club's problems also led to some unfortunate singing of songs about setting fire to people).

An estimated 4,000 supporters from other teams attended the game and helped inspire The Seagulls to a 5-0 win, goals that were to prove decisive come the end of a season of struggle.

Brighton played their final-ever match at the Goldstone against Doncaster Rovers, before a ground share move with Gillingham the next season.

An emotionally charged game resulted in a victory for the home side and set up an unlikely final day relegation decider with fellow strugglers Hereford United. A late Robbie Reinelt equaliser was enough to secure a 1-1 draw and Brighton's survival on goal difference at the expense of Hereford.

Brighton had achieved the footballing equivalent of making civilian clothes out of soiled toilet paper, foxing the Gestapo with their forged ID, boarding a train to Spain and hightailing their way to freedom.

4. Paul Gascoigne moves to China, 2003

Craig Bellamy: Back when he was a popular goalscorer on Tyneside
Craig Bellamy: Back when he was a popular goalscorer on Tyneside
After an illustrious playing career that had taken in spells at Middlesbrough and Everton, as well as securing several Scottish winners medals, Paul's career had been suffering somewhat. A move to Burnley had not worked out and it was time for a change of scenery. A well-advised Gazza decided a move to China would be in his best interests.

As well as kick-starting his career, this new start would help him escape the intense glare of the British media which had bedevilled our Paul so in Britain. So a BBC camera crew, eager to film Paul turn things around and make a rip-roaring success of his time in the Orient, was duly dispatched to follow his every move. They were not to be disappointed.

An initial trial at first division club Liaoning Bodao in Beijing left them marvelling at his general fitness, unerring passing ability, and fragrant breath. From there it was onto play for Gansu Tianma, a team based in a region that is officially the most polluted place on Earth. Inspired by these new surroundings, a clearly sober and sound of mind Gascoigne overcame cultural and language barriers with consummate ease, whilst retaining his place in the Gansu Tianma (meaning: Heavenly Horse) side.

Gazza complimented his new team: 'I like this name because it can be associated with flying.' Clearly they liked him too, bestowing the title player-coach upon him.

During his time there the BBC treated us to the sight of Gascoigne enjoying the many non-alcoholic bars of the region with lifelong friend Jimmy Five Bellies whilst his handsome wages were paid on time and in full every week. A success story as unlikely as a Ron Atkinson television comeback. On Al-Jazeera.

5.Carlisle, Division Three, 1998-99

Now, this is more like it. The greatest escape ever, ever, ever in the history of great escapes. Roy of the Rovers couldn't have written it. Not even the bloke who wrote Roy of The Rovers could have.

'What, the goalie is on loan? Playing his second game for the club? And the goalie scores? The winner? In the very last game of the season? With the very last kick of the game? Meaning Carlisle United not only don't get relegated, but they stay in the football league, of which they have been a proud member for 72 years? You're having a bubble mate'.

This is what Carlisle fans would have said to you beforehand (if they spoke in an affected London accent and you owned a time machine). On loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass earned himself a place in footballing folklore, if not a contract with Carlisle, after his miraculous goal against Plymouth preserved their league status (they lost it five years later).

Carlisle needed to beat Plymouth to stay up. With five minutes stoppage time having been already played, and the match level at 1-1, Glass journeyed up to Plymouth's penalty area more in hope than expectation, before firing a shot in from six yards. The goalie had saved the day. 'If that's not entertainment I'm a banana', quipped Carlisle's owner Michael Knighton afterwards. Quite.

Glass then had the temerity to ask Knighton for a pay rise following his last-gasp winner, which had saved Carlisle millions and Knighton his job. The request was duly turned down. Glass was swiftly despatched from whence he came (Swindon) before disappearing in to the footballing ether (otherwise known as a life as a cab driver in Dorset). Now there's gratitude for you.

Interestingly, Glass was also the first goalie credited with scoring an own goal at Wembley. Never a dull moment eh?

6. Middlesbrough V Chesterfield, FA Cup Semi-Final 1997

An odd choice perhaps considering the events of their first season in the Premiership, but a deserved one none the less.

Boro's failure to field a team in a Premiership fixture against Blackburn Rovers (they were all too ill or something, bless) had resulted in the docking of three precious league points, a bitter blow to their famously ardent supporters.

Lost points that were ultimately to relegate them. So it was to the cup competitions Middlesbrough fans turned for solace. The Coca-Cola cup final had already been reached and lost the previous week. Now hopes rested on the FA Cup, where they met Chesterfield in the semis. Boro manager Bryan Robson somehow managed to cobble together a band of walking wounded for what was to be an all time classic.

Despite playing two divisions below their affluent opponents, Chesterfield were more than a match for a Middlesbrough team decorated with the talents of players such as Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson.

Boro were stunned to find themselves trailing 2-0 and reduced to 10 men following Vladimir Kinder's sending off. A bit of spirit and determination was required from the Teesiders. Step forward Fabrizio Ravanelli. His goal gave Boro hope before an appalling piece of officialdom signalled that perhaps this was going to be their day.

With ten minutes remaining, Spireite Jonathan Howard crashed a shot against the underside of Boro's crossbar. TV replays showed that the rebounding ball clearly crossed the line yet both referee David Elleray and his linesman somehow conspired to miss a goal that would almost certainly have sent Chesterfield to Wembley. A re-invigorated Boro equalised, taking the game in to extra time.

A 3-3 draw forced a replay that Boro predictably breezed through, although Chelsea's victory in the final delivered a modicum of justice

7. West Bromich Albion, Premiership, 2004-05

A heart-warming tale of survival this, as Bryan Robson returned to West Brom (sans perm) and made them the first team to avoid relegation from the Premiership despite being bottom at Christmas. Initially, however, Robbo had a job on his hand just convincing the Baggies fans he was the man for the job following the dismissal of Gary Megson.

Curiously, they were at best cautious when he was unveiled as their new leader, despite the miracles he had wrought on a shoestring budget at Middlesbrough.

Robson went about gaining the affection of the Baggies faithful by embarking on a run of eleven Premiership games without a win to leave them rooted to the bottom of the table by New Year. 'You don't know what you're doing,' they chanted, but Captain Marvel knew alright'.

The more they hate me, the more they will love me in the end, he thought and so it came to pass. Just as God welcomes a sinner who repents, football fans will forgive a manager who can turn it around. The Baggies went on a run which saw them rise to…well, to bottom of the table on the final day of the season, but with a small glimmer of hope.

If they won, and results from the three other games involving relegation contenders went their way, they would stay up. The last day of the season saw goals from BOING! Geoff Horsfield and BOING! Kieron Richardson propel them to safety after Palace failed to hold on against Charlton, Southampton failed to beat Man United, and Norwich failed to turn up against Fulham.

Cue surely the biggest party ever witnessed to celebrate coming 17th in a 20 horse race.

8. Bradford City, Premiership, 1999-00

Paul Gascoigne: Trains during his ill-fated spell with Gansu Tianma
Paul Gascoigne: Trains during his ill-fated spell with Gansu Tianma
Pity masquerading as welcoming affection was the prevailing feeling amongst the footballing fraternity when City's presence was confirmed amongst the elite of the Premiership (that and glee at a presumed guaranteed six points).

The aristocrats of Europe's richest league indulged Bradford City's aspirations of Premiership survival as you would a long lost backward cousin who is playing up at a particularly lavish wedding banquet.

The chorus of doubters (led by loveable cheeky cockney chappy, Rodney Marsh who stated he would shave off his hair if Bradford managed to avoid the drop) boldly predicted a swift return to the Nationwide for Paul Jewell and his men. They were nearly right.

Bradford began well enough, beating Middlesbrough (who deigned to turn up) 1-0 at the Riverside. The shock of this early promise clearly left the Bradford players reeling and unable to kick footballs correctly. They would drink the heady brew of victory just three more times before Christmas.

Such form ensured they would venture from the bottom three just once after the turn of the year. However, an unlikely tale of survival would be complete if they beat Liverpool and Wimbledon lost to Southampton on the last day of the season. A shock 1-0 victory was secured for the Bantams courtesy of a 12th minute David Wetherall header. Perhaps less surprisingly Wimbledon lost 2-0 at The Dell to ensure that City stayed where they probably didn't belong for one more year.

A man of his word, Marsh manfully journeyed to Valley Parade to have his locks shorn in front of an ecstatic home crowd. If only his word had been 'If Bradford City stay up I will eat my hat...after it has been digested and returned by a herd of ringworm-infected elephants.'

9. The entire Ethiopian football team, African's Nations Cup, 1997

Disappearing acts from African footballers whilst in Europe with their national teams is not an infrequent phenomenon as anyone who watched the BBC's recent Frontline Football programme can testify. In Ben Anderson's programme we watched as players from DR Congo absconded using evasive skills which suggested that, amongst players from impoverished countries, doing a runner has almost been honed in to a sport itself.

The temptation of escape from the problems of home can understandably take priority over the less pressing responsibilities of playing a football match.

Recent antecedents of this form of asylum involved international footballers from Ethiopia who not once, but twice, absconded from duty whilst on a stop over in Italy to catch connecting flights.

On the first occasion, during the World Cup Qualifiers for USA '94, six players from a sixteen-man squad vanished in Rome never to be seen in again (leastways not in an Ethiopian football top). Not to be outdone, the Ethiopian squad involved in the 1997 qualifiers for the African Nations Cup decided to raise the bar.

The team arrived in Rome before their match against Morocco with qualification a distinct possibility. Many of the players had been part of the team that won the East and Central African Youth Cup in 1995 and 1996 and anticipation was high amongst the squad. Sadly for manager Mailissa Baihiro, and to anyone with an interest in the success of the national team, it was the anticipation of completing a successful en masse bunk once they got to Italy.

Fourteen players, the team doctor and the coach departed toute suite and hired a lawyer to fight their battle for political asylum. With only a goalkeeper and a defender remaining for selection, the match was never played.

10. Pierre Van Hooijdonk leaves Nottingham Forest, 1999

A one man man, Pierre van Hooijdonk was to team spirit what Paul Scholes is to the well-timed tackle. His undoubted talent was all too often submerged 'neath a sea of controversy, usually of his own divining.

This was never so apparent as during his spell at Forest where he conspired against the club, manager Dave Bassett, his team mates, the fans and probably his own mother to win a move away from the City Ground and leave the football world shocked at this example of player power gone mad.

Bassett bought Van Hooijdonk from Celtic in 1997 after the Dutchman claimed the £7,000-a-week the Bhoys paid him was only good enough for a tramp (not only offensive, but untrue. Glaswegian tramps seldom rise in the morning for less than £10,000). In his first full season at the City Ground he was to form an impressive strike partnership with Kevin Campbell which yielded 55 goals and catapulted Forest straight back to the Premiership as champions.

The football they had been playing augured well for the new campaign but, to the annoyance of Bassett, the club then sold Campbell and defender Colin Cooper. This led Van Hooijdonk to accuse the club of lacking ambition (for the sake of partiality we will gloss over the fact that he had a point) and to announce that he was going on strike.

When Van Hooijdonk returned from his self-imposed exile, three months and eleven games in to the season, Forest were entrenched in a losing streak that led to Bassett's dismissal and culminated in relegation.

Van Hooijdonk played 21 more games for Forest that season before skipping back to Holland to join Vitesse Arnhem en route to European club and country finals and the World Cup of 2002. Nottingham Forest currently reside in League One. Go figure.

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