History gives still pointless Crystal Palace a chance at top-flight survival
How do you recover from losing your first seven games of a Premier League season? Crystal Palace spent the international break considering their wreckage of a season so far, and they did so in the knowledge that this is the worst start to a campaign in Premier League history.
Plenty of other teams have reached this point without winning a game -- one other has even lost all seven too -- but nobody has managed quite this level of calamity, completing seven fixtures without so much as a goal to their name.
First, the good news. Of the 22 other teams who haven't registered a win in the first seven games of a Premier League season, 12 have survived. Some of them have even gone on to record some very respectable league positions: Tottenham in 2008-09 finished eighth, Norwich in 2012-13 came 11th, Sheffield Wednesday in 1993-94 ended up in seventh. Some of those teams had a few draws to their name and all of them had at least scored a goal, but it does at least provide some encouragement for Roy Hodgson and any other despairing Palace fans.
The bad news is that the only other team to lose all seven games was Portsmouth in 2009-10. They picked up their first victory in their eighth game, a 1-0 win over Wolves, but lost 17 of their remaining 31 fixtures and didn't rise from the bottom of the table all season.
"At the time, we didn't give up, or think relegation was inevitable," Richard Hughes, part of that Portsmouth team, tells ESPN FC. "But it was panic stations from pretty early on. Looking back on it now, we should have seen that the writing was on the wall from that first run of games."
But with that Portsmouth season, there are caveats. Colossal ones. That was the year that Portsmouth essentially collapsed as a football club, years of financial mismanagement building up and dogging the team all season. That summer they sold half a team, as Sol Campbell, Glen Johnson, Niko Kranjcar, Sylvain Distin and Peter Crouch all departed. They were replaced with what you might charitably call an eclectic collection of free transfers and cast-offs, thrown together at the last minute and asked to keep the team up while the club crumbled around them. "We didn't really try to make excuses: we just weren't good enough," says Hughes.
Over the course of the season Portsmouth had four owners: Sacha Gaydamak sold to Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who then sold 90 percent of his holding to Ali Al-Faraj (nicknamed "Al Mirage" due to him not exactly being a regular at Fratton Park), who then lost his stake in the club after being unable to repay part of a loan, to Balram Chainrai. No club could perform with any degree of freedom in those circumstances, not least because players were paid late at least three times that season.
"We tried not to let that affect us, because we sort of assume that we'd be paid eventually," says Hughes. "But it was all part of the circus."
They went into administration in January and were docked nine points, but even without that penalty they would have been seven points shy of safety. A bizarre cherry on a profoundly curious cake of a season was that they still managed to reach the FA Cup final, losing to Chelsea. "I guess we treated those cup games as a way to prove a point, that we weren't actually that bad," adds Hughes.
All of which is to say that season was such an outlier of multi-faceted calamity that it can't really be compared to Palace. For all their problems in the transfer market and the curtailed Frank de Boer experiment, they do at least resemble a functioning football club.
A more apposite -- and indeed encouraging -- comparison might be the next team on the list. Southampton started the 1998-99 season with just two points from their opening nine games, the first five of which they lost: that included a 5-0 defeat to Charlton, a 4-0 hammering from Newcastle and a home defeat to Nottingham Forest, who wouldn't win another game until the end of January and finished bottom of the table.
And yet, they survived. Results began to pick up around October, slowly at first, but eventually a flurry of wins towards the end of the season kept them up. It was a similar story the year before: they lost six of their first nine but ended up finishing 12th.
The key, it seems, was to prevent the bad run from getting into their heads, as far as possible.
"You're not going to win a football match every week," Carlton Palmer, who played in both of those Southampton teams, tells ESPN FC. "You go through bad spells. We changed the mindset in terms of training, in terms of playing and winning. If you get one bad apple in the dressing room it can create a problem, but if you get one good one it can manifest itself and transfers to the rest of the players."
One of the reasons for Southampton's struggles in 1998-99 was the influx of new players: manager Dave Jones brought in seven signings, who would inevitably take some time to settle.
"The new players gradually started bedding in and finding their feet," Jones wrote in his autobiography. "I knew the process of assimilating all the new players would take a while and was prepared for a short-term blip for the longer term gain."
If Palace wish to take a "glass half-full" attitude to things, from that perspective their lack of summer transfer movement could be spun as a positive.
Continuity helped in the dugout too, and Palmer suggests that Palace may have already made their mistake in that respect. How could they know that De Boer wasn't going to win people round if he wasn't going to be given the time?
"If you go to a big company and they put a CEO in place, when do you ever see them change within a short period of time? It doesn't happen," says Palmer, who has just released his own autobiography 'It Is What It Is.' "You interview them, put them in place, give them time to do the job -- it's as simple as that. It's detrimental to the game."
Palace can certainly learn from years past, and stories like Portsmouth and Southampton, but perhaps the fundamental point is that even with this historically bad start, all is not lost. Hodgson is a manager whose success relies on functional repetition and it will take a while for him to have an impact. Their fixture list so far has been extremely tough. And, depending on how much faith you put in these things, their expected goals metric suggests they haven't been playing as badly as their results suggests: they're creating chances, just not converting them yet.
Of course Palace need to find results quickly -- even Portsmouth won their eighth game -- but they still have hope, however faint it might appear now with the defending champions Chelsea next on the agenda.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.