Douglas Murray, who, let’s just say, has some glib descriptions of twentieth century nationalism, was on better form when offering an anecdote on Lex Fridman’s podcast about advice to writers. Namely the cynical propensity writers have to view events in their lives as potential material, no matter how inappropriate. Using the death of a family friend and turning it into a poem in dedication was Murray’s example of another writer he knew not being able to help himself.
Fuck shame, I’m always game to use the anguish of others for copy, especially when it arrives in a sporting context. Ridicule in sport isn’t gawking at people jumping from the Twin Towers or demeaning or demonising true hardships for political gain or point scoring; immigrants seeking political asylum, folk on benefits, those on strike, victims of crime and people’s houses being repossessed. Football rivalry exists for banter, laughing at the dire plight of someone else’s football club does not, should not, cause someone grave emotional distress. Where arriving at a funeral and shitting on the departed’s grave would.
I needed to go back eight years to find the last time I was compelled (read amused) enough to write about the Premier League’s final day relegation battle. It was between Newcastle United and Hull City, with Steve Bruce being involved no less!
Take a moment and think of all the changes your club has been through in the last ten years – perhaps, with the benefit of this wider perspective, we’d have to suffer less self-entitled social media whiners, just a thought – the good days, bad days, successful seasons (if you’ve been lucky to see one) and the bad ones. To remain sane and stable following a football club it has to be a myopic glass half-full endeavor. Fixation on the short-term in football becomes a necessity, as it allows fans to elide the reality that in the historic totality of English football for every club there have been more unsuccessful seasons than successful ones. Yes, even this maxim applies to Manchester City now, hard as it is to see past the overwhelming contemporary success of their sportswashing. Hope of a better tomorrow sustains us all to a degree in all walks of life, but in football the allure of potential success (and failure for your rivals) is particularly potent.
Focusing on the contrasting fortunes of Newcastle United and Hull City since that day in May 2015 has been revelatory. Newcastle United, who survived on that occasion have been relegated, promoted and, assisted by the geopolitical goals of this ghoulish Tory government that never seems to end, sold to one of the richest sovereign wealth funds from one of the most barbaric regimes on earth. They’ve just qualified for the Champions League for the first time in almost twenty years. During the last eight years Hull City have had their own version of volatility. Their issues with ownership have, initially like and now unlike Newcastle, come at the cost of sporting success. Initially they got promoted back to the Premier League and were then swiftly relegated again to the Championship. They even dropped down to the third tier a couple of seasons ago and have since recovered to flirt with midtable mediocrity in the Championship.
This foreboding explains the desperation of Leeds United, Everton and Leicester City, the three clubs threatened by relegation this time. It’s that the prospect of being cowed, as Hull have been, is far more likely than Newcastle’s salvation, and even their ascent was, in large part, a bit of slog. A quick recovery, of a successful promotion campaign, and that just gets you back to where you were, is far from guaranteed – since 1996, less than one and four sides relegated from the Premier League achieved promotion the following season. A sour summer contemplating the start of this (likely long and arduous) journey next season can only be staved off by survival on Sunday. It’s only in this context can a reprieve feel like winning a trophy.
With several more potential candidates facing this ringer than normal, and some of them just happen to be clubs who used to be successful, this year carries greater intrigue. Everton haven’t been relegated since 1951 (but have come close a few times in the last thirty years, including last season, replete with a cringeworthy pitch invasion and digs at the opposition manager). Leeds United are favourites to be flushed, they’re one of the fallen big names in English football, all since Peter Risdale lived the dream and left them financially destitute in the Championship for fifteen years. Leicester City are the only club other than Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea to win the title since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. They won the league in 2015/16, but are second favourites to be relegated this Sunday. Of the three in the frame their decline is certainly the most precipitous.
For those of us who don’t support any of these clubs, this day will offer schadenfreude. Sociology is never more captivating than our monkey brains gaining prominence and routing rationale. That’s when extraordinary stupidity or peculiarities can happen, just how will people who support relegation threatened clubs react when suffering the pendulum of emotions in a condensed timescale. Most, likely mundanely and with cliché. All start with hope, one minute a set will experience ecstasy as their own side scoring renders them safe, only for murmurs to start and news of a goal elsewhere spreads a virus of angst, because, once again, as things stand, you’re going down. And that’s just one fluctuation. A good relegation day has multiple. Multitude creates variance. Enough variance ultimately brings chaos.
The alternative is Everton score early and often, and removes the prospect of some inconsequential drama from my empty life. But just as Everton, Leicester and Leeds fans will be hoping their club will the only one of the three to survive, I and millions of others will hope the general incompetence they’ve displayed all season continues and creates a calamity throughout the entirety of Sunday afternoon, and for there to be a twist at the death.
In an era where so much in football is disingenuous, sanitized, commercialized, overhyped or success simply bought with ill-gotten gains, it’ll be nice to witness some variety; genuine joy, dread, agony, relief and despair. We’re guaranteed to see hope dashed, grown men in their forties and fifties with disgustingly large beer guts blubbering on the shoulders of their sons and perhaps some decidedly odd (likely celebratory) behaviour. Consider it as similar to a zoo or a circus visit, you can point and ridicule, but you’re truly relieved and thankful it’s them and not you.
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