So much of modern football feels fake, but Relegation Day is still as authentic as it gets

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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Song Of The Day – Nutbush City Limits by Ike & Tina Turner

From the album ‘Nutbush City Limits’ (1973)

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Song Of The Day – Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks

From the album ‘Face To Face’ (1966)

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Just fucking accept it, son. Sifu is the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like Bruce Lee.

Now and again, I listen to Sam Harris’s podcasts. There are some observations to be made here. He has a relaxing voice made for advertising kitchens, garden furniture and your standard four door family hatchbacks. Often it strays into a show of intellectual vanity, especially with the geopolitical and psychoanalytical topics failing to accord with the pressing interests of most – to generalise, cost of living and paying your mortgage. Harris, to his credit, is always stoic and logical (even when acknowledging his visceral hatred of Trump), mix this with some odder episode topics and or interesting guests and true nuggets of wisdom can occur.

Recently the topic covered was the fantasy versus reality of self-defence that prevails in the culture, specifically the disparity between what learning a martial art is truly good for and how we imagine it should be utilised. While there’s an inherent appeal to being viewed as tough or feared (it’s a dog-eat-dog world after all), most of us never get into any sort of physical confrontation as an adult. Folk simply don’t want the hassle and normally fisticuffs are poorly choreographed, unglamourous affairs (see Irish gypsy fights). No matter how skilled you are, most swings miss. Fights are often fuelled by intoxication accompanied by some insurmountable complex or unfulfilled sexual impulse. For instance, Sigmond Freud believed all hooligans to be latent homosexuals. He likely said that in jest, but you get the point, unless cornered, no matter if you know you can “really handle yourself”, embracing risk to sort out some uppity, gobby wanker just isn’t worth it, no matter how much you feel they have it coming to them.

Because we’re no longer hunter gathers, evolution has forced most of us to fight against automation by being gathers of excel data, we’re liable to feel inadequate when faced with rare displays of physical prominence and dominance. Here I’ll paraphrase Helen Joyce from her excellent book Trans, who gets to the crux of this social insecurity succinctly:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body denialism. And if you spend a lot of time gaming or watching movies you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars.

So, how do we square that circle, when we’re bombarded with aspirational imagery of badass violent characters, yeah, even Steven Seagal, karate chopping their way through criminal underworlds, but have no opportunities in the real world to realise anything remotely like it. Aggression is mostly sublimated along mundane constraints, say sizing up your neighbours or random passers-by and thinking “I could take them”.

Which brings us to the awesome brawler game Sifu, which was released on PC in late March. It puts you in control of an expert Kung-Fu kid hell bent on revenge. Just as the Wu-Tang said they trained under the coolest martial arts figure ever, Bruce Lee, because the idea is as satisfying as the lyric, execute a successful leg sweep move in Sifu for the first time, replete with a close up fight porn cinematic, of a relentless rapid series of punches on your prone opponent, and even your soy-milk drinking Kumbaya chanting pacifist will get a euphoric tingle from it.

Sifu’s developers understand the appeal, because they’ve lifted from the coolest influences in gaming and popular culture; Bruce Lee, John Wick and in the case of gaming, Sekiro.

Applying the delicacy of Sekiro’s sword combat mechanics to hand-to-hand combat, where each movement is satisfyingly tactile, is an especially inspired choice. Just as any martial art is about patience and skill learned through failure and repetition, learning to time your parries, blocks, attacks and evasive manoeuvres, and unlocking skill moves, in perfect concert, is a necessity for success and makes it all the sweeter on achievement. And, as with Sekiro, defeating your opponent by breaking their posture bar before their health bar is a faithful barometer of your improvement.

The resurrection idea also comes from Sekiro, but the age counter on death is a delicious twist. Each death increases the death counter by one so each subsequent death ages you faster. Reach the end of level two as an old fogey (though I enjoyed my avatar having a luxurious waist length pleat and fuck-off Gandalf length beard), and you have less chance of succeeding in the next level as your age carries over to the start of the next level. Once you die beyond seventy, your death is permanent. This dynamic forces you to replay levels, in what is a short campaign, to seek refinement, even perfectionism. I didn’t move on to level three until I got through level two aged twenty-two (you start the game at twenty). Who wouldn’t want to beat any game without dying and or looking young and shredded as Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon?

There are other influences in the combat that increase its allure and addictiveness. The generic thugs crowd you to recreate Yakuza 0’s morish gang fights and the use of weapons and pacing, which switches from lulls to freneticism, is all very vintage Streets Of Rage, and better for it.

Boss fights are a steep learning curve. However, between the three difficulty levels (let it be said that hardest setting, appropriately named “Master”, is fucking hard) and level shortcuts, Sifu is more forgiving than a FromSoftware offering. The third level boss was a proper piss-boiler. It took me multiple tries to beat her, and this process would have been extremely aggravating if I had to complete the whole level (which takes roughly twenty minutes each time) for each opportunity as there are no save points. The level shortcuts (or passageways) which you unlock upon completion of defeating a mini-boss meant I could have seven or eight attempts an hour at the pretentious Tracey Emin knockoff blade wielding wench instead of two.

Thankfully there isn’t an online mode, yet. Losing to an algorithm I can take, but the thought of losing a virtual fight to some morbidly obese fascist potential spree killing teenager in an Alabama trailer-park, demolishing me one handed while he masturbates to anime porn, would be too much of an ego blow. I acknowledge that said neurosis says plenty about my insecurity as a non Fight-Club member, and none of it good.

But I know that’s a consequence of the world we’re living in today. Pride seems far more elusive with phony battles being fought in virtual spaces between strangers (mostly) with bodies that are disgusting or unskilled. So many are happy to settle for training their fingers to control a character rather than their limbs to achieve a level of physical self-assurance. Credit to Sifu, its combat was engrossing enough to appeal to the slobs and in the moment make me forget how physically feeble modernity has made us.

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Song Of The Day – Seventy Two Nations by Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus

From the album ‘Dadawah – Peace & Love’ (1974)

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