Let’s all laugh at the weeping fans
Whisper it: watching other people’s relegation misery is great fun. And this year’s final-day deciders didn't disappoint.
Whisper it, but watching other people’s relegation misery is great fun. Of course, it’s the worst anguish imaginable when it’s your team that’s going down, worse still if you get relegated on the last day of the season. I speak here as a ‘relegation survivor’ who has endured so many Crystal Palace demotions I’ve lost count. Been there, done that, though I didn’t buy the t-shirt (I’m talking here about the risible ‘Operation Ewood’ t-shirts worn by Charlton fans, 7,500 of whom were bussed up to Blackburn on free coaches only to see their team lose 4-1. Priceless.)
But even a serial relegation sufferer like me is still able to take pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. I had a quiet little chuckle to myself when Spurs finally sealed Charlton’s fate. Not too raucous, mind; I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we Palace fans actually hate them. Charlton is a small, inoffensive, prudently managed ‘family club’ which has been punching above its weight for the last few years but is now finding its true level again. What’s not to admire about these plucky underdogs?
Charlton’s demise was amusing but a mere appetiser ahead of last Sunday’s blockbuster relegation drama. The final day of the season saw West Ham, Wigan and Sheffield United all battling to avoid the third relegation place. With the race for the remaining UEFA Cup places somewhat less interesting than watching paint dry, the relegation contenders were given top billing on BBC’s Match of the Day. What we wanted to see was the ecstasy and agony of the relegation dogfight played out on TV. We wanted drama, passion, tension, desperation. But most of all we wanted to see tears.
What is it that’s so appealing about these relegation deciders? Part of the reason is good old-fashioned schadenfreude – laughing at other people’s misfortune – which is a fine old football tradition. Even if you have no enmity towards the relegation candidates, you can still have a laugh at some fat bloke in a replica shirt weeping like a baby. Terrace tears are a relatively modern phenomenon. In the past, British men would not have blubbed in public but Gazza’s tears in 1990 helped change all that. Now, levels of public lachrymosity have risen to such an extent that the weeping fan shot has become a staple of sports broadcasting.
The lingering close-up shot of a tearful supporter is, I guess, intended as the perfect visual articulation of soccer heartbreak. It’s supposed to be moving and poignant. But somehow we can’t help finding it funny. Why is that? Why, instead of feeling weepy at fat bloke’s pain, do we piss ourselves laughing instead? Is it that we are now addicted to ghoulish ‘car crash’ television? Have we become a nation of voyeuristic rubberneckers who derive perverse pleasure from other people’s grief?
Actually, I think that laughing at weeping fans is a positive phenomenon. It shows that we haven’t completely bought into the emotionally correct orthodoxy with its new rituals of public mourning. It also indicates that some of us still retain a sense of perspective. We know that, despite football’s inflated cultural significance, relegation isn’t a real tragedy. Tim Parks, author of A Season with Verona, wrote that football ‘offers a new and fiercely ironic way of forming community and engaging with the sacred’. In other words, devotion to a football team may have filled the void vacated by religious faith but, at the same time, we realise that worshipping a football team is rather ludicrous, that football is, after all, only a game.
This year’s final day relegation deciders didn’t disappoint. The dramatic tension was utterly excruciating. In the end West Ham pulled off the Great Escape by beating Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford, while Wigan won 2-1 at Bramall Lane to send Sheffield United down. Wigan and West Ham celebrated as though they’d won the league while grown men in the red and white of Sheffield United colours wept like little girls.
The final day drama was, however, rather spoilt by the moaning of chippy club chairmen and sanctimonious sports writers. All because West Ham had breached some obscure rule that nobody had heard of before but is now regarded as a sacred law. The Hammers were found guilty of contravening rule U18 which governs third-party ownership of players when they signed Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. They also misled the league officials about the true nature of the two Argentine players’ contracts.
The club was handed a record £5.5million fine but the FA’s decision not to deduct any points has provoked an almighty furore. Sheffield United are leading the campaign for West Ham to be docked points and have initiated legal action. Sheffield MP Clive Betts has even tabled an early day motion in parliament declaring that the FA’s decision undermines the very integrity of the Premier League. It all sounds like sour grapes dressed up as high moral principles to me.
Now, whether the punishment was too lenient is open to debate. But let’s get one thing straight, Sheffield United were not relegated because of West Ham’s deceit or the FA’s leniency. They went down because they weren’t good enough for the Premier League. At one point there was a 10-point gap between the Blades and the drop zone but they contrived to blow it. They picked up only one point from their last six away games. Even then, United only needed a point from their final game to stay up but they fluffed their lines. In other words they have only themselves to blame.
You’ve cocked it up. You’ve gone down. Get over it. Now please stop bleating and allow us to mock your weeping fans in peace.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.