Every team wants to be promoted, right? Wrong
Today, many football fans dread their team making it to the Premiership, lest they be humiliated by the ‘big boys’.
Disappointment, dashed dreams, and loadsa lousy football. That’s the lot of most football fans, well, those of us who don’t follow one of the Premiership’s big four, that is.
But, every now and then, along comes a game, a transcendental moment that makes up for all the mediocrity and misery. Palace’s victory over Burnley on Sunday was just such a game. We needed to win to guarantee a place in the promotion playoffs and we did it in style, hammering Burnley 5-0. The stadium was near capacity and the whole goddamn joint was jumping. I was still singing the retro anthem ‘Power to the Palace’ (with the immortal lyric ‘take a pal to the palace today’) on the train to work the next day. Sweet Jesus, mine eyes have seen the glory.
The playoffs are an excruciating, emotional white knuckle ride. But I’d rather we were in with a shot of promotion than preparing for another season in the Football League. However, some Championship fans have started to question whether promotion is particularly desirable. Why? Because a spectre is haunting the promotion contenders; the spectre of Derby County. With just one fixture remaining Derby have only won one game all season and accrued a pitiful 11 points, making them officially the worst Premiership club of all time. Never mind down by Christmas, Derby looked doomed by October.
Is that the wretched fate, we wonder, that awaits us should we win the playoffs? Getting humiliated every week. A pathetic five-minute highlights slot – effectively an afterthought – at the fag end of Match of the Day. Alan Hansen sneering at our woeful Keystone Cops defending. Understandably, not everyone relishes the prospect of becoming the Premiership’s whipping boys. ‘I’m not certain that the joys of watching a year of struggle and defeat are very, well, enjoyable. Any newly promoted team in the Premiership is a racing certainty to be immediately relegated’, wrote Watford fan Rob Fisher in Guardian Unlimited (1).
Undoubtedly there’s a strong chance that the promoted clubs will struggle in the top flight next season. The financial gulf between the top flight and the Championship continues to widen which makes it increasingly difficult for promoted teams to make the transition. Difficult, but not impossible. In every season since the inception of the Premier League – with the sole exception of the 1997-8 season – one or more of the newly promoted teams has managed to stay up. For every Derby or Watford, there’s a Wigan or Bolton who’ve bucked the trend and survived. Yes, it’s going to be an almighty struggle but that’s no reason to succumb to promotion phobia. At the risk of sounding like one of those irritating ‘power of positive thinking’ motivational speakers, if you go up expecting to be battered every week, then you probably will be battered.
But it isn’t just the fear of failure that makes some supporters promotion-averse. A lot of fans are disenchanted with the commercialism and predictability of the Premiership. Kevin Keegan struck a chord with many when interviewed after Newcastle’s defeat to Chelsea on Monday. ‘This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world,’ said Keegan. ‘The top four next year will be the same top four as this year.’ By contrast, the Championship is seen as a much more exciting and competitive league. ‘It’s wonderfully unpredictable. Anyone can beat anyone else and that is what makes it so enthralling’, gushed Sky pundit Kris Kamara in the Sun earlier this year. ‘The champagne football might be in the Premier League, but if you want really exciting competition the Championship takes some beating.’ (2)
For the promotion-phobics, the Premiership is a gilded fake while the Championship represents authentic football. ‘In my years as a supporter I have seen seven relegations and six promotions’, recounts Watford fan Graham Smith. ‘That is what being a football fan is all about. It is about supporting your team through thick and thin. It is about suffering the bad times and enjoying the good times. That’s why I like being a fan of a team that basically belong in the Football League rather than the Premier League. It is real football.’ (3)
Fellow Hornet Rob Fisher doesn’t relish the prospect of paying higher ticket prices to see his team get routinely humiliated. ‘I won’t be shedding too many tears if my team fail to win the opportunity to parade like a fat lass on a fashion catwalk’, writes Fisher. ‘It is much more fun challenging for promotion in a league that is genuinely competitive: dreaming the dream, if you like, rather than waking up to the over-hyped reality.’
The Championship appeals to fans who harbour a nostalgia for ‘old football’ ie, football as it used to be before Sky TV and the foreign invasion. ‘Nobody is claiming the Championship offers a particularly high level of technical skill’, writes Ronay in the Guardian. ‘Instead it provides an alternative universe where the bluff, energetic and characteristically Anglo-Saxon version of football thrives. And this, it seems, is what many of us crave. Proper tackling. A certain physical robustness. It’s like eating an old-school fry-up or a non-ironic plate of bangers and mash.’ (4)
Championship fans can console ourselves with the knowledge that our league is the fourth best supported league in Europe. We can keep reciting the mantra that the Championship is where you’ll find real football and real fans, not the glory hunting ‘Johnny Come Latelys’ who attach themselves to Chelsea or Arsenal. Promotion is a poisoned chalice, we can say. But we’d be kidding ourselves. There’s plenty wrong with Premiership. But while it might not be right, it is real. It’s where the best players are and the best football is played. Of course, we shouldn’t be happy that the playing field is becoming increasingly uneven, particularly for promoted clubs. But nor should we wash our hands of the top flight and settle instead for the authentic mediocrity of the Championship.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Going up would get me down, Guardian, 11 April 2008