APRIL 24 — Relegation is a horrible thing — the worst experience you can encounter in sport.
Around Europe, as the domestic season draws towards its conclusion, fans and players from a number of clubs are being forced to come to terms with the crushing, life-sapping numbness that results from the humiliating failure of losing status.
In the English Premier League, Wolverhampton Wanderers became the first team to suffer the dreaded drop with Sunday’s 2-0 home defeat against Manchester City; the writing had been on the wall for a few weeks for Wolves, who have ended up paying the price for their mid-season decision to sack manager Mick McCarthy without having a replacement lined up.
In Spain, Racing Santander are practically gone after falling 11 points from safety with a 1-0 home loss against fellow Basque club Athletic Bilbao. Racing’s 10-year stay in the Primera Division will come to an end if they fail to beat Real Sociedad next weekend.
And mounting fears of relegation sparked violent scenes in Genoa this weekend — with the home side trailing 4-0 at half-time in their home meeting with Siena, the fans’ anger turned ugly and the second half had to be delayed by 45 minutes. Nine-time Italian champions Genoa went on to lose 4-1 and are now just one point clear of the bottom three, having failed to win any of their last 12 games.
More ill-fated clubs will join Wolves, Santander and Genoa in the coming weeks as the struggle to avoid relegation reaches its grisly climax. For the victims, it will be a sickening experience, provoking introspective soul-searching, bitter recriminations and a damaging loss of self-esteem.
In the movies and in our imaginations, this isn’t what sport is supposed to entail. Sport is supposed to be about glory, achievement and self-validation. It is supposed to make us feel great and brighten our lives, provoking ecstatic feelings of unrestrained euphoria. It’s supposed to be about winning.
But in reality, failure is far more prevalent in sport than success. In every league, there can only be one champion; invariably, however, two or three teams are relegated. If you are a sportsman, a coach, an official or a fan, you are far more likely to encounter failure than success.
Even Liverpool, one of the most famous and popular sporting institutions in the world, have endured a barren spell in the Premier League spanning two decades and more. Surely when you sign up to become a Liverpool fan, you don’t do so in the expectation of failing to win the championship for more than 20 years? But that’s sport: it provides more downs than ups.
And relegation — being told you are not even worthy of competing — is the ultimate expression of failure. It is the antithesis to the dream scenes on the championship podium, holding aloft a glittering trophy and being showered with confetti and champagne.
If winning a trophy tells you that you are a hero and that your life is great, relegation slams into your face, publicly and irreversibly, with the conclusion that you are a failure and that all the time, effort and emotion you invested were completely worthless.
I suffered relegation during my time working at Reading. It happened at Derby County on the final day of the 2007/8 season, and one of my most vivid memories from the afternoon was being in the press box watching the game and briefly becoming aware of a few birds circling overhead, twittering away in a lazy fashion.
The birds slowly flew into a tree, caring little for the action that was unfolding beneath them. I, on the other hand, was so absorbed by Reading’s attempts to avoid relegation that I was actually deeply surprised when the birds made me register the ongoing existence of the external world. It didn’t last for long; having momentarily been drawn out of myself, something happened on the pitch to pull the full focus of my attention back to the game.
Sport does that. It has the ability to make us lose all sense of perspective and proportion. It makes us take it far too seriously, tempting us to become utterly immersed in the smallest details of the proceedings and teasing us into the unconscious belief that it is somehow the most important thing in the world — the only thing in the world — when really it’s just a few men running around a field.
If we manage to raise our heads for long enough to actually notice the birds fluttering in the sky, of course we know sport isn’t really anywhere near as serious as we tend to take it. Deep down, we know that it’s only a game. It’s sport; not rocket science or brain surgery. But when we’re mired in the midst of the action, it’s very easy to lose sight of that truth.
Steve Coppell, my manager at Reading, always tried to retain his sense of perspective and remind us of football’s real status in the march of time. “The sun will still come up tomorrow,” was one of his favourite phrases in the aftermath of a defeat. “A crisis is when you’ve got cancer and you don’t know if you’ll see tomorrow. This is just football... a game,” was another.
After a particularly frustrating loss at Fulham in late 2007, Coppell deflected media questions about the severity of his team’s situation by opining: “There are 1.2 billion people in India who couldn’t give a s**t about what happens to Reading.”
He was right, of course, but that humorous statement also betrayed the ultimate weakness of his argument. Because you could bet your last dime that a large proportion of those 1.2 billion people in India — while not giving a damn about the fortunes of Reading Football Club — would have cared a great deal about the latest endeavours of Sachin Tendulkar and his colleagues in the Indian cricket team.
If you’re trying to construct an argument to prove that sport is essentially meaningless, it’s probably not best to cite India as an example. When it comes to sport and fanaticism, Indian cricket fans are amongst the most dedicated followers you will find. Different continent, different sport... same principles.
So Coppell was both right and wrong. Death, famine and war are more important than sport — of course they are. But when you allow yourself to become personally involved with sport, it invades your life. It grabs a hold of you and won’t let go. It gets to the very essence of your being, and that’s why relegation is so painful.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.