When I was 9, Barnsley won promotion to the Premier League. The excitement across the division about a small Yorkshire club cutting it with the big boys was widespread. Even when Chelsea travelled to Oakwell and destroyed the Premier League newcomers 6-0, the sense of optimism surrounding the Tykes remained.
The attitude was an extension of the FA Cup mentality. When Liverpool slipped up at home to the league’s minnows headlines were dominated by the upset as if the Reds had lost to a non-league outfit. As the season went on, and Barnsley’s chances of survival dimmed, the intensity of feeling towards the underdogs grew. The phrase; “I support Manchester United…but Barnsley are my second team” was born.
As the Premier League grew older, so did the number of sides surviving in the top flight, and the concept of the second team slowly died out. Over recent seasons, teams like Hull and Blackpool have reignited the second club syndrome – the clichés surrounding plucky football and creating a home fortress have returned.
You would be forgiven for feeling you’ve seen this all before. If you look at the current Championship table, 17 of the 24 occupants have played Premier League football. At times many of them will have been a supposed “second side” for supporters of the top clubs.
The images are powerful. Witness a distraught Juninho on the last day of the 1996-97 season, or West Brom’s incredible, ecstatic celebrations after surviving the drop on ‘Survival Sunday’ in 2005. However, these second clubs are meant to fail gallantly – this is their job. Prolonged survival of these secondary teams causes problems.
As a result, the phenomenon has come back to haunt many sides. Wigan were the exciting, marauding entertainers of the 2005-06 season. Lead by eye-catching performances from Jimmy Bullard and Pascal Chimbonda, the club finished a credible 10th and made the final of the Carling Cup.
Four seasons of Premier League survival have passed, but many of the fans of the Latics’ brand of attacking football have been replaced by annoyed detractors, questioning the side’s limited ambition.
Hull City’s collapse was even quicker. From beating Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates in September 2008 and gallantly going down 4-3 at Old Trafford two months later, the Tigers swiftly became the subject of derision as they fell dramatically down the table. By the time they were relegated last season very few fans outside of Humberside were sad to see them go.
Wigan’s story is an interesting one. They are the embodiment of what happens when a side that should not, by conventional thinking, survive over a long term period manage just that. Bradford, Hull and Reading are all examples of sides to have stayed up against the odds but who have not followed up their initial success with prolonged survival. Wigan have been unable to get a proper foothold. There have been a number of impressive players brought to the DW Stadium, but whenever these have impressed, they have been forced to sell to bigger fish in the Premier League.
The results have been inevitable. Occasional wins over the division’s leading lights have been the only highlights for a team that have battled gallantly but have lost neutral supporters with each passing year.
So, as this season draws to a close and the relegation battle envelopes as many as ten different sides, be careful who you pledge your secret allegiance to. Many will be hoping for a Blackpool survival party at the end of May, but before you jump up and down with joy as Ian Holloway runs the length of Bloomfield Road to celebrate with Jason Euell remember; a second team is for life – not just for their first year in the Premier League.
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