The Premier League title has oscillated between Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford since the 2004/05 season. It is a matter of intense debate as to how many teams can realistically challenge for the title. Possibly three or four if you were being charitable but at the other end of the table, upwards of ten sides will be looking over their shoulder at some point in the campaign. A relegation scrap treats the fan to the full spectrum of footballing emotions. Based on the often disastrous consequences of relegation, survival is far more important for a club’s future than silverware. Does the exhilaration of a relegation battle eclipse the winning of potential honours?
Judgement day in the PL usually focuses on the title race and the helicopter carrying the trophy which is occasionally in limbo for the afternoon. Far more entertaining, however, is the events at the bottom of the table. The range of outcomes can be extremely diverse. In 2009 with two games left to play Newcastle, West Brom and Middlesbrough were all on 31 points while Hull were on 34, Sunderland 36 and Portsmouth 38. In the 2006/07 season West Ham made a miraculous escape whilst in 2004/05 it had been West Brom. Two summers ago it was Fulham who staged a great escape after being all but doomed. Adding to the trophy cabinet may be thrilling but for these fans a whole series of games assumed the importance of a cup final.
The assortment of emotions and sensations a relegation battle can bring is expounded in Tim Parks’ book, ‘A Season with Verona.’ The author followed former Serie A side, Hellas Verona to every game of their 2000/2001 season. He found camaraderie with the club’s long suffering fans who often had to resort to humour throughout a frustrating season. The book highlights that in the melodramatic world of Italian football, no extra exaggeration was required when it came to the latter stages of their season. Their sense of togetherness did not cease but their hope and faith almost did. With the spectre of relegation looming, fans inevitably turn to thoughts of which players will be sold, dwindling attendances and handing the advantage to local rivals. A run of victories, not manageable all season, can still get you out of the mire. If achieved that nervous, trembling feeling can translate into relief, joy and renewed hope.
These contrasting sensations would not be lost on West Ham and Fulham fans in the past few years. Having come within a whisker of winning the 2006 FA Cup final, the Hammers were stuck in a keenly contested relegation fight the following season. A change of owners, players and manager saw them function as a loose collection of individuals for the bulk of that campaign. A battling spirit was fostered belatedly as the side eventually beat the drop. This had seemed impossible after embarrassing defeats to fellow strugglers Charlton and Sheffield United. Through the remarkable spirit of Carlos Tevez, Mark Noble and Bobby Zamora, the team took 18 points from a possible 24 and then won at Old Trafford on the final day of the season to finish 15th.
At that stage of the season games merge into rather undignified battles where everyone must put their bodies on the line. Fulham will also recall an epic escape from being certainties for relegation in the summer of 2008. Ensuring their safety the west Londoners recorded three consecutive away wins for the first time in seven seasons. Their fate appeared sealed on judgement day when rivals Birmingham and Reading were both winning but Danny Murphy rose highest to head in Jimmy Bullard’s free kick at Fratton Park.
The club which was once rooted to the lower reaches of the table nearly tasted European glory in the Europa League last season. None of their glamorous European nights would have been possible without that successful battle to survive. Clubs such as West Brom prudently budget for this possibility of relegation but many more do not. The travails of Portsmouth and Hull City in the Championship this year underline this. If your club find themselves in a precarious position this year it will not seem enjoyable but if successfully negotiated nothing else will better capture the range of emotions football provides.