10 May ~ “The big monster called relegation is there, ready to bite us on the arse,” Steve Coppell once oddly observed while manager of Crystal Palace. Certainly, relegation can loom ominously like a creature rising from the dark and misty marshes, but whoever heard of a monster that specialised in taking chunks out of its victims’ rears? Relegation seems to me far more like the creeping onset of a serious illness. You and your team suffer more and more over the course of several months, and though you hope for a miraculous recovery, it’s more likely that you’ll take a few more turns for the worse and eventually be condemned. A bite on the arse can be treated. For many diseases, there is still no cure.
Of course it’s frivolous to compare the relegation of a football team with death, but at this time of year there’s little room for perspective. Post-relegation melancholy kicks in like dampness in a brick cellar. Rather than tackle the issue, you just shut the door and hope that over a long summer the problem will somehow take care of itself. You resolve to occupy yourself with something more productive. The family, the cricket or a home-learning course in Mandarin that will require hours of dedicated concentration. Anything to take your mind off the fact your team went down. Anything to distract yourself from the idea that beyond demotion there is only further doom.
Unfortunately, beyond temporarily attempting to numb your malaise in mild narcotic palliatives, there is little you can do to rid yourself of hope’s battered, sunken wreck that now lies anchored and inert in the base of your gut. Well-meaning friends send you emails of sympathy, but words of condolence are always marked by language’s strictly limited scope to relieve suffering. A glance at the reliably depressing world news to try to place the relegation of your stupid little football team into a wider geopolitical context doesn’t have the required effect. It’s done with the best of intentions, but there’s no space right now for the rational thinking that is required to stop you caring.
As human beings, most of us are wired to strive to progress in our personal and professional lives. Football mirrors our meritocracy, so this only works out for so many people or teams. The majority stoically settles for stasis – mid-table safety may not be ideal but we’ll plod along in the hope that something better might develop. But if people or teams must shift upwards (and they must), some of us have to shift down to accommodate them. That inevitability doesn’t make setbacks any easier to take. Even when you haven’t won for ten games and are poised for the drop, it still hits you hard. Like when you’ve been expecting your girlfriend to give you the axe for months, but when it actually happens you still can’t quite believe she can really live without you (but she can, and she does, just like League Two will happily survive without Lincoln City).
And while you mope, other teams are lifting trophies and celebrating titles and promotions, or even just avoiding the drop. Could they not party a little more quietly while some of us are grieving? Even the fact that Chelsea will likely win nothing, nothing at all (absolute squat, zilch) this season does little more than cast a shard of passing sunlight across the worn-out pitch that the groundsman can’t yet bring himself to reseed. The poor bloke stayed in bed because he couldn’t face standing on the spot where it all went wrong, again and again and again.
But one day in the next couple of weeks, he’ll reach out for the latest copy of SportsTurf magazine, crank up the rotavator and get to work on those arid midfield zones. Somewhere inside the stadium’s offices, a secretary is googling for directions to Gateshead, Tamworth and Barrow. Rubbish players are being told that their contracts are up and won’t be renewed. New names are thrown around and fans tour the message boards asking: “We’ve just got your 32-year-old centre-back Dave Slogger on a free. Is he any good?” The melancholy will dissipate, and it will soon be time to resume the struggle. It won’t be pretty, but what’s the alternative? No matter how much you’d love to, you cannot just give it up.
And so off we'll go again. And it will turn out that it was just a bite on the arse after all. Ian Plenderleith