Friday 3 October ~
There’s a famous Kurt Vonnegut short story where nobody dies any more thanks to a medicine that’s been invented to ensure immortality. Needless to say, without the threat of death, life turns out to be something of an existential washout. The story is well worth reading for those marketing experts who like to foresee a future elite European or Premier League without relegation. Those same experts might scoff at the idea of taking the entity formerly known as English League Division Four as a business model, but thanks to the pre-season points deductions that have penalised Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham, League 2 can serve as a rough but useful experiment for those nursing visions of a drop-free football world.
For many of the division’s clubs starting out on zero points, the negative tallies for those three teams have served as a reassuring safety net that has likely staved off the threat of non-League football until the middle of 2010 at the earliest. But where’s the fun in that? The satisfaction of avoiding relegation from League 2 this season will feel akin to taking a 3-0 forfeit win over an opponent that hasn’t bothered to show up. For a team like Lincoln City, who have made a poor start (six points from eight games), the season is effectively over already. Unless they embark on a dramatic turnaround in their league form, the club’s hopes of promotion are distant, while it would require a miserable, though admittedly not impossible, slump to see them drop into 23rd place. They had tough first round draws in the League Cup (away at Derby) and in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (away at Leicester) that saw plucky displays nonetheless end in defeat. And unless they buck the trend of the past half century, there’s precious little point in investing any expectations in this season’s FA Cup – Lincoln have reached the fourth round once since 1961.
That’s not to say that Lincoln or any other League 2 mid-table dawdlers necessarily yearn for a relegation battle over the warm and fuzzy security of, say, 14th place – a position normally achieved on the back of a few doughty away draws played out in front of four-digit crowds, but this year just handed it to them for free on a paper plate. But as the cliche goes, when you coast through life and then something awful happens, at least you get a reminder that you’re alive. In the same way, you don’t appreciate the benefits of League 2 survival until you’ve lived through a frightening but memorable fight for that survival. The right to entertain Morecambe at Sincil Bank again next year ought to be earned.
It’s telling that Lincoln’s relegation to the Conference in 1987 and their return to the League one year later has become a proud, landmark tale in the club’s history. Even allowing for one skirmish with the third division and a record number of successive play-off failures (five), the most exciting season since was probably 2002, the year Lincoln almost went down again while surviving a financial crisis too. No team would deliberately court adversity, of course, but without it, football’s narrative has all the attraction of a Disney film. With relegation, someone’s not going to have a happy end. Without it, we might as well not bother playing at all. Ian Plenderleith