Worst case scenario

Against his instincts, Huw Richards wonders whether promotion from the Championship would actually benefit his club

Psychotic, uncontrollable, infinite envy. That is how Swansea City fans are supposed to feel about Blackpool at the moment. They usurped the final play-off place last season, then seized the prize of promotion to the Premier League. They will play Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. We’ve got Millwall, Cardiff and Bristol City. Some Swans fans, as postings on the soon sadly to be lost scfc.co.uk website make clear, do feel that way. But for others, disappointment was almost outweighed by relief that it is them, not us.

That might seem strange. As we are endlessly informed during the play-off season, the Premier League is the “promised land”, with its promise of infinite riches – this year’s cited number was £90 million – and glamour. And even if you don’t fancy joining a club that is so relentlessly self-satisfied, doesn’t any fan want their team to play at the highest possible level? Maybe so, but it is hard to see promotion have any outcome for a club of Swansea’s size – or others better resourced, with larger grounds and bigger crowds – that is not ultimately pretty miserable. As a Wigan fan said to me last year, “being in the Championship was more fun”.

So what faces Blackpool? They can expect patronising coverage from mainstream media, absurd prices for admission to crap­holes like Stamford Bridge, some brutal hammerings and, very likely, a rapid return whence they came. And that is far from the worst outcome.

The obvious nightmare involves trying to stay up via a host of January signings. The incomers may be slightly better than what you’ve got, but won’t be good enough to make a real difference – if they were, they wouldn’t be for sale – and they’ll probably trash both club finances and the team chemistry that got you promoted.

But what if you achieve the supposed Holy Grail, attained by clubs like Bolton and Wigan – whose achievement should be applauded – and establish yourselves as regular members of the top league? When Roberto Martínez left Swansea for Wigan last year a contributor to scfc.co.uk described them as a “crap club whose sole ambition is Premier League survival”. That was bitter, unfair and missed the essential point that being that sort of crap is also the limit, as yet (and perhaps perpetually) unattained, of our ambitions.

The issue is the deep-rooted stratification of the Premier League – not merely the much-touted top four, but a top eight. The finishers in those positions last season were exactly those you would expect, the sole evidence of allegedly renewed competitiveness that Liverpool dropped slightly from their assigned class, leaving space for Spurs. The rest are essentially supporting cast, “opponents” in boxing terminology, living in perpetual fear of loss of status and its brutal consequences. This overriding terror expresses itself in playing weakened teams in the cup competitions that should be these clubs’ realistic shot at glory and in miserable, fear-laden football. Over the past couple of Championship seasons the most attractive play came from those with no recent Premier League past – Doncaster, Blackpool, Burnley, Swansea, Cardiff – while refugees from the top flight have, West Brom apart, mostly carried the Premier battler’s stigmata of grimly fearful percentage football. Nor are those clubs necessarily wrong.

This isn’t about football “losing its soul”. It always was unequal, and capitalistic. Making money always mattered alongside winning trophies. But stratification is now so acute as to cap ambition well below trophy-seeking levels and inequalities so great that simple preservation of the business by retaining Premier status is an absolute imperative. Other priorities are not merely marginalised but pretty much eliminated. Among the relegated, basket cases far outnumber those strengthened by Premier experience. Do we really want to go there?

Perhaps it is self-indulgent to bemoan dilemmas induced by several years of success. Grimsby, League opponents five years ago, would love such worries. But to find yourself at the climax of the season questioning whether you really want your team to win is an inversion of every fan’s ingrained instinct. When you feel like that, for reasons rooted in football’s structures rather than your own club, something is wrong.

I’ve loved almost every minute of Swansea’s journey from the lower reaches, but am much less convinced by the supposed destination. Good luck, though, to Blackpool. Like Burnley and others before them, they’re one of us, challenging the fat cats. I’d like little better than for them to prove me wrong.

From WSC 283 September 2010