Our season at present consists of a grim hokey-cokey with the relegation zone. In, out, in, out, shake it all about. “It” in this context being the strange, potent hope-and-despair punch that sits somewhere behind the cerebral cortex of every football fan.
The game that inspired me to write this was a dreadful one, but one which left us out of the relegation zone. Most recently we’ve delivered a much improved performance but dropped to second-bottom. With cause and effect apparently divorced it’s hard to have any real sense of what’s likely to happen next week, let alone next season.
What is easy during a game this dismal, though, is entertaining the thought that relegation might be a blessed relief. We’ve had two seasons fighting relegation now. Two seasons losing more than we win, home, away, wherever. Two seasons basically not enjoying our major hobby and the fruit of a large proportion of our disposable income. It’s been dispiriting and gruelling. The thought is obvious – if we get relegated, we win more games, we have more fun. OK, it would be depressing trading games against Middlesbrough and Wolves for games against Crawley and Leyton Orient, and OK the club would lose a lot of money. But we’d enjoy going to the Gate again, wouldn’t we? And we could do what Norwich and Southampton have – regroup, get promoted, and use the momentum to propel us up into the Premier League. We all remember the momentum engendered by our last promotion, and how close that took us to the top tier. Momentum, drive – that’s what’s been missing from the club recently. How tempting to make the drop, shed some pounds, and come back a leaner, fitter, promotable outfit grinning from handing out indiscriminate thrashings to the chaff of the league’s bottom half.
As with anything in football, though, you can only imagine the sunlit uplands for so long before reality, that spiteful little voice in your head, starts to intrude. “But would it be like that?” it asks. “Would we start winning? What if we kept losing? Look at Scunthorpe, two years relegated and in the bottom two down there! Look at dear old Plymouth Argyle! Remember playing them? Remember losing to them, in the Championship, costing Johnson his job? They’re four points above the League Two relegation zone! This could be City. This could be you.”
Like a confused Donald Duck torn between “good” and “evil” versions of myself on my shoulders, I don’t know which inner voice to believe. So I asked a man who does know. From bitter, horrible experience.
Guardian Sport’s John Ashdown is a devoted Blade (in that he supports Sheffield United; he’s not a member of some kind of urban gang). He’s followed them in three divisions, most recently dropping from the Championship to League One, whence they came agonisingly close to a return last season. And I do mean agonisingly: if you sat down to work out the worst possible way not to get promoted, being second for 45 games before seeing your local rivals pip you to the post on the final day of the season, followed by a penalty shoot-out elimination in the playoff final (in which your keeper misses the final penalty) would almost certainly do the job.
I asked John what was worse; being a poor Championship team or a decent League One outfit. His initial responses tended towards the relegation-is-good argument.
“It was a case of being put out of our misery,” said John. “As a club we needed relegation. 2009-10 had been pretty miserable, then 2010-11 was a mess. There were all these short-term loanees... by February, the fans hated the team. Relegation meant a chance to start afresh, win a few games, and see a better style of football.”
So strike one for the let’s-get-relegated bunch. But John’s words about League One strike a cautionary note that relegation hawks would do well to bear in mind.
“Last season was a hideous late kick in the teeth – and a double kick, at that. Failure to go up meant the breakup of a team that the fans had once more become connected with, and we knew it. We knew it as Simonsen spooned that penalty off towards Swiss Cottage.”
John’s clear that “relegation meant the breakup of a squad we hated”. But he’s also clear that while the blood-letting of relegation was what Sheff U needed, failure to get out of League One was considerably worse.
“Players we hated leaving v players we loved leaving. Inevitable for ages v short sharp shock. One step back, two steps forward (in theory) v one step back. There’s no real positives at all to be taken from another season in League One.”
This is the note of caution that ought to be struck. Failing in the Championship is bad. But to assume that the alternative is glory in League One is dangerous. Failing in League One – and, as is clear from John’s testimony, third place can count as failure (my God we’ve been there) – would be far worse. Let’s all remember how bad we felt after the Brighton game at the Millennium Stadium. How we felt trudging out of tiny my-garden-shed-is-bigger grounds with no points in the bag, adrift of the automatic spots and with a long winter journey home for eight long years last time.
Things feel bad at Ashton Gate. But clearly they could be worse, a lot worse. Let’s not welcome relegation. If it comes, let’s make the best of it; but in the meantime let’s do everything we can to stay in this division.
Two home games to come. Let’s win them, City.