Let's All Have A (League One) Disco

Relegation parties - complete with fancy dress and cheering opposition goals - are the perfect antidote to a particularly nasty season. Heaven knows we need it...

Last Updated: 03/05/12 at 13:19 Post Comment

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It's been a grimy old year for English football's self-image. John Terry and Anton Ferdinand; Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra; Chelsea fans ruining Hillsborough tributes; Stoke fans booing Ramsey for breaking his leg. And on and on. As Matthew Stanger's piece noted, there has been neither respite nor perspective.

It's not just in the grounds that moral compasses appear to be knackered. The twitter accounts of footballers and pundits are filled with abuse from angry children and deluded adults. Put simply - and wetly - people are being nastier to each other. Most football fans are quietly sick of this. But it's harder to notice millions of people silently despairing than it is a few hundred people howling furiously in the corners of stadiums or on message boards.

There is a small antidote though, cropping up in football grounds, as the season winds down. Across the country, from the Premier League down to the lower divisions, clubs' fans are having relegation parties.

These are parties in the loosest sense of the word - no exotic sugary booze, no drugs. Certainly no sex. They involve throngs of fans from relegated clubs, ranging from 300 to 5,000 for away games, celebrating their team's season of failure and impending demotion. Many go in fancy dress. Others bring flags, banners and inflatables. It's like mid-1980s terrace culture but without the violence.

They sing more than usual, despite being doomed. The chants tend to mock their own club or celebrate its failings. 'Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, we're going to Shrewsbury,' sang Portsmouth fans at Nottingham Forest. Wolves fans were in a similar mood when they were relegated at Molineux against Manchester City on April 22. They swapped Shrewsbury for the Championship-appropriate Barnsley, mind.

Assumed ideas of how to behave at football matches shift uneasily at relegation parties. Suddenly it's all self-deprecation. During the same match at the City Ground, when Forest took the lead, Portsmouth fans erupted in celebration as if the goal had been their own. Banners were unfurled and beach balls were thrown. Celebrations for the goal lasted longer in the Portsmouth section than Forest's. Twenty minutes later, Forest scored a second. Portsmouth celebrated more wildly and for even longer.

That pretty neatly sums up the mood of a relegation party: Score against us, at least we can celebrate a goal. Forest fans looked on, bemused but smiling benignly like indulgent uncles. The clock wound down; a new chant emerged: 'Let us score, let us score, let us score!' from the away end. This time, Forest fans responded: 'Let them score, let them score, let them score!' Portsmouth fans approved and clapped the Forest fans. Forest fans clapped the Portsmouth fans back. Everyone clapped everyone; most were laughing.

Meanwhile, at St. Mary's as Southampton was hammering the already-relegated Coventry 4-0 in its procession to automatic promotion, the mood was similar. Coventry fans were in fancy dress, prancing about in Thunderbirds, Batman and Desperate Dan costumes. 'We only want one goal!' they sang. Southampton fans also looked on, applauding.

A look at club message boards this week suggests plans are in place for more relegation parties before the end of the season. Wolves fans appear to be preparing a final send-off for their Premier League status at Wigan. Coventry and Portsmouth celebrated on Saturday, taking 2000 and 2500 fans to their away games, respectively. Time will tell whether Blackburn fans get behind their club's hierarchy should they go down.

Relegation parties are not new: doomed clubs have been taking more fans than usual to their final away games for years. Last season West Ham held a particularly impressive one just before relegation at Wigan, with 4,500 fans doing a conga through the DW Stadium. But judging by the spate this season, the tone seems to have changed. This year there is less angry defiance; more men dressed as farmyard animals. Fewer chants of 'sack the board' and more renditions of 'we're all going on a League One tour'.

The celebration of failure is, to an extent, self-congratulatory. Mocking your team's shortcomings and swelling the away end with inflatable beach balls when your team has underperformed suggests a sort of giddy bravery. It implies that your team's showing is entirely secondary. It offers fans who have suffered all season the chance to feel morally superior. We have nothing, you have everything. But we're dressed as Smurfs.

This idea of valour is a fallacy, of course. It's far more palatable travelling hours for an away game knowing there will be guaranteed jollity than the alternative: sitting silently, glum-faced throughout a now meaningless fixture. And the emergence of the trend across a high proportion of relegated clubs this season also disproves the idea that the fans responsible are somehow remarkable, or more spirited than others. Given half the chance most clubs' fans would be doing the same. Unfortunately, it's the only perk of the relegated few.

To cynics, this frivolity could also easily come across as self-consciously wacky (who really likes fancy dress, after all?). But at the City Ground and St.Mary's on Saturday it didn't - possibly because football needs this. After a year of baiting, racism and pettiness, the sight of home fans clapping away fans and then afterwards, grown men leaving complimentary remarks on their opponents' forums is genuinely a joy. More than that though, relegation parties matter because for a few weeks once a year, the angry minority is drowned out by the sound of a decent majority, celebrating an opposition goal.

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