An American obsession with the relegation battle…

Date published: Wednesday 3rd May 2017 12:00

It goes without saying that the title race is deemed more important than the relegation race. If you’ve consulted any media outlet in the last couple of weeks, you’ll have seen that coverage of Chelsea/Tottenham has outstripped coverage of Hull/Swansea/Middlesbrough by a large margin. The fonts are bigger, the stories are nearer the top, and the sidebars are more frequent and somewhat more hysterical.

This makes no sense. Although the last several years have seen some notable exceptions, in general the title race will be between two or three mega-clubs, who if they don’t win it this year, will win it the next year or the next. And even if they go through a title drought, like Manchester United at the moment, the situation of the club won’t change dramatically. The money’s still there, and so are the fans. The title race is just a huge merry-go-round with lots of brightly coloured horses and brass rings for everybody.

But the relegation race is for keeps. If you go down, the financial situation of your club, which affects everything from the woefully inadequate striker to the superlative tea lady, can be dramatically altered. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that it’ll ever get back to where it was. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the emotional effects of relegation. I listen to fan podcasts all the time, and with very rare exceptions, the humiliation and despair of fans facing relegation, and the all-encompassing relief and/or pride when survival is assured, are significantly more intense than the exhilaration and triumph of fans chasing and winning titles.

Of course, there’s promotion as well as relegation, and the former is just as compelling as the latter. But there’s no more promotion once you get to the Premier League, just a title. And if you ask a side that’s chasing the top spots in a lower league whether promotion or the league title is more important, you know what answer you’ll get. It’s the thrill of going up and the pain of going down that really matter. In the top flight, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Another point: in maybe 90% of seasons, there are significantly more teams battling relegation than going for the title. This is true even in the Premier League, which has more potential title contenders than most top-flight European leagues. So add it up for yourself: many more teams are affected by the possibility of relegation, and they’re affected much more intensely. There’s only one conclusion: the relegation race is more important than the title race. But I don’t know a single person who thinks it’s odd that the title race takes precedence. We just accept it as it is.

I don’t expect to change your mind. But I’m here to say why, as a neutral, although I love all football all the time, Hull City-Swansea City gets my blood pumping more than Chelsea-Spurs.

It starts with sports culture. I’m from the USA, where we have all sorts of high-quality professional sports leagues, but none of them with relegation. There are a variety of explanations, but the one I go for is: it just happened that way. All sports leagues in the USA are modelled on the one established for baseball back in 1875, which for a variety of reasons, mainly financial, was created as a closed system. It prospered, and so was naturally followed by leagues in other sports. Accretions to the system, different for each sport, have developed to the point where changing to the English model would involve such drastic upheaval and be in so few people’s interests that it might as well be literally impossible.

So sports in America are heavily tilted towards title-winning. Actually, they’re tilted towards doing well enough in what’s called the ‘regular season’ to qualify for the play-offs, and then toward title winning. And that’s OK, because when the season starts, a high percentage of teams have a reasonable chance to make the play-offs, which is a decent reward for your efforts, even if you’re not going to win it all.

Moreover, revenue sharing and the draft system in American sports mean that teams really can go from worst to first, and vice versa, in a relatively short time. Here’s the regular season ranking of the basketball team Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference of the NBA for the past 20 years: 12, 12, 10, 9, 3, 6, 8, 3, 11, 15, 1, 2, 4, 3, 4, 7, 12, 7, 5, 1. No one would find this sequence unusual. No matter how bad you are, a couple of years of strong management can put you in play-off contention. And if you make the play-offs, anything’s possible.

All well and good. But here’s the thing: for teams that expect to start the season near the bottom, there’s just not that much at stake. It’s nice to make the play-offs, and you want to make the play-offs. Some teams have suffered very long stretches where they’ve been left out (particularly in baseball, where it takes longer to build a team), and it feels very good when they qualify. Many lesser teams oscillate in and out of the play-offs on a reasonably regular basis. But either way, since the season is built around the play-offs themselves, frustration can set in if you can’t go further. Making the play-offs becomes just another thing to do.

Apologies for the long digression, but you can see where I’m coming from. The English system means that for a significant portion of the clubs in the Premier League, every match up to the last few weeks of the season matters hugely, matters so much more than any game in any of the American leagues until the play-offs. In the American system, you get hungry for games that really matter. In the English system, you get several a week. And although the title race games matter plenty, the relegation games matter more.

Naturally, you also want to watch great football, and for that you have the top teams, plus plenty of quality sides in Europe. I don’t want to do without Messi, or for that matter Mousa Dembélé. But that’s just another reason why I love watching the lower teams more. I know I can always get great football whenever I want it, so it’s nothing exceptional. Under those circumstances, I’ll get more excited for a game where there’s more at stake.

Remember, too, that the level of play at the bottom of the Premier League isn’t as bad as we pretend. These aren’t Sunday league players, although we call them that when they mess up. There are lots of decent footballers who do lots of decent things, and although you get the occasional stinker, most matches are very watchable.

In fact, although I’m sure this goes too far for most, I’d argue that once you get to Premier League level the very nature of the sport makes watching the lower teams more satisfying. We all know that football is an incredibly difficult game. It’s very hard to score goals, and it can also be very hard to do each of the many things that might, only might, lead to one of those goals. The top teams do these things on a regular basis, the bottom teams not so much. It’s that much more of a triumph when a lesser team does something wonderful.

Note that I am most emphatically NOT disparaging top teams or mid-table teams, or their fans. I watch every minute of every Premier League game, read and listen to as many fan responses as I can, and love it all. Fans of every club in the world are equally devoted to their clubs, unless perhaps David Moyes is managing. I’m on the side of every single one of those fans. Unless their club is competing against DC United, I wish them all success and happiness.

So the hardest thing about the relegation race is that you know three teams will go down. It’s extremely rare that a team is doomed from the start; there’s always a chance that the right personnel decisions, the right tactics, and the right amount of luck will keep them in the league. So until the numbers are unavoidable, you can keep hoping for success – but it’s a zero-sum game, and brilliant success for one may mean horrific failure for another. You just have to hope that the teams that go down either come back up quickly, or at least don’t go into a tailspin.

A final point. One of the great joys of the relegation race is that teams frequently raise their game down the stretch, producing remarkable results. In Sunderland’s 2013-14 great escape, they drew with Manchester City, defeated Chelsea, and defeated Manchester United – all away from home. This year Crystal Palace have beaten Chelsea and Liverpool away. Even the less dramatic accomplishments carry a charge: how about last weekend, when Hull City and Swansea City both picked up a point at sides significantly higher in the table? That sort of result is much more fun than when a title-chaser drops points to a mid-table team, and all you have is the failure.

So call me ridiculous, call me deluded, call me masochistic, just don’t call me late for Hull-Sunderland, Swansea-Everton, and Chelsea-Middlesbrough this weekend. Are Marco Silva’s boys ready to play as favourites, and will he return to the two-striker system that brought success against Boro? Can Paul Clement’s diamond hold off Everton, with Romelu Lukaku up against Alfie Mawson? Can Boro pull off one of those late-season miracle results? Hold all calls and let the cats feed themselves, it’s the climax of the season, and only a 6.5 earthquake (which fortunately has never happened in central Pennsylvania) could shift me from the set.

Peter Goldstein

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