Sifting through the excuses and blame of relegation

Date published: Thursday 18th May 2017 8:05

The relegation race is over, which is probably just as well. It’s bad enough that supporters of the relevant teams have to worry about results from the very first week, then worry more as it becomes evident they’re not going to pull clear, then worry cosmically as the finish line approaches. With the HMS (Hull-Middlesbrough-Sunderland) North East having hit the iceberg and sunk below the waves (although the battleship Geordie is joining the fleet), we can offer our genuine condolences and sift through the debris.

Among the debris are the reactions from various sectors of the club’s entourage. The internet keeps everything, which means someone like me can spend untold hours reliving the agonies and excuses, and finding the flotsam worth saving, or at least worth gawking at.

Let’s start with the owners, the people responsible for the whole damn thing. First up is Ellis Short of Sunderland, and some excerpts from his open letter after relegation was confirmed:

“Like any supporter, my initial reaction is one of sadness, disappointment, anger and frustration.”

This is known as the Man Of The People approach. It works on average for about three seconds, less if you’re a regular reader of John Nicholson’s columns.

“It is an especially cruel blow for our supporters, who have shown tremendous faith in the club…I am truly sorry that we have not been able to retain our top-flight status for them. I acknowledge that during my ownership mistakes have been made, particularly in the area of player recruitment, and as a result we have found ourselves struggling to survive in recent seasons.”

Well played, to a point: the mandatory Praise Of Supporters and the Sincere Apology. But note the classic Using The Passive Voice To Dodge Responsibility. Did anyone in particular actually make those mistakes? Oh, and what’s this?

“We had massive disruption during the summer transfer window and an unprecedented number of injuries throughout the season. These are difficulties which we have been unable to overcome and we are paying the price for that now.”

The inevitable Excuses, plus the First Person Plural When Something Goes Wrong – it’s all of us together who somehow failed, and anyway we were in a tough spot to begin with which most definitely wasn’t my fault.

I’ll spare you the rest, which to be fair is a decent, if boilerplate, We’re Determined To Do Better. But let’s look in on Steve Gibson and his interview with the Middlesbrough Gazette. Asked to describe the season, we get:

“It’s been disappointing, heartbreaking really, not what we expected. The season has been tough, I think you make decisions, we made decisions and we thought at the time we were making the right ones, but we haven’t fulfilled our objective and that tells us we have made mistakes.”

At least someone made those mistakes this time, although the first person plural comes to the rescue here as well. ‘Heartbreaking’ is a nice touch, and since Gibson has some credit with the fans, he might actually be believed. But then, asked what went wrong, we get:

“Many things have gone wrong. The recruitment policy was not what we thought, there was disruption on the management side which has affected players on pitch. We can talk about last season forever. We now need to look ahead to next season.”

Instead of the passive voice, we get the ‘To Be’ Sidestep: those things were just there. And then the So Obvious It Fools Nobody But What Can You Expect Let’s Put It Behind Us gambit. When pressed with questions about the departure of Aitor Karanka, Gibson gives it another shot:

“It’s very easy looking back on relegation and the season and to look for scapegoats. I don’t want to do that. It’s about collective responsibility. We’ve failed, we know we’ve failed. It hurts, we need to correct that hurt.”

Ah, so it was collective responsibility, not mine – didn’t you catch the ‘we’ first time? And asked about Steve Agnew, Gibson’s choice to replace Karanka:

“He was the players’ choice as well as my choice. The circumstances prevailed against him. Let’s not get into too much detail. Leave me to deal with it.”

Truly brilliant, a Threefold Incipient Trump: other people are at least equally at fault, there was nothing that could be done anyway, but I’m the boss and I’ll take care of it. Let’s give Gibson a fair last word, though. Asked for a message to supporters:

“We’re going to give it our best shot next season. You’ve been magnificent, you’ve deserved better. We’ll do everything we can to get back in Premier League, to be competitive, and stay in the Premier League.”

Much better than Short, who only has plans. This guy has a goal, and a good one. Let’s hope for the best.

And now to Ehab Allam at Hull City, who, realising that the less said about the overall failure the better, does the basics and then goes for the Subtle Self-Congratulation:

“Myself and everyone at the club feels the pain of relegation and we also know how much supporters are affected too…I cannot praise Marco Silva and his staff enough for the job they have done since arriving at the club in January. At that time, with the club sitting at the foot of the table, many had completely written off our survival chances, but Marco came in and gave everyone hope with improved results and performances. Although we have ultimately fallen short in our goal to remain in the Premier League, the improvement seen in the team under Marco’s leadership has been clear for all to see.”

This would be praiseworthy if it weren’t for the small matter that Silva’s good performance reflects well on the Allams, who plucked him from obscurity (obscure in England, anyway) and put him in charge. And the other small matter that the Allams put Mike Phelan there beforehand. And that they completely screwed up the summer transfer window. And that they’re the most hated bipeds north of Leyton Orient and east of Blackpool.

From the owners we move to the managers, who have a lot less money but just as much reason to dodge responsibility. David Moyes has done this trick so many times that it’s hard to pick one, but I think my favourite is the most recent, an interview with Sky earlier this week. Quote the first:

“I have said it, I’m saying it to defend myself – I have a great win record at nearly all the clubs I have been at. This is the only anomaly where it hasn’t happened. But I have got to say, it hasn’t happened for quite a few managers and it has been that way for quite a while.”

Thus Spake Self-Doubt. He actually tells us he’s saying it to defend himself – he can’t even brazen it out. He’s absolutely right that the last few Sunderland managers haven’t had a great win record, but there’s something they managed to pull off that he didn’t – wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue…

And quote the second, which is hard to beat:

“You always look back and I would always look first at myself to see what I could have done differently. There are some bits along the journey where you would say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have done that or done this’, but ultimately they’re not the reasons why we are in the position we are in.”

Self-criticism first, the true sign of the enlightened manager. And indeed there are “some bits”, implicitly small, which “maybe” could have been done differently. But add up all the bit maybes, and it’s still not his fault. Top class.

We can’t say the same about Steve Agnew, but he’s new to this managing lark, and hasn’t quite the knack. He starts off well, with a standard “bad luck” excuse:

“The performances at times have been good, the results have not followed. We have had performances against top teams where we didn’t quite get the rub of the green.”

But then he misses the entire point of the exercise:

“Have I made mistakes? Of course. You have to hold your hands up and say one or two things I’d have changed looking back. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I continue to enjoy the challenge.”

Admitting mistakes? Actually speaking of them in the first person singular? Bad form, Steve.

That leaves Marco Silva, who was in such a position of strength he could go full ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ without the slightest hesitation:

“It’s easy to understand this moment what the club did wrong. To me it’s easy, everything start in the pre-season…because sometimes in January is late. Of course, we changed many many things, it’s clear for all, we improved many many things in the club, in our performance, we improved several individual players as well, sometimes is late…In 17 games we did until now 21 points, it’s OK, when you look for 17 games it’s enough to keep the club in the Premier League. The problem is what’s happened before.”

José and Big Sam would love to be able to say that and get away with it.

What’s fascinating is that while owners and managers generally spend their share of relegation time in a tight defensive crouch, players almost never seem to. They hold their hands up. George Friend:

“We’ve never really got going properly this season. I want to apologise to the fans and thank them, and tell them if they stick by us again we’ll bounce back.”

Eldin Jakupovic:

“To you, the fans, I want to say a special thank you to you all. The players are hurting tonight but I know you will be hurting more. My heart fills with pride when you sing for us, when you sing for me, and I am sorry we could not get the results we needed and give you the survival that you all wanted and deserved.”

Seb Larsson:

“As players, we are responsible for what happened on the pitch and we deserve where we are.”

Could it be that players are more, shall we say, honest than owners and managers? Or maybe players already know they’re safe in their collective responsibility, whereas the brass are out there on their own. Or maybe some managers and owners are just (you pick the expletive).

We move now from those responsible to those who observe and criticise. Let’s look at journalists, those whose job it is to channel the feelings of the supporters and deliver them in expressive prose, which means to roast everyone alive when they don’t perform. We’ll start with Phil Smith of the Sunderland Echo, who does the ‘more in sorrow than in anger, but some anger too’ thing:

‘Sunderland will be relegated, and it will not be in a blaze of glory, a narrow, defiant relegation. They will limp towards the line, and the end of the season will feel merciful. A year ago, the Stadium of Light ended the season with atmospheres more thunderous, more spine tingling, more impressive than ever before…The descent from jubilation and hope to utter apathy and despondency has been brutal, culminating in this non-performance.’

If you excuse the cliché or two, this is pretty good stuff: not too flowery but still evocative. Of course, there’s also the succinct approach, preferred by Richard Mennear in the same newspaper, talking about the recent loss to Swansea:

‘Pitiful. Pathetic. Lacklustre. Inept. Woeful.’

No less true, but probably more cathartic. But notice that the accusations are about performance, not attitude. Philip Buckingham of the Hull Daily Mail takes the next step:

‘Most of the 2,000 travelling fans inside Selhurst Park had travelled south already resigned to relegation but when the final nails were hammered into Hull City’s coffin few could have foreseen just how humiliating the eventual demise would be. Premier League life was surrendered without a fight. There were no guts, no nerve and no desire.’

A popular approach, among fans as well as journalists. But to get serious for a moment, isn’t it a bit unfair? It’s very very rare that players aren’t actually trying, and no player, even one managed by Antonio Conte, can be at peak intensity all the time. It’s easy to mistake nervousness, tiredness or just poor form for lack of desire. Hull really were woeful at Palace, but there’s a difference between attacking competence and attacking character.

And while we’re on the subject, why should anyone need to attack character anyway? Aren’t ‘donkey’, ‘rubbish’ and similar assorted words enough? No space here for a psychological analysis that I’d almost certainly get wrong anyway, but you suspect the character attack often says more about the writer than the players.

Our last journalist is Anthony Vickers of the Middlesbrough Gazette, who strikes a distinctive note:

‘Boring Boro have barely left an impression. We have gone down without a fight and without denting the national consciousness in any way, shape or form. Come next season no-one will even remember we were even there. That hurts…We are a proud, parochial and passionate people with desperately eager fans so supportive and so completely emotionally immersed in the unfolding psychodrama who really ride the highs and lows and who will take the trauma of such a routine relegation personally.’

What’s interesting here is the pride of a self-consciously provincial club. One can argue whether this is a good or bad thing, but it hinges on shared identity: we are our region, we are our club. Notice too that Vickers uses ‘we’ quite naturally, without the forced or false feeling you get when the owners say it. Journalists actually work for a living, or so they claim, and are therefore much closer to the supporters.

So at last we come to the supporters. They don’t have any responsibility to dodge or acknowledge, or even any obligation to write coherently. They just emote, and it’s the purest and most entertaining form of response. Here’s a collage:

“I am normally livid after a defeat or sh*t performance but not tonight, part of me is looking forward to getting rid of the frauds who are pretending to be footballers.”

“We were f***ed this time by Gibson’s misplaced loyalty. And appointing Agnew beggars belief.”

“We might as well find something to cling to or else we’ll drop down dead.”

“[David Moyes’] comments are similar to the kind of babble i would come out with after a night on the piss and shoving some ketamine up my nose.”

“Embrace the inevitability of it all and peace and calmness will descend.”

“I’ve seen more fight in a battered cod than we’re putting up.”

“I’m speechless, it was a load of rubbish.”

“Let the rebuild begin. Start tomorrow, don’t wait until next week. Starting with Allams f***ing off please.”

“[Didier Ndong is] not even sh*te, he’s distilled sh*te. He can’t pass the f***ing ball to save his life. How the f**k anyone can see a footballer in there is beyond me.”

And finally:

“The players just don’t seem bothered – it’s just disappointing but it’s the same every time. I’ll still support them. See what happens next season.”

And that really is the bottom line. We come back, season after season, to see the donkeys and the frauds, no matter what division they play in. You can relegate players, managers, and clubs, but you can’t relegate love. That’s why football fans are, in their own benighted way, among the noblest of creatures.

But after all this misery, let’s close with joy. Remember Swansea City? They didn’t get relegated at all. So we’ll leave their fans to comment on the pivotal victory over Everton at the Liberty Stadium:

“It was just a fantastic day to be a Swansea City fan.”

“Brilliant brilliant day.”

“Phenomenal. Just f*cking amazing.”

“If you weren’t there you absolutely wished you were.”

Yes I absolutely did. And for all such moments of f***ing amazingness, anywhere in the world.

Peter Goldstein

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