Increasingly, the prize for fans of teams winning promotion isn’t playing in the Premier League, it’s ‘the moment’. Now, that moment will be diluted…
It’s been a rough few months and we take comfort and joy where we can, so watching the celebrations from Wembley on Monday evening genuinely helped raise the spirits. The League One playoff final was won by a Wycombe side that many predicted would be relegated, whose manager was heavily angling for another job a few months ago and whose style of play had been roundly sniffed at for much of the season.
There are nits to be picked of course: squeezing into the playoff places on points per game as Peterborough and Sunderland splutter in outrage, for example. Or Gareth Ainsworth’s snakeskin boots and spray-on jeans.
But on the pitch afterwards, the faces of their players and staff were adorned with the expressions of joy that you only get from unexpected triumph, or at least success against the odds. And that’s before you even get to Ade Akinfenwa, standing in the street while rather adorably still wearing his kit, receiving a congratulatory video from Jurgen Klopp.
The edge might have been taken off those celebrations a little because of the empty stands, but they could still genuinely be enjoyed because there’s very little fear about what will come next. If Wycombe finish stone bottom of the Championship with zero points it will still be their best ever league position. Unless something utterly calamitous happens then they will take relegation and be able to start again at a level they’ve played at for years. And the Championship is so chaotic (perhaps even more so next season with multiple sides potentially starting it with points deductions) that they’ve got a puncher’s chance of staying there.
The moment can be enjoyed, partly because ‘the moment’ isn’t really the prize for teams going up from the third to second tier. You can’t necessarily say the same about sides winning promotion to the Premier League, though.
The nature of football today means that the ostensible prize for Championship clubs of winning promotion – namely, promotion, the right to play in a higher division – doesn’t really sound particularly appetising. Sure, clubs like Wolves and Sheffield United have gone on to establish themselves as Premier League clubs to be respected and even feared, but they are outliers. Of the four teams promoted with them, three went down straight away and the other, Aston Villa, are on the way to joining them.
While in the Premier League those teams are outplayed most weeks, beaten as often as not, scolded for spending too much money, scolded for not spending enough money, patronised like a toddler successfully doing his or her business in the potty when they do manage the odd win and belittled as upstart interlopers when they lose. For fans it suddenly costs twice as much to see your team get spanked, you get irritated by pundits belching barely-informed hot takes and you can often see a set of players you loved and admired broken up and cast aside in the name of ambition.
The experiences of Norwich and Aston Villa this season have seemed broadly miserable, offering the odd moment of pleasure but always with the sense that they don’t quite belong. In ‘High Fidelity’, John Cusack’s character recalls a past relationship where he never felt comfortable because he felt the person he was with was too good for him. That’s what this season has looked like for some of those fans.
It would be a mistake to think it was all different in the past, that newly promoted clubs could breeze through the division and merrily establish themselves as competitive powers within months, just waiting in line to collect their medals. But while teams like Ipswich in 1962 or Nottingham Forest in 1978 were still outliers, they at least gave smaller teams hope that something extraordinary was possible. Now, newly-promoted sides are conditioned to think that survival is success, and mid-table existence is something to dream of.
Frankly, it doesn’t sound like much of a life for fans, and you almost wonder why they would even want to get promoted. The club get the money and the players/coaches/staff get the kudos and glory (and the money), but for fans the idea that they necessarily want to watch their team play the biggest teams every week is an aspirational fib. We’d rather see our team win games rather than lose, but not at any cost.
Increasingly, for fans ‘the moment’ that comes with winning promotion seems like the prize, rather than being granted access to the elite. Winning the playoff final, or the division, or just the game when promotion is secured – that’s the sort of thing we’re looking for. A moment, at a ground, with friends, family and a few thousand of your fellow supporters, to feel that burst of community or satisfaction or catharsis that has made the previous months worthwhile.
The obvious problem being that we’re not going to get that this season. It won’t feel the same, not being able to be there, to fully experience ‘the moment’. Sure, you might be able to watch on TV alone, or with a couple of friends, or even a few more than a couple if you want to play a little fast and loose with the guidelines. Maybe you’ll gather outside your club’s ground, while knowing you’re probably being quite socially irresponsible. For Leeds, it will feel different for ‘years of hurt’/Bielsa-related reasons. But the edge will be taken off.
From a personal perspective, the last few months have crystallised the idea, one that has been lurking around for a while, that it’s not actually promotion I want, but ‘the moment’. Something exhilarating to remember and keep you warm in the coming winter months. At best, if it does come, the moment will be diluted.
Promotion to the Premier League has become a double-edge sword at the best of times, but given the current state of things, whoever goes up from the Championship won’t feel like Wycombe did this week.
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