Relegateds, Mount Up

I’ll start this with a confession that Warren G’s Regulate…G Funk Era was definitely the first album my parents banned me from listening to. That didn’t happen very often, as my parents didn’t listen to enough music to know what we were listening to (they objected also to Nirvana’s In Utero, but only because of the album art, not because they had any idea what a Nirvana was). The only way my brother and I got busted while listening to our ridiculous Columbia House CD club haul was if the person managing the stereo forgot to turn down the super profanity-laden passages while the other person booked it through Super Mario World. We were good at remembering on The Offspring’s “Bad Habit,” but once in a while, there was a lapse in concentration, and we got chewed out, and the album disappeared.

At that stage in my life (I was probably eleven?), it didn’t matter much. We had no culture built around any of that music, and where we grew up, there wasn’t much of any culture around music at all. And so those lost albums drifted out of  consciousness, and later, when we’d reached some sort of arbitrary “old enough” point, they slipped back into the stack, rotated back up into play now and again. Sometimes it was finding an old friend again. Sometimes it was thinking I’d have been better off with the sole Swedish fish I could have gotten instead of that CD with the one cent (plus shipping and handling). Whatever it was, the chemistry, the might-have-been was interrupted.

This post is not about music. It is about interrupted chemistry.

Most particularly, it is about the system of relegation in English football (and other sports/sports-governing bodies around the world). As an American who didn’t come into following football (as I will call it because soccer is American and I still don’t really follow American soccer beyond the US national teams) until the age of twenty-one, the system really staggered me. The quick explanation is that English professional football is divided into tiers. At the top, you have the English Premier League (EPL), which is famously populated currently by Manchesters United and City, Arsenal, and Chelsea, and sixteen other teams. The next tier, the Championship (not to be confused with the Champions League, which features teams from all over Europe who’ve qualified for that annual set of games that doesn’t function exactly like a tournament but not exactly like regular season play, either), has had recent mainstays among its twenty-four teams like Watford, Middlesbrough, and Nottingham Forest. The third tier is called League One, and there is League Two below it, and both of those have twenty-four teams, too[1]. The top three teams in each division get promoted to the next-highest division (unless they’re in the EPL, in which case, bully for them, they’re at the top of the league, and lately, they’re likely playing for one side of Manchester or another, so piss off). The bottom three teams are relegated to the next-lowest division. There is a playoff for the third promotion spot. The top two go automatically, and then 3rd through 6th place do a short tourney for that coveted last spot. Them’s the breaks.

Notice that I haven’t named teams from League One and League Two. I haven’t named representatives because, up until last season, I hadn’t spared a thought for those tiers at all. They did not apply to me, a Sheffield United fan since 2003.

How I became a Sheffield United fan is another story. Let’s dwell in the now. What is the now for Sheffield United? A strange and sad place. They’re in their second straight year of being in League One after not having dropped so low since the eighties, and the drop brings with it more than just damaged pride. There are costs, quite tangible financial costs, as unsuccessful teams do not command great coverage deals, sponsorships (particularly in a league where even the jerseys are sponsored), and ticket sales. The same woes follow all sports, and it is quite difficult for small market and/or struggling teams to turn it around. Those are one set of issues in a system where at least the team’s level of play stays the same; there are constants, and where there are constants, there’s some kind of hope, even if the hope is that finishing dead last means a good crack at the best draft picks.

The necessary purse-tightening leads to cuts, generally of those players with higher salaries, often veterans. There are no players on the team that I first loved that are still playing for Sheffield United. The last from my early days as a fan–Nick Montgomery, who’d always been a part of that team, and Stephen Quinn, who’d been one of my favorites in the last few years–have moved on to other clubs. Montgomery is actually playing for a Blades-affiliated Australian side, and Quinny, I hope, will have better chances at Hull City. I realize that football careers are not as long as they are in baseball, and expecting a lot of continuity over almost a decade is silly, but there hasn’t even been continuity at the top. Since Neil Warnock left after the not-so-successful one-year stint in the Premiership[2], the Blades have had five managers. It’s hard for any team to get anything productive done like that, and, as a baseball fan, I am well aware that even a very good manager who has one less-than-ideal season can lose the job entirely, too[3]. And if a team is bleeding money through many wounds–the lack of on-field success included–the loss of personnel, in players who want greener pitches and managers who can’t get it done, for whatever reason, is inevitable.

But Sheffield United hasn’t dealt with that kind of player loss alone, though there are parts of me–the narrative-mad, intangibles-loving[4] kind of fan–that thinks these pieces are connected. The pieces I’m talking about are character-related, and probably the biggest (unfortunately) Sheffield United story of last year was Ched Evans’ arrest–and eventual incarceration–for rape. I’m not at all sorry to see him go. If he’d been found guilty but still managed to continue playing on some sort of loophole, it might have been the end of my love for this team. Or I’d do what I do when I watch the Steelers: hope for the steel-town win (and Sheffield is, of course, one of those) but also hope for a lot of tackles to be applied judiciously to the wretch. But even if I am glad, glad, glad that the Blades cut ties with Evans and that’s not hanging over the club anymore, I have to acknowledge that the team hasn’t replaced that scoring source, either. The article linked above also mentioned a slew of other players who won’t be returning, and another addition to that list is last season’s keeper, Steve Simonsen.

Simonsen’s release is probably the saddest part of this story because it all happened in the last game of the season. Simonsen managed to keep the Blades, and their lackluster scoring efforts, in the hunt for promotion back to the Championship (because Warnock poached Paddy Kenny, the Blades keeper I knew and loved, even when he was being a twit, for Queens Park Rangers in 2010, and I’m still pissed). But the Blades couldn’t manage to get themselves into one of those two coveted automatic promotion spots. In April, I started to have cold sweats. The Blades, in the tenure of my fandom, have not done well in playoffs. Every bit of discussion about the League One’s season’s end reminded us all of that, too, and the prophesy fulfilled itself. Sheffield United lost to Huddersfield, 7-8 on penalty kicks, with eleven men from each team coming to the mark. That many PKs is ridiculous, especially since it highlights just how ludicrous the idea of defending against a penalty kick is. It’s a guessing game. It’s statistics–left versus right–far more than it is keeper skill versus shooter skill[5]. But the keepers took the last round of kicks. Huddersfield’s keeper was successful against Simonsen. Simonsen, in his bid to tie and save the season for one more chance, fired high, over the cage. For all intents and purposes, by all accounts of the game statistics, Steven Simonsen lost that game because he failed to tie it. As the keeper, it’s always on his shoulders, which is another reason I hate penalty kicks, no matter how many chances the rest of his team failed to convert. And Simonsen was, then, let go.

Cross-town rivals Sheffield Wednesday, who had been firmly lower on the local totem pole of success for my time as a Sheffield United fan, had earned themselves one of those automatic promotion spots. So now, I sit and wear my red and white and black and have to look up and see the blue and white–not in last place in the Championship–ahead. I don’t like it. I like even less that Huddersfield is currently sitting second in that league, and though the season is still fewer than ten games in, it chafes to see them sitting in the “waltz into the EPL” spots. My bitter inner fan, which I try not to indulge much, though football seems to bring it out in me more than any other sport, wants to know, if they could do that in the next league, why not leave an opponent more vulnerable in the playoff-window?

The answer is that they were plenty vulnerable in that last game of the year. I watched the match, and it wasn’t a good one. Sheffield United let Simonsen go after it, but, again, he didn’t put them in a position to lose that game. He kept them in it, and the rest of the team didn’t do their part. Them’s the breaks.

I actually like the relegation system. I think it keeps the stakes high, and the UK football leagues (and many others) have made it work. But I’m not going to pretend that sitting here now, watching the system dismantle my team, which has certainly not helped itself in all of the ways that it could, doesn’t suck. When players leave teams that have been relegated, they don’t stay, generally, in that team’s system. While there are development leagues for very young players, the system of English football doesn’t function like the MLB or NHL. Players don’t get called up or promoted; they leave. They leave for more playing time or they leave for better pay or they leave for a club with greater chances of success. Of course that happens in every other sport, but as someone who loves minor league sports and the whole interconnected farm-team system, the relegation system is difficult when it comes to following players. The center does not hold; the team, the place where I expect the team to be, is not fixed. That makes all players rivals. That makes every good player who leaves for another club (and good players, I think, should seek out the best competition and the best place for them, on the whole, because it is a competition) another reason that my team does not advance or, worse, slips further down the ladder. I can’t be happy about it.

Sometimes there are exceptions, players I have always liked and will always like, wherever they are (maybe even if where they are is Manchester United, but thankfully that bond has not yet been tested). But I’m never hoping for it. When the Grand Junction Rockies were still the Casper Ghosts, I wanted to go to the ballpark and not see my favorite players because they’d been called up to Asheville or Modesto. But that was because the Ghosts were a fixed point. The rookie-ball team will remain the rookie team, and that team will never become an opponent in the greener pastures of Single-A. In a farm system, there can be a continuity of enthusiasm. Moving on, moving up the ladder, is a celebration for all involved: the player has had enough individual success to be noticed, the team and coaches have had enough collective success to provide an environment where the player can develop. Moving up is not moving out, not breaking up, not abandoning your people in the moment of greatest need.

In the relegation system, every team is suspect. There are no allies. And maybe that’s why I get so shirty about Manchester United (their football-Yankeedom and Wayne Rooney notwithstanding). They are–along with City and Chelsea and Arsenal and everyone else–opponents in the most ideal of worlds. In the world in which Sheffield United claw their way back into the Championship and then into the Premier League, my team faces this competition. It doesn’t really matter that, from League One, these actual versions of rivalry are at least two seasons, two full years, away. To rise all that way in just two seasons would be meteoric; it would require the kind of investments that Sheffield is not going to drum up. (Though if there are any Russian oil barons reading this who’d like a small, gritty, historically interesting Yorkshire football club to fund handsomely, I will bake you cookies to give Sheffield United serious consideration.) To rise that fast, with things as they are now, would be a tremendous fluke. It would not end well. Even when the rise is well-earned and deserved, the process is not kind.

I have experienced one season of the savage sweetness of top flight football for a newly promoted club. That was 2006-2007, and it was ugly. In the most ideal of worlds, where the Blades have made it back, it probably comes with that ass-kicking for a while. After promotion, it takes some time to build the club up to the rest of the competition. After relegation, if a team doesn’t climb back in right away, they go as my Blades are going: swiping at air when players who are able to leave do, selling players (and even trimming administration) to keep the club afloat financially. With every departure, the angle steepens, the rungs creak and sag.

Worse, to me, is that whatever the team had been building as a club, in terms of its character, its consistency, its legacy, is necessarily pulled apart. Everything is unrealized potential. Everything is what might have been had we been able to let the reaction come to completion, had we let the album play. Even if it wasn’t going to be great[6]. Even if it, in the most ideal of all worlds, led to an ass-kicking of one sort or another.

1. When the EPL was formed in 1992, the naming/structure of the English football system changed a bit, and the Championship/League One/League Two monikers arrived in 2004, and so by the time I really figured out what was going on, these were the names I had to work with. &#8617

2. The Carlos Tevez/West Ham Debacle of 2007 is also part of this. West Ham did not force Sheffield United into relegation. Every game that the Blades didn’t win, all on their own, all season, made that happen. But it was a lot of insult to injury, and the 2011 Carlos Tevez affair just dredged up all of the indignity and outrage again. Just because it was so much fuss over a player who has not managed himself well. (The Man City issue is also complex, full of hearsay and shades of meaning and unreliable narrators, but this is sports and I’m really not obligated to be all that reasonable when I don’t want to be.) &#8617

3. My mind is still blown over the Red Sox ditching Terry Francona. Even worse, they replace him with Bobby Valentine. Just. What? And then there’s Jim Tracy & the Rockies. I don’t have to be reasonable. Logic hasn’t always got that much to do with all of this, anyway. &#8617

4. There’s nothing I love more in sports than “intangibles.” Locker room leadership. Character. Hustle. Grit. Saberists, I’m sorry. I’m always a novelist first. &#8617

5. In a fit of pique, I Googled “I hate penalty kicks.” It turned up 2.5 million hits. Does anyone like them? &#8617

6. For the record, I’m not real fond of that Warren G album. While I can still sing “Regulate,” I also remember the “94 Ho Draft” just well enough to know that even as an eleven year old, I was pissed off. &#8617

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