I am not even going to start expressing my sadness at the way my team has been managed tonight when relegation is so raw. That will come over time. But instead a look back at my memories from that first season 7 years ago in the second tier of English football.
The Championship isn’t that bad is it? I mean you get 8 extra games to watch for a start, and the possibility to play at Wembley. You get to go to some new grounds, be treated as if you were still in the Seventies by regional police force and have small firms trying to have a go at you as a normal peaceful fan so that they can claim they “ran the famous ICF”. It’s not as if we haven’t done it before, although thinking about it now and remembering the low point of a nil nil draw at home to Walsall who did not enter the West Ham half for 45 minutes still sends chills down my spine.
In all of my years supporting West Ham, we have spent a fair share outside of the top flight. In fact if I take it from my first game in 1974, the club have spent 8 seasons in the second tier of English football or around 22.5%.
But we all know that the football world changed in 1992 with the creation of the Premier League. Since then it hasn’t been acceptable to be in the lower leagues. A stigmata on your club badge, and one that you must rid at all costs. Whilst some clubs may say “a season out of the top flight is what we need”, what do they really think on that first midweek game in August when they would have been playing Chelsea at home rather than Accrington Stanley away in the first round of the Carling/Mars/Worthington/Whoever stumps up the cash League Cup first round. And now there is the added danger of “double dipping”.
In February 2007 West Ham travelled through the Blackwall Tunnel to meet Charlton Athletic. It was billed as relegation six pointer, and to add even more spice to the occasion, Charlton had just appointed ex-West Ham boss Alan Pardew (who ironically had masterminded the Hammers escape from the Championship two seasons previously), whilst West Ham’s manager was ex-Charlton legend Alan Curbishley. The four nil home win took the Addicks up the table and plunged West Ham into the relegation zone. Three months later West Ham would be celebrating the unlikeliest of escapes (let’s not get into the whole Tevez affair just yet) whilst Charlton had been relegated.
Last Saturday Charlton finished their League One campaign with a nil nil draw with Hartlepool United, meaning that they finished in 13th spot which was their lowest finish for over fifty years. Southampton, Norwich City, Leeds United, Leicester City, Nottingham Forest and Manchester City. All bar Leicester City had played in the inaugural Premier League season and as recently as 1994 all had been playing together in the top flight of English football. Yet all have been relegated to the third tier of English football since that sunny day at Bramall Lane in August 1992 heralded the birth of a new monster.
So the danger is real. Look at the foot of the Championship this season coming into the final weeks of the season. Some familiar names down there? Sheffield United (Relegated but Premier League until 2007 – yes I know about Tevez), Middlesbrough, Portsmouth (relegated last season), Coventry City, Crystal Palace and Derby County. These are teams who financially simply cannot compete for a number of reasons after dropping out of the Premier League. There was always a view that Parachute payments “eased” this landing, but apart from West Bromwich Albion, which other team has bounced straight back every time they have been relegated?
This season has proved a watershed in the Premier League/Championship dynamics. For only the second time ever, not one of the three promoted clubs from last season will be relegated. And add to that the fact that none of the three who went down from the Premier League in May 2010 (Burnley, Hull City and Portsmouth) have come back up then you can see for the first time ever the league will essentially have six “new” teams in. Despite an increase in the parachute payments for those relegated last season, they have not been able to compete with the top six. And that is the sign of a new trend, a very worrying trend for teams who find themselves being relegated from the Premier League.
The fact that Cardiff City and Forest were in the playoffs last year, whilst Swansea City missed out by just one point suggests that these three have found some kind of Championship formula. All three of them have done their time in the third tier of English football in recent years (as too did runners up Norwich City) and perhaps set their expectations accordingly, whilst the likes of Derby, Palace and Sheffield United didn’t change their attitude. “We are a Premier League club playing in the Championship” is not a strategy guys.
The one things that didn’t happen was the significant fall in attendances. Thanks to some sensible pricing initiatives, the home attendances rarely fell below the 30,000 mark, and considering some teams such as Rotherham, Walsall and Crewe literally could have come in a taxi it was amazing to see the home fans get right behind the team. For me the one home game that still sticks in the memory is Gillingham on the 27th March. Not for the fact that this season there were three divisions between the two, but for what was going on behind the scenes on that day.
West Ham never put together a really serious promotion push. They were a firm fixture in the play offs from Christmas, only dropping out once in that period, after they lost at Easter to Crystal Palace and they secured their place in the end of season with a thumping win at Watford.
As for the day itself? Well that will be for another day. Perhaps when we are back in the Premier League. Excuse me now as the postman has just delivered my “On loan to the Championship” t-shirt.