originally published in July 2005
Relegation. It’s a horrible word … a bit like rejection. They basically mean the same thing too : months if not years of pain, and the inevitable hand-wringing about whether or not you could have done more to prevent it. Unlike the neglectful relationship that led to you being dumped by your ex, football is one love that you will never let go. And a harsher mistress to boot.
As an outsider it seemed inevitable once Matt Le Tissier retired, but the numbing pain that’s crept through the city ever since is all too familiar to me, speaking as a Leeds fan. We spent nine years in the old Division Two when I was a kid, meaning I had to endure nearly a decade of abuse from everyone else at school. Well, everyone except my best mate Simon, himself a fellow white. Funny how friendships are forged in adversity. Of course, we’ve gone through much much worse since, although we did also win the league the year after we got back into the top flight in 1991. We were one of the best four teams in Europe just four short seasons ago. But you all know the story there …
Saints are in much better shape than Leeds a year ago. You’ve got a proven manager, a state-of-the-art stadium, a youth academy that’s the envy of just about every club in the country right now, some really classy players and a wage bill that isn’t going to cripple you for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, you’ve also got a squad that’s way too big, with far too many average players, a potentially fractious relationship between the manager and the chairman with the added spice of Sir Clive Woodward to add to the mix in the coming months, a big rift between the board and the fans and the prospect of losing most of those star players before the end of August. I suspect Crouch and Niemi will gave followed Phillips out of the club by the time you read this. Le Saux and Redknapp have retired and Jason Dodd has been allowed allowed to go to Brighton on a free when I think he would have been invaluable this season. Ah yes, Brighton : another derby to face …
The trouble with the second division (and it still is, no matter what the powers that be decide to call it) is that there’s realistically about a dozen or so sides that will be planning for promotion this year. And every other year too. Forever. While the Premier League is in existence and the same teams cycle through a yoyo process of going up and coming down season after season, the money will become more and more evenly distributed, especially as the same type of players seem to move between those clubs coming up and down all the time. Off the top of my head, the 2005/6 Championship (ha!) contenders will be : Saints, Leeds, Palace, Norwich, Ipswich, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Millwall, Preston, Derby, Leicester and Wolves. That’s twelve clubs straight off the bat. Last year Leeds lost to bottom club Rotherham one week, then beat high-flying QPR 6-1 before losing the Yorkshire derby 0-4 at home to the Blades, while the next week we were beating soon-to-be-promoted West Ham.
I warn you now : NOTHING is predictable. Forget EVERYTHING you know about football. Mickey Mouse himself would make an ideal ambassador for this league we’re in.
Teams you think will fight will play football, teams you expect to be technical will lump it, the pitches will be bumpy, the grass will be too long or non-existent after Christmas, the changing rooms will be a world away from what the players are used to and wait – oh wait – till you see some of the grounds. All the while, EVERY SINGLE TEAM will be out to beat the big boys : Saints. Week after week, yours will be the prized scalp. You’ll come up against ex-players, or ex-managers, or ex-Pompey players and managers. Steve Claridge will be GAGGING to get three points from you : check that fixture list – when are you going to Millwall? That’s an away game that might be worth avoiding, although the atmosphere is electric at the ground.The refs are terrible and their “assistants” even worse. It’s not fun, believe me.
Having said all that, Harry’s been here before and he designed the t-shirt. If newly acquired coach Harry Bassett stays on, you’ll have the ideal management team to steer you through these decidedly stormy waters. They both know what to do to get out of this division which is more than can be said for most.
One thing that strikes me is that apart from Leeds, there hasn’t been a club relegated for years with the top-flight pedigree that Saints have. It could go either way in terms of it being an advantage or not. Personally, I think if you weed out all the poor players and grab yourself some good free transfers you’ve got an excellent chance of making the play-offs. I really think it’ll be too much of a culture shock to expect you to bounce straight back through automatic promotion, especially when you look at the squad in the first week of August. So far there’s nobody of real quality linked with the club and as I write this, there’s no transfer budget either. Harry needs a Patrik Berger, a Yakubu, a Steve Stone even. I won’t rub it in about him!
So? See you in the play-off final in May? I can’t see us going straight up either … it’s gonna be an interesting season. Strap yourself in : we’ve got a bumpy ride ahead …