The last day of the season can be the best, or worst, of your career. As three of the four professional leagues in England draw to a close this weekend, I felt I should reflect on the emotions running through the player’s heads as the threat of relegation looms.
Staying Up! Matty Lawrence Re-lives His Experiences With Dodging The Relegation Bullet
I have been lucky enough to stave off relegation on the last day of the season twice in my career. You shouldn’t be celebrating failure (because ultimately, that’s what it is, finishing so far down the league). But, boy, does if feel amazing. Exhilarating to be fair. Way better than sex, which has happened to me about the same amount of times!!
Relegation is not always a principle that American sports fans appreciate. If you finish bottom of the league/division in the US you tend to be rewarded with the best draft picks. Alternatively, finish bottom of the Premier League and the financial hit the club takes is astronomical. Also your crowds dwindle and your better players leave. Consequently the fans are no longer gifted with blanket TV coverage of their beloved team.
Nor are the players traveling away to the majestic surroundings of Old Trafford or the Etihad and Emirates Stadiums, to name but three. Now they are off to Rotherham, Huddersfield and Bolton. Probably with a 50% reduction in their pay packet at the end of the month.
A story did the rounds a couple of seasons ago that when Shahid Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars owner) bought Fulham Football Club he wasn’t initially au fait with the relegation protocol.
I’m not sure he realized it even existed. Fulham were subsequently relegated from the EPL and this season they have narrowly avoided relegation from the Championship. Fulham Football Club has probably decreased in value by 30-50%. Back-to-back relegation this season would have seen another 10-20% drop.
Relegation and promotion are vital cogs in the wheels of the English league system. It can decimate, or resurrect a football club. So imagine you get to the last game of the season and that solitary 90 minutes decides your fate. The pressure is monumental. Every slip is magnified ten times over, every sinew in your body tightens as the clock ticks by and the fans in the ground chew their fingers to the bone.
As mentioned earlier, I have been involved in two such games.
Lincoln City vs Wycombe Wanderers
Saturday May 8th 1999
Sheffield Wednesday vs Crystal Palace
Sunday May 2nd 2010
Both games are fresh in my memory. First, both games ended with my team, Wycombe Wanderers and Crystal Palace respectively, avoiding relegation on the final day of the season. Secondly, both games were played away from the comfort zone of our own stadiums. This just ramped up the pressure and the impartiality of the home crowd counted against us too.
Let me take you back.
Wycombe FIght For Survival
When we (Wycombe Wanderers) travelled to Sincil Bank on the last day of the season in 1999, only a win would guarantee survival. A draw would only be good enough if Northampton Town and Oldham Athletic slipped up. Naturally a defeat was curtains.
These various permutations added to the intrigue and suspense… and that was before the match even started. I won’t bore you with every pass, tackle and shot, but rest assured, come the 80th minute, with the score remaining at 0-0, the beads of sweat were gathering and the desperation mounting.
Our coaching staff had a radio on the bench to keep track of how the other games were developing. That radio was pretty much worthless. Nigh on every one of the 2500 traveling Wycombe fans had their ears glued to similar electronic devices. The groans from the crowd had long ago informed us that both Northhampton and Oldham were winning their matches. We knew only a victory was acceptable.
Ten minutes remained and somehow we had to muster a goal. In minute 82 Paul Emblem rose like a salmon and looped a header home over the stranded Lincoln City goalkeeper. The contrast in crowd noise was unbelievable; deafening silence from three sides of the ground and a cacophony of noise from the away end.
Drama To The End
The drama didn’t end there, of course, as there were still eight minutes plus injury time remaining. With Lincoln City now resigned to relegation they threw caution to the wind and tried to spoil our party. Four men were employed up front and they threw the proverbial kitchen sink at us. We stood strong, resilient and together.
As the final whistle blew, we may as well have won the World Cup. And who could blame us? As the party kicked into gear in our dressing room, I slumped in the corner and tried to gather my thoughts. I was exhausted, mentally drained, but on cloud nine with the adrenaline still coursing through my veins. So that’s how Keef feels.
Our fate was decided in the final eight minutes of the final game of the season. The 46th game of the season. Immense.
2010 was much simpler; kill, or be killed.
a straight fight, winner takes all. Well, not quite winner, because we (Crystal Palace) had the safety blanket of a draw being good enough for us. Sheffield Wednesday could only avoid relegation if they beat us. Hillsborough Stadium was packed to the rafters. 37,121 people had crowded into the ground to see two sides battle it out gladiator style.
I honestly remember very little of the game itself. The odd snippet here, or there, springs into the frontal lobe. I remember copping a whack in about the eighth minute. I vaguely remember the goals. We scored two, they scored two. That was enough for us. Ultimately I remember the final whistle.
To have kept the club in the Championship, with a thread-bare squad and after having 10 points deducted for administrative reasons, was a stupendous feat.
The day was a culmination of a strong bond within the team, a massive backing on the terraces and a modicum of skill. On days like those, skill tends to take a back seat. Heart, desire, endeavor and a siege mentality normally prove victorious.
Up The Palace
The one image of that day that will stay with me forever happened about ten minutes after the final whistle. Clint Hill, our uncompromising, rugged defender barged through the dressing room door in nothing more than a pair of underpants and his football boots.
A funny sight. Even funnier was his story of how he had his football kit ripped from his body as he fought his way off the pitch. All he wanted to do was celebrate with his teammates, but first there was the small matter of battling through thousands of Sheffield Wednesday fans who had spilled onto the field.
To be honest, I’m not sure who was the more scared. I just know I wouldn’t have stood in the way of a semi-naked Clint Hill barraging towards me. Subsequently, the celebrations that began in the dressing room, carried on down the motorway. Finally we ended at an ungodly hour in London as the sun was rising to announce a new day. The rest, as they say, is history.
Crystal Palace has emerged into a new dawn in the English Premier League. That’s why I’m hunched over this laptop writing to you. I’m not quite sure who got the better deal?
This column comes to you with the last day of the season on the horizon. So keep your eyes on the Championship. First, at 7:15am New York time on Saturday, with league 2 kicking off at 10am. Then League 1 culminates on Sunday 7am. There will be lots of twists an turns, winners and losers and tears shed in happiness and tears shed in sorrow. How I wish I was back on the pitch this weekend.