“We will not contemplate relegation, in a sporting sense it is worse than death.”
Imagine waking up to Sportscenter after Week 17 concludes in the NFL.
So far, so good.
The opening story reads: “Bad news in Houston. The Texan’s 14-game losing streak confirms what many have long feared; a last place finish and relegation to the Arena Football League. Fans of Arizona Rattlers, on the other hand, can’t wait to join the NFL next year and ownership just confirmed a massive stadium expansion thanks to increased TV revenue.”
Welcome to the English football league. Relegation and promotion, long a part of football—or soccer for us American folk—gives players and fans from lower-tier teams a unique goal unknown in American sports. A successful season not only gives a team bragging rights amongst its peers, but a league promotion promising increased exposure and revenue. If some teams are moving up, however, others must fall.
At the top of the mountain sits the English Premier League. The bottom-three Premier League teams are relegated to the second tier Championship every year. Three second tier teams are likewise promoted.
The system doesn’t play favorites. Teams with extensive fan bases and histories dating back to the 19th-century have fallen out of the top tier. Often, a relegated team tumbles even further down the pecking order and never makes it back to relevance. A similar scenario plays out across much of the soccer world and adds excitement to the sport—until it’s your team.
A New Fan
Long before the famous scowl and record-setting move to Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, Clint Dempsey was a gritty American standing up to the Red Lions of England in the 2010 World Cup. The goal was lucky, sure, but anyone watching the game recognized the combination of talent and confidence.
Where did the guy from a small town in Texas ply his trade for the rest of the year?
The answer: Fulham F.C.
The Fulham Cottagers from West London arguably finished the best season of their 130-year history in the months preceding the World Cup. An improbable run to the Europa League’s final game — thanks in part to a magnificent shot by Dempsey against Juventus in the quarterfinals— highlighted their 9th straight year in the top flight and first appearance in the Premier League since the 1960s.
A well run, mid-table team without the cash flow of Manchester City (think: New York Yankees) or haplessness of the soon-to-be-relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers seemed like a safe choice for a guy staking his allegiance to a new team on the merits of one player. With player salaries and resources far below the top six or seven teams, trophies and aspirations of world dominance were not in the equation—an equation replaced with finishing mid-table, pocketing the TV revenue checks, and keeping the stands full. Only in European soccer are fans truly happy with an 8th place finish.
My first year following Fulham in 2010-11 ended with the team finishing seven spots behind Manchester United. No complaints. I made my first trip to London for a game and rattled off the team’s history and current roster details to anyone willing to listen. For the first time I understood soccer as an art form, one filled with minutes of sloppy play swinging on a counterattack, ending three passes later in a stunning goal. I bought the next incarnation of FIFA’s video game and spent (too many) hours scanning the virtual globe for hidden talent to develop Fulham’s roster into a powerhouse.
The next season saw Clint Dempsey finish fourth on the FWA Footballer of the Year voting and behind two of the biggest household names in Europe: Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. He broke the team’s single season scoring record in the process and became the first American to hit the career mark of 50 Premier League goals. The man was a bad-ass, plain and simple. The team finished 9th and all signs pointed to a third year of Clint “Deuce” Dempsey charging past defenders with reckless abandon. A third year to set my alarm clock and stream blurry, bootlegged Fulham games at the crack of dawn.
Dempsey forced a transfer to North London’s Tottenham four months later.
A North London team with legitimate Champions League aspirations and player in his prime, playing his best soccer with a chance to battle teams like Bayern Munich and Barcelona on the biggest of stages. A great pairing. I understood the move and loved Clint’s aspirations. Many Dempsey-inspired Fulham fans lost interest or jumped ship to root for Tottenham, but a surprising number—myself included—stuck with Fulham. From trolling transfer rumor news and fan blogs to (finally) springing for Fox Soccer’s steeply priced soccer package, no questions remained about my allegiance to Fulham Football Club. I was in for the long haul.
Fulham After Dempsey
The post-Dempsey Fulham era started and remains underwhelming on the pitch. In the 2012-13 campaign, new signing and star man Dimitar Berbatov possessed world-class talent, but his magical touch on the ball was too often overshadowed by a questionable attitude and work ethic. Berating teammates on the pitch and losing interest by halftime became the norm. Almost a polar opposite of Dempsey in many respects, Berbatov still saved Fulham from relegation and delivered a few laughs in the process.
The team sleepwalked through the final month, however, under then-manager Martin Jol after any chance of relegation was put to bed. Old players were strangely given contract extensions and young talents snuffed out of first team action. A 3-0 win on the final match of last year’s campaign moved Fulham up to a respectable 12th and glossed over troubling signs.
Yet positives buoyed my expectations for the future:
- Approved stadium development plans aimed to increase seating capacity to 30,000 and build a riverside walk along the Thames.
- Shahid Khan, owner of the NFL’s hapless Jacksonville Jaguars, bought the club and spoke of bringing preseason training to Florida. More importantly, he removed the Michael Jackson statue and seemed willing to inject the club with much needed cash in the transfer market.
- NBC replaced Fox as the provider of Premier League games in the United States and immediately made all games available on TV and online for cable subscribers of NBC Sports Network, or anyone with, ahem, a nice friend or family member.
Even with another so-so performance the following year, my personal fandom and Fulham‘s safety in the Premier League were looking up.
Or so I thought.
The current 2013-14 season is an illustration of piling one bad decision on top of another, highlighted by Fulham firing two managers and a leaky defense hemorrhaging goals to the tune of over two a game. Fans are lackadaisical for most of the year when safety seems so close and games remaining are aplenty, but dust has fully settled from the busy holiday fixture slate, January transfer window, and flurry of management changes around the league.
Fulham sits in last place with 30 games played to eight remaining and possesses the leagues worst goal differential. A Saturday win at home to Newcastle on the 30th game of the season helped—Fulham’s first since New Years, but the team still sits in last place and needs a minimum of four to five wins from their remaining eight to stay up in the league. A team with seven wins in the first 30.
“I believe in the miracle. We need to be quick, because its already five past midnight now.” — Fulham defender John Heitinga
Fulham’s fate rests on the shoulders of controversial Felix Magath, arriving as the club’s third manager of the year four games ago in a panicked move by ownership, and perhaps Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou, a January signing who broke Fulham’s all-time transfer fee and boasts a stellar goal scoring record—not to mention a “God of Goal” tribute video.
Mitroglou arrived injured and out of shape, however, and has yet to earn the trust of current management—even after starting for the Greek national team in an international friendly. Current management, not responsible for Mitroglou’s signing and with less incentive to play him, have instead turned to Cauley Woodrow up front in recent games—a 19 year-old most recently spotted playing on loan in third tier League 1. Such odd personnel decisions are par for the course in Magath’s first four games, which has included a whopping 20 players, often in unnatural positions and head-scratching formations.
Yet hope remains. The points gap from last place in the Premier League to mid-table is still a middling three wins and Fulham did win their last game. A few unlucky bounces of the ball redacted from Fulham’s season or a quick winning streak erases the pressure—life in the Premier League continues. Urging the team with calls of “Come On You Whites”, inspired by Fulham’s white home kits, is now a rallying cry to avoid relegation.
Sports fans want their teams to be relevant and respected. Media attention, television coverage, and general I-give-a-damn interest between the elite leagues and second or third tiers in the United States—both in college and pro sports—are gulfs apart. Growing up as a basketball and football fan in North Carolina before attending the University of Michigan, life without the Maize and Blue or Carolina Panthers competing on the biggest of stages seems unimaginable. I’m also certain Red Sox or Yankees fans don’t want to see their teams hypothetically battling the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in AAA baseball. American sports are simply not designed with demotion in mind.
The biggest sport across the pond sees things differently.
Soccer teams in most leagues are at risk of relegation after a poor season. The accompanying drop in prestige and exposure to fans illustrate a harsh reality, but a domino effect of much greater implications often ensues.
“Such is the income disparity between the Premier League and the Championship, relegated clubs will suffer an estimated £40m drop in income, [and] a huge proportion of turnover in many cases.”
Television and sponsorship revenue are severely slashed. Expensive players are inevitably loaned out or sold to bigger clubs and younger players from the Under-21 and even Under-18 squads are thrust into first-team duty. Teams with large, passionate fan bases may see little difference in ticket revenue and rich owners often funnel cash into a team’s coffers for runs at reclaiming a spot in the Premier League, though chances of immediately finishing at the top of the Championship are far from guaranteed.
The talent margin between the bottom of the Premier League and top teams in the Championship are somewhere between slim and nonexistent. After accounting for post-relegation roster shakeups and other transitional hazards, one might argue a handful of teams in the second tier are typically better equipped to fight for promotion than a newly relegated Premier League side.
History agrees. Of the three teams relegated last year—Reading, Wigan, and QPR—all are in the top half of the table, but none in a position to be automatically promoted if the season ended today. The year before? All three teams failed to gain promotion and a return ticket to the Premier League, while the Wolverhampton Wanderers managed to drop to the third tier. Fulham spent over three decades without a whiff of top tier status after relegation in the 1960s. Lose a spot in the Premier League and all bets are off.
Relegated or not, my allegiance to Fulham will not waver. Instead of a full 38-game slate on NBC-affiliated networks, a year in the Championship translates to three or four games televised on the ever-elusive beIN sports network. Additional matches will surface on unreliable streaming services and ultimately the internet age makes life easier on fans of any sport and level of competition. Fulham also possesses well above average youth teams and the next generation will be given a chance to shine.
Any relevance to the grand scheme of sports and the soccer world will be nevertheless placed on hold. Many of the world’s best players and teams make up the Premier League, a league less likely to draw the rapt attention of myself and other Fulham fans on a weekly basis. Slice it any number of ways and relegation is still a tough pill to swallow.
After Saturday’s win, Fulham’s relegation odds remain grim on betting sites. I hope the oddsmakers are wrong.
Matt Milloway is a portable writer and (you guessed it) Fulham F.C. fan. Check out his musings and follow his fledgling Twitter account @millowaym