Monday 23 April 2018

Finishing fifth isn't suffering

FOR supporters of most teams, the new season brings with it a bizarre scenario that manifests itself in the minutes before kick-off on the opening day when all realism drifts away to be replaced by a flight of fancy that involves a league triumph, promotion or, for a few, winning the Champions League.

If you're lucky, like an Irish rugby supporter on Saturday morning, such dreams sometimes become reality. The more likely outcome is that the optimism lasts barely into a second month when reality bites and the familiar feeling arrives of settling into a season of misery with the odd ray of light to illuminate it.

That's why, as it was with the fallen giant of Liverpool last season, it has been strangely comforting to watch Arsenal go through their struggles. The patience of their supporters is wearing thin with a trophy drought stretching back to 2005 and the small comfort of a 14th consecutive season qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League.

Unless you're a sympathetic Manchester United or Chelsea supporter, the chances are your heart isn't bleeding for them.

That's because there are so many people who have been sucked into supporting teams at a young age when they don't know any better and, for the rest of their lives, are saddled with them like an ugly birthmark.

In 1988, there was a thrilling League Cup final involving Luton Town and Arsenal that ended in a victory for the underdog and garnered them at least one new supporter. Since then, there have been two promotions and six relegations, one of which came from League Two when the team started on minus 30 points.

The same cup competition might also have tricked people of an impressionable age to follow Sheffield Wednesday after their 1991 victory over Manchester United. Now they find themselves celebrating a 3-2 win over Yeovil that moves them ninth in League One having been thumped 5-1 last week by Stevenage.

Wednesday and Luton might be extreme examples but, given both clubs' historic love of financial lunacy off the pitch and comical ability to self-destruct on it, at least things are never boring.

That, unfortunately, seems to be the overriding feeling around Villa Park, where remaining unbeaten after five Premier League games is no longer satisfactory, at least to those who greeted the final whistle of Saturday's game against Newcastle with a chorus of boos.

After Italia 90 and a 1994 League Cup victory, many young Irish heads were turned by the presence of Steve Staunton, Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton in the Villa squad. The reward for supporters' loyalty since then has been 17 seasons of tedious competence.

At least for those who thought about supporting Birmingham after last season's League Cup triumph -- a trophy which should come with a "may not always be like this" health warning -- there was a quick relegation that might have saved a few young people from getting too attached.

It's that same competition where, tomorrow night, Leeds might start one of their once-a-decade recruitment drives that sees Elland Road crammed most weekends and their results checked up throughout the world despite the relative lack of historical success.

They hooked plenty of supporters in the '60s and '70s when the tag of 'dirty Leeds' overshadowed the level of talent that the club possessed but also engendered an us-against-the-rest attitude among the supporters.

The next generation might have loved to see a good backpass and so latched onto the Division One-winning team of Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92.

The newest generation of Leeds supporter arrived thanks to David O'Leary's swashbuckling 'babies' who reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001 and, like the millennium bug computer virus, disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

But since then, player sales, administrations and relegations have brought a reality that's a long way from being one of the last four teams remaining in the world's premier club competition.

Instead, games like tomorrow night against the other United offer a glimpse to where Leeds can aspire to be while looking forward to their next three away trips to Brighton, Doncaster and Peterborough.

Late winning goals like Ross McCormack's on Saturday against Bristol City are celebrated wildly because, for once, something goes right and misery isn't the over-riding feeling when the final whistle blows.

For any team languishing a long way from the elite, such moments make the years of misfortune easier to take because they know the suffering they have been through.

A glance down the leagues might also make those worried about their team finishing fifth in the Premier League realise why they aren't getting a great deal of sympathy.

Irish Independent

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