Sunday 17 December 2017

Aidan O'Hara: Avoiding the drop is one of football’s great, simple joys

Swansea revival shows why a bad season can still be joyous - once there are three teams worse than yours

Swansea City's Fernando Llorente. Photo: Reuters
Swansea City's Fernando Llorente. Photo: Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Despite the riches on offer and the chance for their team to play against some of the world's best players, fans have yet to come up with a chant for the 'prize' of reaching the Champions League.

Had they done so, "We'll finish top four/We'll finish top four/Our name is Arsenal/We'll finish top four" would have rung out around Stoke on Saturday with renewed optimism or from Liverpool fans at West Ham yesterday.

In the same way, no over-achieving smaller club that finds itself safe from relegation with a few weeks of the season remaining has heard "We've got 40 points/Say we've got 40 points" thundering down from the stands in recognition of their achievement.

Instead, for those clubs, a degree of boredom sets in which takes in a swathe of the teams in the league.

Sleep-walking

By any reasonable assessment, Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford have had outstanding seasons given the resources available to them but the fact that they all secured their status in the Premier League so early means the sleep-walking way in which they finish this season could easily find them suffering a rude awakening in the next one.

West Brom, too, have been outstanding and could yet win the Premier League's 'third division' which includes every club outside of those trying to win the actual league, those hoping to get into the Champions League, and Everton.

It's a measure of the mediocrity within the mid-level of the league, however, that West Brom, in eighth, are 16 points behind Everton in seventh and 17 points head of Middlesbrough in 19th.

The circumstances of Friday night's game against Chelsea meant that the celebrations were only ever going to come from the away end at the Hawthorns but, even if they had managed to spoil Chelsea's party, it's likely plenty of supporters would have chosen the option of beating the traffic rather than stick around to applaud the club's players in their final home game of the season.

Games West Brom's the 3-1 destruction of Arsenal have given the home fans something to cheer but, even in what could be their best Premier League season in terms of points, what it now called a lap of appreciation rather than a lap of honour would have felt a little hollow.

Compare that to 2005 when West Brom went into the final day bottom of the table on 31 points but managed to beat Portsmouth 2-0 - Norwich and Southampton lost while Crystal Palace drew, and the Baggies leap-frogged all three to survive.

It takes an extreme set of circumstances for a beaming Kieran Richardson to be carried shoulder-high off the pitch by delighted fans but that was exactly the scene at the Hawthorns after a pitch invasion sparked by the sheer joy of a final day escape in a season where they had been bottom both on Christmas Day and the final day of the season.

The fact that they had managed 34 points from 38 games - at least 11 points worse than this season - was thoroughly irrelevant.

West Ham haven't had much to cheer in terms of trophies in the past decade but Carlos Tevez's winner at Old Trafford in 2007 still brings a smile, particularly compared to the anti-climax of a thumping by Liverpool in their final home game of this season.

Oldham are best remembered for a 4-3 final day victory over Southampton to survive in 1993, while Graham Stuart's winner for Everton at Goodison Park the following year which kept his side up is remembered far more fondly than any of the goals which helped the Toffees finish fourth under David Moyes in 2005.

This is the joy that surviving a relegation battle brings and it's the reason why Swansea supporters will probably remember this as one of their most enjoyable seasons, especially for those who saw Fernando Llorente and Kyle Naughton find the net on Saturday.

Supporting a team that wins the Premier League must be exciting but, barring a few exceptions like Leicester last season, Manchester City in 2012 or Arsenal in 1989, it doesn't have the unexpected rush of adrenaline that comes from proving yourself to be the 17th best team in a 20-team league.

Going into the season, Chelsea were in the conversation for the title, after an early blip they went on a stunning 13-match winning run and have, essentially, had the title won for a couple of months.

Even after being eight points off the top after six games, Chelsea held a six-point lead by the midway point with 49 points from 19 games. Swansea, at the other end, had 12.

Thrilling

No matter what happens in the final week, the likes of West Brom, Bournemouth and Stoke will have had a better season than Swansea in terms of points but, given the manner in which Paul Clement's team survived, it's difficult to believe that the supporters of those better teams had a more thrilling season.

That there's no chant for reaching either the Champions League or 40 points is perfectly understandable, but the passion which Swansea supporters belted out "We are staying up" at the Stadium of Light on Saturday sums up what it feels like to have absolutely no hope for the majority of the season when watching the team playing like Brazil of 2014 before they inexplicably morph into Brazil of 1970.

The fact that Hull were relegated yesterday means Swansea's final home game of the season against West Brom next weekend may not spark a pitch invasion in celebration, but when a team loses 3-1 at West Brom, 3-0 at Middlesbrough, 4-1 at home to West Ham and 3-0 at home to Bournemouth in the final four games of 2016, it's difficult to begrudge them feeling joyous that, in the end, there were three teams worse than them in the division.

It's enough to make any fan break into song.

Irish Independent

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