Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Under-Achievers

It's six weeks since the new season started, and I have to say that the sunny optimism has worn off. A fourth defeat in a row (albeit a very unfortunate one) yesterday means that St Albans are now in freefall towards the Nationwide Conference relegation zone, but at least we had the advantage of low expectations to begin with. Others haven't had that small consolation. In all four divisions of the Football League, there are a clubs whose supporters must be scratching their heads and wondering where it is all going wrong. One of the great things about English football is it's balance between permanence and fluidity. Considering the slipshod way that many football clubs are run, it's little short of a miracle that only a handful of League clubs have ever gone bust yet, at the same time, the opportunity is there for a team to improve itself indefinitely. Fifteen years ago, Wigan Athletic were in danger of dropping out of the League altogether. Now, thanks in no small part to Dave Whelan and his JJB Sports chain, they're a Premiership football club. There is just enough upward and downward mobility to ensure that most clubs can feel safe and secure, but not too safe and secure.

This season, there is a team in each division that I would consider to be massively under-achieving. In the Premiership, I almost have sympathy for Spurs. Fifteen years without a major trophy, they really seemed to have turned a corner last season, but the hangover from that dodgy lasagna the night before their last game of last season against West Ham has been an exceptionally long one. I don't think, for the record, that the loss of Michael Carrick has been to blame. The arrival of Berbatov should have compensated for that, but he got injured against Everton and hasn't played since. They have had a tough start: Bolton, Everton, Manchester United and Liverpool are decent teams, but they've lost to all of them, and currently sit just one place above the wretched trio of Watford, Charlton and Sheffield United. They've obviously got enough in them to pull clear of the danger zone but, after the relative excitement of last season, a year in mid-table would be a disappointment, to say the least.

Every once in a while, you look at the league table and find yourself thinking, "when did they suddenly become rubbish?". So it is with Leicester City, who are sitting precariously one place above the relegation positions in the Championship. Leicester's decline has coincided with their moving into moving into the Walkers Stadium. Yesterday, they cough and spluttered to a limp goalless draw against Colchester United. According to their manager Rob Kelly (who he?), there's no need to panic yet, but for a club that has made major Cup Finals in played in the UEFA Cup as recently as 2000, it's something of a fall from grace. Looking at the bottom of the table, I don't think that Leicester have too much to worry about. The teams surrounding them at the botttom - Sheffield Wednesday, QPR, Stoke, Hull and Southend - have the smell of relegation about them. Leicester, however, simply appear apathetic. Such apathy can lead to lead to worse things, though. They need to pull themselves together sharpish because, come the spring, the clubs I mentioned before have more experience in these protracted relegation battles than they do.

It's not just in the top division that teams appear spellbound into what can only described as football's own peculiar version of ennui. Millwall appear to be a good example of this. Two years ago, of course, they were in the FA Cup final against Manchester United. Of course, it was possibly the most one-sided FA Cup final ever, but it still earnt them a UEFA Cup place. They were knocked out in the first round, and their form collapsed, bringing about a swift relegation. During the summer, they took something of a gamble and appointed Nigel Spackman as coach. The results haven't exactly been successful. Their 1-0 home defeat by Northampton yesterday was watched by a crowd of barely seven and a half thousand, and left them one place off the bottom of Division Two, with only Rotherham United below them. And Rotherham started the season on minus ten points. It's a pretty desperate state of affairs. Finally, Bristol Rovers. I'm fairly certain that when I was about eleven or twelve, Rovers were the bigger club in Bristol. City had had a spell in the top flight before contriving to get relegated in successive seasons down into the fourth division. It coincided with a revival in Rovers' fortunes. In the early to mid 1980s, they came close to getting back the second division place that they'd had for much of the 1970s, and only narrowly missed out on promotion several times. Then, it all went wrong. The rest is as predictable as it is depressing. They were kicked out of their ground, the ramshackle Eastville, and moved 15 miles from home to groundshare with non-league Bath City. It was supposed to be the start of a grand new era when they moved back to Bristol, to share The Memorial Ground with Bristol RFC. It didn't happen, of course, and Rovers are currently fourth from bottom in Division Three.

These cautionary tales should act as a warning to other clubs. Think you're okay at the moment? Hmm? Well, look at Millwall, two years and four months from the greatest moment in their history, and now potentially eight months away from one of their worst. It's a funny old game, but supporters of Spurs, Leicester City, Millwall and Bristol Rovers might not be laughing particularly hard at the moment.


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