So that’s that then.
Like a pole greased with baby oil, Sunderland’s Premier League status has proved too hard to hold on to and with that, the future of the entire club is thrown into doubt. This is relegation.
It doesn’t hurt you as much as you think at first. There’s a far more severe pain felt in the accumulation of defeats that precede the point of no return. Those losses breed anger, frustration and the fear of the unthinkable becoming a reality and in many ways they are easier to handle. There are points of focus for your rage, to lay the blame at many doorsteps. Even your own.
And there’s hope. There’s always the hope of turning things around, isn’t there? Or is that delusion? I suppose it depends on how desperate the situation is but either way, they both provide you with a section of pole that you can gain some grip until the final blow comes.
Once that hope has gone and mathematics has beaten you along with most of sides in the division, you’re left staring into the abyss.
I’ve experienced relegation on two occasions; once as a squad player at Sunderland in 1996/97 and as captain of Silkeborg 2006/7. I’ve never eally thought about it until now but given the gap of 10 years between the two, it looks like I’ve done someone a favour by not being associated with a club for much of this season.
At Silkeborg, we’d endured a poor season and a change of manager. During the winter break that year I’d been made skipper but I missed the last seven games of the season due to needing knee surgery on an injury sustained in training.
I watched on helplessly as survival slipped away from us and as the final nail was hammered into our coffin. I remember sitting on the first row of the stand, behind our dugout with with two other teammates who were similarly incapacitated. The final whistle blew, the teams let the pitch and the supporters dispersed, and there we stayed in our seats. I don’t know how long had passed. Five, maybe ten minutes. Not one of us speaking. All three just staring straight ahead with not even some much as a blink to break the stillness. There was no anger. No worry. No questioning why. Just a numbness that won’t allow what has actually happened to register.
People walked past offering words of comfort as if someone dear to us had passed away. A nice gesture but wasted on me. Still I felt nothing. There is emotion but there’s an overriding feeling of confusion. Your head is trying to explain to you what the consequences are but the heart that has convinced you into believing you can stay up, despite the performances saying otherwise, is still in denial. Rather than create internal conflict you just switch off totally. The only time it truly sank in is when the next season’s fixtures were released and “Division 1” was written at the top of the page and not “Superliga”.
I struggled with the set back, taking the relegation, Viggo Jensen losing his job and the fact that I had let the fans down. And anyone who says that doesn’t hurt simply doesn’t care about football.
You can’t even escape it on holiday. The numbness draws you into a favs sense off security that you’re handling it then all of a sudden, you’re sat outside Bora Bora beach club in Ibiza and you’re so overcome with disappointment and anger you don’t know whether you’re going to end up in a Spanish police cell or a hospital.
The first time was worse still. Despite playing little part in the relegation season of 1996/97, the hurt went far deeper from the off. I more or less knew my days were numbered at the club, I was devastated when Chris Woods was drafted in before deadline day as experienced cover for Lionel Perez in the run-in. My bitterness was compounded when I saw Woodsy was still struggling from the fractured leg he was just returning from at the time and thought he’d be far from 100% if we needed him.
So I was left out of those final squads and drove to away games on my own as I was so desperate to stay involved. I went to Selhurst Park on that final Saturday morning genuinely thinking we would do enough to stay up.
What I didn’t bank on is getting lost in South London and not arriving at the game until half-time. I seemed to pick up a great knack of asking anyone with an Australian or American accent who hadn’t heard of Crystal Palace, Wimbledon or Selhurst Park. The day didn’t get any better as I finally got there to watch us go down to a badly defended Jason Euell goal five minutes before time.
My time at the club was up but my team were relegated by one point and two goals too. I made my way down to the dressing room to commiserate the lads and it was as difficult a thing I’ve experienced in football. It was quiet but for the odd expletive muttered under someone’s breath but you could sense the devastation.
Fighting back the tears myself, I went around the room shaking everyone by the hand, foolishly thinking I could be of any help to anyone. I couldn’t even keep myself right, never mind anyone else.
I remember Peter Reid was surprised to see me, telling me I was “different class” for being there. That always stuck with me. The man had just told me I’d be better off leaving the club and I was still trying to please him. Seems naive now but I was nothing, if not desperate to do well.
As it turned out, it was the start of a great period for the club and that disappointment ended up serving as a valuable lesson for future successes. However hard you try to be positive, it’s difficult to imagine that this year’s relegation will be a catalyst again.