“It’s always by way of pain that one arrives at pleasure”
Strangely, the Marquis de Sade didn’t expound on his idea in the context of football – surely the one place where his thesis is most evidently true.
So I guess the task falls to me.
At least 85 per cent of football fans will finish this season frustrated and angry. Television will show celebrations from across the leagues, but the norm is actually despair, recrimination, and calls for managers and/or boards to be sacked.
I sometimes read bitter and twisted tweets assuming they’re from Norwich fans, only to realise they’re from supporters of Villa, Fulham, Arsenal or many others. The language is remarkably common (in all senses).
Ipswich fans make an admirable effort to be angry, but these days their hearts aren’t even in that.
For some, next season will bring pleasure that’s all the sweeter for the earlier pain. For most, it won’t. It’s a thought for us, perhaps: even if we suffer the agony of relegation this month, we’ll have had five outstanding years out of the last seven.
Though we’re in the heat of a present battle, for a number of reasons my thoughts have been drawn back to the Eighties.
First and foremost, of course, to Hillsborough. The 27-year battle, and ultimate vindication, of the families has truly shown the best and worst of Britain. The dignity and perseverance of the campaigners has been inspirational; if honours mean anything, a few should be heading their way.
On the other hand, for years they received nothing but scorn from parts of the establishment, including some of those currently waving Union Jacks and trumpeting their patriotism. The lies, and the high-level predisposition to believe and propagate them, are a continuing stain on our country.
City’s current situation also turned my mind back to another part of the Eighties – specifically, season 1984-85. It was a relegation season for us, and perhaps the most bitter of all. We’d won the Milk Cup in March, and despite a bad run our top-flight survival seemed assured when we finished our season by winning at Chelsea.
However, it wasn’t quite over. Coventry had three more games; technically they could overtake us by winning all three, though it looked highly unlikely. Of course it happened, culminating in their victory over champions Everton three weeks after our last game.
No consolation for us, but that farcical situation moved the Football League to change its rules and stipulate that everyone’s fixtures should be completed on the same day.
Am I dwelling on the bitterness of our relegation that season? Actually, no. Like Sunderland in 2014, the message lies in Coventry’s performance. Written off by many of their fans with three games to go, apparently not good enough at either end of the pitch, they still had a team spirit that – when it came to the crunch – propelled them to the wins they needed.
It was a happier outcome for City the next year. Despite going down, there was no question of sacking Ken Brown – and for the second time, he assuaged the pain of relegation by leading City to bounce back at the first attempt.
One tangential fact of that time, illustrated by season 1985-86. These days it’s rare for a player to be ever-present; in our current season, for instance, no City player will have appeared in all 38 games. In the 42-game season of 1985-86, though, we had four ever-presents: Bruce, Woods, Watson and Phelan. (Interestingly, none of them won Player of the Season that year, an honour that went to 41-game Kevin Drinkell.)
Having set myself up on this forum as something of a voice of culture and reason, this is probably the last thing I should admit. But – as long as it’s on the pitch rather than in the stands – I’m not averse to a bit of old-fashioned aggro.
Watching Chelsea-Spurs on Monday night was terrific. Apart from the unaccustomed emotion of wanting Chelsea to win, it was a brilliant spectator experience – not least because some of the tackling was a throwback to the Seventies, never mind the Eighties. Not sure what de Sade would have made of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It was also a reminder, even if he’s not to everyone’s taste, of what an excellent referee Mark Clattenburg is.
Going back to 1985 and Coventry’s survival, I suspect you’ve figured out the point that struck me. I saw no shortage of commitment and belief in City’s performance at The Emirates. On the day we weren’t clinical enough at either end, just like Coventry before their three final games.
But our final games will come down to team spirit and determination. City showed that for 90 minutes at The Emirates and they left the pitch with heads high, not bowed.
This isn’t over yet.
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