There’s almost no question about it – we’re down. It’s all over bar the shouting, the fireworks, and the fat lady singing. At least we know now, we don’t have to live out the slow dawning of the facts. Each individual fan can take what he or she can from the final round of Championship games for at least a year, and then we’ve a summer off football to recuperate. We already know that.
And yes it’s our first relegation in a long time, and yes it’s horrible. This hasn’t been an enjoyable season in any way. So much hope, dashed so quickly, so cruelly, and so bloody regularly.
But. While what’s happening is both nasty and brutish, we should bear in mind that it’s short. Next season we’ll still be City, still down the Gate, maybe winning a few more games at home – but basically life will carry on. We’ll be playing football in a different league, sure; but we’ll be playing football, same as ever, hopefully towards the top of the third tier (one of our natural homes) as opposed to the bottom of the second tier (the other one).
I’m reconciled to this. I won’t say I don’t care but it could be worse. It really could. We’re playing in the lower tier, but there are some teams in a dreadful state compared with us. You don’t get to choose in football – but if you did I’d rather be City than any of them.
I’d rather be City than Portsmouth, crashing down through the leagues like a fat elephant in a condemned building, victims of the mad dream-chasing that’s been football since 1992. I’d rather be City than Leeds, swinging madly from one unfit and improper owner to another, a shadow of their former selves and a feeder club for Norwich. I’d rather be City than Blackburn – of course – the worst of the worst in the boardroom as well as a disgrace on the pitch. Halfway down the balance sheet of thoughtless, ponytailed millionaire trash whose antics have turned the club on itself, fans tearing their beloved side apart as they incoherently scream in anger for what’s gone.
I’d rather be City than QPR – throwing money away on overpaid, average players, changing manager when you could still smell summer in the air, blowing their relegation rivals out of the water financially in January, and look at them. Still likely to go down, playing badly, with a time bomb of a wage bill and a struggle on their hands. A manager not known for his appetite for a fight and the opprobrium of a division upon them. Everyone hates teams who spend too much money, but often those teams win things. Becoming one of those sides but failing to achieve any success whatsoever must be the worst of all possible worlds.
I’d rather be City than Sunderland, staring relegation in the face and managed by a far-right nutjob whose appointment revealed just how morally bankrupt – and strategically inept – your club is. I’d rather go down with O’Driscoll than stay up with Di Canio, even. I want my club to mean something more than three points at the weekend and a replica shirt with a nickname. I want to believe in it.
Thing is, these clubs are all easy – they’re disgracefully run and they’re going down. But it is about belief, meaning, and value more than it’s about success. So you know what? I’d rather be City than Cardiff. I’d rather be the 24th out of 24 than 1st out of 24, if the price of being 1st is *every* *single* *thing* that’s important to me. Cardiff are like Theseus' ship – every part replaced until a new ship stands where the old one did. The perfect crime, sneaking a new football club in where the old one used to stand without anybody noticing. Until the shell’s cracked and falls away, and everyone realises that they’ve been conned – that an entirely new club has been installed in the Premier League with the trappings of the old. The sporting heist of the century. A vast, bastard cuckoo baby, mindlessly fed by its tiny parents, donning red scarves and whooping for the visit of Man United while the interloper grows fat. Cardiff mean nothing now, once our rivals, now a meaningless invention. Making MK Dons look like Blackburn Olympic. No heritage, no history, no value. Nothing. Club X, top of the Championship. I’d rather be a real club dropping out of it. Never doubt it.
The only club I’m jealous of in the league is Swansea. The only club I’m jealous of anywhere, actually. There are other clubs I respect, admire, or appreciate. But it wouldn’t make sense for a Bristol City fan to be jealous of Borussia Dortmund, Ajax or Athletic Bilbao. They exist in a different world, they’re not a club we can look at and say “that could be us”. Swansea are. Swansea used to be below us, then we were contemporaries, then they shot on – not by spending unfathomable sums, but through nous, strategy and level-headedness. There’s no reason why the team who won the Carling Cup, who’ll be showcasing some of the best football in Europe in Europe, who are managed by a (very likeable) legend of the game – no reason that team couldn’t have been us. For that matter it could have been Huddersfield, Doncaster, Tranmere, or any of our old League One playmates. Swansea showed the entire Football League that there’s a way, a really good way, to do it.
And clubs have taken notice. Brighton, for my money, look the most like Swansea II in the division. Watford do a bit, too; although they’ve taken a different route, the emphasis on youth, flair, sustainability and realism is similar to what’s happening in South Wales. Swansea’s rivals, Cardiff, have ignored the Swansea lesson and gone the good old unsustainable dream-chasing way with extra contempt for the paying public thrown in. The South Wales derby next season will be the most slavishly covered in generations, but I wonder how many media outlets will focus on the real story – the almost total clash of ideals the game represents.
Is this naive, outdated, empty sentimentalism? Is thinking that football can mean something as relevant to 21st century football as an old Roy of the Rovers back-up strip, Hot Shot Hamish and Mighty Mouse vs Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil? Is modern football’s victory as comprehensive as you’d back the Bernabeu pairing’s to be in my imaginary match-up?
Surely not. Because what is football, when all’s said and done? A group of people playing a game. A kickabout. A final score. It’s empty, it’s inherently pointless – a bit of athletic activity and then two numbers at the end.
What’s important is everything else. Everything that’s connected. The stadium within the city. The walk there, the pint, the pie. The company; this blog is “to the left of Ross” not “quite a long way away from Cole Skuse”. The group memory, unbroken since the 19th century. The nostalgia, the joy, the despair, the narrative. Everything that isn’t about kicking a football.
This isn’t a Hovis advert; Sky Sports get this more than anyone else. Why else do they invest so much in paraphernalia, in flash and bang, in narrative, in shouting? Football only has a meaning in context; we only understand it by the shape it creates in our lives. When all your life's scoreboards are counted, the left-hand column and the right-hand column probably add up to about the same thing. The results themselves, an exercise in futility. The meaning you’ve taken from it, that’s what you’ll take to your grave.
So yeah. The division doesn’t matter. The result doesn’t matter. Being City matters. Being plugged into the indefinable essence of Bristol City, being part of that group and not having it taken away. Relegation is just a kink in the fabric. It’s the pattern that’s important.