Today I want to talk about the Gentlemen’s club that each level of football in England pretends to be. Should any team not deemed worthy of admittance to their particular club have the temerity to be successful and gain promotion to join them, they will be met with criticism, hilarity and condescending pity wherever they go.
The Crystal Palace Chairman Simon Jordan recently made an outrageous comment that Watford last season and Derby currently, have embarrassed the Championship by being so poor in the Premier League. These clubs have had desperately disappointing seasons and have obviously been out of their depth, but that does not make them an embarrassment.
Both Derby and Watford before them were in the Premier League because they deserved to be. They had managed to finish in a play-off place over the long hard season and had then won the pressurized knock-out play-off tournament to earn the right to pit their wits against the big boys.
The fact that they have been found wanting is because the other teams are good and better than them, not because they are an embarrassment. Somebody has to finish bottom.
I don’t remember anyone saying that Leeds or Nottingham Forest or Coventry or Southampton were an embarrassment when they went down. I don’t suppose Bolton will be an embarrassment this season if they go down. Why is that? Well it’s because they are members of the club. They are Premiership clubs who apparently deserve to belong at the top of the game.
I well remember Watford’s climb through the leagues in the Seventies and Eighties. We reached the top tier for the first time in our history. In that first season in the old first division we were absolutely annihilated by the media and by other managers in the top league. We were dirty, rough and played ‘horrible’ football. We were a disgrace. Our ground was awful and our supporters even worse. Actually, we finished second in the league behind Liverpool and the forty-two games we played produced one hundred and thirty one goals.
The fact was that the top people in the game and the media simply didn’t want little unfashionable Watford at the top table. We upset them and disrupted them. We were quite simply gate-crashers and they didn’t like it.
Watford last season, Derby this season, Barnsley, Bradford and others before that have all been dismissed as laughable. They have become a joke with the ‘experts’ on television. The pundits moan when they are allocated one of their games to cover and spend the whole time telling everyone how bad the side are and what an ’embarrassment’ they are.
It is wrong and unfair. The teams have all been there on merit and deserve respect for what they have achieved.
The reason I have been reminded to write this piece is the fact that my other team, Salisbury City, are going through a similar thing in the Blue Square Premier League. Two promotions in two years have taken Salisbury to the top level of non-league football, the highest position they have ever attained. Despite being most people’s pre-season favourites for relegation, City have performed remarkably well and currently sit comfortably in tenth place.
Despite their fine performances in the league you still get the impression that the big boys of the none league game are looking down their noses at Salisbury. They are upstarts and shouldn’t be playing at this level. The team are dirty and rough and they play ‘horrible’ football. They are a disgrace. Their ground is awful and their fans are even worse. Have I said that before?
The fact is that Salisbury have shown they are more than capable of playing at this level. The ground isn’t great, but only two years ago, they were playing in the Southern League. To get the ground up to the required standard was a remarkable achievement.
With average attendances of around 1600, the support is not too bad. It’s not too many years ago that a crowd of 500 was regarded as big. With having success and more fans comes some problems. The clubs infra-structure has to adapt quickly and that is a major test. It also means that matters like crowd segregation and policing come into play, something that rarely affected Salisbury prior to this season.
There is outrage that some young Salisbury fans sing disrespectful and crude songs, and occasionally get involved in scuffles with opposition fans. I’m not condoning either of these things, but this is the real world and it happens. If you put any group of 1600 people together in any walk of life in any country in the world, there will be two or three idiots who want to cause trouble.
Teams who ‘over achieve’ such as Watford in the Eighties and Derby and Salisbury this season have so many things to cope with. It is not just a matter of trying to win games, it is a matter of coming to terms with so many things that playing at a higher level entails.
It would be nice if the existing members of the Gentlemen’s club would welcome their newcomers with open arms, recognise that they deserve to be there, and congratulate them on their success.
Teams coming up from below have to do all they can to survive with the big boys. They generally do not have players with the necessary ability to take teams on at a test of skill, pace and ability, so working hard and trying to ruffle a few feathers is an obvious way to try to compete.
Well the bad news for the establishment in the top league and the top of the non-league is that Watford might be back in the big league next season and Salisbury City will be in the Blue Square Premier and might well be challenging to go up.
Although not particularly proud of the football Watford are playing this season, I am hugely proud to call myself a supporter of both clubs. Everyone else will have to learn to put up with us I’m afraid. If you don’t like it, tough.
We’ve got as much right to be members of these exclusive gentleman’s clubs as anybody else.