They say that it’s the hope that kills you, but it isn’t. It’s the hope that keeps you alive. Only numbers kill you, numbers and time.
West Brom are now seven points adrift at the foot of the Premier League table. They will, inevitably, be relegated. You know it, I know it, every poor soul who has had the misfortune of following their turgid season of failure knows it. And yet there will be a tiny part of them, 1 per cent maybe, or less, that will be carried away. “If this happens,” they’ll think, “If this happens, and that happens, then we only need to do this…”
Every week they’ll have come back disappointed and every week that equation becomes more convoluted, but they can’t let go. That’s how you can tell you’re a fan, tell you’re in love, tell you’re beyond redemption. When you know, when you’re sure, when you have no doubt (you’ll phrase it three or four different ways, to prove how sure you are) that something will happen, but…
There are landmarks, and we all know them, almost from rote of seasons gone by. The first few are vague, resulting in as much focus on other results as those of your own team. Suddenly, everyone at the Hawthorns will know that Newcastle have scored or conceded, in extreme cases they may even cheer. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve done it, I’ll do it again (though hopefully not this year).
The bargaining phase
Around that time come the ‘points deduction’ jokes. “A foul like that? Should be worse than a red card, should be a points deduction.” It won’t be. “Invading the pitch like that? A fine will mean nothing to them, should be a points deduction.” It won’t be. None of these jokes are ever funny, and none of these scenarios will result in a points deduction, but the jokes have to be told. They’re the bargaining phase.
Sometime in March, things start to become real. League tables add colours and striped lines, and soon enough we hear ‘if something happens today’ scenarios. Maybe Stenhousemuir are relegated, maybe Luton Town secure a playoff berth. Their seasons are being sorted, their outcomes known. When that happens, it starts happening every week, we career into the ‘Business End’ of the season, upon us without warning all because Dundee could only get a point or Mansfield scored late on.
The last bubbles fade
The bargaining continues, its logic reducing. Everything has its limits. Teams have tricky games left. Statistics are only records of what has happened and projections of what will; they’re not facts. It’s happened before. You can cross off the arguments as their veracity erodes, leaving you with that empty feeling you had all along, the last bubbles faded from the sparkle of the early season.
I once spent a season ‘with’ Bologna, writing a weekly review on the club. To give a rough idea of how bad that side were, here are two facts. They bought a player from Brazil, Ibson, but neglected to meet him at the airport. Later in the year, goals were hard to come by, so two teams of attackers played a match against one another with the express purpose of taking chances in a faintly competitive situation. It ended 0-0. Ibson played ten games for Bologna. He, inevitably, failed to score.
That Bologna team were relegated after an abject home defeat to an already relegated Catania side who played an hour with ten men. Even after 88 minutes of that game, I couldn’t let them go. They were down, they deserved to be down, and they’d put a body of work together that left no alternative, but…
Every football fan is a pessimist
It’s the same at the top of the table too. Manchester City may be thirteen, maybe sixteen points clear; the trophy could already be on its way to the engraver, but their fans will worry. Every football fan is a pessimist.
Every football fan thinks their team has some special skill at messing it up when it matters most. They don’t, but a football fan will remember every occasion their team has failed them, bottle it up, and uncork it only when there is a remote chance of it happening again.
We will soon reach that powerful phrase. Mathematically possible. When applied properly, it is glorious. In the U.S, teams have an Elimination Number, the number of games they could be from their season coming to nothing.
Mathematically possible is the clinical sibling of that idea.
When things are mathematically possible, they can still happen. It might need West Brom to not just win every game, but improve their goal difference by 25 while they do it. That chink of light alone won’t let people settle. They are not yet dead, but on life support, their loved ones stood nearby in a circle waiting for the miserable nod from Alan Pardew.
It will eventually come, bringing with it the sword of Mathematically Possible, cleaving West Brom from the Premier League comprehensively.
It will happen the other way too, plucking Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs from the title race. It will take Liverpool and Manchester United, too, have no fear of that, they will just hang on there a little longer.
No, it isn’t the hope that kills you, the hope keeps you alive. Only time can turn off the light. Finish your business soon, West Brom, for darkness is imminent.