Football

Standing up for the Little Guy: Why Europe’s Minnows Matter

Sport can bring out the best in people, but it can bring out the worst in them, too. It would be glib to refer to Sergio Ramos, but he represents both the light and the dark of football wrapped up in one player. Currently, he is in the shade, but he will shine again soon enough, it is the nature of the beast.

As we draw to the end of a club football season, things begin to take shape, not just for this year, but for the next, too. All over Europe, playoffs — those hellish entities designed to extract the maximum levels of agony from supporters and players alike — are being completed. In England, Fulham will return to the Premier League, Rotherham Utd will return to the Championship, and Coventry City will return to League One, while Tranmere Rovers are finally back in League Two. They might not all have been the romantics’ choices – I confess to hoping that both Shrewsbury Town and Exeter City made the step up, both are teams and towns I have developed a fondness for, while their opponents were not.

Romance comes in many forms

I have seen arguments that the higher league would be diminished somewhat should the less-supported team be promoted. This is an argument borne from entitlement that I can’t but think is rubbish. It is an argument that was posited by Lazio chairman, and then Lega Pro president, Claudio Lotito a few years ago when it looked as though Serie B was going to end with a collection of smaller clubs in the promotion positions, and the TV rights deal for Serie A up for renewal. It is always worth reading the words of his phone call in full.

“In three years,” he insisted, “if we have Latina, Frosinone, who the fuck will buy the rights? They don’t even know that Frosinone exist.”

Latina never made it to Serie A, but Frosinone, and Carpi, another club Lotito also condemned, did, although both perished after a single season. Speaking of convoluted and agonising ways to end a season, Serie B’s playoffs still have some way to run – Frosinone may return to Serie A yet, but your attention will more likely be on Nigeria v. Croatia by the time they conclude.

Romance comes in many forms, though, and is not exclusive to small clubs. Frosinone were pipped in dramatic fashion to the final automatic promotion spot by Parma, who return to Serie A with the goodwill of seemingly the entire continent, their deserved return secured by a series of promotions.

Some stories need to be told

One of the more brainless ideas I’ve seen about this is that because they have fewer supporters, these small clubs contribute less to the higher league than those who have a bigger fanbase and the atmosphere at their games is worse. Premier League fans would certainly disagree with that notion in the cases of Crystal Palace and Huddersfield Town, and likely countless others as well.

Even further down the leagues, if your problem is that (for example) Exeter will not produce as good an atmosphere visiting your ground than Coventry would, the problem is not with Exeter, but with you. Some of the best games this season involved smaller clubs who went up through the playoffs. Benevento’s win at Milan was stunning, although their 95th minute draw against the Rossoneri, sealed by goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli, was even better. Eventually, the Stregoni were relegated, but Serie A would have been poorer for them not being there. Their story was their own, and needed, and deserved telling.

I’m biased, of course, but Huddersfield Town’s victory over Manchester United was pretty impressive, while their twin draws at the end of the campaign against Manchester City and Chelsea proved that the side deserved their place.

Elsewhere, there are small sides in most top European leagues who are proving that large capacities and fanbases are not the only thing needed to bring success. Eibar, Getafe and Girona had three of the four smallest stadia in La Liga yet finished in a row from 8th to 10th (Leganes are the other, and they comfortably avoided relegation). Guingamp have been regulars in Ligue 1 since the mid 1990s, yet their attendances are tiny and their town even smaller.

Sassuolo have been a wonderful addition to Serie A over the last few years, outstaying what was thought to be a brief welcome and becoming firmly entrenched in the division. Germany has seen Augsburg arrive and stay in the Bundesliga while Darmstadt and Paderborn have both appeared and disappeared.

Yet these teams are still valuable, these experiences still worthwhile. One cannot simply close the shop to smaller clubs because it means Juventus have to go to play at Spal (they drew at Spal – it was wonderful). Paris St Germain need to prove themselves in all conditions, not just the ones in which they are most comfortable.

Small towns should be allowed to dream

Clubs and towns have to be allowed to dream big, even if they might only get to live that dream briefly. If you’d attended the Manchester United v. Liverpool game this year, the 200th meeting of the two clubs, you would have found a programme within your programme – a programme from that game in 1894. The first time the two sides met was in a playoff at Ewood Park, Blackburn. A crowd of 5,000 saw Liverpool defeat Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United) to gain their first ever promotion to Division 1. They were relegated the next season, so the two next met in Division 2 – a 7-1 win for Liverpool.

Playoffs suited those small teams way back when, and they suit teams now. Sometimes the big teams are promoted, and that’s fine, and sometimes the smaller clubs come out on top, and that’s fine too.

12 months ago, I was celebrating one of the more unlikely promotions, that of Huddersfield Town to the Premier League. There are supporters of clubs in the Championship who still wear a little resentment about that victory, but the facts are simple. A mixture of talent, determination, and luck took Huddersfield up. And a mixture of talent, determination of luck kept them up.

Nobody, in either end of Wembley, 12 months ago, felt their club had a right to promotion; it made for a tense but friendly atmosphere, albeit begetting a fairly fearful game. In the end, my team prevailed. Had Reading done so, I’d have been disappointed, but they would have earned it.

It is interesting. Playoff games used to be called ‘test matches’ the way games in rugby and cricket still are. ‘Test’ is a good word, because it is a test. It’s a test of skill, of desire, of mental strength and of fitness, it’s a test of a team, of a player and of a manager. The ones who win out are the ones who pass the test, and the ones who do that might have 50,000 supporters in the crowd, or they might have 5,000. You just don’t know. I’ve been on both sides of that coin and all I can say is that winning is better than losing, and your fanbase can’t help you when you lose.

Congratulations to all those who won their tests this season, and commiserations to all those who lost theirs or have to sit through the Serie B playoffs. May you all win your next tests, whichever level they are at.

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