Speaking as a Reading fan, I remember the day vividly. In my time away at University in Portsmouth, we were playing Middlesbrough away in an utter dog fight of a match in 2007/2008. This was not going to be pretty, with both teams languishing in the relegation zone, the deepest, darkest echelon of any league table where nobody wants to be in May. With 91 minutes of this dire spectacle gone, terrier like midfielder James Harper popped up to score a priceless winner for us. Sheer jubilation. I leaped from my seat and thrust a fist into the air. I was of course sitting in my work canteen watching Sky Sports News before embarking on a painfully mundane and pointless 5pm-8.15pm checkouts shift. My depressed colleagues surrounding me in the canteen all looked up at me with glum expressions as I sheepishly sat down with a crimson face. A good story, don’t you think? We of course went down at the end of this season, though.
Relegation scraps create heroes out of the least likely players. Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres are not the ones being championed in today’s papers after another hectic weekend of football. Kanu of Portsmouth and Hugo Rodallega of Wigan Athletic are the ones whose spirit and late goals have lifted their team in a literal and metaphorical sense. Portsmouth’s Premiership safety looks to be teetering on a knife edge after a 9 point deduction, but the character of their performance against Hull City has to be praised. In an epic 3-2 victory, Jamie O’ Hara and Kanu unbelievably scored in the last 2 minutes to turn the match on its head and give their South Coast faithful a rare opportunity to celebrate. O’ Hara has been one of the rich catalogue of storylines in Pompey’s soap opera of a season. He battled with the league to get his loan from Tottenham Hotspur extended and propelled himself into Portsmouth folklore after a match winning performance in the 4-1 FA Cup win against bitter Hampshire rivals Southampton. The midfielder was first to every ball in midfield, scored his side’s winner and ran his lungs to the ground for 90 minutes.
Rodallega is also an unsung hero of this season. His 9 goals this season leave him as Wigan’s top marksman and his last gasp equaliser this weekend against Burnley produced a picture that says a thousand words. After he dived to fire in Victor Moses’s cross with authority, he sprinted to the corner in front of his own fans as his claret and blue opponents stood crestfallen with hands on heads. Burnley’s Graham Alexander and Stephen Jordan crouched towards the turf wordlessly, staring into space as if wondering how they had conspired to concede a cruel 93rd minute uppercut. Wigan look relatively safe at the time of writing and are perched nicely, 7 points away from the dreaded behemoth that is the relegation zone. The promising Moses has been used sparingly since joining from Crystal Palace, but his turn of pace and confidence on the ball before Rodallega’s winner resembled that of a player who has played at the highest level for years. The teenager can be crucial to Roberto Martinez’s side’s survival, and when he is ready for a permanent starting place, he looks sure to terrify defenders witless.
Relegation scraps are beautiful because they etch players into memory who may not have won uncountable medals. The likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are players we will talk about for decades to come, but how can Kieran Richardson’s heroics for West Bromwich Albion in 2004/2005 be forgotten? The 25 year old moved to the Midlands on loan from Manchester United and played just 12 games for his loan club, but had an immediate impact and scored 3 times in his time at The Hawthorns. After his side began the day bottom of the table, a miraculous 2-0 victory over Portsmouth sparked a mass pitch invasion with West Brom fans hoisting their adopted king Richardson onto their shoulders and proudly parading him around their stadium.
Manager Bryan Robson may have kept the Black Country side in the Premiership then, but he was not so lucky so many years earlier. The heartbreaking narrative of Robson’s flamboyant 1996/1997 Middlesbrough side which featured Juninho, Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli will be remembered forever. The club were runners up in both the FA Cup and League Cup in 1997 and were brutally stripped of their Premiership place. A 3 point deduction after bizarrely failing to fulfil a fixture against Blackburn Rovers crushed realistic hopes of survival. Boro’s diminutive playmaker Juninho was captured on camera weeping on the pitch after his teams relegation was cemented with a 1-1 draw at Leeds United. This is a touching memoir which still tugs at my heart strings and if any man interested in football can watch these pictures with a dry eye, you are clearly a much bigger man than most. The juxtaposition between the passion of the fans and team and the tragedy of their season’s conclusion was so poetic. Manchester United won the league this season, but the fortunes and misfortunes of the red side of the North-East are far more emphatic for me.
Wayne Rooney and Drogba will be in everyone’s minds for player of the season in May although they are not the only players who can make a difference. Stephen Fletcher at Burnley and Jozy Altidore at Hull can contribute something equally significant by the end of the season. The plight of fans plunging their hopes and dreams into modest clubs and unknown players is sometimes even more watchable and emotional than the tedium of Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United et all defeating Hull, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Portsmouth in a foregone conclusion of a match. The question is this, though. Will it be memorable scenes produced by Kevin Doyle of Wolves, Carlton Cole of West Ham United, Fletcher or Altidore as this season hurtles to a thrilling finale?