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Upstairs, Downstairs

Riding the roller coaster of promotion and relegation in English football

I‘m not sure how Zurab Khizanishvili feels about Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. He’s Georgian and plays centre back for Reading FC and apparently goes to Friar Tuck’s barber. Maybe he’s never seen it. Maybe he’s a massive Gondry-head and all he does in his free time is sit around and watch Bjork’s “Joga” video over and over again. It’s a crazy world. Here’s one thing I do know: There are roughly 20 minutes of his life he would like to have erased from memory.

On Monday, May 30, Khizanishvili started in central defense for Reading as it took on Swansea City AFC. The weather was unremarkably bad for London: raining, cloudy, and through-the-windbreaker cold. However, the weather was the only thing unremarkable about the day.

Reading was playing Swansea at Wembley Stadium in front of nearly 90,000 people, split fairly evenly among the two teams’ very vocal supporters. The winner of the match, the nPower Championship Playoff final, would be promoted to the Barclay’s Premier League. It’d also be on the receiving end of a financial windfall of up to £90 million (roughly $144 million), due to increased ticket sales, advertising, and a share of the incredibly lucrative Premier League television contract.

We’re all friends here, so I can safely assume we’ve all had some dog-breath bad Mondays full of accidentally hitting reply-all or making inappropriate jokes when you think you’re not on speaker phone. But we’ve never cost our employer £90 million in the span of 20 minutes (insert mortgage-backed securities joke here).

First Khizanishvili got a yellow card for knocking over Swansea’s Italian forward Fabio Borini. Then, in the 20th minute, he hip-checked the Swans’ Nathan Dyer inside the area, leading to Scott Sinclair burying a penalty from the spot. Two minutes later (seriously), Khizanishvili arrived late to the party as Dyer sent a low cross in for Sinclair, who was waiting at the far post, guiding it in for his second. Despite being down 2-0 and despite Khizanishvili having a major hand in allowing that to happen, a sense of humor about the situation had not left the Reading fans, as this exchange took place in the row in front of me:

“He lacks pace.”
“He’s fucking slow.”
“Oh, is that what I meant by, ‘He lacks pace?'”

They were not so kind 20 minutes later when a cross, again from Dyer, ricocheted off Khizanishvili and bounced to Swansea’s oncoming midfielder, Stephen Dobbie, who launched a heat-seeker into the back of the net from about 15 yards out. All around it was burst blood vessels, crying children and absolutely searing profanity and rage. It was basically several thousand people from Reading reenacting the scene in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta finds out Lorraine Bracco just flushed all of his cocaine down the toilet. “Zurab! Why did you do that!?” Reading was down 3-0 after 39 minutes.

It might sound romantic that a team from about 40 miles outside of London, from a town perhaps best known for producing Ricky Gervais and Kate Winslet, could compete for a chance to play global goliaths like Arsenal and Chelsea.

It might sound even more romantic that a team from the second city of Wales, that plays slick, pass-and-move football with a bunch of castoffs from other clubs’ academies, could have a chance to go from the brink of liquidation1 to being the first Welsh team to ever play in the Premier League.

But when it comes to moving up and going down through the leagues of English football, there’s no such thing as romance. There is only trouble and desire.2

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick primer on how promotion and relegation works. At the end of the league season in English football, based on points accumulated, three teams move up a division and three teams move down. Promotion and relegation doesn’t really care about the historical significance of a club or the size of its support. It is basically an economic and athletic form of Darwinism and to watch it unfold, to watch teams make blinding, late-season runs towards promotion or heartbreaking falls into relegation, can be as thrilling as any title race.

For football clubs, whether you’re talking about the bog-end of League Two or upper echelons of the game, there is always the taunting vision on the horizon — something better, something brighter — that fuels their desire to move on up. To get promoted you need luck, endurance (the Championship campaign is 46 games long), and more luck. Money usually helps, but teams have to make sure they actually have that money and can find more of it if they don’t get promoted.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: Spending money you don’t have to try and correct a free-fall through the leagues is called “doing a Leeds.” You don’t want to do that.3

The Pittsburgh Pirates/Kansas City Royals model of sitting back, losing a lot, telling your fan base you’re rebuilding and cashing checks from the league does not exist. You do that and the next thing you know you’re playing on a community park pitch in the Ryman Isthmian Football League against a bunch of guys who are supplementing their careers in debt collection with a weekend kick-about. The Pirates have been a losing team for most of my adult lifetime, but they still get to play the Phillies, Cardinals, Cubs, and Mets. Imagine if they were buried somewhere, playing the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

For the most part, since the league’s inception, promoted teams never reach the top of the Premier League, not without a cash-rich benefactor. A little more than a decade ago, Manchester City was playing in League Two. Now it has an owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose net worth makes a Rick Ross seem like he’s living in a Walker Evans photograph. Sheikh Mansour’s free-spending ways have helped Man City go from charmingly underperforming neighbors of Manchester United to serious rival to the Red Devils, not only for Manchester bragging rights, but for the Premier League title, as well.

Manchester City, however, is an exception. Yes, some recently promoted teams, like Stoke, have established themselves as midtable stalwarts. But for most sides, a stay in the Premier League is a temporary one, extended only by guile and luck.

Take Wigan, for example, a club from the Manchester suburbs that gets by on good scouting and the patronage of a sporting goods magnate (though one who is nowhere near the same tax bracket as Manchester City’s Sheikh). It plays on a lumpy, divot-filled pitch that’s primarily used for rugby, and it invariably loses its better players to bigger teams. But, despite the two major Manchester clubs (United and City) being the primary draw for local support, Wigan has managed to carve out a little place for itself in the Premier League for six straight, improbable seasons.

You may ask why seeing teams fall to pieces or make some kind of Icarus-like journey to the sunny climbs of top-flight football (only to again scrap for their league lives) can be as compelling as who wins the Premier League. But think of it as an inverted March Madness; a tournament of desperation and despair where Cinderella’s glass slipper turns out to have an anvil tied to it, dragging teams into the dreaded relegation zone, causing thousands of fans to reach for their Prilosec, lager, and rabbit’s feet.

Nowhere was this thrilling, schadenfreude-filled drama on display more than on Sunday, May 22, one of the most amazing sporting days of the year. Five teams fought for the chance to play another season in the Premier League in a final-day, relegation dogfight between Wigan, Birmingham, Blackburn, Blackpool, and Wolves. Teams were separated by mere points and, in some cases, a matter of goal difference.4

These sides were battling just for the right to keep playing in the same league as Manchester City and Chelsea.5 Sure, being a champion is pretty great. But seeing someone struggle just to survive? That’s human.

Relegation day reached its hysterical apex when Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Stephen Hunt struck a curling shot into the back of Blackburn’s goal in the 87th minute, sending Birmingham down on goals scored. Eight days later, despite Swansea up 3-0 at halftime, the question of which team Birmingham would be passing on the way down the league ladder was, remarkably, not quite decided.

Reading deserved better. The Royals had been relegated out of the Premier League in 2008, after a two-season run. But rather than spend money they didn’t have, they sold their best talent, such as striker Kevin Doyle, to make up for the economic gap between life in the Premier League and life in the Championship. After relegation, they wisely restocked while staying afloat, with players such as Shane Long and Malian winger Jimmy Kebe leading the way. Reading had made it to Wembley by being the on-form team in England’s second division, tearing off eight straight wins in late March and early April, and going into Wales for the second leg of the Championship semifinal to stomp a more talented Cardiff team, 3-0.

Now here Reading was, about to endure 45 minutes of listening to Swansea fans shout “Ole!” as their side played keep-away and waited for the final whistle.

Then, in the 48th minute, Noel Hunt, who is Stephen’s brother and looks like any number of guys you might find urinating into a trough in a Waterford, Ireland, pub, flicked a header in off a Jobi McAnuff corner, making it 3-1.

Five minutes later, Swansea midfielder Joe Allen took Hunt down from behind with a really nasty looking reducer; the kind where you can tell he had plenty of time to think about what he was doing, given the amount of distance he traveled before he launched into it. The ensuing face-off between the two sides, with players from each team expressing their point of view and version of events in really considerate and measured ways, betrayed one thing. OK two things.

One, slide-tackling Noel Hunt from behind is basically like throwing a Gremlin in water. And, two, Swansea was entirely unprepared for this game to still be a competition. It looked worn down and uninterested in a pissing match. Meanwhile, the Reading players were snapping like starved pit bulls and pointing fingers like it was almost closing time at the worst bar in the world.

This disparity in competitive states was on display, again, when Reading defender Matt Mills positively skied over his Swansea marker and sent a powerful header in off a corner kick. As he tore off to celebrate in front of the Reading fans, it looked like he was almost tearing up with emotion, like the kind of choke you felt when you got in your first real fight as a kid.

For almost 20 minutes, Reading fought for a goal, for survival, for promotion, for money, for glory, for the chance to get treated like a speed bag by Chelsea and battle it out with the Wigan’s and Blackburn’s next season.

Perhaps it was that delirious desire, that sliver of hope that put the team on edge. And perhaps it was that edge that made Reading defender Andy Griffin barge into Swansea’s Fabio Borini in the 79th minute. Sinclair buried his second penalty of the game, completing his £90 hat-trick, promoting Swansea and keeping Reading in the Championship for another season.

As devastated Reading fans filed out of Wembley, leaving behind their Swansea supporting counterparts, they faced an uncertain future. Reading’s run had drawn the attention of the national media and the eyes of Premier League scouts. Players such as Long, Kebe and McAnuff were rumored to be on their way in the event of Reading failing to win promotion. The side Reading took back to the Championship would have to be restocked, at a budget.

For Swansea, the road was no more certain. There was an immense pride running through its fans after the match, as they sang about how much they hated their Welsh rivals, Cardiff, and how much they loved Fabio Borini. But the reality was this: Borini had already announced his intent to return to Italy, plying his trade in his home country. And Swansea, realistically, was looking at a subsequent season of survival in the Premier League.

Could it keep its finances in order? Could it hold on to players like Sinclair? And could it adjust from being big fish in a small pond to chum in a sea of sharks? These were all questions Swansea fans would deal with down the road. At that moment, only one thing was certain: the date of its next match and its opponent. On August 6 Swansea will play away at Manchester City.

Chris Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland.

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Chris Ryan is an editor at Grantland.

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