Book review: Why we need to value the losers

i just can't help believing by CHARLIE CONNELLY
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The Independent Online
There should be a football equivalent of the Campaign for Real Ale. The Campaign for Real Football would have as its first chairman Charlie Connelly, who may not achieve what his publishers are so obviously seeking (another best seller like Fever Pitch), but who has written an absorbing personal view of relegation which in these days of Murdoch money needs to be defended against the moguls who support only winners.

I Just Can't Help Believing (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) should be essential reading for anyone who seriously believes that football can afford to despise its losers and protect the rich from the democratic process of failure. Murdoch needs no reminding that if you have shares they can go down as well as up. What he, as someone who has no personal interest in the game, may fail to grasp as he tries to grab Manchester United is that what most football fans have against him is that if, as he clearly intends, United are never put in danger of going down, their success will become worthless, not in the sense of financial profit or loss but in terms of retaining the credibility and true value of football.

Connelly is a Charlton fan, which for the time being finds him less distraught than in the days of their decline which he so lovingly relates in his charming but important defence of the need for relegation. The theme of his argument is that "despite the big club's efforts to create a closed shop and secure financial fortune for life, relegation still lurks mischievously at the bottom of every division, a rare bastion of democracy that made football great".

Good on you, Charlie; tell that to the greedy television station owners who, in spite of Uefa's recent expansion of the European Champions' League, still have it in mind to form a European Super League which would be by invitation and guarantee its members no threat of demotion.

What, superficially, is a record of head-in-hands dejection, is actually a celebration of relegation. As Connelly says: "The fact that Middlesbrough went down shines like a beacon for the future of football. No one is safe. As yet no one has come up with a way of ensuring definite survival: the prospect of a Manchester City v Macclesfield Town fixture in the Football League was unthinkable not five years ago. So when the former part-timers show up at Maine Road, every football fan should pause momentarily and give quiet thanks to the unrepentant ogre of relegation."

He makes the splendidly provocative yet poignant remark that the Tottenham situation of 1997-98 was considered "tragic" when for all but the Spurs fans it was hilarious watching "a bunch of overpaid, pampered, pretty boys having their hides whipped". It was, he says, one of the consistent highlights of the season. He makes the valid point that we should all have been much more sympathetic towards Barnsley, a team built without millions but with a million times more spirit.

Although Connelly vividly traces the relegation struggles of several clubs, it is as a Charlton supporter that he brings the personal touch of the true fans' loyalty. Charlton are the champions of survival, having been on the edge of extinction, lost their home and battled back to the top division. Probably, Rupert Murdoch has never been nearer the Valley than the heights of Canary Wharf, but without Charlton and the others who have lived on hope and not much else, football as a hot investment would not exist.