When competing at the bottom beats winning

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Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, taking part was considered at least as important as winning. Then, one day, professionalism took over and we worked out that winning not only felt better, it paid more.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, taking part was considered at least as important as winning. Then, one day, professionalism took over and we worked out that winning not only felt better, it paid more.

The advancement was logical enough ­ after all, the point of competitive sport is competition. That entails victory and defeat, the distribution of prizes and the swallowing of failure. Success pays. It's a meritocracy.

So, the old Olympian/Corinthian ideals were shifted to the margin. Only victory was worthwhile. Being in it was nothing without winning it. And that was it ­ well, almost. Just one piece of irrefutable logic continued to stand stubbornly in the way: Beyond argument, you've still got to be in it to win it.

Therefore, despite all the professional advances of recent decades, it remains as true as ever that taking part has to come before winning; hence, the intensity of feeling and fear at the foot of the Third Division just now. For Carlisle, Torquay, Halifax, Barnet et al, the dread of finishing bottom stems from the fact that it causes them to relinquish their membership of the élite footballing society. Demotion from the Football League means that ­ at least in terms of nationwide attention ­ they would no longer be invited to take part. The party would re-start in August without them.

Clubs like these need to adhere to the ancient values. Deep down, their supporters presumably began the season aware that the winning feeling would crop up relatively infrequently; their satisfaction derives simply from involvement. Torquay United appears unfailingly, in bold print, in every Sunday paper; quite often it's followed by the figure '0', but it's there and it's proud to be there. Torquay, for all their shortcomings, are in it. They are part of the main event.

Rushden & Diamonds, on the other hand, appears in rather lighter, slighter print. Leaders of the Conference they might be ­ probably a superior side with a better ground and a healthier bank balance ­ but, for now, they're not quite in it. At 5 o'clock on Saturdays, their result only gets read out when the pools panel decides it needs them. They are incidental, distant cousins in the great football family, begging for a seat around the top table.

Promotion to and relegation from the Premiership is vastly significant, both in terms of finance and esteem; shuttling between the other leagues matters a lot, too. It's all part of football's eternally-shifting balance of power ­ winning and losing. But nothing is so gut-churningly meaningful as the battle to keep on taking part.

Admittedly, it's a bit like slowing down to stare at the accident on the other carriageway, but, if you fancy a "ghoulish" afternoon's football, I recommend you study the Third Division fixture list for the season's last couple of weekends. Three or four of tomorrow's matches look attractively hideous. A few outstanding games in hand will then determine which will be the gruesome do-or-die contest of the final day. Barnet v Torquay looks a good bet.

Personally, I've been to a couple of these X-rated events. Last year, on a beautiful summer's day in Brighton, Carlisle fell behind and, for a few moments, they were down. Then, the dear old transistor brought news of Peterborough's goal at Chester. Cumbrians cavorted in the car-park, Michael Knighton supped champagne and the club whose goalscoring goalkeeper had rescued them from an even closer scrape the previous year remained "in it". It was compelling.

On the desk now, though, is a programme dated 8 May 1993, the very sight of which spooks me. Halifax Town v Hereford United. It was the most haunting of days. The Shaymen had to win to have a chance of staying in the League. The regular home attendance was quadrupled, but everyone was too terrified to cheer... and Halifax lost.

What made the biggest impact that day was the effect it had on decent people ­ the chairman, who had crisis-managed the club from week to painful week; the players ­ most of them young, underpaid, frightened for their careers and burdened by the scale of their responsibility; the manager ­ Mick Rathbone who, while commuting across the Pennines to train as a physiotherapist, was appointed caretaker-boss because they couldn't afford to employ a full-time man ­ charming, humorous, intelligent, and unwittingly hurled into a predicament beyond his control.

How people cried. The abiding mental picture is of one young player, more than an hour after the final whistle, sitting in a practically deserted ground, weeping inconsolably into his girlfriend's shoulder. His desolation stood for the whole club.

Somewhere, this coming week, someone else will weep because, by failing to win, they'll be denied the right to take part. Feel for them.

Peter Drury is an ITV sports commentator