Adrian Chiles: For the lowest of the low, the bottom is still a long way down

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The Independent Online

I was recently interviewed by a radio presenter on BBC Northern Ireland. I was flattered by their interest in me but appalled, in a weary sort of way, by one of his questions: "Now then, West Bromwich Albion. They're bottom. How can you keep supporting them?"

I was recently interviewed by a radio presenter on BBC Northern Ireland. I was flattered by their interest in me but appalled, in a weary sort of way, by one of his questions: "Now then, West Bromwich Albion. They're bottom. How can you keep supporting them?"

The reasoning behind this question is entirely sound if you happen to be the fan of a very successful club or a fan of no club in particular, or of football in general. But to the rest of us the logic is specious and to ask the question is no less ludicrous than to ask someone why their mother is still their mother.

As Tadek Kopszywa, a fan of East Stirlingshire, puts it: "Paul Simon had 50 ways to leave his lover, but there's no way at all you could ever leave your football team."

East Stirling, you see, are bottom. Bottom of the Scottish Third Division. Tadek, like me, supports a bottom team. Seeking solace, advice and friendship, I've spoken to fans of all the bottom clubs this week. All, that is, apart from Berwick Rangers (two points clear at the foot of the Scottish Second Division), where nobody's in. I left a message on the club answering machine but it wasn't returned. To judge by the number of bleeps there were a lot of messages on it, maybe from The Samaritans ringing to check if they are OK.

For East Stirling, being bottom has become a way of life: "How long have you been bottom then, Tadek?"

"Two and a half years," he said, unemotionally.

"Two and a half years?" I echoed in wonder.

"Apart from just after the first game of this season."

Though Raith Rovers are two divisions higher, it might be argued that they are even worse off. They may not have been bottom for as long, but they're bottom by miles. The lady who answered the phone there sounded uncertain when I asked her if there was a fan about I could speak to.

"A fan?" she repeated, as though I'd phoned in wanting to buy some moon rock or something. "Hold on a minute, I'll see what I can do." I pictured her asking round the Raith Rovers offices - "Man on the phone wants to speak to a fan. Anybody seen one?" - but eliciting only sad shakes of heads.

Directly though, she did cheerfully supply me with the name and number of a Raith fan, one Jim Foy. Raith's Jim, like East Stirling's Tadek, seems to draw some cheer from the very hopelessness of the situation: "We don't mind a battle, but this isn't going to be a battle."

"How far behind are you, exactly?"

"Oh, I don't know," he said, I suspect truthfully. "I don't actually know how far behind we are."

The correct answer, incidentally, is 15 points. I think I'd probably cancel the papers too.

South of the border, it's down Rotherham way where we find the most bottomest team. Eleven points stand between the Millers and safety. Gerry Somerton, the club's media officer, reached his emotional nadir going out of the Cup to Yeovil a week ago: "Last Saturday I went home feeling totally depressed." Depressed? On a Saturday night? For Gerry and the rest of us in my Bottom Club the statement carries all the force of a declaration that the sun sets in the west.

We all know in football that it's the hope that kills you but, while East Stirling and Raith fans may be throwing the towel in, Gerry's having none of it. His advice to all of us, rather magnificently in my view, is as follows: "Stick at it and never give up hope. Don't give up until it's mathematically impossible and even then you've still got to give your best." I can almost hear the band striking up with "Land of Hope and Glory" in the background for this, sports fans, is a little bit of what made Britain great.

The kindest thing West Brom can do for me is lose against Fulham tomorrow and against Man City next Saturday and then I can join the ranks of the truly resigned. Representing Stockport (five points adrift of MK Dons in League One) in my "Bottom Club" is Russell Johnson.

He was resigned, but now there is a glimmer of hope and you can hear regret in his voice when he says: "What makes it difficult is that we've just got a new manager and there's renewed hope there. We've actually started to play a bit better."

Hope, be gone too for the sake of Matt Caspell, fan of Cambridge United (beating Kidderminster by two points for the honour of being bottom of the 92): "The word's going round that we could actually get out of this. We're only six points away from safety. The confidence is growing with the new manager having come in. Other fans are starting to say that we're too good to be bottom of the league."

I fear for Matt because the hope in his heart will surely break it, especially as he is apparently yet to realise that the surest sign you are doomed is when other fans start saying nice things about you.

That's not as true in Scotland, though, because fans of the smaller clubs are united in not following the Old Firm.

As Jim the Raith fan says: "I don't really think anyone enjoys watching us suffering like this. I think there's a mutual respect for each other simply because we support our local teams."

I want to hug all the supporters I've spoken to this week but, as founder of the Bottom Club, reserve the right to appoint a life president and it's a Dundee fan, Shaun Fitzsimmons, who gets the job. "How are you?" I asked him when I called.

"Almost suicidal, because Dundee United are above us." He says "almost suicidal" in a tone which suggests he's just erected the gallows and was about to pop his head through the noose when the phone rang. I asked him how he feels when he looks at the league table.

"I reverse it."

"Eh?"

"I go on the computer and move the teams about so we are above Dundee United. I know it's stupid but it makes me feel better."

A Midsummer Night's Dream, of all things, came to mind as I listened to him. "Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee."

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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