Kenneth McFarlane, a St Johnstone fan and walking encyclopedia of World Cup trivia, makes his debut for The Big Man.
The end of the season is always a time for reflection. A time of joyous relief if you’ve just avoided relegation, or a time of jubilation if you’ve clinched the championship… But of course, it’s never that simple.
When Nemanja Vidic lifted the Premier League trophy – Manchester United’s 19th top flight triumph – the majority of fans inside the Theatre of Dreams knew that bigger was to come. Winning the league is an expectation in that part of the world – they still had a Champions League to win. Their opponents on the Premier League’s final day, Blackpool, were relegated after their ‘impossible dream’ of staying up was crushed. But of all the relegated teams, you’re surely happiest if you’re decked in Tangerine – full of pride at the tenacity and flamboyance of a team that was expected to go down with a whimper rather than an Old Trafford roar.
And therein lies a truth that all football fans know – perceived success is all about expectations. Liverpool finished 6th, for example, but West Brom fans will be far happier having simply secured Premiership football for another season. A quick look across Europe shows that the winners of the Italian, Spanish, English & German leagues have a total of 65 championship titles between them. Lille OSC, winners of the French League have just won their 3rd title – their first for over half a century. I imagine there’s a party in Lille that is quite unlike what Dortmund, Barcelona, Manchester or Milan are experiencing.
In the Europa League final, FC Porto, a team who have won every major trophy going, beat SC Braga 1-0. Braga, by comparison, have only ever finished in the top 4 of their domestic league once, in 2010. While I don’t suggest for a minute that it will make up for losing a European final, they can look back on a truly historic season, while fans of Porto will be quite content with their third continental piece of silverware in the last decade.
Fans of so-called ‘big teams’, those clubs with a history of success and a legacy that often transcends football as a sport, can sometimes fail to grasp this. How can you start season after season hoping against hope that the nest season you will still be in the same league, they ask? How can you stand to go so long without a trophy, they cry… often at Arsenal fans who’ve gone (whisper it) six years trophy-less. As a lifelong fan of a small, unfashionable, provincial team in the north of the country, it’s perhaps something I’m more aware of.
I’ve never once seen my team win a national trophy. So I can imagine how jubilant the Birmingham fans were when they condemned Arsenal to defeat in the League Cup final this year. Not since before man set foot upon the moon did they lift a trophy. An entire generation of supporters was never able to take part in the sort of celebrations they must have had in March. Best. Season. Ever.
And then they got relegated. It wasn’t in the script. How do you categorise their season then? Good? Bad?
In 2010, Internazionale were without a doubt the most successful team in Europe. Under Jose Mourinho they won everything that was put in front of them and if it wasn’t a World Cup year they would have certainly swept the board at the awards (they did at Champions League awards at least). Their Champions League win was their first for decades – despite their President Massimo Moratti lavishing them for years with his private fortune to buy players such as Christian Vieri, Ronaldo, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron and Ivan Zamorano. And with such an unprecedented season for them, I’m sure their fans were in raptures. But think of a team like Blackpool, who in the same season got promoted (just) to the Barclays Premier League. I genuinely wonder who would have considered their team to have had the better season – and who would have considered the following season to be the bigger disappointment, considering Inter finished second in the league and Blackpool were relegated.
Which brings me back to Birmingham City. Relegation from the Premier League is, despite the parachute payments, as harrowing as ever. But there’s still a national trophy and a European place to savour. So, has it been a good season? In my opinion, absolutely yes. Personally, I would take relegation to win a trophy. I doubt fans of Manchester United would have done the same to have won the Champions League.