by Carrie Rapaport
(originally posted August 2016)
As an avid soccer fan and Twitter follower, over the last few years, I’ve seen increased momentum from the MLS Promotion/Relegation movement. Fans who wish to see a higher level of competition from their beloved teams often support movement between MLS, NASL and USL, while detractors insist that soccer’s popularity in the United States still has room for growth, and relegation could crush a team’s fan and financial support.
I’m currently overseas, studying in Cambridge for the summer – on Tuesday night, I trekked to Cambs Glass Stadium to see my new home team, League Two stalwarts Cambridge United FC, take on the recently-relegated Championship League Aston Villa FC in a preseason friendly on July 26, 2016.
English promotion/relegation dates back to the late 1800’s, when the brand-new Football Alliance, created in 1889, merged with the existing Football League three years later. The majority of the Alliance teams then made up the league’s Second Division. To encourage competition and attract fans outside the League, a system was developed in which the top teams subsequently replaced the lowest-performing teams in the First Division. The worst teams at the end of each season needed to win a re-election bid against any clubs wishing to join the league. From that system, promotion based on merit developed to ensure the selection was based on equality, rather than popularity. Since the ’95-’96 season, the bottom three teams of the Premier League have been relegated to the second division – now known as the Championship League.
Six clubs have never been relegated to the Championship League – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur. Aston Villa had also held that prestigious honor until the 2015-2016 season, when they plunged to the very bottom of the EPL table, bearing a dismal 3-8-27 record. The seven-time champions Villa finished 20th in the Premier League, dropping them down to the second tier for the first time since 1987.
If a Premier League team is relegated to the Championship, there’s a very strong chance it’s not getting out of it straight away. Since the Premier League’s inauguration, only 24 clubs that have been relegated have eventually returned. But, if Tuesday’s match was any indication, the Lions don’t plan on staying in the Championship League for long.
The team made short work of the struggling U’s on Tuesday night, solidly defeating them 3-0. Cambs Glass was around half-capacity on a weeknight, at 3,961 – the announcer noted that 816 of those in attendance were Aston Villa visiting supporters – easily tracked, as all visiting fans enter a separate gate in the back to ensure safety.
But, what makes fans travel over 100 miles from Birmingham to see a team who has performed so atrociously in recent years – managing no better than 15th place out of a field of 20 over the last five seasons? I spoke to Aston Villa fans who made the long journey to Cambridge to get their thoughts about their team’s future.
Aston Villa fan, Deb, 47, doesn’t think the move to the Championship will make a difference for the Villans. She shakes her head, noting “a lot of the players had the wrong attitude last year – I don’t see how they’re going to turn it around and get us back up next year.”
Villa players have continually made headlines for their on and off-field antics throughout last season. Defender Joleon Lescott drew criticism after he notoriously tweeted a picture of a luxurious Mercedes S63 AMG Coupe shortly after his team was crushed by Liverpool 6-0. Lescott was involved in another gametime incident with Villa/USMNT goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, when the pair were spotted by fans spitting chewing gum from the bench, apparently in a game to see who could send it further. When Villa fans admonished them for their behavior, the players reportedly told them to “f*** off.” Lescott finally completed the backlash trifecta by telling reporters that being released from the Premier League was “a weight off the shoulders”.
Deb sighed heavily as she recounted the last few grim years.
“We’ll try to get into the playoffs and get back up there. If they get promoted soon, it’s good for the team. If not in the next few years, not so much.”
Roger, 39, dressed head-to-toe in Lions gear, was optimistic about his team’s prospects for the coming season.
“The new owners [China’s Recon Group, manned by Dr. Tony Xia] and new manager [Robert Di Matteo] mark the start of a new era.”
As a lifelong Villa fan, he is enthusiastic about the changes and hopes for some new players to join the roster, as well.
United manager, Shaun Derry, spoke to Cambridge News before the match, stating he was excited to play the Sky Bet Championship team.
“When you’re coming up against the badge and the reputation of Aston Villa, I think that whets everybody’s appetite,” said Derry, noting the excitement surrounding Di Matteo’s arrival – “They’ve got a new manager at the helm and he wants to do well in pre-season, so we’re looking forward to entertaining Robbie and his team.”
Indeed, Di Matteo seems ready to turn the team around. For the past six seasons, leadership had been in shambles, resulting in five managers and two CEOs. Di Matteo took the reins this past June as the club’s third manager of the season, and is best known for his time at Chelsea – first as a midfielder, who made 175 appearances from 1996-2002, then returning 10 years later as interim manager, subsequently guiding them to the 2012 FA Cup and Champions League titles.
Dedicated fan, John, 53, is used to traveling long distances to watch the Villans play, and sees an upside to his beloved team leaving the Premier League.
“You drive over 350 miles and spend all day in the car to see 90 minutes of rubbish. Now we’re in a lower league, but we might actually win some games.”
Di Matteo’s guidance seems to already be working wonders – Villa remains unbeaten in their pre-season friendlies, winning 5 of their 6 games. Villa’s last match before the season start is against Middlesbrough, on July 30th.
Whether MLS fans would be dedicated enough to follow their relegated team to a lower-caliber league and, potentially, a new stadium that offers lower-grade facilities and less amenities, remains to be seen. But, for now, relegation seems to suit Aston Villa just fine. If their continued success leads them back to the Premiership, perhaps their fans have something to look forward to next season, after all.